May 15th 2016 was supposed to be one of the darkest days in the Newcastle United’s rich history.
After almost a decade of incompetent mismanagement by Mike Ashley, this was the day that Newcastle once again faced falling into the football oblivion for the second time in just seven years.
On paper, this last home game against Spurs was supposed to be a doom and gloom affair. A funeral for the clubs latest, failed, foray into the top flight. For those who were there that day however, what actually happened, was anything but.
Bizarrely, come the final game, with Newcastle already consigned to the Championship, there was a party atmosphere inside St James’ Park and the old ground was rocking.
What was happening, was the rebirth of Rafael Benitez’s Newcastle United.
You see, during this bleakest of hours, the Newcastle supporters were acutely aware that their only hope of coming back from this most crushing of relegations, was Benitez.
Yes, they were going down, but the fans knew that as long as they flexed their muscles and wooed Benitez, showing him the true potential of their club, that they wouldn’t be down for long.
Astonishingly that day, a ten-man Newcastle team, buoyed by their immense support, tore Spurs apart and ran out 5-1 victors.
By the point they were relegated, Newcastle had once again returned to their familiar role as the Premier League’s laughing stock.
Thanks to Ashley and his merry band of accomplices – Kinnear, Pardew, Llambias, McClaren, Carver et al – Newcastle had once again became the Spinal Tap of football.
A spoof football club that shot themselves in the foot, time and time again.
What many from the outside looking in, neglect, or disregard about Newcastle, is the club’s relevance to its city. It’s not like London, or Manchester, Glasgow, Liverpool, or most other major British football cities – Newcastle is a one club city.
The eyes of the city focus squarely on the one club. The one stadium. The one team. And it’s all that matters.
Yet over the last few years, Mike Ashley’s crass, ambitionless ownership of the club has been gradually eating away at the club’s loyal support.
Those who have spent their entire lives dedicated to supporting their team, had slowly but surely become more and more disenfranchised and disillusioned with the club, to a point where many felt no other option but to walk away.
And who could blame them? Ashley had single-handedly removed all trace of hope and ambition from Newcastle and had turned it into something that most fans detested – a glorified extension of Mike’s retail empire. Sports Direct United.
Ashley’s Newcastle has had no interest in winning trophies; no interest in competing for European places; no interest in building a competitive team.
Under Ashley’s stewardship, Newcastle United has had two main objectives. The first is to remain in the top flight, not get relegated and skim the super-rich Premier League for all its worth. The second is to flog any half decent player for the biggest profit possible.
Then, in the spring of 2016, something extraordinary happened.
After the sacking of the woeful Steve McClaren, in a last ditch attempt to prevent the club from falling off the Premier League gravy train, a rattled Ashley dug deep and appointed a truly world class manager to save them.
Inadvertently however, by appointing Benitez, Mike Ashley rekindled a fire inside of the fans that he had spent the last decade dowsing. Relegation may have been all but unavoidable by this late stage, but also by this point, so was the irresistible movement that was soon to become known as the ‘Rafalution’.
The arrival of Benitez finally felt like the release that the fans had craved. At long last, the hope that the club could finally start to fulfil its potential, be realised.
After years trapped in footballing purgatory, the fans once again felt like their club had a direction, a purpose, and incredibly, were now led by one of the best managers in world football.
Curiously, there were many who doubted whether Benitez would succeed in The Championship. Could a man who has spent a majority of his career dining at European football’s top table, really drop down to England’s rugged second tier and still cut the mustard?
Before long, the suggestion that Benitez would not be cut out for the blood and thunder of the Championship proved as laughable as it sounded.
By the spring, Benitez had added another feather to his already well-preened cap, by returning Newcastle United back to the Premier League at the first attempt.
Whilst he may have been deprived of the funds to really progress further this season thanks to Ashley and the protracted takeover, Benitez’s team is at least now filled with hungry, young, hard-working players who want to win and who will give their all for the shirt.
It may not be the most talented team Tyneside has ever seen, but it certainly contains the heart, guts and the determination that have been so clearly lacking from Newcastle sides in recent seasons – and these are the qualities that Newcastle fans value the most.
When you actually take a step back and look at it, Newcastle and Benitez were made for each other.
Since leaving Liverpool, despite consistently picking up trophies, Rafa has never really found a home where he has been loved and truly appreciated for the great manager that he undoubtedly is.
By the same token, Newcastle has never found a manager who the city believes in since the great Sir Bobby Robson. A manager who not only embraces their demands, but who also subscribes to their stoic belief, that their club is capable of so much better.
Too many previous managers, like Sam Allardyce and Graeme Souness, have used the fans demands and pressures as an excuse for their own shortcomings when times got tough.
Benitez has willingly embraced the club, the city, the fans, and all the pressures that come with the job. He does so, because like the fans, he can see just what the club could potentially achieve under the guidance of a world class manager.
And he knows that if is backed, he is capable of delivering.
If Newcastle United are to ever succeed, faith needed to be placed in someone more capable than just another dutiful lackey, like Alan Pardew or Steve McClaren.
It needed someone with the knowledge, experience and reputation to grab the club, and the city, by the scruff of its neck and once again raise it from its knees.
After years of anger, apathy and frustration, a new found sense of hope is now tangible on Tyneside. The fans are once again back in love with their club. They believe in their manager and with him at their helm, they believe that club can finally start to move forward.
The wonderful work that the Gallowgate/Wor Flags organisation has done over the last couple of years is a visual representation of the hope and optimism that Benitez has restored to a fan base that had become so jaded and jilted under Ashley.
Of course, until Ashley finally sells up and passes the club to a more ambitious custodian, Newcastle’s fortunes will always be hamstrung by their loathed owner. But at least there is now hope on Tyneside.
After all the years of emptiness that the Ashley reign has bestowed upon Newcastle United, Rafael Benitez is more than just a manager for the Geordie faithful – Benitez represents the last hope and the sole reason that many inside St. James’ Park once again believe in the future of their club.
Viva la Rafalution.