Montse Benítez accepts that plans for her husband’s 57th birthday on Sunday must remain tentative until late on Friday night. Everything hinges on whether Newcastle United take a significant stride back towards the Premier League by beating Leeds United at St James’ Park and leaving themselves within touching distance of automatic promotion. “I’ll tell you after Friday whether I can celebrate my birthday,” says Rafael Benítez. “If we win, I can enjoy it.”
Should victory against Leeds be followed by a combination of another three points at Ipswich Town on Monday and an Easter defeat for Huddersfield Town, Tyneside will be in party mode by Monday tea time but that finely calibrated promotion equation contains too many ifs for the Spaniard’s comfort.
“This club, this city, these fans, they deserve to be in the Premier League,” Benítez says. “But first we have to get promoted. We have to actually do it.”
Newcastle are two points behind Brighton, the leaders, who have been inspired by Anthony Knockaert’s mesmerising wing play and can also be promoted on Monday if results go in their favour. The 10 points that separate Benítez’s team from third-placed Huddersfield may suggest Newcastle have cantered through the Championship but in recent weeks injuries to Dwight Gayle, their key striker, and Ciaran Clark, the side’s best defender, have led to a wobble.
There have been games in which the Champions League-winning former Liverpool manager has really had to earn his £5m-a-year salary, matches when Benítez’s subtle tactical tweaks have camouflaged the team’s flaws. Even so, there is a sense that the former Real Madrid manager – by consensus among the world’s top 10 coaches – is perhaps not receiving the credit he deserves.
Those critics who assume Newcastle should already be promoted with more than 100 points underestimate the difficulties of the second tier for a club which, despite spending almost £55m on new players last summer, also raised £85m from outgoing transfers.
Benítez, after narrowly failing to keep Newcastle in the Premier League following Steve McClaren’s sacking last March, agreed to drop down a division “because of the fans and the stature of this club” but knew he was risking his reputation.
He regularly points out that only four of the 15 sides relegated from the top flight in the five seasons spanning 2011-2016 returned at the first attempt. “The stats show how difficult this division is and how difficult it is to be where we are,” he says.
If fears that Newcastle might emulate the struggles endured by Leeds – play-off-bound courtesy of Garry Monk’s coaching and Chris Wood’s goals but experiencing a 13th season of top-flight exile – were overblown, their manager never underestimated the trickiness of his task.
“You see where Norwich and Aston Villa are?” Benítez says, issuing a reminder that the two sides who came down with the Tyneside club will be staying put. “There’s a massive difference between having to change half your squad like we did and having your team ready like Brighton or Sheffield Wednesday [sixth with six points collected against Newcastle] were.
“To put everything together so quickly and still perform at this level, it’s not easy but we made a profit in the summer and we’re in a good financial position. Now we have to finish the job.”
The notion that Newcastle simply bought a guaranteed return passage to football’s promised land irks Benítez. “In some cases we maybe had to pay more for players we needed than their real value,” he says. “But other Championship teams were spending too, one [Villa] more than us. And we had sold really well and made a profit so everything was perfect. Hopefully it can be perfect again.”
His words are underscored by a certain subtext containing a clear message for Mike Ashley, Newcastle’s owner, who refused Benítez permission in effect to rubber-stamp promotion by reinforcing Newcastle’s squad in January.
While real fears Benítez could quit this summer have since been assuaged, his lack of direct communication with Ashley – incredibly, they have rarely spoken – remains a concern. Although the possibility a club ripe for a takeover could shortly be under new ownership cannot be discounted, there are worries Ashley and his manager may struggle to reach a compromise over the size of the next, all-important, transfer budget.
Accordingly there is a distinct, slightly Machiavellian suspicion it may suit Benítez to finish second behind Brighton, thereby highlighting the limitations of a squad in which Jonjo Shelvey ranks as the only creative central midfielder and too much invariably rests on Matt Ritchie’s skill down the flanks. “We’re going the right way but it’s clear we still have plenty of room for improvement,” the manager says, somewhat pointedly. “We can improve a lot of things.
If Chris Hughton, a man fully conversant with the sometimes very peculiar politics of St James’ Park, would rather enjoy finishing just above the side he guided to the 2010 Championship title, he is, publicly, playing the straightest of bats. “Promotion would mean everything to everybody here,” says Brighton’s manager before Friday’s trip to Wolves and Wigan’s visit to the Amex on Monday. “But we can’t think about it yet. We’ve got five tough games ahead.”
Unfortunately for Hughton, his board do not seem quite on message and have taken the fate-tempting step of cautioning fans against invading the pitch should their long-awaited departure from the Championship be confirmed against Wigan.
The top two are privately giving thanks that David Wagner’s Huddersfield team – at home to Preston on Friday and at Derby on Monday – have lost three of their past four games. “From one month ago I’ve been talking about the pressure on Huddersfield,” says Benítez, with a knowing smile. “But now everyone’s feeling the pressure. It’s important we manage it.
“Promotion’s the priority … then, afterwards, we will have plenty of time to talk about the future …”