Two years ago, Newcastle United’s fans helped persuade Rafa Benitez to stay at St James’s Park.
This time, it’ll be money, not love, that persuades Benitez that his long-term future lies at the Premier League club.
On May 15, 2016, there was an outpouring of emotion before, during and after the final game of the season against Tottenham Hotspur.
The team won 5-1. And Benitez stayed. It was almost as if the club hadn’t been relegated, such was the positivity inside St James’s Park.
Benitez now has a year left on his United contract, and owner Mike Ashley wants him to sign an extension.
It should be straightforward, but it’s not. Benitez, frustrated by the club’s efforts in the last three transfer windows, will only sign a new deal if he gets assurances over transfer funds from Ashley.
My job is to focus on the game – to win the game – and I’m sure the fans will help the team. If everything is positive, and the atmosphere is good, it’s always much better.Rafa Benitez
Will his head rule his heart this time?
“You never know, but we will see where are,” said Benitez ahead of Sunday’s final game of the season against Chelsea at St James’s Park (3pm kick-off).
“My job is to focus on the game, and I’m sure the fans will help the team. If everything is positive, and the atmosphere is good, it’s always much better.”
So what does Benitez want?
United’s manager is realistic. He doesn’t expect £100million to spend on players this summer.
But he does want a firm budget, whether it be £40million, £50million or whatever plus money from player sales, and he wants the freedom to spend it on the players he wants.
Benitez and Ashley sat down for talks last summer after the club won the Championship.
They agreed a funding plan, but the deals set up by Benitez in the early part on the summer were not done. Decisions were referred upwards, and Tammy Abraham and Willy Caballero went elsewhere.
Benitez, this time, wants to be trusted to do the right thing. If he wants to spend the entire budget on one player, so be it. It’s his call.
Going forward, he also wants investment in the training ground and Academy.
“The question is what we can achieve,” said Benitez. “This club has to be in the top 10. How? We have to do a lot of things right and to start making the right decisions now.
“It’s to do the right things in the Academy, the training ground, and do the right things, signings and spellings in the first team.”
But, first things first, it’s about the first team.
“You can have a lot of projects, but if the first team’s not winning, then it’s not working,” said Benitez, who doesn’t know if he will get the guarantees he’s seeking.
The 58-year-old hopes to make a decision on his future next week following further talks. Ashley, we know, is very keen for Benitez – who has a £6million-a-year contract – to commit to the club.
But is that because he believes Benitez can guide the club into Europe and challenge for trophies? Or because he can save him money in the transfer market by improving cheaper players through coaching?
That’s a question that Benitez will want answering.
“We’re still talking,” said Benitez. “We’ll wait to see what we get.”