The grin with which Steve McClaren greets both good and bad news could not make Newcastle United’s results appear any more positive or convince fans to like him. Rafa Benitez, a manager hardly famous for smiling, is set to have the grim task of rescuing a club on the brink instead.
Newcastle sit second-bottom of the Premier League, with only the catastrophe of Aston Villa below them. Benitez, if he is in the hotseat for Leicester on Monday, will have 10 games to save them. It is an assignment a far cry from his last job, attempting and failing to make sense of Real Madrid’s imbalanced squad of Galaticos before being sacked after six months in charge in January.
Postmatch after Saturday’s 3-1 home defeat to Bournemouth, during a pained interview with the BBC, the most positive thing that McClaren — his smile thin but still present — could suggest was that his team had those 10 games to save themselves. Owner Mike Ashley took a different view.
McClaren made plenty of promises to fans but never won them over after being appointed in June. It took until Oct. 18 to find a first Premier League win, a 6-2 defeat of Norwich on the back of four goals from Georginio Wijnaldum. Norwich now lie a place above them in the table.
“They’re working class people and you’ve got to show spirit, fight, attitude and wanting to win,” said McClaren in August. Only very occasionally did his team show such qualities. Newcastle have won just six league games and lost 10 more than that; 24 points from 28 matches is the club’s lowest such return in the Premier League era.
Billionaire Ashley even took the unorthodox step of placing his new appointment on the board of directors. It proved little protection and Ashley and his advisers must shoulder heavy responsibility for an ill-fated appointment. Benitez’s job title is to be manager, not head coach, with no boardroom role, though those close to him suggest the Spaniard feels he can eventually, once safety is secured, build the club in his image.
A marriage of Benitez, a manager who fought civil wars with the owners of both Valencia and Liverpool, and Ashley, an owner whose no-frills approach to business overrides all, might seem an uncomfortable partnership until Benitez’s later career is considered. Having been sacked by Inter Milan back in December 2010, he waited almost two years to take on an interim role at Chelsea under the autocratic Roman Abramovich, and revived his career by winning the 2013 Europa League. Two years at Napoli were disappointing, with only a Coppa Italia as return for hefty transfer spending, before he took on what is always a temporary role under president Florentino Perez at the Bernabeu.
It is tempting to wonder where Newcastle might be had they appointed a manager of such standing last summer rather than McClaren. The club had only avoided relegation on the last day of the 2014-15 season under the temporary stewardship of John Carver, who took over after Alan Pardew’s January defection to Crystal Palace. Having twice failed to land promotion from the Championship with Derby County, despite the Rams being the deepest-resourced club in that division, McClaren, a failed former England head coach, was damaged goods.
He guided Middlesbrough to the first trophy in their history (the 2004 League Cup) and a losing final in the 2006 UEFA Cup to Sevilla, but is not recalled particularly warmly by fans; owner Steve Gibson threw millions into building the squad which still did not play exciting football.
Last summer, Ashley opened up the coffers as never before with £49.25 million spent on players, with Wijnaldum from PSV Eindhoven and Aleksandar Mitrovic from Anderlecht both costing £14.5m each, but delivering far too fitfully.
In January, McClaren seemed to have overturned a previous club policy of buying cheap imports whose resale value might increase, as dictated by influential chief scout Graham Carr, when he landed England internationals Jonjo Shelvey and Andros Townsend, both for £12m from Swansea and Tottenham respectively. Both have disappointed, with Townsend scoring just once, and Shelvey inconsistent. Results never matched up to such heavy outlays and, in 2016, Newcastle have won just two Premier League matches of nine.
That trademark smile was wiped from McClaren’s face when last Friday’s prematch news conference erupted into a blazing row with a Daily Mail journalist, but still his team could not demonstrate that “fight, spirit and attitude”.
Ashley placed trust in a man desperate to please yet unable to inspire. As a coach, serving under Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United from 1999 to 2001 and with Sven-Goran Eriksson’s England regime from 2001 to 2006, McClaren made himself a big reputation. But as a manager, he did not have the motivational qualities to revive a club who are left, once again, needing someone to save them.