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Newcastle and the Loyalty Project

Josh Sippie takes a look at Rafa Benitez’s approach and style at Premier League newboys Newcastle United.

Liverpool, Inter, Chelsea, Inter, Napoli, Real Madrid, Newcastle United. You may look at that list and be able to pinpoint the one that doesn’t belong. But in truth, they all belong. Those are all the teams that Benitez has managed, in order, going back to 2004.

When Newcastle were relegated, I figured that was it. A high-profile manager like Benitez couldn’t be coaching in the EFL Championship. He hadn’t coached in the second tier of any league since he helped CD Tenerife gain promotion in 2000/01. And even that earned him a promotion of sorts to Valencia, where his high-profile coaching career began.

But he stayed. Rafa Benitez, who has won the UEFA Manager of the Year award twice and won the Champions League, stayed to coach in the EFL Championship. And naturally, he won manager of the year in the EFL Championship.

Newcastle is a team of so much pride. Their supporters are voracious and always fill the massive St. James Park – the seventh largest stadium in all of England  – with their black and white stripes. This is not a team that is made for the EFL Championship. Benitez saw that. Benitez knew that.

“The love I could feel from the fans was a big influence in my decision,” the renowned manager said about playing in the second tier. “This is a huge club and I wanted to be part of the great future I can see for Newcastle United. I’m convinced we can go up next season, stay in the Premier League for a long time and win trophies. This is a massive club and I want to stay part of it.”

Even still, in the modern era of sports, where loyalty can be purchased with a juicy paycheck (and it doesn’t even have to be that juicy), this was a monumental decision by Benitez that made him an overnight legend in Newcastle upon Tyne, as if he wasn’t already.

And Benitez showed his passion for the club by targeting very specific type of players in the 2016 transfer window – players who were driven by passion and determination in addition to the misfit or the outcast.

Matt Ritche, Isaac Hayden, Ciaran Clark, Jonjo Shelvey – these are guys that fight and they were all purchased in 2016, among others. But they are also guys that have been rejected, in a sense. Hayden was never given his chance to breakthrough with Arsenal. Shelvey’s attitude has seen him out-casted from the likes of Liverpool and Swansea. Ciaran Clark, an Aston Villa product since he was a boy, made the decision to leave behind his history with his lifelong club in an attempt to rejuvenate his career, which had stalled since he was touted as an up-an-coming stalwart in his younger days.

And Matt Ritchie? You don’t get more passionate and determined than him. He had been trying for so long to touch down in the Premier League and yet, when he finally did in 2015/16 after helping Bournemouth earn promotion the previous year, he traded that one year in the top flight to join the Magpies.

Dwight Gayle is another – constantly struggling with injuries and unable to hold down a starting role, Gayle continued to lead Crystal Palace in goals each and every year, yet he dropped all of that to unite behind the Newcastle cause.

These aren’t flashy signings. They are a band of effort-centric misfits. And with the wise leadership of Rafa Benitez, it was almost like seeing a school master take a bunch of outcasts that he intends to turn into scholars.

It was that collection of outcasts that saw Newcastle promoted with ease. But that was the easy part. Effort alone, having gritty, determined players can win you the EFL Championship, but staying afloat in the Premier League requires a bit more technical ability, which requires investment. However, the benefit of a fat transfer window war chest eluded Benitez and he was forced to make more out of less. Which, you could already say, he did wonderfully. Benitez simply applied the same strategy that he had used the previous summer and stayed on the trend of outcasts.

Joselu, for instance. Never able to hold down a role with Stoke City, the Spaniard found new hope in Newcastle. Christian Atsu was a near-casualty of the Chelsea loan circus, but Newcastle rescued him. Mikel Merino, always pinpointed as an incredibly promising young midfielder, was getting bogged down in a cluttered Borussia Dortmund system. He secured a loan to Newcastle that will see him purchased if he makes 20 appearances.

Again, the trend is easy to see. Benitez is giving talented players fresh starts. He also targeted Lucas Perez, but the deal could never be pushed through. More of the same – misfits and outcasts.

How do you not root for a project like this? They aren’t overspending to land a bunch of egotistical superstars (even if not totally by choice). They are targeting guys who were once on the up but have since taken a tumble. Guys that will be grateful for the opportunity.

Benitez is building a team based on loyalty, which all started with his ultimate display of loyalty. It’s a club that is walking the walk rather than just talking the talk.

In the modern era of sports, that is a rarity. So much so that it deserves to be recognized for what it is – a break from the cultural norm of record-breaking signings and jogging after surrendered possession. These guys want to play for the club and the manager that is giving them a second (or even third or fourth) chance.



Josh Sippie

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