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Newcastle's Rafa Benitez should be manager of the year for saving the club's soul

Newcastle United manager Rafa Benitez
Rafa Benitez has come in and turned the club around.

Few would argue if Pep Guardiola was named the Premier League's manager of the year. Manchester City have played football from another world, thrilling their way to the league title. Nor would anyone sensible quibble with Sean Dyche, whose Burnley side sit only four points behind Arsenal, all the more impressive considering they sold their best central defender and striker last summer.

You could also make cases for Liverpool's Jurgen Klopp, Swansea's Carlos Carvalhal and Roy Hodgson of Crystal Palace. The former for, among other things, producing a side that has got the best and then some from Mo Salah, while the latter two have salvaged what looked like hopeless cases to (probably) keep their sides from relegation.

All have done exceptional jobs within the context of their respective clubs and situations, but the most exceptional has been Rafa Benitez.

When Benitez arrived at Newcastle just over two years ago, he couldn't save them from relegation -- the damage already done by previous decisions too great to fix. But he did win promotion at the first attempt, claiming the Championship title, admittedly in part thanks to a late season collapse by Brighton.

A platform was there to be built upon. But over the summer, the squad that did so well in the Championship was not significantly added to. Jacob Murphy came in from Norwich, Joselu arrived from Stoke, Mikel Merino was signed on loan from Borussia Dortmund and Florian Lejeune was bought from Eibar. Not the sort of signings fans really wanted.

Then came murmurs of discontent: the news that Benitez and Mike Ashley barely spoke was not a shocking revelation, but it was followed quickly by a more public expression of annoyance, Benitez complaining that his plans and requests had not been carried out. That was repeated as then January window came around, plans unclear to even the man supposed to be guiding the ship.

"It's important to know exactly how much we have [to spend]," said Benitez in December. "I was asking Lee Charnley [the managing director] the other day and I'm waiting for an answer in a few days. We need to know."

The uncertainty over transfer targets reflected a broader instability, the knowledge that Ashley was reluctant to spend before a proposed takeover led by financier Amanda Staveley went through. But that takeover never emerged, with negotiations failing in January. A sense of limbo has hung around the club all season.

Because of this uncertainty, only three loan signings were made mid-season, in the last week of the window: Islam Slimani from Leicester, Kenedy from Chelsea and goalkeeper Martin Dubravka from Sparta Prague.

While others spent, Newcastle borrowed. One could argue that the quality of players Newcastle brought in was greater than the ones Huddersfield, Brighton or Swansea did. But the point is that David Wagner, Chris Hughton and Carvalhal were financially supported by their boards. Benitez wasn't.

Newcastle's board have not given their manager much to work with.

At the turn of the year, Newcastle were a point off the relegation zone having won only once since the middle of October. This was a team only heading one way, desperate for reinforcements, crying out for a board that cared to show their manager some support. Little support came. Benitez was a manager on his own, asked to make do with what he had.

But results started to pick up. Stoke were beaten on New Year's Day, followed by a few useful draws and then came a run of five wins in seven games (kicked off by victory over Manchester United at home) which not only assured their safety, but put them into the top half of the table.

It would be stretching things to call it a miracle, but getting Newcastle to where they are has been a remarkable achievement by Benitez: more than just survival attained among the chaos.

And yet mere survival isn't only why he should be named manager of the year. When Benitez arrived he found a club not just in crisis as football clubs usually understand it, but in existential crisis. It seemed nobody wanted to be there: the fans were apathetic, the owner wanted to sell and some senior players had to be given a telling off by Jamaal Lascelles, at that point a 22-year-old who'd spent most of that season on the bench.

But more than any other single figure Benitez changed that. He got the supporters enthused again, weaving that magic he has of understanding what the fans of provincial clubs want, knowing how to speak to them, knowing their own type of pride. They knew that he could have gone elsewhere, managed for higher stakes, more money, but he stayed.

Clubs go up and down, but it is not often that they lose their soul. That's where Newcastle were when Benitez arrived, not only relegated but having lost one of the great intangible things that make a club what it is.

Over the last two years Benitez has not only secured survival with little backing from the people who are supposed to back him, but he has managed to re-enthuse a fanbase who had essentially found themselves unable to care, chronically disillusioned with what their club had become.

Some managers might have done a measurably better job, produced more entertaining football, scored more goals, punched further above their weight. But nobody has done a more important job than Benitez.

Nick Miller is a writer for ESPN FC, covering Premier League and European football. Follow him on Twitter @NickMiller79.


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