Book Review: Rafa's Way
by Martin Hardy
Published by de Coubertin Books
Talk about hot off the press. The statement announcing that Rafa Benitez would be staying at Newcastle was issued on 16th May 2017; less than three weeks later, on 5th June, Rafa’s Way hit the shelves. The rush to publish was understandable when you consider the existence of a rival book: Inside the Rafalution by Mark Douglas. Hence why the back-cover blurb of Martin Hardy’s latest tome eagerly proclaims it to be “the only book on Newcastle United written with the help of Benitez himself”. Inside, the prominence given to fellow journalist Douglas’ fulsome endorsements for Hardy’s previous volumes, Tunnel of Love and Touching Distance is the publishing equivalent of a tricky winger cheekily nutmegging his marker.
The hasty publication of Rafa’s Way is evident in the occasional grammatically mangled sentence, instances of awkward slip-sliding between past and present tenses (the latter frequently used to create a sense of immediacy) and the odd factual error (for instance, Hardy has Newcastle kicking off against Leeds on Good Friday five points behind Brighton, a gap that miraculously reduces to a solitary point after an infuriating draw). The book also suffers by comparison with the superlative Touching Distance on a couple of counts: first, for the most part, it understandably lacks the sense of perspective that comes with the passage of time, and second, the player interviews are by and large dry, bland and platitudinous rather than full of colourful anecdotes (also understandable, my friend and fellow Newcastle fan Tim pointed out, as in this instance all of the interviewees are still in the club’s employ and so are undoubtedly careful in their comments and reluctant to really spill the beans on what went on behind the scenes).
Not that Rafa’s Way should simply be dismissed as a quick, cynical cash-in, though – it’s far better than that would imply.
The comparisons with Touching Distance are inevitable, in that both books tell the tale of memorable seasons under managers whom the fans had very much taken to their hearts. The key difference, of course, is that while the 1995/96 campaign ended in glorious failure, 2016/17 came to a successful climax on the final day with the Championship title. Not that it was a vintage season – there was plenty of anguish and angst, and our league defeats ran into double figures, whereas during our previous brief sojourn in the second tier we lost just four times. But then that’s precisely what made it worthy of commemoration in the form of a book – it was a roller coaster ride, offering Hardy a far more gripping narrative than the never-in-doubt promotion cakewalk of 2009/10.
Pre-season optimism, generated by that extraordinary 5–1 thrashing of Spurs in our final Premier League outing and Benitez’s subsequent decision to stay on, vanished with alarming speed when we opened our campaign with a pair of dispiriting, nose-bloodying defeats to then-unfancied opponents Fulham and Huddersfield. Then came six- and nine-game winning streaks, each featuring 6–0 away wins (at QPR and at Preston) and the latter sparked by a sensational 4–3 victory over early-season table-toppers Norwich, who were 3–2 up with 95 minutes on the clock.
The title of most bizarre game of the season went to the 2–1 defeat at the City Ground in December – the first half of which saw Jonjo Shelvey and Paul Dummett both dismissed, Karl Darlow save two spot kicks and Matt Ritchie give us the lead, only for the match to end with captain and former Forest man Jamaal Lascelles scoring an own-goal winner for his hometown club in the 87th minute. Incredibly, that wasn’t even the worst refereeing performance we had to endure – that dubious accolade went to Keith Stroud in April, for awarding Burton a free kick when Dwight Gayle encroached into the area as Ritchie took a penalty.
Dramatic plot developments continued to lurk around every corner. Having performed superbly to beat arch rivals Brighton and Huddersfield in back-to-back away games just four days apart, we contrived to keep things interesting by collapsing to a chastening home defeat to Fulham, and the wheels really looked to be coming off over the Easter weekend, with that last-gasp draw-from-the-jaws-of-victory against Leeds and a sorry capitulation to mid-table plodders Ipswich. But then came the first of two critical goals by opposition players, Derby’s Jacob Butterfield coming off the Derby bench to knock the stuffing out of Huddersfield, who were then comprehensively disembowelled by Fulham. That meant victory over Preston would secure an immediate return to the top flight – a feat duly achieved, though not particularly convincingly, and marked more with relief than elation. That was to come later, with the euphoric away end atmosphere at Cardiff and then that incredible final-day combination of a routine rout of Barnsley and Jack Grealish’s late deflected goal against the stuttering Seagulls, which meant we had somehow overhauled a seven-point deficit with three games remaining to lift the trophy.
The poetic justice of Villa proving the architects of our triumph, having effectively relegated us in 2009 and 2016, is not lost on Hardy. Grealish’s strike had the unabashed Newcastle fan “punching the air” and “banging the plastic covering over the desks” at St James’ Park – “not press box etiquette”, he concedes. Throughout, but in this final chapter in particular, the drama is recounted in Hardy’s trademark breathless staccato prose that has your heart leaping into your mouth even though you know the outcome.
Rafa’s Way isn’t merely a series of glorified match reports, though it does wisely use the fixture list for structure. Like Touching Distance and Tunnel of Love before it, the book weaves in other significant events and serves up the backstories of some of the key protagonists. As the title suggests, though, one protagonist was more key than the others. Hardy takes pains to stress Benitez’s quiet but fierce passion, his diligence and phenomenal attention to detail, his desire to be involved at every level, his holistic vision for the club, his gratitude and humility. (While Hardy doesn’t mention it, it showed the measure of the man that when he was named Manager of the Month for October, he insisted that local paper the Chronicle pictured his entire coaching staff with the award.)
That 4–1 win over Preston ensured that Benitez followed in Chris Hughton’s footsteps in guiding us out of the Championship at the first attempt. While the book is at times closer to hagiography than Touching Distance was (Hardy’s generous portrait of his subject is probably in part a reflection of Benitez’s generosity with his time), it’s worth emphasising the scale of the Spaniard’s achievement. Much was made of the fact that we were firm favourites for the title from the outset and boasted an expensive squad – but the truth is that our net spend in the summer of 2016 was around -£30 million (as opposed to fellow relegated side Villa’s net spend of £30 million over the course of the season) and since we were last relegated in 2009/10, just one demoted club had won automatic promotion at the first time of asking (Burnley in 2015/16). Make no mistake, the Championship is a tough, unforgiving and relentless league, and Benitez deserves enormous credit.
However, an arguably even greater achievement is underlined in several of the book’s interviews with players past and present. John Beresford: “People are proud of the club again.” Isaac Hayden: “He’s reconnected this club to the fans and the city and united it.” Dwight Gayle: “The fact is the manager has come in and brought everything closer. When you go round the city, it feels as one.” Rob Elliot: “Everything has changed. It’s still changing. The whole mentality of the club, the whole direction of the club, the connection with the fans, the connection with the players, the strength in the squad.” Less than two years ago, on this very site, I ended a long lament for the broken relationship between the club and the city on a despondent note: “Whether Newcastle United can ever be stitched seamlessly back into the geographical, social, emotional, cultural and psychological fabric of the area remains to be seen.” I hadn’t foreseen Rafa’s arrival, or how handy he would be with a metaphorical needle and thread.
Nevertheless, that also very much underlines that a couple of years, or a couple of months, or even a couple of weeks, can be a very long time in football. The speed with which the book was published, allied to its confident, unequivocal subtitle (The Resurrection of Newcastle United) and an optimistic epilogue that ends with the suggestion that the club “finally [looks] primed for take off”, leaves Hardy in very real danger of getting egg all over his face. Since the manuscript was sent to press, much of the euphoria that flooded the city in the wake of the title win has evaporated. Thus far, we’ve endured a difficult summer in the transfer market, missing out on several targets and left bewildered by the financial clout (or at least the sheer nerve) of clubs we would generally regard as our inferiors. Rumours of behind-the-scenes tensions and Benitez’s discontent have inevitably followed, and it can’t have helped that the person who should be addressing those frustrations has spent his summer in court boasting about his boozing prowess.
Quite why a man of Benitez’s obvious integrity and professionalism is prepared to work for an oaf who vomits into pub fireplaces is a mystery. But, for some reason, he is – and Mike Ashley needs to read Rafa’s Way and realise that we need him far more than he needs us.