The only way is up as Newcastle fans salute Benitez

By Neil Robinson

By Neil Robinson

(Reuters) - Rafa Benitez has known much grander stages than the English Championship but the Spnaniard has probably not heard noise like that at St James' Park on promotion night after masterminding Newcastle United's return to the Premier League on Monday.

Few English grounds rock like United's ground when things are going well and, for once, the fans had much to sing about.

Benitez's delight was clear as he strolled confidently to the middle of the pitch, applauding the supporters and punching the air after watching the 4-1 demolition of Preston North End.

The cheers have not always rung out this season as Newcastle wobbled when in sight of the title but, despite two defeats and a draw in three games before Monday, belief was never allowed to ebb from the fans who know how to back their team.

Given the turmoil of the past few years, when the Toon Army supporters were often in open conflict with the club's owner Mike Ashley and many of Benitez's predecessors, the 57-year-old Spaniard deserves great credit for keeping everyone onside.

Since finishing fifth in the Premier League in 2012 under Alan Pardew, a downward spiral saw Newcastle twice narrowly avoid relegation before dropping into the second tier last season after bitter rivals Sunderland won at Everton.

After flirting with relegation themselves for the past few years, basement side Sunderland now look doomed to the drop along with second-bottom Middlesbrough, which would leave Newcastle as the north-east's top team.

"From the final day of last season, when we beat Tottenham 5-1, I wanted to show my loyalty and rebuild the team," said a delighted Benitez. "I am really pleased for the team, the fans, for everyone."

Any doubts that the man who steered Liverpool to Champions League success in 2005 would cope with the rough and tumble of the Championship have been disproved this season.

NEW RECRUITS

Crucial to the former Real Madrid and Inter Milan manager's success was convincing Ashley that what goes down seldom comes back up quickly -- Norwich City and Aston Villa, who were also relegated, are eighth and 12th in the standings respectively.

The need for new recruits was obvious and over the summer Benitez was handed 55 million pounds to spend on 12 new players, most of whom have proved shrewd signings.

The attack has been spearheaded by Dwight Gayle, who has scored 22 goals but missed Monday's game through injury.

Just behind him, Matt Ritchie knew exactly what was required having previously been promoted with Bournemouth, while Ciaran Clarke has shored up a perennially leaky defence.

Benitez also scored wins off the pitch, mounting a charm offensive with the supporters and the local press, who had felt shut out by an increasingly inward-looking club frustrated by years of under-achievement.

The result is now promotion, which was always the minimum return on Ashley's investment. But there has sometimes been conflict and in January he refused Benitez's request to re-sign England winger Andros Townsend from Crystal Palace.

Immediately after Monday's game, Benitez gave a broad hint that he will expect Ashley to strengthen a squad who currently look short of top-flight standard.

"I think we have to analyse a lot of things and do what we need to be stronger," he said, marking out a battle for another day as cheers echoed around him. For now, going up is enough.

(Reporting by Neil Robinson; Editing by Ken Ferris)

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