Rafael Benítez had no sooner secured Newcastle United’s return to the Premier League than he subtly reminded Mike Ashley, the club’s owner, that he is most certainly not prepared to settle for second best next season.
Asked whether he expected still to be in charge at St James’ Park in August, Newcastle’s manager smiled before offering a teasing reply. “You never know,” he said after the 4-1 home victory over Preston North End, who finished with 10 men, had earned automatic promotion.
“That is football. I am really pleased to be here, and really happy and proud for everything we have achieved. Hopefully we can put in the foundations for something that will be a guarantee for the future. The fans have been amazing with me, their loyalty means everything. Having this city behind you means everything; they should have a top team. That is why I decided to stay [after relegation in 2016], and now I am even happier than before that I made this decision. I am really proud and really pleased.
“Now is the time to enjoy what we have done. But then I must make sure we do the right things. We have to prepare everything to be strong enough for the Premier League.”
For all that the former Liverpool and Real Madrid manager wants to remain on Tyneside, he was so disappointed by Ashley’s refusal to strengthen the squad in January that he hinted he could leave this summer. It appears Benítez will require cast-iron guarantees of investment levels and spheres of managerial autonomy.
Benítez then made plain his delight at confounding the doubters. “It feels really good,” he said. “I’m really proud of everyone because we knew it would be difficult. At the beginning everyone was saying, ‘Rafa has no experience of the Championship and it will be tough.’ They were right, it was very difficult but the commitment and hard work of the players every day, and the staff and everyone involved, and then the support of the fans, has made a massive difference.
“It is a day we have to remember because it is not easy to go down and then come straight back up. This is my third promotion [he had two in Spain] so I have some experience. But the Championship is so hard because you have to play so many games and it is so physical. It is very difficult to play three games in a week.
“This division is totally different, you have to change half your squad [after relegation]. You have to perform and win and keep all the fans behind the team.”
Benítez was at pains to stress it had been very much a collective effort. “We had to put everything together quickly [last summer] but we did it,” he said. “So I say credit to our players, our staff and everyone in the club.
“Some people don’t realise how difficult it is when you go to play against teams who are in the middle of the table and playing for nothing, but they still fight and compete because they are playing against Newcastle United, who are the top side in the division.
“Or when they come here with 52,000 fans, and they run and work so hard. It has been like that for every single game against us. We watched some teams and thought it might be easy against them, but then they were running double because they were playing us. It was more difficult than ever, and we have had that situation every single week. That has meant we have had to keep going, work hard and be strong mentally. But even when there were signs of anxiety, we reacted well.”