It still hurts and it is still raw.  Its only football but why do I wake up every morning thinking about a man in his fifties and the football club that he guided to mid-table in the Premier League?  We have to come to terms that Rafael Benitez won’t be managing our football club next season.  Someone else will be in the dugout.  Will they even have glasses to fold?

Looking back at these three and a bit years, they’ve been full of angst and anger and bewilderment.  A football club fighting back after relegation but clashing with its greatest asset. Rafa Benitez came to Newcastle United labelling us a big club. Now he’s left we feel small again.

These three years have been tremendous for me as a football fan. Through our podcast I’ve met hundreds of tremendous people.  I’ve made friends for life.  The desire of Rafa Benitez to compete has compelled me to drive to Brighton and back on a Tuesday, to head to Oxford to watch the kids play (in the FA Cup like) and discuss plans for true faith to send mags to Spain and China to watch Rafa’s side play in friendlies. Rafa Benitez matters to us.

I’ve complied some moments I’ll never forget from these crazy three years. They aren’t the moments that immediately spring to mind, but they matter to me.

Yoan Gouffran’s left foot

Yoan Goufrann isn’t what most people think of when they think of Rafa Benitez.  To me Yoan Gouffran being brought in from the reserves after Steve McClaren disregarded him (to be fair he wasn’t very good at times), to become an integral part of United’s promotion, is peak Rafa Benitez.

Yoan was gone from NUFC we all thought. No good. Not wanted.  Rafa reintegrates him to the team for the start of the new season and he keeps Christian Atsu on the bench for long periods.  Ritchie and Goufrann each side of midfield. Grafters and lads who don’t get bullied off the ball.  It makes sense.

Goufrann went from a player fans dreaded to see on the team sheet to, well, okay.  He improved remarkably despite dropping down a level and he contributed.  He was a Rafa Benitez solution.  Rafa improves players and he makes them fit.  Goufrann had the work ethic and the skill

A Sunderland (what ever happened to them) fan next to the away end at Derby County probably full of ‘Rafa Beneathus’ etc.  Ten minutes later a corner comes in and there’s a thud.  Goufrann connects with the ball more sweetly than anything I’ve ever seen and the ‘thud’ is still ringing around Pride Park to this day. Pandemonium in an away end like we haven’t seen for years.  Happy mags everywhere and we win.  It was different to the drudgery of the Premier League under Pardew, Carver and McCalren.  Things were going to be different.  (really this should have happened weeks earlier when he hit the bar from 400 yards against Brighton at home. One of the best non-goals).

Matt Ritchie’s pass 

You’re at Brighton on a Tuesday night for a game that’s televised anyway and you’re losing because Brighton got a penalty for fouling Ciaran Clark.  It’s the 80th minute and United have been the better side but the biggest week of the season is going to see Huddersfield win every single game left (I think they still have that game in hand) and you’re worrying about how to spin this on the podcast. Then Mo Diame scores and Brighton’s cocky fans next to the away end have gone quiet and are no longer signing about being ‘top o the league’.  What happens next?

The ‘you’ is actually ‘me’ but then maybe you were there as well, so….anyway….Matt Ritchie picks up the ball in his own half and has a look up.   Its a cold, windy night and the wind is blowing into my face and Matt Ritchie’s face (we are both facing the same direction) and maybe your face (if you were there).  Matt Ritchie kicks the ball so hard it should have burst. Mags around me demand he CALMS IT DOON and passes backwards are something. That isn’t Matt Ritchie.  That isn’t Rafa Benitez in the big games.

The ball doesn’t burst. It doesn’t blow backwards and it lands at Chritian Atsu’s feet. 5 seconds later United have won the game. This isn’t Newcastle United. We didn’t win when it really really mattered. Until we did.  Thanks to the manager.

Dwight Gayle Going Up Going Down

It turned into an annual treat, the last day of the season.  Rafa’s four last days of the season had an aggregate score of 15 goals to 1 in our favour.  They were all mint.  I enjoyed wining the league though and I enjoyed Dwight Gayle rubbing the noses of League One’s finest when he comes on and scores. It was St James’ at its finest. Exciting, playing good football and it was a tremendous atmosphere. I love Dwight Gayle.  He scored so many goals and he and Matt Ritchie were top of Rafa’s list as he knew what would get us promoted and he was right.  What a day. What a moment

A lethal finish

Joselu races through on goal one and one and you know the rest. He comfortably intentionally allowed Dejan Lovren to play the ball off his own foot to wrong foot the keeper and bring United level as we drew 1 1 with Liverpool at home.  It was the end of our ‘good run’ at the start of that season and it went a bit tit up until Big Martin Dubravka came in to save the day in January.

It was my last game at Gallowgate Flags (who has evolved into Wor Flags) which is a movement I started on these very pages to celebrate the manager and team.  The idea to use Spanish was to make sure the club wouldn’t stop us from displaying and the words were translated after consultation with Valencia fans who adapted one of their chants to fit the message.  The fanbase should proud of what we achieved up to that point, and even prouder for what the group have achieved since.   Rafa Benitez thanked me after the game and I believe he has thanked Wor Flags for the things they have achieved since. These things mattered to him.


Portugese Anger

Pre-season (and any summer under Ashley bar 2016) is always rubbish.  Angry Rafa and rumours of walking away.  He’s political we were told. He does this everywhere we were told.  He was not happy as United capitulated in Portugal going down 4 0 to Braga.

‘Things are not going well off the pitch and you can see that on the pitch’.  There’s Rafa telling supporters how it was.  Gone were the days of Pardew, Carver and McCalren just happy to be here.  Happy to crack on and take the job just to stay in the big time.  No communication from NUFC, but we had Rafa telling us as always, what we needed to hear. The truth.

That’ll no longer be the case as he manages elsewhere.  I’ll miss him.  I hope he misses us.

Alex Hurst