LONDON, March 11 – Rafael Benitez returned to English football on Friday with the task of saving Newcastle United from Premier League relegation after the struggling north-east side announced the Spaniard as their new manager.
Former Liverpool boss Benitez, sacked by Real Madrid earlier this season, has signed a three-year deal with Newcastle, who are currently second-bottom in the table with just 10 league games remaining this term.
His appointment was announced just hours after Newcastle confirmed earlier on Friday that they had sacked former manager Steve McClaren.
“I have the pleasure to confirm I have committed to a legendary English club, with the massive challenge of remaining part of the Premier League,” said Benitez in a Newcastle statement.
“It will be a challenge not just for me and my staff but for the players, the club and the fans.”
Benitez, who arrived at Newcastle’s St James’ Park ground shortly after 2:00 pm local time (1400 GMT) Friday for talks with club officials, was Liverpool’s manager from 2004-2010 and also had a brief stint as Chelsea caretaker boss during the 2012/13 season.
He tried to rally Newcastle’s increasingly frustrated supporters by saying: “All of us must push together in the same direction and with the same target in mind. This is the reason why I’m going to ask for your total support to successfully complete this task.”
The 55-year-old added: “Personally, it means my return to the Premier League, closer to my home and my family. I can’t be happier.
“C’mon Toon Army! The club and I need your total involvement!”
– Top European manager –
Newcastle managing director Lee Charnley hailed Benitez’s appointment, saying: “In Rafa we have, without doubt, secured the services of one of Europe’s top managers.
“He has managed some of the most successful teams at the very highest level of the game and we are proud to now have him as our manager.
“Our sole focus now is to give our full support to Rafa, his coaching team and the players in order to secure our status in the Premier League.”
Earlier, Charnley found himself apologising for the “uncertainty” surrounding the 54-year-old McClaren’s position after Saturday’s 3-1 home defeat by Bournemouth.
That result was widely regarded as making any extension of the former England manager’s nine-month Newcastle reign impossible, with the Magpies having won just six of their 28 league games so far this season, and on Friday the club said McClaren had been sacked with “immediate effect”.
Magpies fans have long been unhappy with the way Newcastle’s millionaire owner Mike Ashley, the man behind Britain’s Sports Direct chain, has run the club and the team’s troubles have been reflected in a managerial merry-go-round at St James’
There have been 10 Newcastle managers in the 12 years since the late Bonny Robson left in 2004, with Graeme Souness, Glenn Roeder, Sam Allardyce, Kevin Keegan (in his second stint), Joe Kinnear, Alan Shearer, Chris Hughton, Alan Pardew, John Carver and McClaren all coming and going.
For all their passionate support and ‘big club’ status, Newcastle have not won a major trophy since the 1969 European Inter-Cities Fairs Cup, a forerunner of the Europa League.
They spent £29 million ($41 million, 37 million euros) on new players during the January transfer window in a bid to avoid the drop but only Aston Villa are below them in the table, although the Magpies are just a point away from safety.
Former Liverpool, Newcastle and England striker Michael Owen, tweeting before Benitez’s appointment was confirmed, backed Newcastle to beat the drop.
“Rafa in the driving seat to replace McClaren,” Owen said. “Whoever takes over, I still expect Newcastle to stay up.”
Benitez, who guided Liverpool to Champions League glory in 2005, will have just days to get to know his new players before a formidably tough first match as Newcastle manager away to Premier League leaders Leicester on Monday.
His first home game in charge will be against local rivals Sunderland on March 20, one of the most significant Tyne-Wear derbies in years given the Black Cats are also battling to avoid relegation.