LONDON (Reuters) – Rafa Benitez took over as manager at Newcastle United on Friday as the Premier League strugglers sacked Steve McClaren and gambled their top-flight survival on the experienced and wily Spaniard.
Hours after Newcastle ended McClaren’s nine-month spell in charge, the north-east club confirmed the former Liverpool and Chelsea manager Benitez would be returning to the Premier League having signed a three-year contract.
The Spaniard, who has been out of a job since leaving Real Madrid in January, will be immediately thrust into action at league leaders Leicester City on Monday and has just 10 matches remaining to secure Newcastle’s Premier League survival.
The club are second from bottom in the table having lost three successive games and five of the last six with the possibility of a return to the second tier for the first time since 2010 prompting Friday’s managerial change.
The risk of falling out of the top flight has been magnified by a record-breaking three-year 5.1 billion pound ($7.33 billion) broadcast deal that offers Premier League clubs more television revenue than ever from next season.
McClaren’s position had been under threat for weeks and a fog of uncertainty surrounded his job as Newcastle took days to confirm his widely-trailed departure.
The writing had been on the wall for McClaren with Newcastle seemingly anchored in the relegation zone after a January spending splurge failed to spark a revival.
The club faced widespread criticism for seeming to drag out their decision and keep McClaren on tenterhooks as they thrashed out a deal with Benitez.
“We acknowledge that reaching this decision has taken a number of days and that this has caused uncertainty for everyone involved, in particular for Steve and the players, for which we apologise,” Newcastle said in a statement.
“However we felt that this time was necessary to ensure the right decisions were reached with the best interests of the club at heart.”
McClaren issued a statement via the League Managers’ Association saying he was disappointed with the decision, but appreciated fans’ frustration.
“Whilst there has been a lot of intense speculation surrounding my position over recent days, my sole priority has been to maintain my professionalism and carry on with my work to best prepare the team,” the former England manager added.
Newcastle have put their faith in Benitez’s well-founded reputation for being able to enforce tactical discipline and propel unfancied sides to outperform expectations.
In Spain, he broke the iron grip of giants Real Madrid and Barcelona on the domestic game by leading Valencia to two La Liga titles and a UEFA Cup.
That success earned him a move to Liverpool where he masterminded a remarkable Champions League triumph in the 2005 final, with a penalty shootout win over AC Milan after they trailed 3-0 to the highly-fancied Italians at halftime.
He has since supplemented his trophy cabinet with an FA Cup and UEFA Super Cup at Liverpool, FIFA Club World Cup at Inter Milan, a Europa League title at Chelsea and an Italian Cup and Super Cup with Napoli.
Having been hugely popular with fans at Valencia and Liverpool, he has divided supporter opinion at his subsequent clubs with some unhappy with his perceived preference for tactical solidity over attacking flamboyance.
Clearly aware that he needs to get Newcastle’s passionate fanbase swiftly onside, he issued a rallying cry to the supporters, who had published an open letter on Monday calling for McClaren’s dismissal.
“All of us must push together in the same direction and with the same target in mind,” he told the club website.
“C’mon Toon Army! The club and I need your total involvement!”