“We will do the book, but only if we get promoted.”
That was Rafa Benitez’s promise when I first suggested chronicling his first full season as Newcastle manager.
It is a big gamble if you are an author to take on a project of around 100,000 words with such little fall-back, but it felt enough. Just.
Newcastle is a club of great highs and long, sustained lows. It felt the club was embarking on a period that could mirror the great times of Kevin Keegan and Sir Bobby Robson.
I had got to know Rafa the previous season, spent time with him, liked him, and admired what he tried to do – Newcastle picked up 13 points in the ten games he was in charge – and that call to arms from the club’s support on the final day of the season against Tottenham was dramatic.
It was a turning point in the club’s history, potentially at least, where the weight of public opinion was impossible to ignore. The support of Newcastle United wanted Rafa Benitez and the board listened but perhaps, more importantly, with family and friends in the stands, the Spaniard himself found a calling.
He told me that in conversation, about the dramatic effect of that day, that his friends had been pensive before kick-off and then caught up in the magic of a 5-1 victory against a team who were second in the Premier League before the game started.
That was also the starting point for the book. Rafa proved as good as his word. He let me watch training sessions, he introduced me to his friends, he took me into the community with him and I watched a club reconnect with its people.
The narrative of the book changed direction. It was about much more than just running through a season with a manager. It was about a man restoring faith and resurrecting the unity between fan and club. Running together Newcastle United is a powerful football club. Splintered and then split the club struggles.
Benitez got that really quickly.
He did the physical change, of a tired training ground, of old radiators being ripped out, or of outdated artificial pitches being ripped up, and he led the emotional change as well, players met fans, players spoke to fans, players spoke to the press, players got closer and started going out for meals and the chasms that had been in the Newcastle United dressing room began to disappear.
Newcastle signed good players with good character and a desire to learn. I spoke with Jamaal Lascelles and Ciaran Clark in the build up to that final, dramatic end to the season and both players unequivocal that they had improved.
They told me of Benitez walking through the corridors of the training ground and saying a couple of words to them, ‘Stay side on Jamaal,’ and then walking off, leaving the player to muse on how he could get better, which is the message at the core of Benitez the manager, a teacher who believes a player will improve if they listen to his message.
He signed players like Matt Ritchie and Dwight Gayle who played such a key part in the campaign. Ritchie on his first day in training was bossing players about and Lascelles pulled him to one side to tell how much he liked him doing that.
A quiet dressing room got noisy. Players began to care, Benitez ordered a more powerful whistle and put a manager’s sign on the door to his office on his first day and from then Newcastle had someone to lead from the front.
When the city panicked after the first two games of the season were lost, he arranged meetings with influential supporters to spread a message of calm. When the team went on a nine-game winning run he stayed calm. When fans called for two centre-forwards he stuck with a single target man, and through it all a team emerged that was making the fans proud.
Newcastle marched into Championship grounds and marched out with three points. All the while Benitez’s message remained the same; stay calm and keep doing things correctly.
I felt privileged to be the only writer working on a book with a Champions League winner. He was warm, engaging, drew great loyalty from his staff and was incredibly thorough. We spoke for hours in his office three days before the dramatic season finale against Barnsley. He was calm then as well. It was the calm before an incredible storm.
If you are writing a book about a season and a club believing in itself once again then the stunning finish made for a breath-taking conclusion.
Touching Distance and Tunnel of Love, my first two books, both ended in heartache, for hugely differing reasons.
Rafa’s Way broke that run, and it was an absolute joy to chronicle the final minute of a 46-game marathon.