Hope springs eternal
There's a funny, bubbling feeling in my chest. Now, I'm not unfamiliar with this sensation; normally, it registers itself at around 5pm on a Saturday, and morphs quickly into blind rage, before cooling, via bewilderment, into a heavy, dense despair. Such has been the process on the vast majority of matchdays over the last few years at Mike Ashley's blundering United. Not this day, however. Today, that fluttering feels distinctly like something else, and I think it's called 'hope'.
It's happened, then. Every media outlet in the land is now awash with the frankly incredible news that Rafa Benitez has stormed the corridors of power at St James's Park to try and save our sorry behinds from what looks like an inevitable demotion to the second tier of English football. Am I excited? I'd want my head testing if I wasn't. I'd love nothing more than to go and order the largest jug of sangria that Newcastle can rustle up at this very moment. Do I think any of us should now sit back and expect the champagne football and results to come sweeping in, the spectre of relegation now something to be left to that lot down the road? Absolutely not. What I think we now have today that we certainly didn't have yesterday is a fighting chance.
We can ruminate on the shambolic and negligent sequence of events that brought us to this point until we're blue in the face, but there will be time for that. (Hopefully in the suddenly-sage glow of a great escape come 15th May). At this point, I think most football fans - and decent human beings - are relieved to see the doomed Steve McClaren put out of his misery. It comes as absolutely no surprise that the club made a total and utter arse of announcing the least-secret news in football almost a week after the cauldron boiled over against Bournemouth last weekend. The Newcastle 'board' have been consistent in their ineptitude and indecisiveness whenever they've been called upon in recent times; the Pardew saga played out for days after every man and his dog knew he was going to Palace, and even the final death knell on the god-awful John Carver's fate was prolonged and painful (much like his eye-watering reign). Still, I thought it was a poor way to treat a man who's done his best to remain dignified as the vultures less circled rather than pecked at his raw flesh this past week, and does nothing for our reputation as a soulless, broken imitation of a sporting institution. Sure, the blow is cushioned with the sort of pay-off that will keep him in all the 5* splendour that Yarm has to offer for the rest of his days, but it's never comfortable to watch someone wither under the kind of pressure he's been under, regardless of his suitability for the job in the first place. Indeed, that kind of cold insistence that all is fine and dandy as long as the bottom line looks healthy feels like the kind of view that our dear chairman would peddle. Yes, he knew what he was signing up to, but he's been hung out to dry by the eleven on the pitch and those who delivered that gutless lot to him, in recent weeks at least. His diabolical selections, tactics and idiotic post-defeat interviews certainly ensure that no tears will be shed among the black and whites following his departure, but history should remember him as a decent bloke who was horrifyingly out of his depth. His appointment was merely another symptom of the deep rot at the core of our club, and like the apologists in Ashley's dug-out before him, was never the singular sickness. McClaren will certainly not be missed, but I don't think we cover ourselves in glory by delighting in his personal demise.
All that has brought us here makes the swoop for one of Europe's most respected managers all the more astonishing. I think we all prayed that even that fraudulent baffoon Charnley couldn't fail to see that McLaren at the helm until the end of the season would result in nothing other than a sickening clash with a Championship-shaped iceberg, but I fully expected the great escape to be chaperoned by more of a Nigel Pearson than an ex-Real Madrid boss. This goes against everything that Ashley has cultivated across his entire portfolio; we're all well versed in his bargain basement approach to managing Newcastle United, where the model of employing never-up-to-it desperados and casino cronies ensures his lofty position at the top of the pile remains unchallenged and unassailable. He also pulls the same trick at Sports Direct, where the poor sods sweating on zero hours contracts and appallingly low pay are overseen by a faceless gaggle of yes-men at director level, hand-picked by Fatty for their pliable, submissive natures and thus also guaranteeing that nobody ever tells the megalomaniac in charge what he doesn't want to hear. Pathetic, really...a sorry dictator, who, like the worst of them, fears contradiction and combat above all else. That he has invited the rather commanding Benitez into the castle, therefore, represents a hugely surprising (and equally welcomed) step change. Let's not kid ourselves, though: I don't think any one of us believes that he's finally seen the error of his ways or that this about-turn is driven by the kind of pain that the fans are suffering...this is a reluctant last-ditch attempt to protect his bank balance. As much as relinquishing some control and accepting the failure of his nauseating model will grate, the terror of wiping hundreds of millions off the bottom-line is far worse. But - the inner workings of Mike Ashley's psyche won't trouble me too much on a day like today. We've got Rafa, man!!
He's not a miracle worker, and the window he has in which to invigorate our lethargic troops may yet prove to be too small. But from iron-clad certainty about our impending decimation a week ago, fresh hope has bloomed today that maybe, just maybe, it's not all over. The lift in mood that normally accompanies the changing of a manager - never mind the instalment of by far our most exciting boss since Sir Bobby Robson - has proven to be an almighty weapon in the relegation reckoning in recent years. Just ask Paolo, Gus and Dick. For once, that sort of energy will be on our side, and suddenly the derby can't come quick enough. Just imagine the atmosphere and the noise, but more importantly - the belief. If a character like Rafa Benitez can't inspire these players to haul us out of the mire, then we'll pay the ultimate price for the chain of events put into motion by Ashley long before he galloped into Gallowgate with 10 games remaining. And it will be what we deserve. But for today: let's savour the renewed faith and determination that comes with at least giving ourselves a fighting chance. After all, it's always darkest before the dawn...