RAFA Benitez has jumped to the defence of under-fire Newcastle skipper Jamaal Lascelles after he urged fans to lay-off “nice guy” Mike Ashley.
The Magpies chief revealed that Lascelles had been surprised at the negative reaction his comments sparked when he talked of “bad energy” engulfing the club.
Benitez insists the 24-year-old’s appeal for a united front was evidence of how much he cares and his desire to lead Newcastle out of the mire.
They face Watford at St James’ Park today having lost all five games on home soil this season.
Like his captain, Benitez wants the Toon Army to concentrate on backing the team this afternoon rather than venting their anger on Ashley, who is expected to be present for the sixth game in a row.
“It’s a positive signal for me, it means that he cares, he wants to stay”
The Newcastle boss sympathises with fans’ grievances and is also more worldly wise than the defender.
Asked if he also believes Ashley was a nice man, Benitez smiled and replied: “I am so focused on the game.”
On a more serious note, he’s urged supporters not to take their frustrations out on Lascelles.
“I understand some will not be happy with the situation but we need to find the balance and understand the context,” said Benitez.
“He has a five-year contract which he extended one more year. It’s a positive signal for me, it means that he cares, he wants to stay.
“We have to make sure that when he goes on the pitch, Jamaal gives everything. It is more important that we get the best from them than find something they say which is wrong.”
The Spaniard had a brief chat with Lascelles about some of the hostile messages on social media.
“I would say he was surprised. He did not expect that. It was a straight question and he was being natural, normal and honest.
“He’s working for Newcastle as a player and as a captain. I think the fans can be upset but what message did we sent in the Championship and Premier League last season?
“When something was right, we said “listen, Newcastle – united.
“We have to be sure we support the players on the pitch and then, afterwards we can have opinions. We have to stick together or it will be very difficult to survive.”
The atmosphere at St James’ Park has been flat in recent weeks – hardly surprising considering the poor results but Benitez believes a raucous crowd can be a 12th man.
“If you have a passionate crowd, it can make a difference. You can feel it and the players find five or ten per cent more.
“If the fans are right behind the team, that can improve performance.”