Mikel Merino says he’s gone from zero to hero in the space of a few short months – thanks to Rafa Benitez.
The midfielder’s season-long loan deal from Borussia Dortmund has been converted into a permanent move.
When I came here I was not expecting the love of the fans. I only wanted to come here and play football. But they have shown me a lot of love already. I’m surprised at that.Mikel Merino
Merino – who triggered the switch after playing seven Premier League games – has signed a five-year deal at St James’s Park.
The 21-year-old only played a handful of matches during his year in the Bundesliga.
And Merino could walk the streets of Dortmund unnoticed.
However, that’s not the case on Tyneside.
Merino quickly become a crowd favourite after impressing in his first few games for Newcastle, who take on Southampton at the St Mary’s Stadium on Sunday.
“In Dortmund, I could walk down the street and no one would recognise me,” said the Spain Under-21 international.
“That’s normal, because when you are not playing, people don’t know who you are, especially at a club like Dortmund where they have huge players with huge names that are known all around the world.
“I’m not saying that everybody has to know me, but here it feels very different and very good, especially when a supporter comes up to you and says ‘you are a good player, nice to meet you’. That makes you feel good.
“When I came here, I wasn’t expecting the love of the fans. I only wanted to come here and play football.
“But they have shown me a lot of love already. I’m surprised at that.
Benitez has also made Merino feel good about himself after a difficult season at Dortmund under Thomas Tuchel. Merino said: “In Dortmund, I didn’t have the confidence of the coach. Here, they all trust me and my abilities.
“That’s the main reason things are different.
“I’m not a different player. I’m the same player as I was last year. The only difference now is that I’m playing regularly, and I’m doing it my way.”
Reflecting on his year in Germany, he added: “I still look back on my time there with good memories. During the year, there were both good memories and bad ones, but it’s always good to learn.
“I look back on the last year and think I took a lot out of it. It’s always a good process to go through.
“It helped me become the person and the player that I am today. I’m pleased to have lived that year.”
Merino, a technically-gifted player capable of playing a telling pass and putting his foot in, is still adjusting to English football.
“The way that football is played here can be strong, fast and physical, with lots of long balls and second-phase play,” said Merino. “But when you have a strong mentality, and grew up with another style of football, it’s not a problem to adapt.
“I like to think I’m adapting well to this football, little by little, and I hope to be at 100% in a few more games.”