FOR most of this season, Newcastle United supporters have been fretting about the possibility of Rafael Benitez leaving the club. As the end of the campaign draws near, however, perhaps they should be equally concerned about the prospect of another Spaniard saying ‘adios’ to St James’ Park.

Ayoze Perez’s arrival at Newcastle predates that of Benitez by almost two years, and despite the ongoing uncertainty about the latter’s future beyond the end of June, there is a good chance the 25-year-old’s departure could also come before that of his current manager.

Perez was a man in demand before the weekend, but his performance as he became the first Newcastle player to score a Premier League hat-trick since Georginio Wijnaldum in October 2015 served to reinforce why some of the leading clubs in his homeland are clamouring for his services.

He has always had plenty of natural talent, but he has matured markedly in the last 12 months, both in terms of his decision-making in front of goal and his ability to contribute to Newcastle’s all-round game. Feverish out of possession, Perez has become much more polished with the ball at his feet. As a result, suggestions of a £30m or £40m move to Barcelona or Real Madrid no longer belong in the realms of fantasy.

Would he move? An interview conducted in Spain a couple of months ago suggested so, and while he backtracked slightly when grilled on the issue after he left the field on Saturday night clutching the match-ball, his denials were hardly convincing. As a proud native of Tenerife, who harbours ambitions of playing in the Spanish national side, the appeal of La Liga is as understandable as it is hard to ignore.

“Obviously, it (the Spanish interview) was translated quite differently to what I meant,” said Perez, who has overtaken Salomon Rondon to become Newcastle’s leading scorer this season with 11 goals in all competitions. “I just said that, in the summer, there is going to be options.

“That means I have done something well. But what I tried to say was I’ll be up to hear what is coming, but it doesn’t mean I am going to leave 100 per cent.

“I can hear what is coming for me, what they offer for me, and that’s it. But it doesn’t mean I am going to leave 100 per cent at the end of the season. It is going to be a difficult decision. It depends on a lot of things.”

Benitez would be understandably loath to lose Perez, having invested so much time and effort into his development, although while the Newcastle manager would have been delighted with his compatriot’s hat-trick heroics at the weekend, they might not have come at the ideal moment in terms of his impending discussions with Lee Charnley and Mike Ashley.

Benitez is adamant Newcastle’s current transfer policy does not work – Perez is living proof that suggests otherwise. Signed for £1.5m from the Spanish Segunda Division as an unknown 19-year-old, the forward has developed into a proven Premier League performer able to command a fee more than 20 times bigger than the one Newcastle paid to sign him.

Over the course of five seasons, he has made a huge contribution to both the Magpies’ promotion from the Championship and their subsequent survival in successive Premier League seasons. If he leaves this summer, it will be for an astronomical profit. You can almost hear Ashley rubbing his hands from here.

“I have felt really well playing for this club, playing for this badge,” said Perez. “It has been five great years and I cannot thank Newcastle enough for what they have done for me.

“I wasn’t even professional when I signed for Newcastle. I always have that in mind. Obviously, it has been five great years over here, and I have improved a lot as a player and a person.”

His progression has accelerated this season, largely as a result of the role he has been filling in Benitez’s preferred 3-4-2-1 system. He clearly relishes the freedom afforded to him as he floats behind Rondon, with the recent addition of Miguel Almiron having opened up even more space for him to exploit.

His heading ability tends to be heavily underrated, and while his lack of physicality was an issue in the first few years of his Newcastle career, it is now extremely rare to see him knocked off his stride by an opponent.

“The way that we play now, with Miguel Almiron with his pace, Rondon holding the ball, and the wing-backs, it is giving us different options,” said Benitez. “He (Perez) is finding more space in between the lines, and also behind the defender. A lot of things are coming together, and he is doing well because he understands what he has to do.”

He remains a goalscorer at heart, and his two first-half goals against Southampton were no more than Newcastle deserved as they dominated the opening 45 minutes.

His first came courtesy of a neat driven finish after Isaac Hayden’s perfectly-timed tackle on Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg had sent the ball spinning into his path, and his second saw him slide home at the back post after Rondon crossed from the left.

Newcastle should really have been playing against ten men by the interval, with James Ward-Prowse extremely fortunate to receive only a yellow card after he body-checked Almiron to prevent the Paraguayan exploiting a two-on-one break. The offence occurred inside the Newcastle half, but given that Rondon was on Almiron’s shoulder, it was hard to see how it could not be considered the prevention of a clear goalscoring opportunity.

With equal numbers, Southampton regrouped after the interval, and the visitors gave themselves a glimmer of hope when substitute Mario Lemina swept home from the edge of the area.

Ki Sung-yueng and Isaac Hayden both struck the upright in the second half – the latter courtesy of a sensational first-time volley that brought an equally impressive save from Angus Gunn – but Newcastle made the game safe as Perez claimed the match ball with four minutes left.

Matt Ritchie headed goalwards after Jan Bednarek failed to clear Mo Diame’s cross, and Perez glanced in from close range to take Newcastle beyond 40 points.

“Forty-one points means a lot,” said the Spaniard. “It has been a tough season for everyone at the club. Day by day, we have been working hard to be in this position. It is something we have to be proud of.”