Can you believe it’s all over? 53 games in total. 97 goals (and counting, hopefully) with 32 wins (and count…). For all there are still people out there saying this isn’t a good side, or worse, those stats are excellent. For all the shit referees, the odd dodgy performance and defeat – this season has been enjoyable. A slog, but enjoyable. As usual with Newcastle United the end of the season has brought more questions than answers but for the time being I’m going to enjoy Sunday whatever happens and then drink loads after the game with the lads who’ll I’ll see far less frequently until August.
The fact that United could start life in the Premier League with a financially backed Rafa Benitez in charge is as exciting as the prospect of him not being there is terrifying. That’s all to come though. They say football fans have a short memory. I don’t think that this sides achievements should be forgotten before Monday next week.
Rafa Benitez took control of a side that had won 2 of fourteen away games last season, scoring 7 goals in that time. He revived the side and almost avoided relegation but failed to win any of his five away games, despite managing to improve the team’s ability to score away from home managing five goals in five games. This season United have won 14 away games (a club record in 125 years of competition) and scored 36 away goals in 23 away games. ‘It’s Division Two’ I hear your Da cry. Norwich and Villa came down with similarly horrific away records. They have nine away wins between them in 46 games combined. We have 14 in 23. Winning away from home is hard. It’s easier in this division, but it’s still dead hard. I’ve tremendous respect for the players and manager who’ve managed to transform the team away from home. It’s a huge positive for next season.
Next season there are lots of players who will still be here. There’ll be a clear out. Players who’ve struggled to make the first team at this level won’t automatically become Premier League first team players ‘because they’re more suited to the Premier League.’ However I’ve found the debate about United’s apparently useless set of players bizarre. No more bizarre than Alan Shearer saying Rafa needs to spend £150 million pounds. Teams that tend to spend more than their annual turnover on transfers tend to end up out of business, Alan. A lot of these players deserve to play for Newcastle United next season. Some aren’t good enough. Some have already proved they are good enough without a year of coaching from Rafa Benitez and the fact they will be playing with better players (hopefully) than they did at their previous clubs. Whether you think we need 11 new players (Burnley did okay this season with practically the same side that brought them up, and there aren’t any of their players I’d take over ours) Sunday is a chance to show our appreciation for a group of players that unlike so many who’ve pulled on black and white in previous years I’ve not seen a performance this season where I’ve doubted the application or effort of the players. I’ve only missed four games all season (QPR, Villa, Norwich and Brentford) and despite the desperate performances put in at places like Ipswich and Sheffield, every team has an off day. These lads have done us proud this season. I hope they get the reception they deserve.
Another man who deserves acclaim is the manager. He’s had his fair share, so I’ll not go on about him again. However the fact that Rafa Benitez represents Newcastle United provides me with an enormous sense of pride. That he stayed after relegation was considered by many to be an egregious act of self-harm from many paid to talk about the game. He’s pissed promotion. If United win on Sunday only three teams in thirteen seasons will have bettered our points total. One of them was in a few years back. It’s a big achievement to have been given the chance to have a belting night in Cardiff – stress free and fun. Everything Newcastle United hasn’t been for so long. I’m grateful for that. The club shouldn’t have been relegated last season. Everything was geared towards promotion this season and we’ve pulled it off. Do I want to win the League? Yes. Will I still thoroughly enjoy Sunday if it doesn’t happen? Yes. That’s because of one man. He’s our manager. He must remain in charge next season (and for several after that). I’ll worry about that next week though.
The game itself is at the ludicrous time of midday to allow two of the twelve fixtures to be televised. United will lift silverware regardless of the result as the EFL now provide a ‘second place trophy’. A generation of people saying ‘no trophies for coming second’ find themselves at a loss at St James’ on Sunday if it comes to it. We need to better Aston Villa’s result against Brighton to claim top spot. If we get 94 points (the fourth highest in the history of the division) and don’t finish top, I can live with it. I hate Aston Villa and their fickle, pointless fan base which exists only to ‘rinse’ or ‘banter off’ opposing fans will relish Sunday. They win either way as one team ‘loses out’ . I hope they never come back up. We need to win and then whatever happens, happens.
We’re missing a few players ahead of the visit of Barnlsey, who themselves have had a great season. They find themselves comfortably in fourteenth place after promotion via the play offs last season. They sold their three best players in January but have got on with it. I’m sure they’d love a win here to try and claim a top half place. Barnsley have a better away record than home record winning 9 and losing 11 away from Oakwell. They’ve scored 32 goals away from home this season, which is superb! They away form has tailed of late losing four of the last five and conceding ten goals in the process. Their top scorer Sam Winnall has 11 goals but left the club in Januray. Marley Watkins has a hugely impressive 10 goals with seven assists from midfield. They will pose a threat on the counter attack and are no pushovers. However they have lost every game away from home to teams in the top eight besides a goalless draw at Reading. They’ve won once in just thirteen games. So United should see this through.
For United we’ll be without our captain who has been playing through injury for two months. Credit to him and it suggests how highly Rafa rates the lad. There could (and probably will) be last appearances in black and white for Vurnon Anita, Yoan Goufrann, Sammy Ameobi, Christian Atsu. You’d think Atsu aside it’ll be a chance to show appreciation for Anita and Goufrann who haven’t been the best players I’ve ever seen at United, but their commitment and effort could never be doubted. I hope they get a great send off. It’s also likely it’s the last time we’ll see Lazaar, Hanley, Murphy, Sels, Haidara, Colback and Gamez who are unlikely to still be here in August. Shelvey should be re-united with the superb Isaac Hayden and the back four remain the same from Cardiff. As much as I think he’s had a terrible season, I hope Mitrovic gets a game to make his army of fans happy. He’s one goal in his last 18 appearances for United and he can’t finish. They are the facts. It would be nice to see him get a goal though and I think Murphy is far better from the bench. Matt Ritchie remains suspended for being a fool.
This is the last game of second division football I’d like to see in my lifetime and I’m in my late twenties. The post war history of Newcastle United has had plenty second division spells but a well-run, motivated and organised Newcastle United should never again be competing at this level. Over to you, Mike.
Thanks for those who’ve read these previews this season. 54 of them now. I’ll not be writing the previews next season so thanks to all who read, listen to the podcast and engage with everything true faith produces. It’s been fun on the whole scoring goals and winning games, but I can’t wait to get back to the Premier League. With Rafa Benitez in charge.
ALEX HURST – FOLLOW ALEX ON @tfalex1892
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