This week, a story about Mike Ashley attending some football matches and a transfer meeting has put the unthinkable in our minds. The horrifying thought of a world where we don’t have Rafa Benitez (brought about by unnecessary meddling from above). I personally don’t think there is much to it. When a few of us at TF were luck enough to go and meet the man himself, he spoke very highly of Graham Carr and his ability to spot/rate a player. He also gave us insight into his passion for teaching and developing players. So, EVEN IF there’s any truth in said rumours of Ashley imposing a transfer policy, it’s actually a policy that Rafa can work with where previous incompetents could not. Whatever ‘it’ is, I don’t think it’s a story worth worrying about. It’s achieved its goal – click-bait and hysteria. Rafa seems fine.
Alas, a midweek football match was a welcome break tonight, and Rafa did not look affected at all as he went about
business as usual. We handed out three first team debut’s to Stuart Findlay, Dan Barlaser and Yasin Ben El-Mhanni. I must admit I had no knowledge of any of them before tonight. We’ve suddenly got a long list of absenteesand I bet the three of them would not have imagined this a week ago. Right place at the right time!
Aside from the young lads, Sels was back in goal and Gouffran was the surprise choice leading the line up front. Other expected changes included starts for Hanley, Lazaar and of course Shelvey, back from his daft ban. Nobody thought we’d miss Shelvey as much as we seem to have (perspective needed here as we only lost 2 of 5 games, it’s hardly been a collapse) but his performance tonight was a reminder of his level – which is far far above the majority of this league. He’s a class act and if Rafa can keep his feet on the ground and get the work out of him, he’ll be just as big next season in the PL.
The game started at a slow pace and the three new lads looked unsurprisingly a little nervous. Thankfully, before the dafties in the crowd could get frustrated we made a breakthrough as Gouffran was put through one on one by an outrageous 30 yard ball from Shelvey. He took a touch round the keeper before being wiped out for an easy penalty. Ritchie, unimpeded by Mitro this time, stepped up to dispatch for 1-0.
We should have been out of sight by half time. Gouffran was put in again and hit the post with a clever back heel. Shortly after a free kick just inside their half was played straight to the unmarked Gouff in the middle of the box. He took a naughty touch to flick it over the flat-footed centre-half and finished expertly. A great goal, albeit thanks to some shambolic defending. 2-0. Moments later, Ritchie cut in from the right and bent one round the keeper onto the post. The rebound came out to Barlaser who probably should have scored but scuffed it out of play.
Second half we started as we’d finished the first. Shelvey lobbed a ball through the middle which Ritchie latched onto but was closed down well by the goalkeeper who saved just inside his box. In typical Toon fashion though we somehow let Birmingham back in the game as a floated cross was headed back across goal to the bald lad who put it through Sels. I’ve seen people saying he should be saving that but the lad was unmarked and smashed it form point blank range. Don’t want to be too harsh there.
A nervy couple of minutes followed but we saw out the game against a poor quality opposition. Gianfranco Zola has yet to win since the baffling sacking of Gary Rowett. They weren’t really a threat and we put the game to bed late on when Shelvey battled to the by line and cut back for Ritchie who got his deserved goal.
With Shelvey in the side, we will endure this little spell of injuries and African Nations. Good to see Hayden fit again also. The three debutantes all did OK. The centre half, Stuart Findlay, was probably the most impressive of the three with a solid game both aerially and on the ground. The others looked very raw but good to see some new lads get a chance. Everyone else was solid in what was a much more convincing team performance than in previous weeks.
So we’re through; already further in the cup than in any of the last 4 seasons. With Oxford away next we could realistically go on another cup run and for me that’s a good thing. Winning games leads to winning more games. Momentum is everything as we enter the ‘business end’ of the season.
SIMON CAMPBELL – Follow Simon on @
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