What happens when a world class manager meets a basket case football club reviled by many including its own supporters? May 7th. That’s what. Too few occasions like that in my life time and I’m 28. I’m sure those reading that have 20-30 years on me haven’t seen that many more last day celebrations than me. A football club reborn, a city revitalised. How did we come here? From anger and resentment at Villa Park on 7/5/16 to joy and pride on 7/5/17. It’s been far from easy and it hasn’t happened by accident. So how has the season been such a runaway success and why has it felt so fraught at times among the fan base and media?
Let’s go back to what feels both like last week and last decade
Fever pitch doesn’t do it justice. The anticipation for United’s season under the new manager (still new at this stage, this
was only his 11th game as boss) was incredible. 38,000 season tickets sold. Incredible. Thousands flooded back and it was like any pre-season I’d known for excitement and belief. The sun was shining in Putney. Pints were £6. London away on a Friday night in front of the nation. Then we lost, and lost reasonably badly. The first hint of what was to come with two stonewall penalties denied. In reality, a performance that stunk of last season, there was still work to do.
The following week Gallowgate Flags made our debut. The pictures of a black and white wall at the Gallowgate End will be used for years. 52,000 in the second division. It didn’t happen again. United dominated possession but created little. A debut goal for Dwight Gayle was promising and once again United were at the wrong end of a refereeing decision when Mbemba was fouled and Huddersfield went home happy. Two games, two defeats. A public holiday was near called on Wearside. Their problems were only just beginning. Rafa stayed calm and said they’d keep doing what they’d been doing. Janmaat went and Anita wasn’t seen in midfield again.
4 days later and Reading were put to the sword by four goals to one. Jaap Stam reckoned Reading were the better side. He was wrong. Dwight Goal score a top corner 30 yard free kick. His only free kick goal of the season. Shelvey was given a start alongside Hayden in this game and the two started to click. Yoan Goufrann was establishing himself as a force (no one saw that coming) and Vurnon Anita had a canny game at right back. All things I didn’t see myself saying pre-season. This was Nu-Newcastle United but with Rafa getting the best out of out of date goods.
2,700 mags went to Bristol in what felt like, and probably was a season defining game. Bristol, top of the league, money spent and being spoken of as promotion contenders. It didn’t happen for them in the end throughout the season and on the day as Diame and Gayle combined for three points. It was the first of fourteen away wins and it followed a very specific pattern. Dominate possession, score. Defend well. Win.
After success in the cup at SJP against League Two opposition United faced media darlings Brighton in front of the sky cameras. Mitrovic, finally available from suspension, Gayle and new signing Daryl Murphy were all injured and Brighton were supposed to show us what the division was all about. We won comfortably against Brighton and should have scored a lot more. Shelvey’s free kick was belting at the Leazes. A win at home in a big game, we were starting to enjoy life. In the Championship.
Away wins over Nigel Pearson’s Derby and a hapless QPR were relished by a travelling support that had suffered for so
long. 4 days, two goals six points and goals. Talk of not losing again was on mag lips as we sat second in the division. A great start to the month and the difficulties of early August seemed miles away. Until Saturday. Wolves came and won at SJP where everything went wrong. Rafa’s rotation was in full flow. Clark was rested for Mbemba who had a disaster.
More telling was Wolves showed how we could be beaten at home. Press us in the middle third of the pitch and don’t push too high so there was limited space behind. Our good players were forced away from goal. It didn’t happen that day and Wolves won easily. Matt Sels was having a nightmare in goal. The highly rated Belgian found himself out of the team as United dominated at Villa but failed to win after an error from the keeper. He was out for Darlow as surely the most dramatic game in years unfolded at SJP. Norwich came, played poorly and found themselves 3 1 up with 20 minutes to go. United scored on ’94 and ’96 to win the game 4 3. Scenes. Momentum.
We went for a belting day out at Rotherham and won a tough game against a physical side. It was the start of an incredible run which saw nine straight wins. All of them very, very comfortable from this point. Hitting Preston in front of 45k in the cup at SJP was great, we should have scored ten. Other mid table sides were comfortably dispatched as we opened up a lead over third on October 18th that we never relinquished. Read that back to yourself if you took to Social media after every defeat saying you were ‘concerned’ or ‘worried’. You were wrong.
The Leeds win was great for all Mags. Garrrrry Monk and his giant ego were coming for us. Less so after United taught
them a lesson in front of one of Sky’s biggest football audiences all season, Premier League included. On the cusp of a club record ten straight wins United started a dreadful week by losing at home to relegation threatened Blackburn. Aleksander Mitrovic finally got his chance to start in the league due to 3 games in six days. He put in what can be described as a ‘terrible’ performance and he lost the confidence of thousands of Mags and most likely the coaching staff. We went out on pens at Hull in gut wrenching fashion after a Matt Sels howler and he was done at United. It was for the best though as we were going through a nightmare period without Shlevey and Gayle had we faced Man Utd in a domestic semi.
We travelled down to Nottingham still knackered from Tuesday and dominated a game against a very poor Forest side.
The referee hasn’t taken charge of another game at this level this season. The two red cards were overturned (correctly) and we had three points stolen from us. Forest stayed up on goal difference. Disgraceful. Utterly disgraceful. It wouldn’t be the last time a referee did his best to see us lose a game either.
United then won three in a row. We began hammering in form Birmingham who were fifth at the time. They sacked their manager which was mental. Comfortable wins at Wigan and Burton saw us open a nine point lead over third place, effectively ten with our massive goal difference. Promotion was as good as done and United were 1/50 at the bookies to go up.
It says a lot when people think we had a wobble by losing to Blackburn and first Sheff Wed at home on Boxing Day. United were ten points clear of third after the ‘wobble’. Sheff Wed committed a season high 23 fouls as the referee allowed them to kick us off the park at St James’. United were poor in a tight game. Revenge was had over Forest days later as Lansburi was ‘injured’ ahead of jumping ship to Villa.
Just the two league games after Blackburn and massive wins v Brentford and Rotherham sandwiched between two cup games against Zola’s Birmingham. It was effectively the end of Dwight Gayle’s season. 21 goals up to this point, he’d only feature for another 100 odd minutes (still getting two more goals). He was a massive loss.
The main problem in January was the growing sense of frustration from a manager who was told he wouldn’t have to sell to buy in the Summer. With his £30m transfer surplus he felt entitled to spend that money in January. He felt the squad was short and didn’t want to stumble over the line. He wasn’t backed. It could have killed the season.
Huge frustration as a Ciaran Clark own goal gifted QPR a 94th minute point at St James’. Some fans boo the team off.
These people are a parody of themselves. Steve McClaren, the reason United are playing in this division are beaten at SJP and he’s ignored. In a mental month for fixtures and a ‘season defining month’ United are unbeaten in seven games. Draws at Norwich and against Bristol City are only disappointing as we’re so dominant in both. This is a well oiled second division outfit. Fans squabble amongst themselves on social media about United being poor to watch, because they have nothing else to moan about.
A rampant United put the people’s Champions (according to Sky) to the sword at their own ground. It’s glorious. It’s magnificent. It’s Rafa’s United.
A great start to the month as Huddersfield are beaten at their place. You could feel the fume from the rest of the division. We then go to Reading and are unlucky not to take all three points. We played the top three clubs we could play, away from home, consecutively and picked up seven points. Sounds like promotion that doesn’t it. That’s Rafa – going into the big games and getting the job done. How un-United can you get?
Fulham turn up against a jaded United and play great. Individual errors gift them an easy win. After an incredible eight days on it being our first defeat in two months, the fickle nature of many fans is revealed. Social media has a mild tantrum. The month is rounded off with a decent performance but just a point at an ultra-defensive Birmingham. Your hip bloggers tell the world Rafa is shite and United aren’t going up. No one listens to them if they don’t cry wolf.
April starts with two crucial home wins against struggling sides at the bottom of the league. United went to 85 points with
fairly comfortable wins against Wigan and Burton, but wins by a single margin. Your writer here was delighted after both as it all but sealed promotion. Two massive wins, up there with any in terms of importance. Matt Ricthie, player of the season go the winner in both. Burton at home will be remembered for United scoring a penalty and the referee awarding a free kick to our opponent as a result. I don’t have the words and if I did the word count to describe what went on that night.
We went to Sheffield and were very poor. Very poor indeed. A great performance against Leeds was thrown away in the 94th minute before another stinker at Ipswich. Your social media fume was all a waste of time as a win against Preston sealed promotion. United were getting there slowly but this is a young inexperienced team feeling the pressure. Oh for the January recruits.
Preston were dispatched easily and how we celebrated. The celebrations continued onto a belting win at Cardiff and then of course on May 7th . Three wins to end the season. 94 points. Rafa’s mags pissed promotion and then we had a party.
Overall United pissed this season and promotion. If you ignored your best mate’s twitter plea for RT’s, Talksport and the London media and looked at the cold hard stats – United were never less than five points clear of third place from the 29th of October onwards. Miles ahead, all season pretty much. That was then and what happens next is crucial. I look at Watford and West Brom now in the Premier League. In free fall since reaching 40 points yet both in the top half of the Premier League. That’s not Rafa Benitez and that shouldn’t be Newcastle United.
Back the man, and he’ll deliver.
ALEX HURST – FOLLOW ALEX ON @tfalex1892