“It’s a funny old game”. A saying that is banded about by football fans across the country, yet it’s highly likely, especially after these past 12 months, that it’s the Newcastle faithful who have probably used it more than others in recent times.
Let’s take stock of exactly what we’ve had to endure since May 2015. The ever-building threat of relegation under John Carver narrowly failed to come true, the underwhelming feeling of abject disappointment at the announcement of Steve McClaren becoming head coach (and finding out almost immediately he was a ‘yes man’) and the lack of ‘that big
name’ signing in the Summer gave us all the signs we knew what was to come.
And here we are now, relegation confirmed, but has the hurt of being relegated from what many deem to be the world’s greatest football league ever been remedied so quickly by one man choosing not to leave the club he managed when they went down? Has the feeling of bitterness of being sent down by your main rivals actually been forgotten about in
such record time before? And in the season when it was widely known that you just could not afford to go down this season of all seasons, who could ever foresee that one person’s presence at Newcastle United could be reason for us all to have more optimism for success in the future than we have ever had in the Mike Ashley era.
Enter Rafael Benitez. A man who started last season with an away trip to the Camp Nou to look forward to in El Classico will now be heading down to the Midlands to watch his Newcastle United play Burton Albion at the Pirelli Stadium. And that’s not a slant on Burton or any other team in the Championship – in fact, you only need to look at Burton’s performance with two consecutive promotions to see how well the club is run.
But make no mistake, the Championship is not where Benitez expected to be managing in the 2016/17 season. So when the relief of him confirming his position as Manager for another 3 seasons had passed, you have to applaud the size of the challenge that the former Real Madrid and Napoli manager has taken on. With many expecting him to walk and take up a role back in La Liga, another Premiership team or even manage the Spanish national side when Del Bosque goes, we can now sit back and watch the man at work.
And this team certainly needs a lot of work. Short term, it’s surely a priority for Benitez to make a start in the area that everyone else was screaming at McClaren and company to do themselves back in January. That is, to strengthen what was statistically, the second-worst back 4 in the Premier League last season. When your team sheet (excluding injuries) is
likely to contain the same two centre-halves as you had the last time you felt yourself plummeting down to the Championship, you know you have a problem. But add to that the small matter of being ravaged by injuries
to Krul, Coloccini, Taylor, Elliot, Mbemba, Dummett, even Mbabu’s run in the team getting cut short, it’s only thanks to the efforts of those who started to stand up and be counted that the results weren’t worse (thank you Jamal Lascelles). It’s likely Colo will have already played his last game, Mbabu may go out on loan and Taylor is likely to be offered an extension only if the key targets aren’t acquired. But it’s not looking good for Taylor based purely on the pulling power than Benitez can offer that McClaren didn’t.
To not strengthen in defence in the winter transfer window was nothing short of criminal and considering how light we were up front is ultimately what cost us our top-flight status. If Rafa can get off to a solid start with a few clean sheets in August, then Newcastle should begin to justify their extremely short odds with the bookmakers to win the league. But right now, it’s not big name stars that Newcastle United needs. Just solid, Championship-level defenders who can get the job done a minimum of 46 games per season (forget the cup runs for another season!).
Next priority? Again, you think back to January. When you’re conceding goals and not keeping those clean sheets, you have to hope you’re at least outscoring the opposition. And when you had that monkey on your back of being the worst scoring team away from home in all 4 top divisions in English football, it’s clear that wasn’t the case. We were crying out for the big name striker to come in and make himself an instant household name on Tyneside.
The Charlie Austin speculation died out to nothing more than a whimper, but to watch him move for a mere reported £4m was one thing. To see Charnley, Carr and company then come up with a farcical alternative in the form of a loan move for Seydou Doumbia from CSKA Moscow was a new low and was probably when that lady was starting to exercise her vocal
chords. We’re long past discussing who was to blame for this fiasco, but like the defence scenario, despite being in the second tier, any centre-forward not playing in the Premier League would surely rub their hands if Benitez were to come calling, asking them to spearhead his charge back to the promised land with the support of the Geordie Nation behind him? We’ll soon see what faith he has in Cisse and Mitrovic, the latter holding more appeal in my eyes.
Midfield is arguably Rafa’s lowest priority. The mass inflow of players at the start of 2016 was such that you would not have been surprised to see a 2-7-1 starting formation when the transfer window closed. Townsend has impressed since his arrival and offers something Newcastle have long yearned for since the Laurent Robert days – pace on the wing and troubling the keeper every time he takes a free kick such as that v Crystal Palace. Shelvey may yet come good, but there’s
that many names vying for four places, something will surely have to give here. Much will depend on those who decide to stay and go, so attention turns to Gini Wijnaldum and Moussa Sissoko there. Only once those two issues are sorted will we really get to know what Rafa will do next.
The hype and excitement of Rafa’s appointment will soon start to simmer, maybe more so after Euro 2016. And make no mistake, the Championship is a notoriously difficult league to bounce back from. Many have done so and we can rightly be proud of doing just that. Having a manager who’s been there and done that around the world isn’t enough on its own to get Newcastle United back to the top tier. His skill at getting the most out of players will be put to the test. But let’s not
forget one of the biggest changes – the head coach is gone. We have a manager now. A manager who’s made it clear who calls the shots. The board know that. The fans know that. And crucially, the players do. And if they don’t, they’ll soon find out.