I feel like I’m still coming down from the final day of last season, the roar of the Championship title win is still ringing in my ears and now the fixtures are out for next season and I can’t wait for it to get going again. A game against Spurs – who finished last season as Premier League runners-up – is the perfect opening fixture as far as I’m concerned. Our last Premier League game was a 5-1 hammering of the same opposition. The place will be bouncing. Everyone will be up for it. Gallowgate Flags will be out in force. We will be the under-dogs and the St James’ Park crowd is always at its best when things are against us and we’re up for it. Whether it’s engineered by a dodgy refereeing decision or we’re excited to be starting a brand new Premier League season with Rafael Benitez in the home dug-out against a team tipped to push for the title.
I don’t think a home game against someone like Burnley would have had the same effect. Some fans would just expect us to win and it could have led to a negative atmosphere if things didn’t start well. We will be expected to lose against Spurs but there is no better time to catch one of the big boys out than the opening day. Especially if they walk ino the same red hot atmosphere as the last time they were here.
Rafa knows how important it is to start at home: “it’s a great start at home to Spurs and a really exciting first game at St James’ Park for our fans to enjoy”
But does the fixture list really matter? Steve McClaren complained about the diffcult start to the season he was handed in our last Premier League campaign. Alan Pardew used the excuse more than once during his time here and Sam Allardyce tried to fool people with it after he was handed a very fortunate set of fixtures at the start of the 2007/08 season where United didn’t play any of the previous season’s top 10 until October. “We made the best start of any Newcastle team since Keegan was there” he said after he was sacked for leading us towards a relegation battle once those easier fixtures had dried up. No mention of the lopsided fixture list.
A quick look on social media and you will see people saying “it doesn’t matter when you play x,y and z. you play everyone twice over the season” That is a fair point. Every team plays the other 19 teams home and away over the course of the season. But you would have to be very naïve to think the random nature of the fixture selections and all of the different variables at play make no difference in deciding where teams finish. Both McClaren and Pardew were out of their depth managing Newcastle United and would use any excuse to try and save face but I do think the fixtures play an important part. McClaren took over a team who had just survived relegation on the final day of the previous season after the diastrous John Carver experiment. Plenty of money was spent in the summer but an opening 6 weeks which featured games against Man United, Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City along with some notoriously tough away games never gave the manager or new players time to find their feet. The rot had set in, pressure was on and the players were in the habit of losing games. And as we know all too well, that is a very difficult habit to get out of. Would things have been different for McClaren if the fixtures had been kinder? Maybe. Maybe not. He isn’t a very good manager and should never have been here in the first place. But neither should Alan Pardew, yet when he had a similar influx of players in the summer of 2011 along with an early set of fixtures which were very kind we found ourselves in 3rd place in November. The team was on a roll, confidence was high and we ended up qualifying for Europe. The confidence and momentum we gained in those first few months of the season were crucial. A couple of heavy defeats to the big boys in those first few weeks and things might have been very different. No Europe. No 8 year contract for Pardew.
Some people will still say it doesn’t matter when you play a team. You have to play them at some stage, just like everybody else. But would you rather have played Man United at the start of last season when Mourinho had just arrived and they had signed Pogba and Ibrahimovic and were talking about winning the title or at the end of the season when they were sacrificing league games to concentrate on winning The Europa League?
Would you rather play against a Tony Pulis side before they hit his magic 40 point mark or after?
Would you rather play a team who are playing poorly and trying to get their manager sacked or that same team just after they have appointed a new one? Leicester last season for example.
If you were lucky enough to play Chelsea in August or September last season you had more chance of getting something than when Conte switched to the 3-4-3 formation which blew the rest of the divison away.
Ocassionally you will play a team either just before or just after they have a big Champions League away game and they will rest players or go easy in the league. Sky and BT mess around with the fixtures all the time, this can play a part. Sometimes you will catch a team when they are physically and mentally drained after a hard run of fixtures. Would Fulham have beaten us so convincingly last season if they hadn’t played us on the back of the Brighton, Huddersfield and Reading games?
When Kevin Keegan left in 2008 we played Hull amid chaos and mass protests. Hull won the game and eventually stayed up by a point while we went down. You can never predict this kind of luck but it shows that the fixtures can just fall right for some. We could have played anybody that week but it just happened to be the team we went right down to the wire with.
I don’t see us as having an ‘easy’ start as there are no easy games in The Premier League but we start with a big home game, the fans will be on a high before the season even starts. By late november we will only have played 2 of last season’s top 7. Both at home. We don’t play any of the top sides in consecutive games all season for the first time that I can remember. A favourable run of fixtures for a newly promoted side like us could be massive in instilling confidence, belief and momentum to do something nobody expects of us next season. There are no guarantees but with Rafa Benitez in charge anything is possible.