I have taken to these pages before to bemoan the lack of character in the Newcastle United squad.
Looking back on last season, I maintain that the talent at our disposal was superior to that of many teams who were untroubled by the risk of relegation. But I can think of very few teams who showed anything like lack of spirit, determination and loyalty exhibited by those in black and white. Most observers – whether Toon fans or not – seem to think much the same.
It’s a bit late to apportion blame, but a combination of weak management, ill-advised sales, imports from leagues where character is of less importance, and dissatisfaction from the terraces would no doubt figure in the analysis.
Two of those factors have unexpectedly been removed. We have a manager who has strength, status and star quality, and this has led to – bizarrely for a freshly relegated club – a wave of goodwill and optimism from the long-suffering supporters. And if the smoke signals are to be believed, we are being far stricter on who is allowed to go out and who is recruited.
Now if character is important in the Premier League, it’s an absolute must-have in the Championship. Stadia are less attractive, pitches are poorer, tackles are harder and referees are more lenient.
Someone who sulked when they felt the impact of a challenge from a Kante or a Cattermole last season is going to be in tears for 9 months from August.
If my theory regarding the ability in the Newcastle United squad is valid, then it must be true that we possess the talent to get us out of the Championship at the first attempt. And we have no choice but to do that.
If we don’t, I can see Rafa walking, followed by any of the more revered players who hung around for a season in the second tier out of a sense of loyalty or guilt. That would – I think – see any optimism evaporating completely and season ticket sales dwindling to 1980s numbers.
Rafa has to be skilful. He needs the bones of a team that is good enough to get us out of this league and perform at a comfortable level back in the Premiership. We’ve done it before – thank you Mr Hughton – but I’m guessing it’s trickier than it seems.
Looking at the players we have now – and I don’t expect the list to remain as it is for long – I have no doubt Señor Benitez has a very good idea of who is up for the battle and who isn’t. If he believes like I do that skill levels shouldn’t be an issue, then he could well be looking at who to retain based on their attitude. For my money – on character alone and regardless of ability – the squad breaks down as follows:
No problem – made of the right stuff: Elliott, Darlow, Lascelles, Mbemba, Townsend, Mbabu, Krul
Mostly good, but can go missing: Dummett, Aarons, Perez, Tiote, Janmaat, Anita,
50:50: Mitrovic (loses points for idiocy rather than lack of desire), Haidara, De Jong, Colback, Gouffran
Often poor, sometimes redeem themselves: Cisse, Wijnaldum, Sissoko
Appear uninterested: Shelvey, Thauvin, Coloccini
I haven’t seen enough of the rest to comment, but I’d hope the likes of Armstrong, Toney, Sterry etc may prove to be the sort of player we need. I’m working on the assumption that Cabella, Sammy, Bigirimana et al won’t be with us next season.
It’s a concern reading back through the above that I can only identify 7 players of unquestionable character, and that 3 of them are goalkeepers! But we didn’t end up being relegated because we had too many.
If Rafa needs to sell, then I wouldn’t object if he went backwards though my list starting with Colo and ending with Gouffran. De Jong and Haidara are probably worth persisting with, and I’d tell Mitro to lose a stone and find a shrink if he wants to stay. I am completely neutral on Colback – he is the definition of average for me.
I think we could risk selling Krul, too, on the grounds that we appear to be quite well covered for keepers. The rest I’d try to keep, on balance, and I’d look to acquire players (personality-wise) in the mould of Barton, Nolan, Gutierrez, Carroll et al to augment them. And I’d make Armstrong, Sterry, Toney, Roberts and a few others part of the first team squad. If we don’t risk them in the Championship, then I don’t see how we’d do so at the top level.
All of this is easier said than done, of course, and even Rafa may not be able to fight the combined forces of Ashley, agents, vanity and greed. But I’d fancy our chances of a quick return to the Premiership if we could do it.