On paper, with Rafa Benitez in charge, plus retaining certain key players and adding some genuine quality through the summer, there should be absolutely no reason why Newcastle don’t stroll through the Championship, laying waste to all who stand before them.
The only minor wrinkle in that plan is, of course, that football isn’t played on paper, it’s played on grass, and that is where we might struggle.
With odds as low as 11/4 Newcastle are the clear favourites to win the Championship,, a lot of people I speak to (not Toon fans) have said that those odds are extremely generous and we should be odds on!
The general impression from those disconnected from the club appears to be that promotion is a mere formality, which is hugely ironic because I haven’t seen one Newcastle fan claim that with any seriousness and yet I have also seen plenty of Mackems claiming that we have, and calling us deluded for doing so….which we haven’t…..confused?
Let’s be honest here though, the one and only aim for next season should be automatic promotion, as anything less would be an abject failure given the resources at the club’s disposal. That doesn’t make it a foregone conclusion but it does clearly state what the expectation should be for next season, from both the fans and the club
Newcastle have to go up at the first attempt or risk being stuck in a Forest or Leeds-esque rut for the next 5 to 10 years at least.
The only lingering doubt in my mind, the same doubt I had last time we were relegated (and thankfully turned out to be unfounded), is are we really equipped for the Championship? Or will we find ourselves being bullied like a posh kid who’s moved from a Private School to a Council Estate Comprehensive?
An easy accusation to level at the team for much of last season is their seeming lack of effort, it was there for all to see and picked up by both fans and the media. In many games the ‘team’ simply didn’t turn up and were out fought, out passed and out tackled by any opposition who just wanted it that little bit more.
In a league like the Championship a lack of effort gets punished, when you are playing against teams who are busting a gut to get their hands on the richest prize in football (Premier League TV money), and who will no doubt see us as a prime scalp to be taken, giving less than your best will lead to disaster.
Luckily, the effort seemed to return when Rafa had got his feet under the table and thankfully his feet have remained under the table this summer. In Rafa we have a manager who will expect, demand and get effort from the players, he commands respect and he gets it. I honestly cannot see Rafa taking the league lightly, so therefore neither will whatever players we have at the club by the start of the season.
Moving on to signings and Rafa has already stated that any incoming players must have the right character for the team, showing that he fully appreciates what is needed to gain automatic promotion. Here I would expect to see a mix of experienced players, Championship players, and younger players who are hungry for their chance to play in front of a big crowd.
If the squad can be trimmed in the correct manner, if the negative influences can be removed and players with appetite and quality brought in, then the team will be ready for the season ahead. This, of course, means letting Rafa recruit what he needs without interference.
Aside from the manager and the players, the third key ingredient in assuring that we don’t continue our footballing descent is us, the fans. Now, I have written more than most on this forum about my dislike for the owner, I don’t think my feelings towards him are a secret to anyone who reads The Mag, but we might have to forget – though certainly not forgive – Ashley next season.
As fans we have to take some measure of confidence from the fact that Rafa has stayed with the club, he isn’t a stupid man and he wouldn’t have stuck around just to be another puppet in the mould of Pardew, Carver or McClaren. If Rafa is here it is because he has been given the keys to the club.
I am hoping that this is a clear signal that the owner is actually going to take a step back and leave it to Rafa, because if he does and the results come then, fickle as football fans are, we will begin to forget about him over the course of the season. It’s amazing how results can change the mood of a club and if the fans see that things are being done in the right way, then we will be onside with the club and maybe actually enjoy the season.
Lastly we go back to the owner, who remains the biggest variable in this conundrum. Mike Ashley is a wild card, he still potentially has the power to screw this all up by simply reverting to type and going back on his word to the manager, he has done it before and could do it again.
As I said earlier, if we can forget about him for a while and see some good results then some healing will take place, not forgiveness, just a bit of healing. In my own mind it would not alter my opinion of the man if the club won the inaugural “Intergalactic Cup” under his stewardship, he has simply done too much damage to be redeemed. What I would be prepared to do is grudgingly forget about him if he actually took a back seat, rather than just talked about it.
All in all I think the club will be fine next season, we are justifiable favourites and with Rafa in charge and a few additions, it is hard for even the most ardent of the unwashed to argue that we shouldn’t be favourites.
Until a ball is kicked in ager however, there will always be the lingering worry about not living up to expectation.
After all, despite the presence of Rafa Benitez and the absence of Mike Ashley, this is still Newcastle United and football is still played on grass.