On a nervy night in Newcastle upon Tyne, 50,212 spectators were on hand to witness the first stage of the Rafalution come to fruition. It couldn’t have started better for Rafa Benitez and his promotion chasers as they went a goal up inside eight minutes thanks to the limbs of Ayoze Perez. A nervy half hour followed however, as a stubborn Preston North End found an equaliser just seven minutes later.
Given Newcastle’s shaky form which had seen them win just two of their last eight games, many in the stadium would have been forgiven for thinking that it wasn’t going to be their day either. But on the stroke of half time, Chelsea loanee Christian Atsu helped to reignite the fire and settle the nerves of the home supporters. A fine second half followed, with Matt Ritchie giving clear daylight between the two sides and Ayoze Perez rounding off a brace of fortunate goals for him, the home fans found their voice once more. Newcastle had done it – they were back in the big time.
The slight sting in the fairytale may be that the most expensive Championship squad ever assembled look set to miss out on finishing the season as champions – a feat likely to be achieved by a familiar face to everyone associated with Newcastle.
Needless to say, if they were going to miss out on the Championship crown to anyone, Chris Hughton was the only acceptable beneficiary to the throne. Nevertheless, Rafa Benitez came into the campaign with one clear goal – get Newcastle back to the Premier League at the first time of asking, anything else would be seen as a failure.
As for the hows and whens, that would be deemed immaterial in the long-term. Securing promotion with two games to spare can and should be seen as a great achievement by any team playing at Championship level, irrelevant of prior experience or level of expertise at the helm. Only one other relegated team in the past six years have managed to go straight back up at the first time of asking via automatic promotion.
With £54million worth of summer 2016 investment on display, Newcastle were always going to be favourites for automatic promotion, but the scrapes and scars of battling their way to the promised land must now be forgotten, as the real hard work begins.
Phase two of the Rafalution – establish Newcastle as a Premier League force and win a trophy. For that to happen, Benitez essentially needs to go back to the drawing board and develop an even better squad that can cope with even higher expectations.
So what exactly do Newcastle need to do now in order to achieve their long-term goals?
First things first, invest in experienced Premier League quality players. It’s been well publicised that Newcastle spent big in the summer but Benitez has himself gone on record to say that he had to build a team solely capable of winning in the Championship. The Premier League will pose a whole new level of difficulty and there are some toon players Benitez will know haven’t shown evidence of being able to cut it in the top division.
Eddie Howe’s remarkable work at Bournemouth is stark evidence that it’s goals that get you glory. Howe’s 2014/15 side practically scored their way to Championship glory and respectfully refused to alter their daring, attacking style of football in the Premier League. For Newcastle to replicate a fine goalscoring season, Benitez will need to add more firepower. His decision to drop regular starter Karl Darlow for the match against Preston was a clear example of Benitez’ ruthlessness when it comes to players who drop their standards, and the same will need to be done of his frontline.
Although a drop in division was never the ideal scenario, it has provided some of Newcastle’s newcomers a platform to prove the price tags set against them after Steve McClaren spent big in the Summer of 2015.
First up in the spotlight – Aleksandar Mitrovic. His first season in England showed more of his talent for a tussle rather than his appetite for goals, so the Serbian would have been keen to establish himself as a potent goalscorer for Newcastle whilst in the Championship. The early signs weren’t good when Benitez decided he needed a new main man up front before a ball was even kicked. Mitro was knocked back further when the illustrious number 9 jersey went to the incoming Dwight Gayle.
On evidence, Rafa was right. His (Mitrovic’) Championship goal tally has not been that of a prolific striker – 4 goals in 23 appearances – and Benitez will surely be losing patience with the striker’s below average goal return. Goals and goals alone will be what keeps Newcastle away from danger next season and with Dwight Gayle’s recurring injuries and Mitrovic’s inability to score on a regular basis, Benitez will surely have to invest again.
The front line is not the only area that Newcastle will need to strengthen going into next season and it will come as no surprise to see Benitez recycle some of his Championship specific signings.
On the evidence of Rafa’s team selections across the 45 games played, the likes of Daryl Murphy and Grant Hanley were no doubt bought in more for their experience in the second division, as opposed to their sheer quality on the ball. That’s not to underestimate their importance in the current Newcastle side which has seen them gain promotion – but Benitez will surely need to trim the fringe players and recycle them with talents that are good enough to challenge for starting berths in the Premier league.
Of course Premier league experience in this team is not entirely at a shortage and some of Benitez’ more expensive signings will be more than capable of battling the big guns.
No doubt one of Rafa’s best summer signings was in fact one of his first – the £13million capture of Matt Ritchie. The Scotland international had just had his first taste of Premier League football with Bournemouth, taking to it like a duck to water, but the pull of a club the size of Newcastle was enough to convince him to drop back down.
His goals and assists this season have gone a long way to ensuring he’ll be representing a big club in the top division next season. Similar can be said of top goalscorer Dwight Gayle. His 22 goals this season were vital in Newcastle’s maintaining a position at the top of the league, but Benitez will be wary of the striker’s previous goal returns from past Premier League seasons with Crystal Palace.
The Ritchies and Gayles of the current Newcastle side will have shown the gaffer enough this year to prove they can make an impact next season, but the Murphys, Lazaars and Gouffrans of the team may well be looking for new clubs again this summer.
Benitez is notorious for building teams with a strong rearguard. Both of Newcastle’s first choice centre-backs have played top flight football before – but fighting for survival rather than aiming higher. Ciaran Clark has showed his quality as a consistent performer this term but his CV as a Premier League player does not bode well, constantly struggling with the sinking ship that was Aston Villa.
Our captain, Lascelles, is in a similar position. The toon’s ultimate relegation was the outcome of his first season in Newcastle’s back line. The team’s need for more consistent firepower is apparent but they also need a leader – someone who can organise a defensive rearguard notorious for losing it’s head in previous Premier League years. Benitez’ previous top flight teams have always featured a more mature mind at the back. Carragher of Liverpool, Terry of Chelsea immediately spring to mind – the latter being available for transfer this coming summer.
Rafa’s last dilemma will be the growing amount of options he has in between the sticks. The arrival of Matz Sels seemed to be signalling Benitez’ intent to bring in a new number one. It’s fair to say things haven’t turned out the way the Belgian would have wanted, as the keeper slowly became second best behind Karl Darlow and perhaps even further down the pecking order now with the return to fitness of Rob Elliott.
It’s not often a football club can happily keep hold of a high number of decent goalkeepers but with three senior shot stoppers already on the books, and one familiar face in Tim Krul about to return from his loan period in Holland, Benitez will need to assess his many options in goal and select his new number one for the Premier League campaign
This year was simply a diversion on the road to ultimate long-term stability under Benitez, with Newcastle fans hoping that their days of anguish are slowly becoming a thing of the past. The onus is now very much on silverware for Rafael Benitez.
Everyone associated with the club will be expecting because Newcastle finally have a manager capable of delivering what they’ve long for desired.
(All contributions from Newcastle fans welcome, send articles (as well as ideas/suggestions) to [email protected])