It was not what Newcastle United wanted…
It was not what Newcastle United wanted. Despite an astonishing 5-1 defeat of Tottenham Hotspur at St James Park, the Toon players must have looked around and wondered when they might next be back in the Premier League.
Some decided it wouldn’t be anytime soon whilst wearing the black and white. Andros Townsend made use of his release clause and a switch back to London with Crystal Palace, despite only moving to the North East in January.
Relegation was every Newcastle fan’s worst case scenario. They had faced it before, back in 2009 when a team featuring Michael Owen, Obafemi Martins and Damien Duff were defeated by Aston Villa 1-0 and had their 16 year top flight stay come to an end.
The following campaign, spearheaded by Andy Carroll, the Magpies bounced back and achieved promotion as champions. This time around, they might not be so lucky.
The Championship is an unforgiving league. It is filled with clubs of high profile whose glory days are becoming increasingly further and further distant. From former Champions League contenders Leeds United to Europa League 2010 finalists Fulham, FA Cup winners Wigan (2013) and Birmingham (2011), the English Championship has proven time and again to be one of the toughest and competitive leagues in the business.
Newcastle have to be aware of this. Arguably now, the competitiveness of the league is at an all time high. In an age of big spending, it is not only the Premier League which has seen clubs splash the cash.
Ross McCormack was signed for around £11 million by Fulham and even then, the team had to battle to remain in the division last term. Promoted Middlesbrough backed their intentions with the purchase of Jordan Rhodes for a similar fee. If Newcastle think they are entering a division where they can walk to the title, they are very wrong.
Rafa Benitez is a top manager, with a pedigree of managing at the very highest level with Liverpool, Inter Milan, Chelsea and most recently Real Madrid. Though it may not have worked out for him at the Bernabeu, make no mistake, the Spaniard is still one of the best in the business.
That the 56 year old decided to stay on says everything about the size of the club and the passion of the supporters. It should be a draw to anyone, regardless of which league they find themselves in.
The Championship will provide Benitez with a very different challenge this season. From competing in Champions League Finals, England’s second tier will be an entirely new environment.
He has already added to the ranks so far this summer. Dwight Gayle, Matt Ritchie, Matz Sels, Isaac Hayden and Jesus Gamez have all put pen to paper, with more additions expected.
In Gayle, Ritchie and Hayden, Benitez has brought in three players who have proven themselves at Championship level and know the British game. A critique of the previous strategy at the club was that too many players were brought in from foreign leagues who could simply not cut it in the English leagues. That may be harsh, as the success of so many players across England recruited from abroad will testify.
However, perhaps Newcastle do need that bit of grit and determination that is often associated with the British style of play. The team, for too long, has lacked character and a spine running through the side. They needed passion and a will to win, with players who knew what it meant to play for Newcastle.
When they signed Townsend and Jonjo Shelvey in January, they made an instant impact. The supporters will hope that the trio brought in this summer will have a similar effect. At the time of writing, Newcastle were also looking to bring in another one of those gritty sort of players – defender Grant Hanley from Blackburn.
Scotland fans may question the valuation of the 24-year-old, who can at times look rash in his decision making. However, the Dumfries born stopper can be an effective player when he keeps his concentration and may just bring the sort of ‘no-nonsense’ defending that Newcastle need.
Matz Sels is a young goalkeeper full of promise who will provide further competition in the goals for the club, who already have Karl Darlow, who looked impressive near the end of last season following the injury sustained by Tim Krul.
Jesus Gamez meanwhile has played at a high level and brings experience to a back line which have lost senior figures such as Fabricio Coloccini and Steven Taylor.
Midfielders Georginio Wijnaldum (soon to join Liverpool) and Moussa Sissoko both been linked with moves away and this may not be a huge loss. Frenchman Sissoko surprised many by performing at a level for France during the Euros rarely seen on Tyneside and has now been touted at a £35 million fee. Although the club have said they are keen to keep him, a bid of that magnitude could prove to be a very good bit of business considering his inconsistency.
There are too many squad players in the Newcastle ranks and this needs to be addressed. Allowing duds such as Gabriel Obertan and Sylvain Marveux to depart was long overdue, however there are still others that are still too willing to hide in the shadows and pick up a pay cheque without making any sort of useful contribution.
There is every sense that the rebuilding job is far from over for Benitez. The challenge ahead is a significant one. Yet for a club the size of Newcastle, promotion must be the priority.
The club must recapture the good times once again. With Benitez at the helm, they are certainly capable of doing that.
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