Following a recent discussion with a regular contributor to The Mag, a poll came about as to whether Newcastle fans would rather simply have automatic promotion, or have a spot in the play-offs along with a guaranteed place in the FA Cup final.
The poll result took me somewhat by surprise as 75% of Newcastle fans would take the comfort of automatic promotion, over probably two trips to Wembley and a shot at glory not experienced since 1955 and something surely 99% of the participants in that poll cannot remember – i.e. winning the FA Cup.
Thereafter Rafa put out what can best be described as a fringe side in a game against Birmingham in which the winner was to be odds on for a spot in the last 16, with a tie against Oxford.
This led to me to question whether Rafa and indeed the fans were being overly risk averse, especially in the context of criticism the previous manager had for a plethora of early cup exits during his reign.
Firstly, let me lay down a few markers.
I’ve lived on Tyneside for nearly 10 years but originally I’m not from the area and nor do I support NUFC. I have many friends who have season tickets at NUFC and dare I say, a few who support Sunderland. So all things being equal, I like to think I’m well placed to give a fairly impartial perspective on football in Tyne and Wear.
I appreciate you Newcastle fans have become completely disenchanted with the owner over a number of seasons which culminated in relegation (once again) to the championship last May. However, the silver lining of that aftermath was your much maligned owner persuading Rafa Benitez to take on the job with the club in the championship.
So, one of only seven active managers to win the European Cup/Champions League (including Di Matteo) is manager of your football club. Add to that, your manager has also won two UEFA Cup/Europa Leagues, an FA Cup, an Italian Cup, a World Club Cup, a Super Cup and even throw in a Community Shield and the Italian equivalent for good measure.
Given that record alone, would you not back Rafa in the play-offs format? Considering next the possible challengers in the play-offs, they would be made up of clubs with significantly lower budgets and less talented squads, as well as undoubtedly inferior managers. Villa and Norwich who came down last year are off the pace and seem unlikely to challenge.
At present, if NUFC dipped out of the automatic spots, the other contenders at the time of writing would be Reading, Huddersfield and Sheffield Wednesday.
So now you’ve got promotion via the play-offs sewn up, you’ve got an FA Cup final to come. A chance for a first major trophy since 1969, to emulate those great FA Cup winning sides of the 1950s. And you’ve got possibly the world’s greatest cup manager to try and mastermind this. You wouldn’t back against one of Rafa’s sides on a big occasion.
Imagine the scenes if Rafa and the team pulled it off, I think it’s fair to say the victory parade would be unparalleled. The entire City would turn out and the party would be something to behold.
Don’t forget this is a club that had the fourth highest attendance on Boxing Day, for a game that was also on TV. It would inspire a generation of youngsters of Tyneside and give the vast majority of supporters that first memory of proper glory.
Or, you could just settle for coming 2nd.