‘Without Rafa Benitez we’d have done a Villa’
As Newcastle United enter the final stretch of this (hopefully) promotion campaign, we have asked some of our contributors about the past, present and future…
Leazes Park Ender gives his thoughts:
How has the season panned out compared to what you expected before a ball was kicked?
I was genuinely nervous that the manager may not adapt to the kind of approach needed to conquer the Championship. How wrong I was. In my mind’s eye I pictured promotion in 2017 was one of staying in touch with the leaders and then striking late on to bag a top two spot. Instead we’ve been the hunted, not the hunters.
I don’t mind admitting to a knee jerk reaction after the opening losses to Fulham and Huddersfield but there were always going to be bumps in the road and points dropped that should have been bagged. When you think of those games we could be many more points clear than what we are.
However, on balance, all fans would have snapped hands off for 78 points on the board with just eight games to go.
How confident are you on a scale 0-100% that Newcastle will get automatic promotion?
My gut feeling is 70% certain that Newcastle United will end the season in one of the top two places. The certainty would be higher but this is NUFC we’re talking about and you just never know in football what can happen. A return to the Premier League is in the players’ grasp. The manager has the talents to get them on track and complete the job. It might be a bit closer than we’d like and there’s no room for relying on others to slip up.
How important has Rafa Benitez been to Newcastle standing at the top of the table?
Benitez has been immense. He’s pulled together a club that was in a right state 12 months ago. Without Rafa I am firmly of the view we’d have done a Villa – halfway up the league with a bang average coach. It is no mean feat to turn around a relegated side and get them battling at the top of the Championship straight away. Yes, Hughton managed it, but for that to happen again has been astounding. The manager has sorted us out defensively and offensively. People will talk of some errors he’s made here and there but he’s not a man to question. I just hope he can finish the job off.
What did you make of no January signings?
The lack of arrivals in the Winter window was a huge let down. It was a chance to beef the squad up and really push on from where we were. It highlighted the endemic issue with the stewardship of Mike Ashley, footballing decisions often overruled when common sense stares him in the face. There can be no doubt Benitez was cheesed off and a promise had been reneged on about giving the manager a final say on footballing matters. Seeds of discontent sewn for the summer? Maybe, but let’s get there first.
The big talking point was the bid to bring Andros Townsend back to the club and the deal ultimately fell through. I was all in favour of it, despite the way he left. He’s a quality wide player. Freddy Shepherd said that that deal was a bad one and made no financial sense. Do you know what, he may have been right. Palace were asking for too much of us and the fee was maybe a bit silly.
A vital game tomorrow and everybody fit, which 11 current NUFC players would you select?
Darlow has earned his chance to remain in goal that’s for sure. The back four will be dictated by injuries given what’s happened with Clark and Hanley, if they both don’t make it then Rafa will have to turn to MBemba to pair with Lascelles, a player who needs to find some form once again. In midfield it has to be a fully fit Shelvey/Hayden axis, with Ritchie, Gouffran and Diame in there and Dwight Gayle up front.
With Murphy carrying a a calf strain, Mitrovic comes back onto the bench fresh from his goal for Serbia, but make no mistake, he’s been a massive let down in a division we all thought he’d tear apart. Perez is better coming into a game from the bench, given his form can be so inconsistent: brilliant one week, terrible the next. We need him to focus and play well when called upon. I don’t have him down as a starter but I think he’s a key player, along with Atsu.
How worried are you, if at all, that Rafa may have problems with Mike Ashley in the summer?
There were clearly some issues behind the scenes over January so it’s a worry for all fans, given a Rafa walkout would lead to an implosion. Ashley’s ability to mess the club up when well placed is a common theme of his time as owner. He’s been an absentee landlord of late but there was talk he used his veto in January and it angered Benitez.
All managers have to work within a budget though, so maybe too much has been made of this? The real worry will be if promises over a summer budget are broken. Without that trust then Rafa may feel he’s taken the club as far as he can. That said, I firmly believe Benitez genuinely loves managing NUFC. His heart maybe ruled his head when he opted to stay amid the fan adulation of May 2016, but Newcastle is, if anything, a big name and at the moment it feels a good fit for him.
Which five Newcastle players would you keep to go into the Premier League?
Perez, Lascelles, Shelvey, Ritchie, Gayle. There is also a list of ‘maybes’ who you’d think might do a job in the Prem – Diame, Atsu, Mitrovic, Mbemba, Lazaar, Anita.
Which five Newcastle players would not be able to hack it in the top tier?
Hanley, Dummett, Colback, Gouffran, Murphy. That said, I feel sorry for Dummett in particular, as he can often be harshly criticised. In the case of Gouffran, you’d think he isn’t right for the Prem, but his experience and Renaissance under Rafa is food for thought. Colback is a squad player in the Prem.
If promoted, how many of the starting 11 next season would need to be new signings for you to be confident of no relegation worries?
The first team needs at least five or six new players to make a fist of it in the Premier League. Anything less than that and we’ll be flirting with another relegation battle. Most established clubs in the top flight always have a sensible budget every summer window. Clubs that stand still inevitably get sucked into a basement battle.
In order, what positions would need to be strengthened, the most necessary first?
A top quality wide player or playmaker is needed to really make us tick and some sort of enforcer to sit in front of the back four and hold the midfield together. They need to recruit a cutting edge centre forward who can get double figures in the Premier League. Then the back four will need new options at full back and a new centre half to pair up with Lascelles.
Generally agreed that the atmosphere is usually poor at St James Park this season. What could be done to improve that?
Over the years I’ve been to a fair few games when the noise has been genuinely awesome, spine tingling stuff. Then there are those games when it’s flat. The great John Gibson suggested it’s not the fans but the players who need to give the crowd reasons to stir into life, a good example would be the Norwich game when we won 4-3 amid injury time drama. That was a cacophony of noise.
This season has been a mix of anxiety and complacency on the terraces. The home faithful maybe a bit too expectant, and if it doesn’t go right it becomes a snooze. At the end of the day, football fans the world over can get fickle.
The atmosphere issue might be something that simply can’t be remedied and we may have to live with it. As I’ve gotten older I do admit I often like to study the game before having a sing along. The club are mad not to have a singing section. That needs to be brought back.
The Gallowgate flags initiative has been a success in generating atmosphere around kick off, so hopefully that will continue next season.
One thing I’m not in favour of is this new rule where away fans have to have at least one section seated next to the pitch. Hopefully NUFC have an exemption on that one and from what I have read that will be the case – if we go up.
You can follow the author on Twitter @DavePunton
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