I am lucky to be young enough that I am not able to remember Newcastle United in the second tier for consecutive seasons.
After this season, I know just how lucky I am.
After Monday, I also now know the wait for this horrible inevitably will continue a while yet- thank god.
It has not been easy this year, even though it has been mission achieved in the end. A lot was made throughout the season of the manner of promotion and a lot of people sat around me would delight in saying “I’m not even bothered about winning the title, just promotion”, as if they had come up with a truly personal viewpoint, that no one else in SJP had thought before.
In reality, I think all of us would have taken promotion whichever way it came, particularly considering we won this league’s title only seven years ago. Now our return to the top flight has been confirmed we can start to compare the two successful promotion campaigns and look at both similarities and differences ahead of a crucial summer. People say the league is stronger now than it was last time we went up but I don’t really buy that. The quality always seems to be fairly inconsistent in the Championship, to me anyway.
Clearly the class of 16/17 is not of the same standard as the squad that last won promotion at the first attempt. Nor did they have to be. We are talking about a Hughton side that had promotion sewn up by March, the title won with two still to play, and broke the 100 points barrier. Not many teams do that and the chances of the Rafa side repeating that were always going to be slim.
This was rooted in the fact Rafa was, rightly, building this team specifically for the Championship. He knew how the likes of Townsend, Sissoko, Janmaat and Wijnaldum could be sold to create huge funds, and that he could sign players almost purpose-built for winning promotion, like Matt Ritchie, Daryl Murphy and Grant Hanley (some were more successful than others).
In contrast, Chris Hughton was slightly fortunately given a Premier League ready squad, albeit in strange circumstances. It is easy to forget just how chaotic the club was in the summer of 2009, every week Ashley was rumoured to be selling, with a new manager expected to come in and take over. The silver lining though was it allowed Hughton to not be under real pressure to sell players, once those leaving on a ‘bosman’ had already departed.
Only Martins, Bassong and Beye departed prior to the season getting underway, Martins having struggled to nail down a starting place in the relegation season, Duff then followed them out of the door.
The only incomings were Danny Simpson (on loan) and the re-signing of Peter Lovenkrands who had joined the previous season, and yet despite the Squad being thin, Hughton had a side that could dominate games and a unity created through the adversity of the summer. In many ways the pre-season was a blessing in disguise, even though it was chaotic.
I have, and will, always like Chris Hughton as a manager and a bloke, but it is hard to disagree when saying Benitez had it much tougher than Hughton.
This season we had the whole summer with Rafa in charge and his plans been formulated. With so much to do, in hindsight it should have been expected that we were not fully ready for the early start to the campaign, leading to two sluggish losses at the start of the season. One of the first blips we had to contend with during a bumpy road.
In contrast the only real dip experienced by Hughton’s side came in October, going four games without a win, including back-to-back defeats to Nottingham Forest and Scunthorpe. Had it not been for a stoppage time winner from Kevin Nolan in the next game, at home to Doncaster, it would have been five games. Instead Hughton was rightfully given a permanent contract as manager, and just about everything else went right for the rest of the season.
It has obviously been a lot less straightforward this season. To be completely honest, we have been pretty poor since the superb run that saw us take 7 points out of 9 from our nearest challengers, all away from home. That mini-run has been decisive in the end but equally, we have pretty much limped over the line since. However, perhaps the most crucial difference between the seasons, can explain why.
The lack of investment Rafa received in January undoubtedly made things harder than they needed to be, particularly with Shelvey and Gayle missing as many games as they have.
Hughton was able to bring in players to pad out his squad. Admittedly he did not spend the previous summer, but being able to bring in the likes of Williamson, Best and Routledge gave him the options he needed to press on and get the league wrapped up as soon as possible. Had these players not come in, the 100 point barrier would probably not have been broken and the title race may have ended up a lot closer.
Even if this season does end up with us coming second to Brighton, I don’t think any minor disappointment is at all justified. Each season is different, and under the circumstances can anyone really complain at going up with two games to spare. Those expecting us to walk the league, merely because a world class manager was in the dugout, don’t really understand how football works.
Hopefully Rafa can now make the gains needed to replicate the 2010/11 season and secure us in the Premier League again next season. Maybe even throw in a cup-run if we are good.
Purely for argument/discussion purposes, below is my combined XI (4-4-1-1) of the two most recent promotion campaigns. In mine, only three of the current side make it. Feel free to comment with your own.
Manager: Rafa Benitez
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