We have asked a number of our regular/irregular contributors various question about Newcastle United – the events of last season and moving forward.
Up this time is Ben Armstrong:
What would be your ideal first Newcastle Premier League fixture of the season?
I think a home match is obviously the best alternative, but in terms of who against, that’s more tricky.
It’s important to start with a win, then again, it’s important to go into every match trying to win, regardless of when it is in the season.
So, I’d say the best opposition would be a top four team, and actually, probably Chelsea.
I wouldn’t like to face Arsenal, I imagine Wenger will restructure in the summer, given his extension, so I’d rather play them a bit later in the season, hopefully when they are failing miserably and the fans are on his back again.
Manchester City might be good, but Pep will be desperate to get off to a good start after not having the best of seasons this time round.
The same goes for Man Utd and Mourinho. Tottenham would be a good shout, but we seem to be better at beating them at their place (Wembley?).
So, with there being absolutely no other top teams about (I count Liverpool as close rivals), Chelsea represent a good bet. They’ll still be basking in title-winning glory, plus Benitez has something to prove against them. Also, they may not have finished their recruitment, whereas I’m hoping we will have. So, Chelsea.
Christian Atsu signing permanently a positive?
Of course! I’d like to welcome him into our club. He showed signs last season of being the kind of skilful winger we, at times, need. I don’t see him as the first name on the teamsheet however, I think when he plays he’ll have earned it, I still expect another winger to come in.
Three words to describe how you feel about Newcastle United at the minute?
Optimistic: I haven’t felt this relaxed about an upcoming season in some time. I trust Rafa unendingly, and I will be happy with whoever he decides to bring in, because the man has a history of success. So while I don’t have unrealistic expectations of bursting back into Europe at the first time of asking, I do see the future as bright under Benitez.
Worried: It’s been a little while since Mike Ashley put his foot in it, and like living in a flood basin, it’s only a matter of time before we have to don our wellies and start shovelling excrement out the front room. I hope that the only source of exasperated headbanging is from the megalomaniac dunderhead over the pond, and not ours.
Proud: We have, as fans, endured a lot, but our unfaltering love of our club regularly has supporters of other teams/sports perplexed, angry, jealous. We really are the best fans in the country, and beyond, and we should remind ourselves of that from time to time.
Which of the current Newcastle squad would you be 100% happy with being first choice when the season kicks off?
Well, 100%, none, because I’d like to draft in a starting line-up handpicked from Barca, Real and Juve.
Given that that is unlikely, I’d say that there are only a small handful I could say are potentially successful premiership players, not to say that the others couldn’t hold their own.
Of the current bunch I’d say Shelvey has the range and (footballing) intelligence necessary, I think Clark and Lascelles have shown themselves to be perfectly capable, however I feel Mangala or someone similar would be an upgrade. Hayden has a great future, he may not quite be there yet, but I would have him in there. Gayle has had his critics in the prem, but I think (hope) this is the season he makes a mark, so I’d have him in there. I’m also a fan of Yedlin, definitely more for his attacking than defending, but he has the pace to scare left-backs, which is exactly what we need.
Other than that, Ritchie needs to do more to convince, Perez is in and out, I need to see more consistency from him. Dummett barely put a foot wrong, so while I’m happy for him to continue, I think we can do better. I don’t think anyone else has really done enough to convince me that they are pedigree premier league players.
The three positions most in need of strengthening?
We need a strong, goalscoring striker, a creative no. 10, and a(nother) new left back. (For what it’s worth, I think we also need an imposing centre back, back-up right back, and two wingers)
How did the Championship season turn out compared to what you imagined would happen?
Nervy. I was expecting more of a party like we had last time. It was far less enjoyable than I remembered! Having said that, it was still nice to approach every match expecting to win, and with reason.
Who were Newcastle’s three key players last season?
Shelvey. When he played, and when he played well, we were an altogether different team.
It’s a strange one but I’d say Gouffran. He seemed to be the barometer for success, in that, if he was playing, we won, if he wasn’t, we didn’t (as much). He scored some very important goals too.
Finally, Gayle. Top scorer, played the number nine position with all the respect it deserves. It’s a shame his injuries made the season nervier than it should have been.
Newcastle Captain? Jamaal Lascelles, a different one from the current set of players, or a new one ideally needs to be brought in?
Jamaal is a leader. He is young, but he isn’t afraid to shout orders at more experienced teammates, and as he matures I think he will only get better. So, despite his shortcomings, I would let him keep it.
What he has more than almost any other player at the club, is raw passion, passion for the game, and increasing passion for the club. He also has a good head on his shoulders. Give him the confidence boost and respect of remaining captain.
Would you keep Anita and/or Gouffran?
I think both of them did enough last season to earn new deals. Anita is a very clever player and versatile. He may lack strength but he makes up for that in temerity.
Having said that, I think we can do better. Gouffran found his scoring boots last season, and I’ve said it 1,000 times (just not here), he’s a striker, it’s what he’s best at. I’d keep him another year as a back up.
How would you rate (out of 10) Rafa Benitez last season on:
9/10. People might point to Hanley or Sels as failures but I’d disagree. Sels actually performed well in terms of his stats, he just couldn’t handle crosses or long balls (so I’d still sell him ASAP). Hanley was brought in as back up and when he played, he didn’t put a foot wrong, I feel a bit sorry for him really! The transfers of Murphy and Gayle turned out to be master strokes. In fact, I’m tempted to give him a 10.
I am in no position to judge Rafa’s tactics. We won the league, therefore his tactics were perfect. If he made mistakes, they weren’t because he hadn’t planned and carefully thought about what he wanted to do, unlike some managers I could think of. 10/10
Okay, we didn’t walk the league, and we rarely tore teams apart, but we won a hell of a lot of games, and we scored more goals than any other team, some of them belters. So, again, I can’t knock the entertainment. Besides, that final game of the season…phew! 9/10
9.5/10 I don’t think there is much more Rafa could have done last season. He was up against some very good teams, with managers we know and love (Hughton, ok, just Hughton), and it was not an easy league to win. But he did. He has left me feeling like a 14-year-old again, counting the days until the season kicks off again.
If no signings (other than Atsu) where would this current squad/team finish in the Premier League?
Low. We need new signings. We’ll get them too. The squad assembled last season was intended for a certain job, which was done, and now we need a new one for a new job. I don’t think we would be relegated again but I couldn’t see us breaking into single figures in the league table.
With level of signings you anticipate, how high do you think Newcastle can aim next season?
I think what we all have to understand is that our anticipation of signings has to be tempered by the realism of the market in the premier league. We are delighted to have a pot of cash to spend, but then, so does every other team.
All that means is that players who would have cost £10m-15m last year will now cost £20-30m, at least, so price does not necessarily correspond with calibre. Also, a lot of the comments I read from fans on social media about who they want to sign are driven entirely by rumours that mysteriously emerge on twitter, which are then retweeted by hungry hordes to the extent that they are picked up by ‘genuine’ media outlets. These rumours become fact, and before you know it, everybody has Juan-Pablo Gizzapota-Piscin as their number one favourite player and inundate him with pictures of bridges. He then moves to Chelsea for £89m and is immediately loaned to Genk for three seasons.
So, the level of signings I anticipate are probably second tier, maybe even third, but crucially, Benitez picks. We may never have heard of them, but I guess that with his knowledge and contacts, Benitez will bring in genuine talent. So, I can see us in the top half, probably hovering around 8th depending on whether Everton have an on or off year. What will be pivotal will be the following summer, when we can either try to push on and get back into Europe, or consolidate and risk losing Rafa. The short answer is, about 8th.
If 10 was Mike Ashley totally changing his outlook on running Newcastle and 0 not at all, how far do you think he has moved (if at all) in the 15 months Rafa Benitez has been at St James Park?
One. I don’t think anybody changes Mike Ashley’s outlook other than Mike Ashley. I think he may be feeling a little more like he did when he first arrived and perhaps having learned some lessons. I think Rafa’s strong personality and winning mentality have perhaps given Ashley a little bit of reassurance that his club is in safe hands, but if the right deal came along, or the right offer was made, I don’t think we’d see any change in Mike Ashley.
Would you have preferred Sunderland in Premier League or Championship next season?
I like to laugh at Sunderland as much as the next man, and I do get a certain amount of smug satisfaction from seeing them flounder, but I must admit that the derbies were always the first matches I looked for on the fixture list, despite our recent record.
It would have been an opportunity to put them back in their place; but unfortunately, they managed to do that themselves. Unless we meet them in the cup, I can’t see another derby happening for a good long time, maybe decades.
Mike Ashley promised a state of the art training complex some years ago, which was said to be crucial for Newcastle to compete in the future, yet not even a start on it yet. How important is it that this happens?
It’s important, of course, having the best facilities gives our trainers the best chance. Having said that, what is more important is having the right people inside that training facility. I think what they have is pretty decent (although I haven’t been there), and as long as they have a pitch, some rope, some tyres, a bunch of cones and a set of goalposts and nets, I reckon the best coaches and trainers would be able to build a winning side. It’s more about attitude than running machines.
When announcing the club accounts in 2016, Newcastle United stated that Sports Direct were going to start and pay a market rate for all of SD’s free advertising. The 2017 accounts indicated that this hadn’t happened. Would it be a major step forward in Mike Ashley’s relationship with the club if this happened?
It’s an interesting argument.
On one hand, he owns the club, and if he wants to paint it blue and red then that’s his decision. On the other hand, he doesn’t own the club, we do, he is just a custodian and as such should do everything possible to benefit it. That includes paying for sponsorship.
I don’t know how much of his own personal money, or SD’s money, he has put into the club over and beyond what it generates itself, if it is on average equal to or more than the market rate for advertising then I don’t have too much of a problem with it. If not, then it’s something that would definitely go some way to healing a few scars.
I think there is a lot more Mike Ashley can do to appease us fans, but since Rafa has arrived he hasn’t strayed too far beyond what we expect a normal disconnected owner to do, and if he can manage to continue without dropping any massive eggy farts then I think he will slowly be forgotten.
Sadly, I can’t see that happening.
(All contributions from Newcastle fans welcome, send articles (as well as ideas/suggestions) to [email protected])