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 Down Under Mag:

What would be your ideal first Newcastle Premier League fixture of the season?

From a personal point of view it will be great to kick the season off with an Aussie Mags meet-up at the Sherlock, so anything that is a decent kick-off time – i.e. NOT a 4pm Sunday kick-off.

Maybe a Burnley or Watford at home to ease us into things…knowing us we’ll pull Man City or Chelsea away. It’s going to be a tough season so getting off to a winning start would be a huge boost and help with any last minute player buys.

Christian Atsu signing permanently a positive?

On the one hand we’ve now spent money and not actually strengthened from what we had for promotion. However, I think he was definitely worth keeping, a decent player who showed glimpses of some good potential and a good attitude as well.  If he develops under Rafa like Hayden should then we have got a good player for a very reasonable fee. Certainly better than some we have at the club so a no brainer to keep him.

Three words to describe how you feel about Newcastle United at the minute?

Cautious, hopeful and nervous.

Which of the current Newcastle squad would you be 100% happy with being first choice when the season kicks off?

Shelvey, Gayle, Ritchie and Clark would be my first names on the team sheet with Lascelles and Elliott edging in. For me Dummett as well, despite his critics I think he is capable of holding down a regular spot until we get better and we could then worry about other positions as more of a priority.  All other positions up for grabs to new signings or for current squad members to step up and prove themselves.

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The three positions most in need of strengthening?

Another goalscorer (most likely a loan signing), a winger and a centre-back. Basically, I think we need pace and height added along with some quality.

How did the Championship season turn out compared to what you imagined would happen?

Better than I expected, no matter how hyped up we were by the media I don’t think many would have expected us to go up as Champions given the total mess we were in when we went down.

Who were Newcastle’s three key players last season?

Clark, Shelvey and Ritchie…controversial that Gayle isn’t in there and no doubt his goals were a major part of our success BUT I think the three I named were proven to be a much bigger loss when they were out.

Newcastle Captain? Jamaal Lascelles, a different one from the current set of players, or a new one ideally needs to be brought in?

Unless there is a big problem in the dressing room then leave him in place.  The only issue for me is that your captain should be almost undroppable but if we strengthen the defence then I don’t know how I would feel with Clark being dropped over Lascelles.  There would be question marks over discipline for me giving it to Shelvey and not sure many others are ideally suited.

Would you keep Anita and/or Gouffran?

Anita yes – great squad player, versatile and always works his socks off. Gouffran – definitely no, hasn’t done enough and we should be looking at better even as a squad player if we want to push on, was very hit and miss with his performances in the Championship so I just can’t see him making the step up to the Premiership any easier..

How would you rate (out of 10) Rafa Benitez last season on:

Transfers – 9/10 

Did fantastically well in the market and turned a massive profit.  Offloaded dead wood and egos and got the players in to do the job.  Yes there were some flops but overall a very accomplished summer window and the likes of Clark, Gayle and Ritchie (even Murphy) more than make up for the misses like Selz and Gamez.

Tactics – 8/10

I toyed with a 9 for this.  While there has been a lot of criticism of Rafa’s tactics at times this season when we lost games, (and I agree we seemed too negative at home at times), I honestly think he has set us up for next season very well.  What would be the sense in going all guns blazing against Championship teams only to get steam rolled by top flight teams because we are all over the place.

What Rafa did was turn us into a team that was more solid defensively and very good on the counter…when we were in control of games we struggled, but how many of those are we going to have against the likes of Chelsea and Man City?  The fact he set us up to play when we conceded possession stats and needed to play on the break will hopefully not only have got the job done for the promotion campaign but will see us a lot more capable of handling next season as well with players more used to playing that style than trying to implement new tactics in this off-season!

Entertainment – 9/10 

We lost some games we should have won, we won games in a romp on occasion…it may not have been the free-flowing all-out attack of Keegan that some fans still think is a feasible way to play, but we finished the season with the joint top goals scored, the joint least goals conceded, the best goal difference in the league and won the league title in a last round shock that gave us all that long lost feeling of joy that only football can give you…that can’t be anything to complain about surely!?!?

Overall – 9/10

One of the highest rated managers in the world and we saw first hand why and to be honest I’m still not entirely sure how we managed to get him in the first place let alone keep him, given all that was wrong at the club.  Has already written his name into Geordie folklore and hopefully we’ve only just seen the beginning of what he can achieve with this club…over to you Mr Ashley.

Make no mistake about it, to wipe the slate clean and overhaul the squad we went down with to the point of not only getting promoted but finishing as Champions is nothing to be underestimated.  We may not have looked 100% convincing but with only one transfer window to right the wrongs of the previous 5 years you can’t fault it.

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If no signings (other than Atsu) where would this current squad/team finish in the Premier League?

Let’s be real with ourselves here, it would likely struggle.  The Rafa factor may get us in a safe spot and the first choice XI may be able to achieve safety but our squad depth would be a real concern as I don’t think our bench is capable of coming in and maintaining the quality for the top flight.  I’d say we would likely be in 17th or 18th.

With level of signings you anticipate, how high do you think Newcastle can aim next season?

With the premier league so close in the mid-to-low table end last time around if we can manage a good window and they slot straight in then we could easily be aiming for mid-table inching in to top half.  Beyond that though there is a massive gap and we aren’t delusional or unrealistic and won’t be demanding a Leicester style shock of winning the title no matter what some media outlets like to portray NUFC fans expectations as.

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?

Probably about a 5.  We certainly seem to be giving the manager his say and allowing him to do what he needs to do which is encouraging and a million miles away from what has gone on in the past…BUT it is still only to protect his investment so far and that doesn’t equal moving the club forward now we are back in the top flight.

The fact we turned a profit in the last summer window and Rafa didn’t get to spend a penny of that in January is still a cause for concern and much will come to fruition this summer as we see if Ashley is allowing the club to stand on its own budget and the manager to move forward, without being hamstrung by Carr and his interference and “bargain basement” only for profit buys.

Would you have preferred Sunderland in Premier League or Championship next season?

Unlike some, I want to play them every season…even more so now we have a competent manager at the helm and a group of players who actually seem to care.  The derby games were a highlight and there will be a gap without those next season.

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?

There’s probably been some element of holding off to see what happens and possibility of sales that have hampered any developments to help the club long-term.  To really push the club forward we need to invest in infrastructure just as much as players and coaches.  If we can get fantastic academy, training facilities and physio setup then it gives us the best possible chance of producing and improving players from within and also keeping those players fit and healthy (we can’t compete financially with the big spenders so producing our own players is more important than ever – even if they are sold they help generate profit to bridge the gap).

Hopefully the fact that he has given Rafa some trust and been repaid by short-term success means he will likely see the benefit of doing things properly and start to run the club as an actual football club with long-term processes in place rather than like one of his high-street stores.

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?

Leaving aside the financial implications, the P.R. boost for Ashley and the image shift at the club would be priceless if he means to carry on with the club and push us forward.  The money from advertising hoardings, as with season ticket money, is a drop in the ocean when compared to the TV revenue clubs get these days.

While it does still add up, it isn’t going to make or break the club…BUT it would signal intent to allow the club to stand on its own feet and continue a perception that Ashley has turned over a new leaf and instil new hope in the future of the club for all fans.  There’s a lot of bridge building to be done for some fans and this could well be a good start.

You can follow the author on Twitter @DownUnderMag

(All contributions from Newcastle fans welcome, send articles (as well as ideas/suggestions) to [email protected])