I was asked to answer these Newcastle United questions for The Mag.
I thought that as well as answering them myself, I would put them to my Uncle (Craig) – another lifelong Toon fan, who I often attend games with.
Hopefully this gives the perspective, on the club, from two different generations of Newcastle United supporters.
I am a season ticket holder, while Craig attends roughly half of the home of the games each season. We sat down and discussed the questions and came up with this.
How does this promotion team compare to the 2009/10 one?
Craig: Pound for pound the 2009/10 team was stronger. Simpson, Coloccini, Jonas, Enrique, Carroll proved themselves to be top premier league players. Nicky Butt had won a champions league medal. This is without taking into account the likes of Nolan and Barton. I find it difficult to see more than 5, possibly 6, of the present squad having long-term top flight careers.
Jack: I see Craig’s view as slightly harsh but there is no doubt we need 4 or 5 signings minimum this summer. The class of 2010 only needed one major signing before embarking on a season that saw them stay up reasonably comfortably, even when selling the best player halfway through the season. I would agree with the statement that the squad from 09/10 was much stronger, demonstrated by only losing 4 Championship games all season.
Somebody who deserves more credit for last season than they maybe have received?
Craig: I don’t think anybody at the start really thought Gouffran would be a first choice, he nailed down a place on the left, and managed to chip in with some really crucial goals against Norwich, Villa and Derby. They were big goals that actually mattered. Also, I feel the need to mention Anita who was solid at right-back.
Jack: I think for Darlow to come in after not starting the season first choice, and be pretty solid right through the campaign, albeit with a few hiccups along the way, was remarkable. He made some big saves and deserves more credit than most observers seem to be giving him. But I also agree Gouffran was one of the most consistent in the team and this needs to be recognised by the fans.
How would you rate (out of 10) Rafa Benitez last season on…
Craig : Clark, Gayle and Ritchie were outstanding and Hayden also did exactly what was required in that division and can only be considered successful. However, beyond these buys; Hanley, Sels, Lazaar, Gamez and Diame brought very little. I think Diame was particularly disappointing, it looked like he would be a key signing. 7/10
Jack: It’s hard to disagree with what Craig’s said but I do think that Gayle was not only a success but actually exceeded my expectations. In the summer, before even the friendlies, I had wanted Mitro to take the number 9 shirt. How ridiculous does that sound now! I also thought Murphy was a useful signing and remember many ridiculed that purchase at the time. 7/10
Craig: He sets us up to play on the counter-attack, which is the Benitez way. You can hardly complain that they lack aggression or desire at home when he has managed every side in his career in a pretty similar fashion. You get what you pay for; a very methodical, counter-attacking team which can be a little dull. I am one of the fans who always find winning entertaining. Regardless of style. 9/10
Jack: I often thought a midfield of Colback, Shelvey and Ritchie was pedestrian going forward, and the build-up play was too slow when they were played together. In terms of defensive shape, we were well set-up for virtually every game. Particularly away from home. In some of the home games I thought we were tactically quite cautious and this led to some real struggles in games we could have won more comfortably. After a full season I still believe Rafa is one of the strongest tactical managers in the country. 8/10
How did the Championship season turn out compared to what you imagined would happen?
Craig: We lost more matches than I would have expected. I didn’t anticipate how hard a slog so many of the home games would be. In saying that, the away form was very impressive, not only the results but the stress-free nature of the victories at Huddersfield, QPR, Derby, Leeds and Barnsley. At the start of the season I predicted Mitrovic and Perez would rip the division apart. For different reasons both had disappointing seasons. On reflection though I always thought we would go up, by hook or by crook.
Jack: I predicted at the start of the season that it would be much tougher than the last promotion campaign, but I also knew we wouldn’t need to be as good as then, and still go up. I thought we could be in a nip and tuck race for second, and considering we were pretty much in the top two all season, it went better than I expected. Having said that, the run of form from Fulham at home onwards was poor, and to limp over the line towards promotion was a surprise.
If no signings (other than Atsu) where would this current squad/team finish in the Premier League?
Craig: I don’t think they are as good as the team that went down. They have better character but Gini, Janmaat, Townsend and Sissoko are a cut above these as players. Even with Rafa I think it would be hard to imagine them outside the bottom five. They are not even as good as the team that went down in 2009, so I find it hard to say I see them staying up.
Jack: The team would struggle and I think would probably go down. Thankfully, I hope some lessons have been learnt, and we won’t be in that situation. I am optimistic signings will me made, to at least give us a chance of a positive season. In 2010/11 (our first season back after promotion last time) essentially only one first XI signing was made, Tiote. If we had a similar window this time it will be a major struggle.
With level of signings you anticipate, how high do you think Newcastle can aim next season?
Craig: Mid-table. I anticipate six new signings, of whom four will need to be first picks in the XI and an upgrade in key positions.
Jack: What’s wrong with aiming just to get to 40 points and stay up. I don’t see why people feel ashamed with this target just for one season. It should not be our permanent aim just to survive, but every club who gets promoted should just focus on survival and we should be no different. As I have said, I think key signings will be made as Rafa also takes the realistic view.
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?
Craig: On the basis that Ashley is not an idiot, the relegations clearly cost him a considerable amount of money, I think he learnt from the 2009 relegation and he organised the club so it wouldn’t be repeated. In truth, I don’t think Pardew would have got us relegated whatever his failings, he would have got a lot more out of McClaren’s team that what McClaren himself managed. So I think Ashley’s outlook will have changed slightly but I don’t kid myself that this will lead to a push for European football. It’s modest ambition at best. I think Rafa will focus on building a side to get into the top half of the league but take a much more positive view on all cup competitions. If I had to put a number I would go for a 5.
Jack: The appointment of Benitez alone, I think, represented a change in outlook. In the previous season when Pardew scampered, Ashley didn’t think he needed to appoint a proper manager and we had the hell of Carver. To go from that to appointing a top class manager in little over 12 months, has to be a positive step. Since Rafa has been appointed he seems to have had enough control/influence to keep him happy. I would say a 4.
How do you rate local media coverage of Newcastle these days?
Craig: I think British sports journalism in general is pitiful, Sports journalists obsess with transfers and the personality of managers. Hardly any attention or discussion is given to tactics.
The Chronicle analysis never goes beyond attack and defence. It’s not worth reading, albeit I do. God knows why. The constant nonsense of transfer targets. It becomes obvious they don’t even know what position the targets play in. That is possibly because they recognise positions from squad numbers or line-ups rather than studying the tactics.
Jack: The Chronicle in particular are in a difficult position while Ashley owns the club. They have to stay onside with the club, while also highlighting fans’ concerns. It’s a tough balancing act that people often ignore. Equally though I agree with Craig, in that the coverage of transfer links borders on ridiculous.
How do you rate national media coverage of Newcastle these days?
Craig: I like Louise Taylor in The Guardian, even though she takes some stick. I also rate Martin Hardy when he is covering the game for The Times, it’s worth reading.
Jack: We remain a club that is poorly represented in the national media. Many pundits/journalists still peddle the same old tripe of high fan expectations round here (Just to get past the first two rounds of the FA Cup one year would be nice, let alone a Wembley trip). In terms of pundits, no one except Shearer seems to really ‘get’ the reality of Newcastle fan expectations.
What would be your ideal first Newcastle Premier League fixture of the season?
Craig: I actually don’t think it matters, and I suspect the way Rafa sets the side out, most games will be competitive. I guess I would want to avoid Chelsea and Spurs away. Other than that I am not that bothered.
Jack: I disagree with Craig here, I think getting away to a good start is of even more importance when you are newly promoted. Both times we have gone down, we have had shocking starts. My ideal fixture list for August would be to avoid the other promoted clubs and, most importantly, the top six from this season. Stoke City (H), Crystal Palace (A), Bournemouth (H) would be lovely. We will need to a win a game before October this time.
Three words to describe how you feel about Newcastle United at the minute?
Craig: Cautiously Optimistic. (Only need two)
Jack: Excited, rejuvenated, curious.
Mike Ashley is pushing ahead with a development on land opposite the Gallowgate End which almost certainly will make it impossible to ever expand St James Park in the future (This will only profit him and not the football club). What are your thoughts, especially considering Newcastle averaged over fifty one thousand in the Championship.
Craig: I would prefer it not to happen but I suspect it is a little bit of a red herring. The obvious stand to increase for capacity is the East Stand. As for any development of the Gallowgate Stand, I would not want to be in the back row of that even if it got us up to 70,000.
Jack: Several clubs around us in the PL are currently expanding their stadiums. If we don’t want to get left behind, expansion will need to happen at some point. Our stadium still remains a major selling point of this club, to players from all over Europe, and it still needs to be in five years time. If we ever got close again to the Keegan/Robson standards on a consistent basis, we could easily fill a 65,000 St James Park. Developments that hurt expansion potential need to be stopped, as quickly as possible.
How positive do you feel about progress being made underneath first team level at Newcastle?
Craig: I think it’s very hard to predict young players coming through and having a career in the Premier League. With the money available and the cost of relegation, make it inevitable that only the absolutely outstanding, virtual freaks of nature will get an opportunity. It strikes me that if you ignore Dummett, the last young player to truly be given a chance was Carroll , and he is the outstanding centre-forward of his type, in the last 10-12 years. It’s not just at Newcastle, it is a problem for every Premier League club. Michael Keane could go for £25 Million this summer but you can’t be shocked by that. I really rate Hayden but I’m not sure I would be picking him in the Arsenal team.
Jack: At the end of the day, while I like to see young players come through they have to be good enough. Personally. I believe Dummett is nowhere near good enough (I know some disagree). I have always, if you could guarantee me an FA Cup win, with a team of 11 non-British players, I would take it without even thinking. I think if they are honest, the majority of fans would be the same, wouldn’t they?
If the players care about the shirt, I don’t care where they come from. For those who feel this a really important issue, they shouldn’t get too worried. Historically a high percentage of the best English players, come from the North-East region, and until the game truly ever opens up to the middle-classes I can’t see that changing. The North-East is a hotbed of football, so it will always produce quality young players. The key is for Newcastle United to make sure these players don’t slip through the net (Charlton, Shearer and Carrick all spring to mind).
What are your hopes/expectations for the atmosphere at St James Park next season and what could be done to improve it?
Craig: It would be better if it was bit noisier and personally, it would be better if I wasn’t on the very edge of my nerves for the entire match. But it’s hard to see the atmosphere improving dramatically, when you are sometimes watching quite cautious, structured football from both teams. In the Premier League, forgetting the likely top six, virtually everybody else will be wanting to sit deep and play on the counter-attack. That’s the nature of the league when the cost of relegation is so high.
Jack: I always think fans in general get too obsessed with atmosphere. Some expect every ground they visit to be like Napoli or Borussia Dortmund. I find it particularly funny if away fans chant ‘this is a library’ just five minutes into a game, expectations of atmosphere in the all-seater era, are often ridiculous.
Some fans class a game as “quiet” if there is not non-stop chanting from both sets of fans. The atmosphere at St James’ did seem to have declined slightly in the pre-Rafa seasons but would it not at most clubs considering how poor our form was.
When we lost week after week under Carver two years ago, the atmosphere was awful, but wouldn’t that be expected. I truly believe atmosphere correlates with performance, and this is at nearly every club, not just Newcastle United. I must mention though the work of Gallowgate Flags has been incredible, and the atmosphere has stayed pretty good this season for a lot of home games. I think the fan groups are a huge part of this. If the club truly want to make the atmosphere consistent they should move every fan that wants to sing towards the Gallowgate End. Having a singing section in the gods of SJP makes no sense. Noise needs to start lower down and will then grow, that will make the stadium feel noisier and improve the acoustics.
Having said all this, I think when the game is good and the crowd are involved, there are still few grounds in the country that rock like St James Park. It’s certainly louder than others I have visited.
How optimistic are you about Rafa Benitez staying at Newcastle United for the foreseeable future?
Craig: He’s a great coach and he is managing a big club, but I think he will expect to see continual progress, and this will require significant sums of money being spent, season-after-season. I’d like to think he would stay but we could be vulnerable to another club that was prepared to throw money at a challenge, and this could be across any of the major European leagues.
Jack: If he gets backed I cannot see another English club he would realistically move too. If in a year’s time Liverpool’s Klopp project went pear-shaped, I suppose I would be nervous about them trying to poach him back to Merseyside. Otherwise, I am pretty optimistic that the ‘Rafalution’ is here to stay! (***Touches wood).
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