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Sunderland fans all laughed but now Rafa Benitez has had the last laugh

4 years ago

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 David Punton:

Somebody who deserves more credit for last season than they maybe have received?

This may sound crazy…but Rafa Benitez.

When he came in we were going down with a whimper. He took a broken football club and very nearly kept them up. The final points total in 2016 would have been enough to survive this year. Sunderland fans all laughed because we just missed out on survival but they failed to spot that the man had sparked a revival which has now been fully harnessed and it is now they who stare into the abyss.

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

Transfers: 7/10. He loses a few marks here due to the purchases of Sels, Lazaar and Gamez. Overall though the recruitment last summer was pretty darn good. He got the players who were able to do the job. The purchase of Ritchie was a masterstroke. He had to battle Charnley over the fee, but worth every single penny.

Tactics: 9/10. Rafa is a very tactically astute manager. Some of the away performances were excellent and if he can take that into the Premier League then the garden really does look rosy.

Entertainment: 6.5/10. Maybe I am scoring him a bit too low here but there was a bit of a running joke in large parts of the season that Newcastle were marching to promotion having barely played any swashbuckling football. Home form was a bit suspect and overly cautious. Rafa seems to love a tight game. I wish he’d take the handbrake off a bit more at St James’ Park. That said, we are a side that scored a lot of goals and didn’t concede many.

Overall: 9.5/10. Almost a perfect ten. This mark is deservedly high as he achieved his goal for the season – promotion – and then reeled Brighton in when all looked lost. He only use loses half a mark for the phases in the season when we were 5 or 6 clear at the top and got pegged back.

How does this promotion team compare to the 2009/10 one?

The class of 2017 is technically a better side than that of 2010.

The Carroll, Nolan, Barton axis had a tougher edge that made the season even more of a stroll than what we’ve just witnessed. I see more potential in the current crop to be developed, with a lower average age, but there is no doubt this current group needs more fresh blood than the last time we bounced back.

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

I expected a tough season and at times that is what we got. At other moments it looked quite easy-going. I suspected there was going to be clutch of other clubs down there who had their house in order and would be a major threat. That the tussle came down to Newcastle, Brighton and Huddersfield was a bit of a surprise.

I thought it was going to be Leeds and Sheff Wed who would be the dangers, but they flattered to deceive, though the latter of the two did the double over us. I never imagined we would lose home and away to Blackburn, a club in utter disarray.

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

If there isn’t investment in new players this summer then we’ll be looking at a real slog to get 40 points in the Premier League. However, as it stands, it looks like there will be money available for Rafa to build a better quality team.

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

A season of consolidation. Finish halfway up the table, anything above that is a bonus really. The season which has just ended saw a 15 point gap between 7th and 8th, so there is a league within a league. There is some dross floating about that bottom half of the Prem which we can target with the right tactics and investment in quality. As always, Rafa is the key to it all, very much like Bobby Robson’s time at the helm.

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?

It may irk some fans to say this but Ashley’s approval rating has risen a bit since March 2016. Deep distrust will always remain though. I’d say 6/10 on this one. He needs to stick with this approach for the long-term and maybe, just maybe, the wounds of the past can heal properly. It’s a big if.

How do you rate local media coverage of Newcastle these days?

The click bait approach to publishing means that some articles in the local newspapers can be bit irksome but the analysis from the sports writers are usually pretty good. I won’t name check who I think the best ones are. Special mention to the club’s own social media team. What’s they are doing now online with the website, video content and Twitter is a world away from the days of one sentence statements on the club website. The sports coverage on local TV is average, in my humble view.

How do you rate national media coverage of Newcastle these days?

The coverage from the national hacks George Caulkin and Martin Hardy is outstanding. Other national titles who run stories from London based hacks tend towards irksome, cliched and inaccurate coverage. We’re seen as the outpost near the Scottish border that’s a pain in the posterior to reach.

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

An away game – but not against one of the top six clubs. There will be no easy games though.

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

Daring to dream.

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.

It’s a massive shame this plan is going ahead when it kills off any hope of making that stadium even bigger under future owners who one day could be even more well off than Mr Ashley. It is still an iconic venue to play football, and there I also think 52,000 is about right, and maybe the ground doesn’t really need to be any bigger.

How positive do you feel about progress being made underneath first team level at Newcastle?

There seems a long way to go on this front. Other clubs in the Prem seem better equipped to bring through more young players, Everton and Chelsea are a great example.

There are claims that Benitez is seeking root and branch reform at every level as part of a long-term project. We will have to see how that goes. We’re in a different realm to the days when KK disbanded the reserve team. The club must keep working on links to grassroots football.

You only had to watch Michael Carrick’s testimonial at Manchester United to realise what a gem that was right under NUFC’s noses. How did they miss him? The lad bleeds black and white, is a class act, and he slipped the net.

What are your hopes/expectations for the atmosphere at St James Park next season and what could be done to improve it?

I’ve seen claims that the club is working with a fans’ group on establishing a singing section, which is a great idea as long as all the lads and lasses in that section behave themselves. The atmosphere at some games this season was a bit flat but at some points it as spine tingling. It’s up to the players to get the crowd going by playing some decent stuff.

You can follow the author on Twitter @DavePunton

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