The promising Newcastle United start to the Premier League season has come as a surprise to many, most of all to the innumerable pundits and ‘experts’ who tipped the Magpies to be battling the drop before the season began.
A squad devoid of any real star quality was deemed too weak to sustain a Premier League position by most. Lacking depth in key areas, and after two defeats from the first two matches, Newcastle looked to be fulfilling the prophecies of those in the punditry hot-seat.
However, as results began to pick up and the club began to rise up the table, it appeared as though Rafa’s men were starting to gain a foothold in the Premier League standings. A shock to plenty but not a surprise to those who carefully scrutinised Benítez’ recruitment over the past three transfer windows, dating back to the summer of 2016.
Part of United’s success in the second tier last term was down to exactly that; adequate recruitment which shifted away from the Mike Ashley blueprint of signing young players with potential for ‘bargain’ fees, only to be hopefully sold on for a profit at a later date.
Simply put, the Rafa Benitez blueprint – which has flown under the radar quite considerably – has been to buy characters, not football players. It is certainly an interesting take on the proverbial ‘Moneyball’ method.
It is often discussed that confidence alone is capable of winning football matches. Momentum is spoken about in the same breath, and that is commonplace in football where consecutive wins can lift an entire club, allowing them to exceed expectations and overcome their limitations. At Newcastle United, there are a number of different characters with the same goal – and that is their collective strength; character and ambition.
On more than one occasion in his pre-match programme notes, 23-year-old captain Jamaal Lascelles has stressed the fact that the squad does not have any star players or prima donnas. Players who simply view the club as a stepping stone have either been sold or ostracised by the management. In turn, that has created a dressing room of young, highly motivated and eager to learn professionals.
Isaac Hayden – when recently speaking to The Independent – stated that as a young player, to work under a manager like Rafael Benítez is worth its weight in gold. It is quite clear that the squad has a deep respect for their manager which demonstrates itself on the pitch. Hayden is one signing in particular that has stood out because of his character, on and off the field. On more than one occasion the England U-21 midfielder has visited, donated and helped out at the Newcastle West End Foodbank which provides a valuable, life-changing service to so many unfortunate families in the region.
Hayden is a member of the squad who acts and speaks with a wisdom and poise way beyond his years, and when discussing the Food Bank, summed up his understanding of why its service is so vital in an extremely astute manner:
“To be involved in this and to see this is eye-opening, and it certainly humbles you, I think it’s important to get involved in community work and find out a bit more about these things.”
It is clear to see that the 22-year-old Hayden is not simply a mercenary, merely picking up his wage.
He is a player and a person who is invested in the region and his work. This is the type of character that Rafa Benitez has either bought, or instilled into his tight-knit playing squad.
Appointed captain at the ripe old age of 22, Jamaal Lascelles has demonstrated what it means to be a skipper over the past fourteen months, leading his team towards the Championship title and into the top-half of the Premier League.
It is fitting that in Newcastle’s last home game, a sizeable banner by the fantastic ‘Wor Flags’ organisation was unfurled in the Gallowgate End. Clearly humbled by the gesture in his post-match press conference, Lascelles has done more than enough to warrant a commendation of that magnitude from the Newcastle’s faithful.
Never one to shy away from scrutiny or the hard-hitting questions, Lascelles’ rise from fringe player to club captain in a matter of months has been well-documented. One thing that cannot be stressed enough is the young England hopeful’s conduct on and off the pitch.
Always last off the pitch as he thanks every corner of St James Park following every home match. Always eager to speak to the club media or other journalists following a match, whether that be in victory or defeat, his attitude and character is first class, unlike the radio silence of previous captains in recent Newcastle United history.
The generic spiel that comes from many footballers nowadays is not something that is synonymous with Newcastle United’s captain, and having just signed a contract extension to 2023, it looks as though like many of his teammates that he is well and truly invested in the region and the club.
He’s picked up a number of yellow cards for dissent in his short Newcastle United career to date but nobody can accuse Matt Ritchie of not caring. The terrier-like performances of the Scottish international are an important example to the rest of the team that no matter where they play, they are required to cover every inch of grass for the black and white cause.
From living in a bedsit above a pub while on loan at Dagenham and Redbridge as a teenager, Ritchie knows what it means to have to work to reach the top level, and those sorts of character building experiences are what he attributes his work ethic to nowadays.
Regularly topping the ‘distance covered’ charts when he plays ninety-minutes, it isn’t hard to see why for anyone who watches Newcastle on a regular basis. For a small player, he has a considerable bark, and crucially a bite too, terrorising opposition players with a simple approach; a relentless desire to win the ball.
The snarling winger must be a nightmare and a blessing to play with, never letting his teammates slack off, while still being a technically brilliant footballer, akin to that of Roy Keane, albeit in a different position and with a slightly better behavioural record in comparison.
Never has his character been called into question like so many of his predecessors, particularly those who played in his position.
Two in particular spring to mind; Remy Cabella and Florian Thauvin. The former at least talked the talk but never really looked motivated or committed enough, and when the going got tough, took a back seat and ghosted through games. The latter simply did not want to be here and displayed that feeling clearly. Whether that’s more of an indictment of the Graham Carr recruitment strategy or Thauvin’s character is up for debate. Nevertheless, both players never looked close to becoming remembered fondly in a United shirt due to their respective characters. Matt Ritchie will not suffer this same fate.
The list of professionals with stellar characters on Newcastle’s books at the time of writing compared to two years ago is astounding. A brief scan over the squad list that began the 2015-16 season throws up only a few credible names who were perceived to give their all every time they stepped onto the pitch.
In comparison, now there are at least seven or eight names in the regular starting XI who many fans would consider to play for the shirt rather than their own personal and professional gain. As a fan of any football club, that is what you want as opposed to numerous mercenaries. The character of Newcastle’s current squad is far more important than their collective talent – which is something this they are not blessed with in abundance.
Moussa Sissoko – who repeatedly spoke of his admiration for Arsenal as a ‘beautiful club’, while still contracted to Newcastle, before comically moving to Tottenham in a desperate deadline day switch – is a prime example of the aforementioned mercenary. In part it was not entirely his fault as he was quite clearly sold a line by the club upon signing that Newcastle could be used as a platform for a bigger move in future. That however, did not mean it was perfectly fine to tout himself to other clubs when no bids had been made. It also didn’t condone performing only for televised games and when there was purported interest in his services from a bigger club.
Rob Elliot is another; not the most talented goalkeeper Newcastle have seen in the past few years but recently stated that Newcastle should no longer be seen as a stepping stone in players’ careers. This is something which is understandably encouraging to hear for those of a Newcastle United persuasion.
It is also a sentiment which is true of any club and a sign of a healthy work ethic and ethos around the squad.
Despite his shortcomings in typical Premier League quality, Elliot is a hard-working individual who most certainly is invested in the region and his performances are always likely to garner praise because of his character and conduct on and off the pitch.
Alongside Paul Dummett and Dwight Gayle, Elliot has co-founded a soccer school for youngsters in the local area. Three players who will never be up for the PFA Player of the Year, but have done a stellar job for Newcastle United over the past fourteen months, demonstrating a clear shift in the direction of the club through their characters and attitudes which has translated to hard-working, team performances on matchdays.
The list of commendable characters goes on and on, from the Spanish contingent of Mikel Merino and Joselu visiting key landmarks around the North East with their families, to the ever-controversial Jonjo Shelvey actively seeking help in dealing with anger issues that stem from a childhood where he was viciously bullied for his alopecia – a condition which inhibits hair growth. Ayoze Perez, who is never far from Newcastle supporters’ criticism, during the most recent international break returned to his native Tenerife and ran coaching sessions for local children. Benítez has instilled a selfless culture to Newcastle United, himself taking time out on a matchday to speak at length to Newcastle West End Food Bank volunteers. That is just one example of the Spaniard’s unselfish character in action since taking the Newcastle job.
Gone are the days of current captain Jamaal Lascelles being caught on a pitchside microphone shouting, “Nobody gives a f…”, following a red card at Goodison Park in a 3-0 defeat in 2016. The current squad rally around each other and it is a testament to the collective character that is a requirement to play for Newcastle United.
In short, don’t expect to see too many Seydou Doumbias or Facundo Ferreyras hanging around the Benton training ground under Benítez’s managerial tenure. Benítez and his squad have given us a team we can be proud of once again. We don’t demand a team that wins, we demand a team that tries – and this lot sure do give it their all.