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Ashley staying, Rafa going, Championship football…Nothing would stop me watching Newcastle United

3 years ago
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With Newcastle United having their usual FA Cup ‘rest’, we thought it an ideal time to ask some of the regular writers on The Mag, the important questions of the day.

Premier League survival, Manchester United the turning point(?), Rafa Benitez, Mike Ashley, players Newcastle must keep, the plight of the Mackems, the Winter Olympics…it’s all there.

Comments at the end always welcome.

Next  up is Travis Bickle.

Whatever division Newcastle end up in next season, which six players (in order) would you be most keen to keep?

Not including the players on loan: 1. Lascelles. 2. Merino 3. Yedlin 4. Dummett 5. Ritchie 6. Lejeune (I think that when Lascelles plays we have a pretty good defensive unit – so I’d like to see most of them stay – in fact, I’ll have Clark as a seventh)

What circumstances (Ashley staying, Rafa going, back to the Championship, whatever), if any, would make you stop going to matches?

None. I’ve been through a lot worse than this. Players, managers, owners, relegations, promotions – they all come and go. You’ve just got to keep the faith. I don’t really feel like it’s a matter of choice.

What do you think about what is happening at Sunderland?

A bit sad really. I’ve never been a Sunderland-hater.

It’s like Ali and Frazier – it was only a great rivalry because they were in the same division. If Ali had been a heavyweight and Smokin’ Joe had been a lightweight there would have been no thrilla in Manila. I’d like to be able to go to another derby match at some point in the foreseeable future. And preferably not in the third division. So while there is a certain undeniable guilty pleasure in seeing them suffer, I hope they stay up and manage to rebuild.

Do you think Newcastle will be a Premier League club next season?

Yes. I think Rafa will keep us up.

If you cast your mind back to last season, Rafa spent months telling everybody who would listen that the key period would be April/May. Regardless of how badly or how well the team were doing he kept calm and kept saying the same thing. And we ended the season with a run of wins while others faltered. This season he will do the same.

He will be looking to keep the points total ticking over, keep us out of the bottom three, and keep the squad fit, fresh, optimistic and well-drilled for the last 6 or 7 games. My prediction would be that we will bump along just outside the bottom three for the next few games. But when it comes to the run in there will be one or two teams who will fall apart – whereas we will finish more strongly and end up somewhere 12th-15th.

How big was that win over Man Utd in giving Newcastle a decent chance of survival?

I said to my wife on the morning of the Man Utd game: “Well, this is it. If we don’t win today we’re relegated!” And her reply was, “But you’ve said that every week for the last month!” That’s the terrible thing about a relegation battle. It’s a relentless grind because, by definition, the teams involved don’t win very often. So every three points becomes massive; and an unexpected three points is like a lottery win.

Before the Man Utd game it seemed like everybody else was pulling rabbits out of hats – Swansea, Bournemouth, Watford were all picking up wins out of the blue, and it was beginning to look like we were going to have to do the same.

I can remember a few matches over the years that have felt pivotal – some for good and some for bad. I remember as clear as day another pivotal match against Man Utd back in 1996 – walking up to Gallowgate and saying, “Well, if we win tonight we’ve won the title!!” Of course we didn’t (although how I’ll never know) and the rest is history. When Cantona shinned in that goal the mood changed as if a switch had been flicked – from optimism to anxiety. I hope and expect that Matt Ritchie’s goal might have the opposite effect – shifting the mood, and making it easier for the team to get the two or three more wins that they will need.

Does the Man Utd match make you believe that we do have a decent number of players who can play much better on a regular basis in the Premier League, or was it more of a classic case of everybody lifting themselves for a one-off match?

I have a slightly more upbeat assessment of our squad than some. I look at our defence and to me it looks as good as anything outside the top 6. I look at our midfield, and I think it’s good enough for mid table. I look at our forwards – and they wouldn’t look out of place in the bottom half of the Championship.

So I don’t think that the squad is weak throughout. I think it’s just badly imbalanced. I think if you add two or three Premier quality forwards to that squad it’s easily capable of top half. We have, I think, just about the youngest average starting age in the Premiership; most of our best players have their best years in front of them.

If we can stay up and if we can keep hold of Rafa (and that is the big if), I’m optimistic about what the current squad could achieve, with a couple of decent additions up front. It isn’t specifically the Man Utd game which has made me think that – that’s been my view right through the season.

How many points do you guess will be needed to stay up and how many do you reckon Newcastle will get?

The likelihood is that the total needed this year will be a bit less than 40 – for two reasons. The first is simple mathematics. There are a fixed number of points to play for. If the teams at the top have more of those points this season (which they do) then the likelihood is that the teams at the bottom will end up with less.

And second, there are loads of teams involved in the relegation battle this year, all very close together on points. It looks a bit bleak for West Brom – which leaves you to perm any two from ten. You generally find that when it comes to the run in you have some teams who have a run of form at the right time, but one or two teams who finish really badly. So, I’m expecting that out of those 10 teams there will be at least a couple who have a bad run at the wrong time, pick up 6 or 7 points out of the last 11 games, and end up with 36 points or lower.

So I reckon 36 or 37 points will keep you up this year. I reckon we will finish with 41 or 42.

Does the Winter Olympics make up for Newcastle United not playng for two weeks?

Winter Olympics? I hadn’t even noticed them.

Everybody fit and a game Newcastle have to win to stay up, which 11 players would you pick from current squad?

Assuming everybody was in form: Dubravka, Yedlin, Dummett, Lascelles, Lejeune, Merino, Shelvey, Kenedy, Ritchie, Perez, Slimani

What do you think of Mike Ashley’s behaviour towards Rafa Benitez and his ‘support’ for him in doing the job of being NUFC Manager?

To some extent we are all in the dark – looking in from the outside and guessing what goes on. The impression some people have of Mike Ashley is that he carries on like some sort of evil genius, deliberately doing everything he can to make our lives a misery. My impression is a bit different. I think the problem with Mike Ashley is that he isn’t all that bothered. I suspect he thinks about NUFC a lot less than I do – and if you are reading The Mag, less than you do too.

I thought it was revealing the other day that there was an interview with Mitrovic after his loan to Fulham, where he said he had never met Mike Ashley. That’s after having been bought for somewhere north of £10million, and having been at the club for a good couple of years. Never even met him! And from what you hear Rafa say, I don’t think he speaks to Mike Ashley very often either.

It seems to me that Ashley bought the club looking for a bit of fun, then when it all went wrong he decided that he wasn’t going to be bothered – that he wasn’t going to put any money in, or any time in, and that he would look to use the club as the advertising wing of Sports Direct.

So I don’t think Ashley gives any support at all to Rafa. On the other side of the coin, I don’t suppose Ashley interferes at all.

On finances, my guess (and it is just a guess) is that Rafa knows pretty much where he stands – and since Rafa isn’t anybody’s fool, I suspect he has probably known all along pretty much where he stands – i.e there won’t be any investment from the owner, and moreover the club won’t be allowed to borrow to invest; but as and when there is any money sitting in the bank account he’ll be allowed to spend it.

Do you believe Mike Ashley is serious about selling the club and do you have faith in it happening?

Yes, and no.

Mike Ashley is a businessman. And for someone like him, everything is always for sale – at the right price. I suspect that he will have briefed his advisors on what he’s looking for, and told them not to bother him until something serious comes up. And if he doesn’t get what he’s looking for I don’t suppose it would bother him unduly to just sit on things for another year or two or three.

I think that’s a large part of the reason we haven’t spent anything on transfer fees. Ashley wants a reasonable amount of financial flesh on the bones to cover him against the risk of another relegation. He’ll be thinking, if we go down it won’t be the end of the world – we’ll have enough cash in the club (without me having to put my hand in my own pocket) to come back up again – and if that means I have to sit on the asset for another couple of years, it’s no big deal.

I hope that once we are safe from relegation, there will be some progress – but it’s just a hope. I don’t think Ashley is desperate to sell, so it will only happen if somebody turns up who is prepared to pay his price.

If the club is to be sold, do you think it would be the Amanda Staveley led bidders, or more likely to be somebody so far uknown?

I’ve never had a particularly good feeling about all of the Amanda Staveley stuff. The one thing everybody knows is that she herself doesn’t have the money to buy the club. She may be a wealthy woman – but she isn’t Premier-League-football-club-owner-rich. She isn’t Mike-Ashley-rich. Effectively, she is only ever going to be a broker – trying to arrange for someone else to buy the club.

Whether there is anybody standing behind her with the financial muscle to make the deal happen we just don’t know. I’ve always kind of thought that if there was any really serious money there, we would have found out about it by now. These things have a way of coming to light.

Hopefully, there is somebody out there waiting. Whether Amanda Staveley is involved in brokering the deal is neither here nor there to me. She’s just a middleman (or middlewoman, or middleperson, or whatever you’re supposed to say nowadays!).
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