Can Rafa Benitez find his Laurent Robert and Craig Bellamy?
Sir Bobby Robson arrived at Newcastle United in September 1999.
The Ruud Gullit era came to a disastrous end, as he declared the Newcastle v Sunderland derby was no big deal, proceeded to leave out Duncan Ferguson and Alan Shearer…and lost 2-1 at home to the Mackems.
A poor start to the season becoming a shocker, with boyhood Newcastle fan Sir Bobby coming back home to sort it.
As we all know, his managerial home debut was an 8-0 hammering of Sheff Wed with Shearer getting five, survival never really in doubt from that point.
There was no instant miracle and Newcastle finished only mid-table (11th) on 52 points (though still more than any season under Mike Ashley so far apart from 2011/12 fifth place finish) – but a decent recovery after the season started with only one point from the first seven games.
Only two low key incoming transfers for Sir Bobby that season, veteran striker Kevin Gallacher and Paraguayan winger Diego Gavilan, plus loan defender Helder – only around £3m spent.
Newcastle fans were hopeful that after this initial season of steadying the ship, Sir Bobby would start progressing the club back towards where Kevin Keegan had taken us.
However, it was another 11th place Premier League finish in Sir Bobby’s first full season, ending on 51 points.
Supporters had expected ambition to be once again shown in the transfer market but it hadn’t really happened…Newcastle actually made a £5m profit over the course of the 2000/01 season, with around £22m brought in through sales and £17m on buys.
That £17m was spread over nine signings, Carl Cort costing £7m, Christian Bassedas £3.5m, with around £7m on the other seven signings, the likes of Andy O’Brien, Olivier Bernard, Lomano LuaLua and Clarence Acuna would all make varying positive contributions with time, but fair to say they hadn’t been the players to quickly turn things around.
Many people kind of forget/overlook that first full season under Sir Bobby but fair to say that when we reached May 2001, Newcastle supporters were left wondering whether things really were going to get much of a lift via the former Barcelona and England boss.
Only four players were signed by September 2001 but crucially, the club were at last showing some ambition again, as despite a bit of a clearout there were only nominal fees received for a couple of players, but £15m laid out.
Robbie Elliott returned to the club on a free transfer, whilst Sylvain Distin arrived on loan from PSG, the two defenders playing decent roles in helping to improve the team.
However, it was the other two signings of summer 2001 who would transform Sir Bobby’s Newcastle United.
Craig Bellamy and Laurent Robert.
Bellamy was a striker who had only scored six goals as Coventry were relegated, whilst Robert was a winger with PSG who had a handful of caps for France.
Newcastle fans weren’t impressed with the arrival of Craig Bellamy and as for Laurent Robert, in the days before handy YouTube compilations, the only thing that really impressed was the size of the transfer fee that hopefully hinted at ability.
The change in Newcastle’s fortunes was stunning.
NUFC did already have a talented core of players in Shearer, Dyer, Given, Solano and Speed, but it was Robert and Bellamy who brought it all together.
As well as the goals and assists they provided, these two summer 2001 signings also added so much more, they sparked the rest of that team to life, nobody benefiting more than Alan Shearer, who scored 27 goals in all competitions.
The previous season Newcastle had scored 44 goals in the Premier League, that increased to 74 in 2001/02.
Craig Bellamy scored 14 in all competitions and Laurent Robert 10, with countless assists for their teammates as well.
The football went from a little pedestrian to dynamic, fast, and direct, as Bellamy, Dyer, Robert, and Solano surged forward, with Speed holding things together in midfield and Alan Shearer the spearhead up front.
It was exhilarating to watch, as in the first half of the season Newcastle beat Man Utd 4-3 at home, Bolton and Everton 4-0 and 3-1 away from home respectively.
The week before Christmas 2001 was glorious, Newcastle going to Highbury midweek and beating them 3-1. Craig Bellamy harshly sent off but NUFC coming from a goal down with Laurent Robert winning a penalty for the second goal and then scoring the third himself, those two decisive goals coming in the final five minutes.
Better was to come though, as Newcastle travelled to Leeds on the last Saturday before Christmas Day, whoever won the game would be top of the Premier League on the 25 December 2001.
Craig Bellamy and Laurent Robert were superb again, Newcastle going 3-1 down at one point, only to win 4-3 in the final seconds – what a day!
Newcastle strengthened further with teenager Jermaine Jenas arriving for £5m in January but couldn’t quite keep up that early season pace, ending up in fourth but what a season and what an improvement.
Many players had played key roles but I don’t think anybody doubted that without the signings of Laurent Robert and Craig Bellamy, the team would never have reached the heights of that 2001/02 season.
Of course, Newcastle then went on to finish third and fifth in Sir Bobby’s final two full seasons and there were many great days and nights in both Europe and the Premier League, but everything could be traced back to that inspired double signing.
Moving forward to this coming summer of 2018, nobody would claim Newcastle have a core of players approaching the quality of that Shearer, Speed, Dyer, Given, and Solano, quintet. However, the same still holds true.
I have a feeling that this Newcastle team could make a vast leap, if Rafa Benitez could find his own Laurent Robert and Craig Bellamy. Not necessarily in exactly the same positions but of a similar quality.
Martin Dubravka should have his £4m buyout clause quickly sorted and maybe with him, Jamaal Lascelles and Jonjo Shelvey, Newcastle have players who are of top six quality. Then amongst the rest of the current team/squad we have many players who are decent and perhaps some others who can push on from that and prove themselves better again – the likes of Lejeune and Diame maybe?
Bottom line is if Rafa can secure Kenedy again next season, loan or preferably permanent, bring in a new quality main striker, plus ideally at least one other signing that ends up being real star quality…then who knows?
Not claiming it will happen here but you look at Leicester who put together a steady defence and then hit lucky/inspired with Kante, Vardy and Mahrez for only around £7m in total. Of those three only Kante arrived in the summer right before they won the Premier League but little was expected of any of them beforehand.
With a combination of sensible backing and Rafa’s good judgement, plus a decent dose of luck, why can’t we dream that this manager could make rapid strides along the lines of what Sir Bobby Robson did a couple of years into the job?
The potential is as usual, always there at Newcastle United, with everybody pulling together then the club can once again build from here
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