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Opinion

I like Gary Neville but…he let his standards slip here

6 months ago
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A response to the noise…

I like Gary Neville. Even after nearly 10 years on Sky Sports, he remains the best pundit around.

His colleague Jamie Carragher is a close second.

However, the debate on Monday Night Football earlier this week, before the appalling defeat at Arsenal, was mixed to say the least.

It did at least stay well clear of the wind-up rubbish peddled out by some pundits, the sort of tosh that only has the sole aim of baiting our fanbase.

Perhaps Carra should have completely steered clear of comparing Benitez and Bruce.

We don’t need such comparisons, to have an opinion on how the current manager is performing.

He did compare a range of stats, that showed a consistent decrease in performance, since Rafa left in 2019.

As much as I loved Benitez being in charge for those three seasons, I admit, it shouldn’t completely define how his successors are judged.

Equally, it should also be accepted that we were never likely to bring in a replacement of the same calibre.

But one point the former Manchester United and England legend did make was, at best misguided, at worst misleading. “The football was awful under Rafa. I was bored going up there.”

His wider point around the club suffering because of the ownership and not the management is completely valid. I don’t think many would argue with Gary Neville on that.

But does that mean all managers should be devoid of fan judgement, simply because the owner is still there?

Watching Monday Night Football at that point I couldn’t help but sigh wearily.

Confession alert. I’m one of the (few) fans who doesn’t particularly care what the style of football is.

One of the beautiful things about this mad game of ours, is that there are a million and one ways to win a match. All are valid.

Tactics both fluid and rigid, can meet in the middle, and lead to intriguing battles.

If Newcastle United win, whether it be a 4-0 attacking crusade, or a gritty 1-0 ‘backs to the wall’ stealer – I don’t care, I will be equally delirious for the next day.

I never understood the obsession with playing beautiful football, nor do I accept every fan is different from me and wants cavalier, swashbuckling stuff, week in week out.

Gary Neville said he was bored every time he went to St James, during Rafa’s reign.

How many times did he go up? Both Neville and Carragher were critical when we went extremely defensive against Man City’s recording breaking 2017-18 team, losing narrowly 1-0 and very nearly getting a point.

Sky covered our 1-0 win against Manchester United in February 2018, I don’t remember the football being particularly dull that day.

If aesthetics are your thing as a football fan, and I get that this is the case for many, then a distinction needs to be made.

Granted in our first season back in the top flight under Rafa Benitez we did have to play from a very defensive base, often utilising a low block with Mo Diame sitting in front of the back four, breaking up play.

We didn’t concede many (47 in 38 league games) and didn’t score a bucket-load either (39 in 38 games)

But we had spirit and got results. Considering our limited attacking options – Joselu and Dwight Gayle our only real options up front (January signing Islam Slimani never got truly fit) this was not far from turning water into wine.

Contrast with this season. Steve Bruce has £110million of attacking talent (Wilson, Joelinton, Gayle, Almiron and ASM, as well as free transfers Fraser and Carroll) at his disposal, albeit with Allan Saint-Maximin absent for the last two months.

Results though have gone backwards. Put simply, Benitez was getting more out of his limited squad.

The team he developed at the end of 2018/19 (his second and final full top flight campaign with the club) was far better.
Few would deny that it was a more talented group compared with the previous season, far closer to what Bruce has at his disposal now.

Equally though, this was where a key part of Neville’s ‘the football was boring’ argument falls down. Once Salomon Rondon got fully fit, and Miguel Almiron was signed, we became a completely different beast.

Not only did we stun Man City 2-1, we also on occasion, played some wonderful front foot, attacking football. Cardiff, Fulham and Southampton were all taken apart in comprehensive, fluent, displays.

Rafa’s team mixed it brilliantly. One week producing a stunning comeback against Everton, but also grinding out tricky results on the road against Leicester and Bournemouth.

His last home game in charge, was one of the most thrilling since Sir Bobby’s reign, a ding-dong affair against a Liverpool side in top gear and going for the title.

It may have ended in a heart-breaking 3-2 defeat but it showed how far we had grown under Benitez.

That was what the ‘hope’ looked like on the pitch – the hope MNF host Dave Jones put to Gary Neville during the debate.

Gary may have been bored when he came up to Newcastle during that season, but I certainly wasn’t, going up to Barrack Road week in, week out towards the end of that season.

Rafa Benitez’s football has been pragmatic throughout his career, we knew that as a fanbase.

I don’t think many were surprised, most didn’t care when we got the big results.

We never expected attacking, thrilling football every weekend. Had he have taken the handbrake off earlier, we might have been straight back to the Championship.

I am a firm believer that Steve Bruce will live and die by his team’s results and performances – which at the moment are truly abysmal.

I also understand why constant comparisons between him and his predecessor are unhelpful.

But let’s be fair. The football under Rafa, particularly by the end of his reign, was far from boring.

It was actually some of the best we have had during the Ashley era, even if that was a low bar to clear.

I actually get offended to be told, what I should expect because I am Newcastle fan, and it works both ways.

Not all of us expect constant attacking. Not all of us expect to be winning 3-2 or 4-3 every week.

Some of us just want to win a few more games than we lose and to have that bit of hope.

If you don’t have hope as a football fan, then what do you have? Particularly in 2021 of all years.

You can follow the author on Twitter @JackLaceySport

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