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Jeffrey Gamby-Boulger has a look at why Newcastle United’s promotion from the Championship hasn’t been as straightforward as planned
When it was confirmed that Newcastle United would be resigned to their second relegation in seven years to spend another season in the Championship, the second division in England and arguably most difficult league in the world, it was another cruel blow for the proud North East club; the serial underachievers in English football.
And ironically, it was also seen as huge surprise, with the Tyneside club seemingly abandoning their frugal ways and recruiting heavily in the summer months in an effort to stave off the exact fate they succumbed to; but to no avail. Their belated pro-activeness simply turned into the most devastating example of no club being too good to go down.
After recruiting the likes of Chancel Mbemba, Florian Thauvin, Aleksandar Mitrović and Georginio Wijnaldum, plus January arrivals Jonjo Shelvey, Seydou Doumbia and Andros Townsend, the club had finally looked to have learned from their previous mistakes, to which there are many to choose from, and bolstered the team with an influx of quality that was so desperately required after years of inexpensive European quick fixes.
But under the woeful Steve McClaren, a fantastic coach but severely unsuccessful manager, progress on the field never matched the quality available. Another excruciatingly disappointing season followed, with results hard to come by and confidence evaporated. Big players never showed a modicum of motivation or fight for the cause, McClaren was found wanting, and the stench of another season of mediocrity at best, and relegation struggles at worst threatened to engulf the club.
McClaren was held on to in excruciating fashion, as results continued to slide with the Toon Army crying out for change. Belatedly, it became clear his short and unsuccessful tenure was coming to an end, and only when all momentum and sense of optimism was lost, the Englishman was relieved of his duties and the footballing world was sent into a myriad of surprise and disbelief when it was announced that Rafa Benitez, one of the game’s greatest characters and managers, had swept into Tyneside as his replacement.
Despite being unable to rescue his side from the plight and slow decline already set in motion before his arrival, his presence was still enough to bring about a change on Tyneside. Despair at another relegation was tinged with the belief of what could await them should Benitez choose to stay. Disappointment at the prospect of another season down below was muted with the hope of Rafa unbelievably deciding to stay at Newcastle despite their relegation, to help push the famous club back where it belongs.
The atmosphere was different compared to the last time the Magpies took the drop. It was not shrouded in sadness or anger. There was a tangible sense of hope and positivity in the air – Benitez had already galvanized his side into a string of impressive performances culminating in a 5-1 thrashing of Spurs in their final home game.
He had solved the conundrum that was Moussa Sissoko, making the much maligned Frenchman captain and inspiring him into giving some of his best performances in a black and white shirt. Andros Townsend was rejuvenated and effervescent once again. The team looked solid and defensively organized, more so than in years; finally giving the impression of a properly coached and structured side, after McClaren’s confidence sapping debacle and the tactical lapses during both Alan Pardew and John Carver’s unsuccessful tenures.
But although he was unable to curb their decline into the Championship, it was seen as a failure of the club’s hierarchy, who should have acted faster to relieve the wholly inadequate McClaren, not a blight against Benitez. Indeed, the famous Toon Army made it clear in no uncertain terms they wanted Rafa to stay, and were vociferous in their support.
As it was announced that Benitez would indeed be staying at St. James Park, it served as the perfect tonic to soothe another painful embarrassment for the famous club. It completely shifted the complex on Tyneside. The toxic air of disappointment that had threatened to cloud over the club evaporated, replaced by a glorious sense of genuine hope and excitement for what was about to unfold. It is a feeling many Newcastle supporters have been cruelly starved of for far too long.
But fast forward to the present day with just two games of the current season remaining at the time of writing, Newcastle’s journey towards what seemed certain promotion has been as turbulent and unexpected as the perilous relegations that thwarted them in the past.
Indeed, the Magpies made a less than auspicious start to the current campaign. Successive defeats to Fulham and Huddersfield quickly dampened expectations in Rafa’s first taste of Championship football in the Magpies’ first two games. But a glorious nine game winning run was soon to follow, quickly concreting the notion once again that Benitez, despite not having experienced the tenacity of the Championship before, had all the skill and expertise expected of a world class coach to guide his side safely back to the top flight.
It restored the wide spread belief that Newcastle were indeed big fish in a small pond; an overpowered juggernaut in a league that surely couldn’t contain the pedigree and vast squad assembled on Tyneside.
A string of impressive performances throughout the first half of the season reinforced their title credentials, and began to reignite a sense of expectancy and joy long since lost for the Toon Army. Comprehensive thrashings over QPR and Preston were garnished with a thrilling last minute comeback win against Norwich in arguably the game of the season. Victories over promotion rivals Brighton and Huddersfield at the turn of the year put them in control of the title race. They still remain the joint second top scorers in the division, with the second best defense, scoring an impressive 80 goals and conceding 40.
However, therein lies the exact problem currently facing the Magpies.
They have arguably the biggest squad in the championship. They have arguably the best squad in the Championship. They have the best goal difference in the league. On paper, they have the best manager in the division, as well as the biggest stadium with its world renowned fan base and record attendances.
But despite belatedly clinching automatic promotion with a slightly flattering 4-1 victory over Preston, Newcastle currently sit in 2nd place, four points behind already promoted Brighton, having gone through their worst run of form of the season. They are 13th in the form table with just three wins in the last nine games. They’ve been over taken by the ever consistent Brighton side managed by Chris Hughton, the former manager behind Newcastle’s glorious promotion the last time they tasted Championship football.
So what has happened to Newcastle, and why aren’t they dominating the Championship?
To look only at the bare statistics of this season glosses over the still unpredictable nature of this new look Newcastle side; a hangover from previous regimes still not entirely exercised from their system.
The many highpoints of the season have also been overshadowed by defeats in exactly the type of games they were expected to win, and win well, to cement their title credentials and enforce their stranglehold on the division. They’ve made things hard for themselves by throwing away points in games that would have secured the title.
Indeed, their nine game winning run earlier in the season was ended by lowly Blackburn in a 1-0 defeat, who also managed to claim victory in the reverse fixture to claim the double over Newcastle, a feat repeated by Sheffield Wednesday. They also lost 2-1 to Nottingham Forest in farcical circumstances, with two controversial penalties against the Magpies resulting in two first half red cards and a much publicized media backlash.
Further defeats to Oxford in the F.A Cup, Fulham and Ipswich in the league, and damaging draws to Reading, QPR, Aston Villa and Leeds have stunted their momentum and taken the edge off what promised to be such a successful campaign.
It rubbishes the notion from casual observers to England’s second division that the famous Tyneside club would walk away with the league as so many predicted.
But with promotion finally assured, technically speaking this season can still be classed as a success with their only tangible goal achieved. However it’s the manner at which Newcastle are stuttering at exactly the wrong time that is concerning for a team who promised so much.
So what has been the catalyst for this downturn in form? Why has a team of Newcastle’s stature and pedigree, boasting such enormous resources, a world class manager and a record average Championship attendance, struggled in a league they looked set to dominate?
Put simply, why haven’t Newcastle held a monopoly over the Championship as most expected, paving the way for former manager Chris Hughton’s immaculate Brighton side to cruise to the top in their place?
With Brighton currently leading the Championship by four points, the question remains why Rafa’s side, brimming with enough quality to dominate the league, are instead limping towards the finishing line, unable to match or overtake Chris Hughton’s spirited Brighton side.
Remaining functional rather than fluent, Newcastle can still boast a season full of enterprising quality, memorable victories and some wonderful performances. They have achieved a feat matched only by Sean Dyche’s Burnley since the last time the Magpies were relegated, by gaining automatic promotion back to the Premier League after relegation. But they’ve also, once again, been the architects of their own misfortune with some equally unpredictable performances.
But there are some caveats to this.
In Dwight Gayle, Jonjo Shelvey and captain Jamaal Lascelles, they possess three players inducted into the PFA’s Championship Team of the Year. Gayle in particular has been instrumental for the Magpies, currently joint third top scorer with 22 goals in what has been a fine season, whilst also being nominated for Championship Player of the Year. Matt Ritchie, signed from Premier League side Bournemouth for £10 million, has offered thrust and impeccable professionalism to contribute 16 goals of his own with nine assists.
But it perhaps comes as no surprise that their slump in form has coincided with injuries to key players, with Benitez having initially done so well to nullify the injury curses that have dogged the Tyneside club for a decade.
Isaac Hayden, unheralded since his arrival from Arsenal and blossoming under Rafa’s tutelage to serve as the perfect foil for Jonjo Shelvey, has faced spells on the sidelines following ankle surgery. DeAndre Yedlin has been a mainstay at right back after taking over from Dutch utility man Vurnon Anita, offering his unique brand of attacking intent and searing pace, but a thigh injury ruled him out until his recent return. Then there is Ciaran Clarke, much derided at Aston Villa as the midland side began their own turbulent slump into the second division last year, has been rejuvenated to provide defensive solidity as a mainstay in the Magpies rear guard.
Perhaps most tellingly, top scorer Gayle has broken down yet again with hamstring problems and after already missing a large chunk of the season since the turn of the year, looks set to miss out on his side’s end of season climax.
While this should rightly be seen as no excuse, after all this is a side boasting the greatest strength in depth in the league with even peripheral players on offer to make their rivals envious, the impact this has had on Benitez’s side cannot be fairly overlooked. Certainly if Leeds were to lose their striker Chris Wood, the league’s current top scorer, or Brighton were to lose their talisman Glenn Murray, it would unquestionably have affected their form as well.
But this was of course the reason Benitez bolstered the Magpies with such an influx of players last summer, to reduce the injury problems made famous on Tyneside and ensure they have more than adequate cover, and quality, to cope should suspensions or injuries strike. It was a shrewd move, helped ostensibly by Newcastle’s pedigree and financial advantage over their rivals of course, but wise nonetheless.
However, the Magpies have still been guilty of far too many Jekyll and Hyde performances, ruing missed chances and squandered leads. Their squad brims with quality and vigor, but lacks certain match play experience at the highest level, and the nous to always safe guard their results. The best example of this was their recent draw with Leeds; after dominating the game and leading 1-0 until the dying seconds, Newcastle naively attempted to run the game down, lost possession and conceded a heartbreaking equalizer.
Certainly, Benitez has talked extensively of the need to balance the requisite quality to gain promotion from the Championship, with the experience and nous to perform consistently while in it.
Speaking to the Newcastle Chronicle, he has praised 33 year-old Daryl Murphy, brought in during the summer for £3.5 million from Ipswich Town. The Irish international has served as back-up to Gayle and Mitrović this season whilst also providing the kind of Championship know-how and guile needed off the field as much as on it.
When asked why the 33 year-old has been so important despite being a peripheral figure this season, as well as discussing his side’s recent struggles in general, Benitez said:
“Not just his age but his quality and experience in the Championship too.”
“On the first day after I stayed, I am told: ‘You don’t know the Championship.’ Some said: ‘Will Rafa will be good enough?’”
“You need the people in the Championship to manage situations like that, like in the 94th minute of a game when you should keep the ball and not give the opposition the chance to play a long ball.”
“Players with this experience can help.”
“You need a balance between young players, hungry with motivation, and those who can calm people.”
So while it seems they have attempted to prevent naivety and inexperience from acting as their Achilles heel this season, there’s no denying that their unpredictable nature has still thwarted them.
Perhaps then, the problem does not lie with the team. Perhaps Rafa’s comments suggesting there were question marks surrounding his own suitability to the Championship offer more prevalence than blaming injuries or naivety from this young Newcastle side.
There is no question of Benitez’s quality, skill, expertise or track record. It is above reproach. But it also cannot be ignored that the Championship is a different beast entirely from the tactical elegance that is Serie A, the technical supremacy that is La Liga or even the global showcase that is the Premier League. It is a dog eat dog, primal league. It’s brutal, tenacious; a marathon of discipline and hard work, where consistency is king. It offers a wealth of different playing styles, tactical flexibility, formations, stadiums and playing experiences, many of which are new for such an experienced manager – it is certainly an interesting conundrum.
One of the greatest managers in the game, with all the expertise to dominate the league, Benitez undoubtedly found himself suddenly caught in the mire of the Championship, where the strength of a team is often not in their technical quality or tactical discipline.
Speaking of his experience in England’s second tier, and on his enthusiasm for the challenge despite the difficulties, Benitez himself has said:
“For sure, I am now a better coach than at the start of the season.”
“I am learning every day. One thing that improves you as a manager is different experiences.”
“If you are learning, trying to adapt and modify things, it improves you.”
“I am learning so much – tactics, PR, man-management, everything because it is so different.”
“Tactics obviously have to change and with so many games, I have not had this situation for years.”
“We are up against direct teams, passing teams, those that play three at the back, five at the back, even eight at the back!”
“Every week, twice a week, you have to adapt and change and you have to do that without having the time you want to prepare.”
“I have not really changed the way I work but the difference is it is now more squeezed with so many games.”
In no uncertain terms, Rafa Benitez is a truly world class manager. But there is no denying his qualities are best utilized for far grander showcases than the English second division. It’s where Newcastle’s greatest strength will reside when they once again grace the Premier League, and the likes of Brighton still have an anxious and exciting wait to determine their fate next season.
Chris Hughton is a brilliant manager, having excelled in seeing both his current Brighton side and former Newcastle side gain promotion. His consistency with the Seagulls has been as exquisite as it is commendable, and he also boasts ample Premier League experience with Newcastle and Norwich.
But one can argue does he have the credentials to push a team further, to the next level? Will he forever be held as a promotion specialist in the eyes of many, or will he prove his doubters wrong and cement Brighton as a Premier League force? Therein lies the question for the Seagulls.
Although they have struggled to cross the finish line with as much verve and quality as it took to get there, Newcastle have an altogether more positive outlook. With their dedicated fan base and pedigree and with Rafa at the helm, they can boast an attractive package to entice summer signings. Mike Ashley appears to have renounced his frugal ways. But he will have to continue that trend to ensure his side does not become a yo-yo team.
They are a sleeping giant of a club beginning to emerge from their slumber to become a force to be reckoned with once more. And with Benitez in charge, they still possess all the potential to become that very force they have always promised to become.
So while Rafa remains a world class manager in the world’s most difficult league, it is perhaps fair to say despite his qualities he remains unsuited to the Championship, but not ineffective nonetheless. Teams such as Brighton by comparison have squads laced with Championship experience and nous, with all the momentum to survive comfortably and then push for more.
This was a Newcastle squad that should never have been relegated, and does not possess the same level of know-how in this league. Good players? Yes. But as we all know only too well, the Championship takes no prisoners and a team’s quality does not guarantee anything. Just ask Aston Villa and Norwich. Newcastle’s squad was hastily put together for one purpose and one purpose only: achieving promotion. And with that goal achieved, it is still mission accomplished.
This was a squad custom built to order, and does not possess the same tight knit family culture, fostered over the last two years, that has fueled Brighton’s successful rise.
Chris Hughton remains a fantastic Championship manager, with the potential to be a more than capable, and hopefully successful, Premier League manager as well. Benitez however was always viewing this season in the second tier as a temporary one-off; simply a transition to get the side he inherited back into the Premier League and then onto more grandiose goals, where both he and Newcastle belong.
In that sense therefore, while it is surprising that his side have not dominated the league as expected, it can be understood when one considers all perspectives in the grand scheme of things.
Scandalous referring decisions, injuries to influential players at key times, the challenge of a new and famously difficult league for Benitez, and simply the enviable truth that Brighton have been unmatched in their consistency this season can all be seen as reasons, not excuses, for the state the Magpies currently find themselves in.
They will need reinforcements in the summer. That cannot be questioned. They will need another overhaul to prepare them for the gigantic step up in quality that are about to face. It will take all of Benitez’s skill and experience to carefully handcraft another success story on Tyneside when he locks horns with the likes of Guardiola, Conte, Mourinho et al.
But right now, these remain worries for another day.
They remain in fine shape moving forward, with the opportunity to finally achieve some of the potential they’ve always fostered. But sometimes one simply has to accept when they’ve been second best, as they have been to Brighton this season. And in this instance, it comes with no shame.
The Magpies remain on course for their only real objective this season, and with the roles reversed next season, with Brighton suddenly seeing themselves as the small fish in a big pond, Newcastle’s advantages will finally begin to flourish again. But whatever happens, one thing is certain when Brighton and Newcastle grace the top flight next season; the Premier League will be all the stronger for it.
As many have already said, phase one of the ‘Rafulation’ is accomplished. Phase two is about to begin and Tyneside can look forward to a bright future.