It seems strange for a club to be surrounded by optimism a couple of months after relegation and yet that’s the sentiment surrounding Newcastle United. Mark Ooi looks at why there’s a positive feeling around Tyneside.
As the saying goes, “one year is a long time in football”. Forget about “one year”. Looking at Newcastle United, one could say that just the last six months have felt like an eternity. The transformation of a club and fanbase mired in mediocrity under Steve McClaren in the Premier League to being revitalised by a “Rafalution”, Newcastle and the Rafa Benítez-led Toon Army head into a campaign in the English Football League Championship bursting at the seams with optimism.
A multitude of changes have been made since Rafa Benítez agreed to stay on as manager on Tyneside. The Benton training ground has been renovated and will continue to be updated to make it as modern and up-to-date a facility as possible. The Under-21s no longer train at the Benton HQ. Instead, Peter Beardsley’s squad has been moved to the academy facility, Little Benton. This increased focus on the 1st-team is just one of the changes Benítez has made to lend focus to a previously confused set-up.
The club’s transfer policy has been turned on its head. Gone is the policy of only signing players under the age of 26 for the reason of potential resale value. The new focus is on the here and now, signing players regardless of their age – the new sticking point being a player’s ability to contribute from the get-go. Someone like Jesús Gámez, for example, would never have been signed under the old approach – a defender in his 30s with little to no resale value. Gámez has been a real statement of intent from Rafa Benítez. A player from Spanish giants and Champions League nearly-men Atlético Madrid electing to not only leave Spain but also drop down a division. That has been just one of the signings sealed by “The Rafa Effect”. The changes in how the club is being run, with, at long last, a football man making the football-related decisions, has brought a new-found vigour to the Toon Army. Players will only be sold when and if a sale would benefit Newcastle United. Rafa Benitez has been given the authority and power needed to run things as they should.
Georginio Wijnaldum has left for Liverpool, dealing Newcastle with a healthy £11m profit after splashing out £14m for the ex-PSV Eindhoven captain last summer. At the time of writing, Moussa Sissoko is still a Newcastle player, but that should change soon. When Sissoko leaves, it will be a parting of ways that has been long-awaited. The fans will be rid of a half-hearted player who could be an irresistible force on his day, but those days have come once every dozen or so games. Sissoko will be getting his wish to leave Newcastle fulfilled, having regularly mouthed off to the media whilst on international duty that he is a “Champions League player” who deserves a “beautiful club”. Big name players will likely play no part in the upcoming Championship campaign, but that has not dampened spirits.
A common theme for Newcastle this summer has been to bring in players with experience in the English game. It has clearly been a successful time for the club thus far, with business being concluded swiftly and early on in the summer. Save for this week’s new signings Ciaran Clark and Mohamed Diamé, all the other signings have had ample time to be integrated into the team both on and off the pitch. From the likes of Belgian goalkeeper Matz Sels – who reportedly turned down Premier League moves in favour of Newcastle after a conversation with Benitez – and Mo Diamé to Matt Ritchie and Dwight Gayle, Rafa Benítez has brought to Tyneside a good calibre of player. Pre-season for Newcastle has not had any of the razzmatazz of tournaments like the International Champions Cup. The team and Rafa Benítez have been hard at work in more low-profile locales. Any marketing-centric pre-season tours can and will have to wait. The only thing that matters for the next year is to get Newcastle United back where this club belongs – in the Premier League.
The reinstalling of a British core in the Newcastle squad has been needed for ages, the lack of fighting spirit and commitment to leave everything on the pitch in every game has been missing for far too long. Fabricio Coloccini wearing the captain’s armband is a fitting symbol of the ills of the “old Newcastle”. The Argentine was a fine player at his peak – going as far as being voted into the PFA Team of the Year for 2011/12 – but his frequent lapses in concentration on the pitch mirrored the team’s lack of focus as a whole. Jamaal Lascelles has been awarded the captaincy by Rafa Benítez. Lascelles was immense in the latter stages of last season, firmly establishing himself as not only a thoroughly reliable centreback but also a leader in every sense of that word. Alongside Chancel Mbemba, who impressed in his debut season at Newcastle last year, Lascelles will undoubtedly be full of hope to not only lead the club in gaining immediate promotion back to the Premier League, but to also win the Championship league title.
“Jamaal has proven himself to be a leader and a big personality in the dressing room and on the pitch. At the end of last season he really developed as a character and a man.”
Rafael Benitez on making Jamaal Lascelles Newcastle captain
The likes of Matt Ritchie, Isaac Hayden, Dwight Gayle, Grant Hanley and Ciaran Clark add to the squad their experience in the English game, making for a much welcome change – players who can hit the ground running, compared to the usual case of foreign players needing time to adapt to the intensity of the English game. Isaac Hayden is a versatile young player with a bright future. As a squad player at the moment, Hayden’s ability to slot in as a defensive midfielder or in central defence should mean he will get his fair share of minutes in the 46-game league season.
Grant Hanley brings leadership to the club, having been Blackburn Rovers’ captain prior to joining Newcastle. Dwight Gayle has shown to have that goalscorers’ knack for being in the right place at the right time to convert chances. Importantly, Gayle has previous experience in the lower leagues, having come through Peterborough’s scouting system. Matt Ritchie would be the biggest name of the Benítez ‘s British bunch. The Scotland international will be a great replacement for the recently-departed Andros Townsend. Ritchie possesses the wing wizardry that will hopefully bring back memories of the likes of Nobby Solano and Laurent Robert. Ritchie does have end product to his game as well – he scored 15 goals and made 18 assists for Bournemouth in the 2014/15 season when they gained promotion to the top flight.
Jonjo Shelvey will be expected to play a starring role in central midfield, possibly alongside Jack Colback. Adam Armstrong is the great Geordie hope but has to be brought through step-by-step. Aleksandar Mitrović is seemingly a perfect fit for the type of football played in the Championship. After a year to adapt to English football, the hot-headed Serb will be one of the frontrunners to end the season as top goalscorer with the golden boot. There are high hopes for Rolando Aarons, who should impress if he stays fit. Academy graduate Jamie Sterry could have a role to play in defence after impressing in pre-season. Ayoze Pérez is a special young player, with some of the quickest feet I have ever seen in the game. It would be a surprise if Ayoze does not end up in the PFA Championship Team of the Year at the end of this season. The defence will be much improved after a full pre-season under Rafa Benítez.
With a well-balanced squad containing youth and experience, pace and power, as well as leadership and guile, Newcastle United and the Geordie faithful head into this Championship season with renewed hope and ambition that the dark days have been left behind. Under Rafa’s guidance, hopefully better things are still to come. A bright future that is just around the corner.
Written by Mark Ooi
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