St. James’ Park turned into a dismal place during this time last year when Newcastle United were relegated to Championship only for the second time since joining the Premier league in 1993.
Amidst panic buys and harsh decisions like refusal to change policies dealing with transfers there was one thing that owner Mike Ashley managed to do correctly. The recruitment of Rafael Benitez as manager. Rafa without doubt would be the man who would influence the Toons to bring themselves back up to the Premier League once again. A season later that is exactly what happened.
With Newcastle becoming one of the most expensive sides to be relegated and yet not letting majority of their players leave, Mike Ashley made it clear to Rafa Benitez that they were not ready to wait for promotion. Benitez had to start somewhere. He did so by deciding to give the armband to 22 year old Jamal Lascelles. Jamal turned out be a fantastic leader both on and off the field. A sturdy, clever player whose physical prowess and aerial quality brought about a calmness on the field. With experienced Irishman Ciaran Clark by his side, they made sure of a solid defensive partnership. Alongside them, Newcastle’s man under the post Karl Darlow would be another man to watch out for in the next season.
If the team manages to hold on to their midfielders and attacking players, they could very well cause more than a few upsets. Scoring at an average of almost 1.9 goals per game this season, Newcastle scored as many as 85 goals in the Championship. Newcastle’s main motto of the last season was to attack. No prizes for guessing, Dwight Gayle would be the player to notice this upcoming season. He had an astonishing season in the Championship and was by far the player who drove Newcastle home.
With 23 Championship goals this season in 26 appearances, Gayle is the only Newcastle player apart from the great Alan Shearer to have scored more than 20 goals in a season. His ability to smash it home and attitude to convert maximum goals with minimum chances has already made him a hot favorite among the fans. Newcastle’s season was far from a one man show. The likes of Jonjo Shelvey and Matt Richie, spearheaded the midfield. Jonjo Shelvey was an engine in the midfield. His mental setup of turning defense into attack and finding the right players with his wide range of passing motivated the way Nwacastle paly. He was often Benitez’s most reliable bet on the field. In fact Newcastle attack looked a little lacklustre and clueless when Shelvey was suspended for a few games after a red card offense. Matt Ritchie proved his worth also, when the time arrived. Though he scored only half as many goals as Gayle, his ability to score from the spot kicks and convert important goals made him a crucial squad player. Ex Bournemouth player, Matt Ritchie also went on to have one of his personal best seasons in English football. With valiant contributions also coming from Spaniard Ayoze Perez and Ghanaian Christian Atsu, the Magpies looked all set for promotion, only a year after being relegated.
After all being said and done, Newcastle still had to go out there and perform, which did not come easy. Brighton and Hove Albion, who themselves had an emphatic season took them to the brink, before they themselves decided to sink during the end of the season, especially on the dramatic last day to crown Newcastle as champions.
We have observed in the past, that clubs that come in from the Championship are often coming in with majority of their players who have played at Championship level. They tend to add on players from the Premier League level after promotion. Such is not the case with Newcastle. Most of their players are already Premier League proven and have some experience of the physicality and the intensity of the top flight. This makes them different from the other incoming teams. The likes of Anita, Shelvey, Gayle, Clark would give them immense hope for this fresh season. They are also looking to strengthen their squad depth. With the present team chemistry that they possess and with Rafa’s ability to sign brilliant youngsters, this may be the birth of a new era for Newcaste United. Only time will tell if they are able to bring back the golden days of Shearer and Keegan. With much at stake, they should be cautious of keeping hold of their key players and finding ways to get financially strong by letting the correct players go. If this happens, we are bound to see a few upsets that Newcastle is capable of. Overall, this could be the make or break season for the club,and it is all down to how wisely Mike Ashley deals with the budget and how Rafa Benitez picks his transfers.
Key players: Jonjo Shelvey, Ayoze Perez, Ciaran Clark, Dwight Gayle, Matt Ritchie
Strength: Slick attacking play and passing. Goal scoring ability.
Weakness: Individual errors. Dependency on key players. Lack of genuine squad depth.
Last Years position in Championship: Winners
Predicted Finishing position: 11th – 14th