For some reason, I have not been very consistent with this column, especially in recent times and for that, I can only say, sorry. More often than not, when I offer to write, I prefer to focus on issues affecting local sport, positively or negatively.
But for today, I can’t help but to turn focus a little bit away from home and to Newcastle United, manager Rafa Benitez and their promotion back to the Premier League at the first time of asking following relegation last term.
Benitez has won the Champions League and Europa League, but getting out of the Championship (England’s second division) might just prove to be the Spaniard’s biggest achievement yet. It may sound peculiar but this is my view.
Steering Newcastle back to the top flight was a huge task for a manager who had no experience working in the lower division and had to deal with 23 teams that would put in an extra mile against the Magpies, who were by far the biggest scalp in the division. Newcastle shouldn’t be in this situation.
As a Newcastle United fan for nearly 20 years, I have had to contend with the frustration of two relegations in the last seven years, 2009 and 2016, but the good thing is that on both occasions, the club has had to prove they only belong to the Premier League, by coming back immediately.
With the most expensive squad, they were expected to dominate the division, but found things a little tougher right from day one when Benitez’s side got an early wake-up call with a 1-0 defeat away to Fulham, which was followed by Huddersfield Town winning 2-1 at St James’ Park.
If this was a sign of early pressure and possibly more trouble on Tyneside, it never really came to pass as Benitez galvanised his squad, which went on to surge up the table and eventually spent most of the season in the top two, often swapping places with Brighton and Hove Albion.
For starters, at the start of the 2015-16 season, Benitez was in charge of Real Madrid, working with the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale, Sergio Ramos, Toni Kroos and Luka Modric.
The thought of him leading a team into England’s second division just a year later, was simply as odd as anything one could imagine, to say the least. But Real Madrid’s loss was Newcastle’s gain. Can Newcastle fans, now with a proper manager in charge, begin to believe again? Probably yes, we can!
Newcastle United capped off a magnificent campaign by delivering the Championship title in dramatic fashion on the final day last Sunday. United only needed to better Brighton’s result and they did.
Benitez’s men had already secured promotion with two games to spare, but it took an 89th-minute goal scored at Villa Park to finally secure the Magpies the first place. The game at Villa Park ended 1-1.
United had already done their bit by romping to a final-day 3-0 victory over Barnsley at St James’ Park, but they needed Aston Villa to do them a favour against Brighton, under former Newcastle boss Chris Hughton, who led the club to promotion in 2010 before being sacked.
Overcoming a seven-point shortfall with just three games to go in order to lift the title capped off a brilliant first full season at St James’ Park for Benitez.
The former Valencia, Liverpool, Chelsea and Inter Milan manager, was brought in by Newcastle owner Mike Ashley with ten matches left last season, in last gasp bid to starve off relegation.
But it was too late as the damage had already been done under Steve Mclaren, but the Spaniard, despite the naysayers, signed a three-year contract to stay on in order to take United back into the Premier League. It was the wise decision, and the first part of his “Rafa-lution” is now complete.
He has been given assurances from the owner that he will be backed to continue his rebuilding job going forward. The long-suffering fans can hope that things can only get better, because it can’t be worse, can it?
Newcastle United has some of the best fans not just in England but around the world.
Magpies’ aggregate St James’ Park attendance for their Championship-winning campaign stood at 1,175,484, that’s an average of 51,108 per game—this average betters all but two (Manchester United and Arsenal) of the 20 Premier League teams.
The club also set a new record for the number of league away wins in a single campaign, with 14.
Yes, Newcastle are back in the big time at the first attempt, which is not a mean feat given that the Championship has a reputation of being a tough division.
Whoever underestimates United’s achievement needs to look not beyond the likes of Aston Villa, Leeds United, Blackburn Rovers, Fulham, Birmingham City and many others that have been relegated.
The Premier League is another kettle altogether and Benitez will have to spend a significant sum on bringing in quality players—some pundits have suggested the Spaniard would need to spend in the region of 100 million pounds, just to push for a mid-table finish! I want to agree but sorry, I won’t.