Rafa Benitez knew what he needed. He did not get it. He wanted a winger, specifically Andros Townsend. He wanted a central midfield player too, someone to provide back up for Jonjo Shelvey.
At around 10pm on Deadline Day, it became known to fans that the projected return of Townsend was off. The lights in St James’ went out and business was over before it even got started. The move always seemed unlikely, but gathered significant pace in the final days of the window. It just never really seemed like Crystal Palace welcomed the move. While this will be a huge disappointment for many, the underlying problem is what concerns me most.
In the summer, the stance from the board was very much seen as “What Rafa wants, Rafa gets”. So, in essence, either Rafa was never too bothered about getting players in, or he was simply told “No”.
In years gone by, “head coaches” like Alan Pardew and Steve McClaren were accustomed to doing things Ashley’s way. January was never a month that you associated Newcastle with, except maybe 2013 and 2016, when the team was in dire straits and needed significant help. Deals planned for the summer were fast tracked in bids to keep the team in the Premier League.
This year, the team are in the Championship (largely down to recruitment failures of the past) and seem set for promotion under the tutelage of a Champions League winner. All seems well, at least on the surface.
The issues have not been totally eliminated yet however. Yes, Newcastle probably have the strongest XI in Championship history, but when you look deeper and deeper, the squad is not as strong as it seems. Players like Jonjo Shelvey, Matt Ritchie and Dwight Gayle are all head and shoulders above the rest of the division. Players like Massadio Haidara, Curtis Good and Sammy Ameobi are barely up to standard. The issue there is, two of those found themselves in the starting eleven against Oxford. The other would have too, if he weren’t cup-tied.
Fair enough, the African Cup of Nations and injuries were a big reason for the squad deficiencies. I get that. What I don’t get is why anybody is shocked by that. Injuries are bound to happen and the international tournament affected many more than just Newcastle.
When Shelvey was lost for five matches, I don’t think anybody could have foreseen just how big of an impact it would have on the side. Yes, he really is that important to this football club. Nobody else in the squad can do what he does and when he isn’t there, it totally restricts the team in a shocking way.
The only reason I don’t say the same with regards to Dwight Gayle is down to the recent surge of Daryl Murphy. He is always there when Gayle isn’t. Mitrovic is also an option, but to be honest, since his hot streak earlier in the season he has had an almighty fall from grace. So much so, that the 33-year-old Murphy actually looks a more reliable option up front.
The overall fact of the matter is that a central midfielder should have been signed. Rafa wanted it. He should have got it.
Signing Townsend would have been a good move, but why people were desperate for him puzzles me. Benitez wanted him though, so why did he not get him? Perhaps it was down to Palace. Perhaps it was down to Allardyce. It could well have been down to Rafa deciding against paying over the odds. I just have that awful gut feeling that something has changed and not for the better. I guess time will tell. Should the Magpies gain promotion, a summer overhaul is required. Whether we see the manager being backed remains to be seen.
One thing is for sure though. You can never trust Mike Ashley. Never.