Newcastle United never seem to do anything the easy way. In fact, they always do things the hard way and make life difficult for themselves almost any way possible. This season, the Magpies have remained in the top two ever since September, but the prospect of winning the league is all but gone as the games dwindle.
Monday afternoon seen Ipswich Town tear Newcastle apart and it come as a real eye opener. Earlier in the season, they were put to the sword at St James’ with consummate ease. Fans were left staggered, as the woeful run of form continued. In the last eight games, United have won two and those were narrow victories against Wigan Athletic and Burton Albion, two relegation battling sides.
Dwight Gayle has been a key figure in the promotion charge. His 22 goals have been absolutely crucial, especially before Christmas. When he fell to injury, Benitez knew neither of his other front men had it in them to carry out the job Gayle did. Concern was rife amongst supporters, but the team actually coped well without him. Daryl Murphy took his chance with both hands, even if Aleksandar Mitrović still flattered to deceive. Matt Ritchie stepped up in a big way, as did Mo Diamé for a short period.
The absence that ultimately proved problematic for the club was Jonjo Shelvey. A man that had been instrumental to the way the team played week in, week out was lost for five matches after a racism charge. In every position, Benitez had deputies that could fill in when the first-choice option was unavailable. If Vurnon Anita was missing, DeAndre Yedlin slotted in. If Isaac Hayden couldn’t play, Jack Colback could. Ayoze Pérez and Mo Diamé could always flip and flap the number ten position amongst themselves. Nobody could replace Shelvey. Nobody else in the squad could do half of the things he could. Newcastle looked blunt going forward without him, and weaknesses were highlighted. Take Shelvey out of the game and you stop Newcastle playing. Needless to say, his return was timely.
As games came thick and fast, it was clear that the Magpies were beginning to stutter. Games against Burton Albion and Brentford spring to mind, in which the team picked up four points from despite being outplayed for large parts. January was looming and the chance was there for the club to give the squad a shot in the arm that probably would have seen them go on and win the division at a canter.
Investment did not arrive, even though there was a strong interest in bringing Andros Townsend back to the club. Rafa was visibly unhappy and suddenly, things turned a little sour. Throwing away three points at home to Ian Holloway’s QPR really didn’t help the situation.
Granted, an unbeaten run continued through to mid-March, until Fulham rocked up on Tyneside and embarrassed Newcastle. Seven points had been collected from consecutive away games against Brighton, Huddersfield and Reading. The result and performance served up against the Cottagers was totally bizarre. That began a slow spiral into mediocrity and it became abundantly clear that promotion would go to the wire. The pressure was on.
The late equaliser scored by Chris Wood was symbolic of the state the club finds it in right now. Nothing is going for them on the pitch. That was a game they utterly dominated, but failed to kill off their opponents.
Three games remain and two will be played in front of the Geordie faithful. Preston are the visitors on Monday evening, which will be live on Sky Sports. If results go their way over the weekend, it could be the game that seals everything. The sooner promotion is achieved the better. If there were still another five games remaining, you would think Huddersfield and Reading would be licking their lips. Thankfully, there isn’t and Newcastle look destined to finally make it over the line.
It will therefore have been a successful season. The target was to get promoted and it will be accomplished. But my oh my, will Newcastle United be counting themselves lucky. Rafa Benitez will soon be able to look forward to the summer and will hope to be given the necessary backing he needs from board level, to prepare the squad for an assault on the top division. One thing is for sure, he will not be one to simply hope for Premier League survival. His ambition will be to see his team closer to the top than the bottom, and Mike Ashley has to match those ambitions.
There is a lot of work to be done, but if anyone thinks the destiny of the club should be placed in the hands of anybody else, they are truly mistaken. Rafa Benitez is and always has been the man to turn everything around. He will be utilising his global contacts within the game and his knowledge on the training field to ensure that St James’ Park once again becomes the cathedral it used to be.
All we can do now is get behind the team in the final three games of this season, because the job is not yet complete. Support the team, they deserve it. So does our manager.