1. A “proper” manager
It is fair to admit that it came as a huge shock to most Newcastle fans on the afternoon of the Friday 11th March when Rafael Benitez was announced as the replacement to Steve McClaren as Newcastle United manager. It was an even bigger surprise when, 76 days later, the club announced the Spaniard would be remaining as manager following relegation. Benitez is arguably the first manager the club have had since the reign of Sir Bobby Robson who the fans can genuinely get excited about and can adore. And why wouldn’t they? Benitez is a worldwide name in football, with a wealth of experience working with some of the world’s best-known clubs and players.
His harshest critics may highlight his “failure” at Spanish giants Real Madrid before coming to Newcastle, but in a must-win-everything environment, it is easy to point the finger at Benitez in a thankless managerial role. If promotion was to be secured next year, Newcastle will have the best possible chance of succeeding under a man with over 260 Premier League games as a manager at a win ratio of close to 50%. And with a three-year-deal signed back in May, it looks like the 56-year-old is here to stay.
2. An upcoming leader
It wasn’t long after Benitez’s confirmation in the summer when Jamaal Lascelles was named captain of the club. It was a popular decision in the eyes of the fans – a good replacement to take the baton from veteran Fabricio Coloccini whose time was up on Tyneside.
Lascelles comes across as a born leader. He is the heart of the team and a very solid centre back, which is something that Newcastle have perhaps lacked in recent years. He must also be given credit also for his patience, as should close friend and team-mate Karl Darlow, because it took some time for the pair to bed into the Newcastle squad under Alan Pardew after signing for the club in the summer of 2014. Lascelles made his league debut almost 14 months later as a substitute in the 6-1 loss vs Manchester City. But since then, the tall central defender has blossomed, becoming quite a fan favourite in the latter part of last season under Benitez.
His skill on the ball, pure physicality and his innate leadership qualities – combined with another season in the Championship for experience – are a great tonic for next season after a hopeful return to the Premier League. With a bit of luck, Lascelles will be in the black and white for many years to come.
3. Strength in depth
The summer transfer window brought some pleasantly surprising additions to the Newcastle squad for the 2016/17 season. There was no question that the squad required a clear-out to eliminate many of the over-rated egos and the manager delivered just that, bringing in over £80million in fees. Benitez has replaced the outgoings with a youthful blend of players that he believes are capable of getting out of the Championship.
The talent is definitely there – Dwight Gayle, Matt Ritchie, Jonjo Shelvey and Jamaal Lascelles to name a few have all proven themselves at Premier League level. It’s fair to say some additions, such as Isaac Hayden, Grant Hanley, and Daryl Murphy, were brought in to give the squad Championship experience, but the potential is there for these players to play in the top tier. Benitez has been intelligent with his business, bringing in the mix of both star quality but also potential. Of course, if the side were to achieve promotion then the manager will inevitably look to the transfer market again to further strengthen – but the core of a good team is definitely there for the Premier League.
4. Dwight Gayle
Arriving from Crystal Palace in July, Gayle has enjoyed a fine season so far in black and white, with ten goals to his name. He cost the Magpies £10million and already that looks like it could be a bargain. The fact is that Gayle undoubtedly has Premier League goals in him. In the last three seasons, he has been Palace’s top-scorer, making it astonishing to believe that the 26-year-old was never really favoured by Alan Pardew. Their loss is United’s gain, though, and it certainly looks like the club have found another goal-scorer to fire the club out of the Championship and back into the Premier League. If he can keep himself fit and regularly in the team (which should be a given), then there is no reason why Gayle’s quick movement in the box and deadly finishing can’t strike fear into Premier League defences and add to his tally of 15 Premier League goals.
5. The “feel-good” factor
Strangely enough, but believably, goalkeeper Rob Elliot was quoted last week highlighting the good spirit around the club. The Republic of Ireland shot-stopper told the Newcastle Evening Chronicle: “The club is in better shape, it’s all running smoothly now. The club is more positive than when we were fifth and going into the Europa League which is strange”. However, this is easy to believe given the transition that Benitez and his staff have enforced at the club and is reflected in the renewed love the fans are showing towards the team.
Of course, the side are playing in the second-tier where the fans expect to win games but the re-building mission has been underway since that memorable day Benitez announced he was remaining in charge. It is clear the players are buying into the project and fully realize the task of returning to the Premier League will not be an easy one, but United are on track. Not to mention the club’s chances in the League Cup, with a winnable fixture against fellow-Championship side Preston North End on Tuesday. If the Magpies win, then a quarter-final place will be confirmed. It is clear that the optimism off the pitch is transferring to the performances on it, and hopefully that trend will continue during a Premier League campaign next season.
Featured Image Credit: Yellow Book Limited