Newcastle United. The crisis club. The epitome of footballing soap opera. The ol’ institution is often easy bait for the national media; unfathomable friction between owner and manager, owner and fan’s, owner and splashing the cash. Consecutive defeats, including a demoralising effort against the fellow newly promoted Huddersfield Town. This season, the 125th of the Toon Army, seemed destined for demise.
So on a weekend, mid-way through September, what are they doing four points off the Premier League summit? Champions League football, howay then.
I spent my university years on the city by the Tyne. It’s a magical place, Georgian stoned, bridges floating effortlessly yet so striking above its former trade artery. It’s cliché to think of Geordie’s as a rowdy bunch, especially looking at incidents like horse gate, but they are by and large the most welcoming folk across the Isles. They’re gritty, hearty and live, breathe and die Newcastle and in particular, United. The team in essence represents the city where Westminster and politicians have failed it. The fans are proper people, generations of grafters gone by. As much as they are questioned and jeopardised, they should be admired for unfathomable loyalty.
Signings were added over the summer. The likes of Jacob Murphy and Florian Lejeune costing a combined £20 million, Joselu added for Premier League experience, Manquillo for defensive cover, Atsu’s loan converted into a permanent contract. Still, this is not enough. Huddersfield and Brighton, despite a much smaller fan base and gate receipts, broke transfer records month on month. Newcastle’s is still – by modern standards – a paltry £16 million for Michael Owen, over a decade ago. Most Premier League sides have broken the bank during the extortionate TV deal offered by Sky and BT.
Many, including myself, simply cannot trust Mike Ashley or any accomplice. Newcastle are in a much sterner financial position to when he arrived in 2007, but literally, at what cost? Two relegations, simply unacceptable for a club who I remember more for title run-ins and famous European nights growing up. More Alan Shearer rather than Emmanuel Riviere. The dominance of the top four – United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool – put paid to such dreams. The addition of a rejuvenated Spurs and Everton as well as the monetary machine of Manchester City, set realistic expectations for the Magpies faithful.
The supporters are rightfully miffed at Ashley. His treatment of Jonas Gutierrez put paid to any redemption. Rafael Benitez is the new Angel of the North, a master tactician, a Champions League and La Liga winner, a person who arguably deserves a higher mantle. But then he stood in front of the cauldron of St James’ – the stadium on a hill. A venue that like Newcastle’s bridges casts an idyllic figure on the skyline. Geordies love Rafa, and Rafa loves them even more. Stayed through the thick and thin, he deserves more than Ashley’s patronising torment.
It is Rafa, the team and the fanbase togetherness that have propelled Newcastle to new heights. A team that is resilient and never says die – just look at the two goals in added time to defeat Norwich last year. Mikel Merino, an unknown commodity, looks like an apt replacement alas for Yohann Cabaye. He’s got Spanish swag, a nifty player who can jolt in and out of dangly legs, dictating play with swift and accurate passing and surges forward. Coupled with an anchorman like Isaac Hayden, a chap who cost £6 million looks immediately like a new Gallowgate hero. Merino already has one accolade in the bag, being Newcastle’s player of the month in his maiden month. He is one to look out for throughout the campaign.
I would also say this for Matt Ritchie and Jamaal Lascelles. Ritchie has a wand of a left foot, labelled a magician by the Geordies, he assisted twice in the victory against Stoke. Again committed to the cause, he is a player who when looking down the team sheet looks a Premier League player. His experience with Bournemouth at this level will be the difference in measuring the success of Newcastle’s season. Lascelles is captain fantastic, two goals in two games and played the remainder of last season with a hip injury. Rumours are circulating of an England call up, unsurprising. Ciaran Clark, deemed surplus to requirements at Aston Villa, has had a rebirth, anchoring alongside Lascelles. 4 goals in 4 games shows the traits of a difficult to break down outfit, something which will align to Benitez’s ethic and philosophy.
At the time of writing, Newcastle are fourth, FOURTH! Not bad for the crisis club. It’s not easy to see what path this campaign will go down, but with the togetherness and Rafa at the helm, it’s a going to be arguably a darn sight better than what McClaren, Carver and Pardew produced. This team – the youngest on average in the Premier League – will have greater tests to come, but for this bonny weekend in September, the Toon will be gannin’ for the dream to continue.
Geordie dictionaries are available for those unfamiliar to the dialect.
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