It’s possible in football, as in life, to be shocked by something and yet not at all surprised. That’s pretty much how Newcastle’s relegation was greeted last season.
Although seemingly an inevitability given the way the Magpies have been mismanaged, at the same time it was still shocking to see a club of their stature drop into the second tier.
Even more surprising, if in a more positive respect, was Rafa Benitez’s decision to stay at the club, leading to the remarkable fact that there are now as many Champions League-winning managers in the Championship as in the Premier League, Aston Villa’s Roberto Di Matteo being the other.
It’s not just that Benitez is a manager of great standing, multiple trophy-winner and this time last year in charge of Real Madrid, but more that for the first time in a long time, Newcastle fans have something to feel enthusiastic about.
This was a club whose soul seemed to depart some time ago, lost as part of Mike Ashley’s Sports Direct empire and drifting into nothingness. Money was spent on players, but less with the sense that they were going to make the team better, more that their value might increase in a few months so they could be sold on. A sound business strategy, perhaps, but not one to get the blood flowing on the terraces.
Now, with Benitez in charge, supporters are enthused and optimistic about the season ahead, despite that season being in the second tier. Newcastle have sold more season tickets for this campaign than they did last: a remarkable statistic, and one that suggests crowds of 50,000 in the Championship will not be rare at St James’s Park.
A big part of it might be that Benitez is the first manager Newcastle have had in some time to actually have similar standing to the club. Reading through the recent list of Joe Kinnear, Chris Hughton, Alan Pardew, John Carver, and Steve McClaren, some are better managers than others, but all were, at the times of their appointments, men who were hugely grateful to get the gig.
It was the club’s decision to appoint them, rather than their decision to take the job. Benitez reversed that, making sure that from the moment of his arrival, everyone knew who was in charge. The old cliché is that no man is bigger than the club, but you do at least need someone who can measure up.
As well as off the pitch, on it Newcastle look in better shape than they have for years, thanks to a summer of shrewd transfer business that has seen a squad perfectly constructed for the scraps of the Championship.
Benitez has no experience in the division, so has recruited plenty of players who do: Matt Ritchie, Grant Hanley and Dwight Gayle all look like superb signings, while Mo Diame is reportedly set to arrive from Hull. Additionally, Jesus Gamez’s purchase from Atletico Madrid adds some experience and is regarded as something of a coup, while goalkeeper Matz Sels supposedly turned down interest from Sunderland to join the Magpies. They will have enjoyed that one on Tyneside.
These arrivals also augment a fine nucleus of talent already at the club: Moussa Sissoko will probably follow Georginio Wijnaldum out the exit door for a hefty fee, but the likes of Jack Colback, Jonjo Shelvey and Rolando Aarons will stick around. Young centre-back Jamaal Lascelles – one of the few positives to come from the back end of last season for his attitude if nothing else – will also play a key part, perhaps even as captain.
The smart spending, the retention of Benitez and, by all accounts, the transfer of much authority and decision-making power to the manager, all represents quite a gamble for Newcastle. They are prohibitive favourites to win the division – never mind merely go up – and it would be a pretty big surprise if they weren’t promoted.
But if for whatever reason they do fail in their promotion bid, they could be in serious trouble: this, after all, is now a Championship club still acting and spending as if they’re a Premier League one, without the stream of riches the top division brings.
For the moment though, those are concerns for the future. Now, this is a club that can feel good about itself for once, looking forward to kicking off the season away to Fulham on Friday night. Promotion is one thing, but finally feeling the old sense of excitement at St James’s Park is even more important.
You can follow Nick Miller on Twitter @Nick Miller
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