Newcastle United are headline news again. Okay, it’s not for on-field brilliance, but moving on from the controversial ownership of Mike Ashley can only be a positive for the northeast Club.
Change is afoot off the field. It’s change that Newcastle fans have been desperate for. From relegations to grotesque stadium name changes, Ashley has played a villain figure for the football-adoring Geordies.
Luckily, within a few weeks this era can be nothing more than history for Magpies everywhere.
In the closing months of Ashley’s reign, there has been reason for positivity. An emphatic return to the Premier League is uplifting for any club, but it was a necessity rather than a dream for a club of Newcastle’s stature. Rafael Benitez refused to leave even after they dropped into England’s second tier – he deserves credit for doing so – and is now set up to keep them where they believe they belong.
Benitez is one of the biggest names in management. He has managed Liverpool, Chelsea and, of course, Real Madrid. The fact he remained in the Newcastle dugout is testament to him as a man, and to Newcastle as a club. The Spaniard was adored by the Kop, and is as admired by the St James’ Park faithful.
From the bleakest days of relegation, when it was widely expected that Benitez would leave the club, this moment must have felt an impossible hope for the ever-loyal Newcastle fans. Ashley has tried to sell before, but his high asking price deterred any interested parties. His ownership seemed to be a never-ending frustration.
While the rejoice may not begin until the sale is completed, there must be many associated with the club – including former manager and club icon Alan Shearer – who are in sheer disbelief at the turnaround in under 18 months. Shearer was clearly pretty pleased with the news that the club was up for sale (See Alan Shearer’s tweet).
The cautious optimism for the remainder of this season will have lost some of its hesitance. Of the non-top-six teams, Newcastle have undoubtedly been one of the most impressive, in both result and performance. Watford and Burnley have started excellently, but Newcastle are perhaps best equipped of the three to maintain this form for the rest of the season.
Benitez’s nous has already won points alone. Newcastle have all the hallmarks of a Benitez team. The defence is solid, and the midfield is balanced. Difficulties with finding the net might halt them, but he has options in the final third that many Premier League bosses are not blessed with. Joselu has had a decent start to his life at St James’, and could be one of the surprise packages of the season.
With over a season to mould his team, it’s little surprise that they are playing in an almost stereotypical Benitez manner. With their summer window having been underwhelming, however, Newcastle’s start goes to show that good management can overcome even a stingy owner. Maintaining a similar core of players has no doubt aided the start for the Magpies. With several teams underperforming early on, Newcastle have a chance to get a lead in the race for seventh.
Crystal Palace are their opponents this weekend. Roy Hodgson’s side will be a different prospect having beaten Chelsea, but are still underdogs for their trip to Tyneside. The Eagles will set up to congest the midfield and play on the break. That makes this encounter a different test for Newcastle, who are more comfortable when able to absorb pressure themselves.
Having failed to beat fellow promoted sides Brighton and Huddersfield already this season, the Magpies need a method of overcoming teams who they are expected to beat. Their run of victories over West Ham, Swansea and Stoke serves as a benchmark of organised defence and converting chances.
With a trip to Burnley, and the visits of Bournemouth and Watford following their meeting with the bottom of the league Palace, Newcastle could be amongst the top clubs come the beginning of December. The matches with Burnley and Watford, in particular, are crucial given their proximity in the table.
Momentum can be overstated in sport. Newcastle, though, could set themselves up for a season of overachievement with a return to winning ways this weekend.
With investment expected from the new owners, and Benitez set to remain in charge, Newcastle are a top-half team in waiting. The departure of Ashley could be the trigger for the Magpies to return to the top of the English game.
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