Following Newcastle United’s relegation from the Premier League, it all looked to be doom and gloom on Tyneside. But with the re-capture of Rafael Benitez and eight summer signings, a season of hope and positivity surrounds the North East club.
However, with a 46-game season to contend with, can Newcastle United rise to the expectations and battle to earn an instant return to the top flight of English football?
Last season’s misery
As Mike Ashley promised to splash the cash following the club’s near-relegation on the final day of the 2014/2015 season, the Magpies spent big in the transfer market.
Steve McClaren oversaw more than £80million worth of talent pumped into his side over the summer and winter transfer markets. But that couldn’t prevent Newcastle fall to the bottom three.
Despite McClaren promising fans a top-half finish and a cup run, the Magpies flirted with relegation since the opening day as well as being knocked out of the FA Cup and League Cup in the third round.
Stunningly, the 56-year-old kept his job for 28 Premier League games before the United board removed the former-England boss from his head coach role following the 3-1 home defeat to relegation rivals, Bournemouth.
And with 10 games to save Newcastle’s season, the United hierarchy turned to Champions League winning boss Rafa Benitez.
The 56-year-old produced his best efforts in a bid to keep the Magpies in the Premier League, but unfortunately a seven game unbeaten run that lasted till the end of the season, couldn’t prevent the Geordies from suffering their second relegation in seven years.
Clear aim – instant return to the Premier League
The Geordies were delighted to hear the news that Benitez decided to stay and try to lead the club back to England’s big time.
And the joy on Tyneside of Benitez’ reinstatement outlines Newcastle as the unique club that it is because although the club find itself in the second tier of English football, this pre-season has proved to be one of the most optimistic ones since the Sir Bobby Robson days.
Fans may have dreaded to think what this pre-season would have been like if the former-Real Madrid had departed at the end of last season.
Newcastle fans are fully aware of the long, hard, season ahead but one thing remains for sure, they fully believe that there is no better person than Benitez to lead their club back to richness of the Premier League.
Opening six – important to build momentum
Huddersfield Town (H)
Bristol City (A)
Derby County (A)
Benitez’ men begin life in the Championship with a trip to Craven Cottage, a journey that the Magpies have not enjoyed in past season. Fulham wont be a make or break game for United, but if a defeat is to occur, it could be give the Toon players a reality check.
The Magpies will be confident of picking up maximum points in the back-to-back home games against Huddersfield Town and Reading before they go on the road again to Ashton Gate.
Brighton and Derby are clashes against possible promotion rivals, so a result in them games could put United on their way early on.
Last six – Will the Magpies have promotion closely in their sights?
Sheffield Wednesday (A)
Leeds United (H)
Ipswich Town (A)
Cardiff City (A)
If all goes well, Newcastle will be looking to secure promotion in the final six games.
Last season’s Play-Off finalist Sheffield Wednesday are looking to go one better this season. So the prospect of picking up points at Hillsborough will offer a stern test for Benitez and his players.
It will be interesting to see how Leeds perform under Gary Monk. The Whites themselves could be in with a shout of promotion come the end of the season.
Preston, Cardiff and Barnsley are all expected to be competing in the lower half of the table.
Transfers – eight summer signings and long-serving departures
Matz Sels – signed from Genk. Selz arrives after winning the Belgian Pro League last season as well as being named in the Pro League team of the year. The 24-year-old is fighting to become United’s number one for the up-coming term.
Matt Ritchie – signed from Bournemouth. The winger made the step-down from the Premier League despite an offer from West Ham United. Ritchie replaced Andros Townsend at St James’ Park with the Scotsman offering similar attributes to the now Crystal Palace midfielder. The 26-year-old will be a huge player for Benitez.
Dwight Gayle – signed from Crystal Palace. Gayle spent three years at Selhurst Park - finishing top-scorer in each season. The striker has pace and a natural eye for goal. Expected to provide goals for the Magpies this season.
Jesus Gamez – signed from Atletico Madrid. The 31-year-old versatile defender brings Champions League experience to Benitez’ squad. Gamez captained Malaga before making the switch the Vincente Calderon. His experience and leadership is something that other promotion candidates will lack.
Isaac Hayden – signed from Arsenal. The 21-year-old assisted Hull City to their promotion back to the Premier League last season. Fans of Arsenal were sad to see the youngster depart London. Hayden has bags of potential and can only blossom under a manager of Benitez’ calibre. Dark horse in becoming one of United’s best performers this season.
Grant Hanley – signed from Blackburn Rovers. The Scottish-international captained Blackburn for three-year and was an ever-present member of the Rovers’ back four. Due to an injury to Chancel Mbemba, the 24-year-old has an early chance to cement his place on Tyneside.
Ciaran Clark – signed from Aston Villa. The 26-year-old offers Premier League and international experience. Looks to be signed as a back-up but his versatility could see him win a place in the Toon starting 11.
Mohamed Diame – signed from Hull City. Like Hayden, Diame was a part of the Tigers side that achieve instant promotion back to the top flight. Diame scored the goal that sent the club back the Premier League in the Play-Off final. The 29-year-old played a huge part in the Hull midfield which makes this signing a real coup for the Geordies.
Fabricio Coloccini – joined San Lorenzo. The club captain departed after eight years at the club. Unfortunately, was past his best which made it the right time to leave England.
Steven Taylor – joined Portland Timbers. Another long-serving centre-back to leave the club. The Geordie-defender left his boyhood following the the expiration of his contract. Taylor suffered an injury-hit spell leaving him no choice but to take on a less demanding challenge.
Papiss Cisse – joined Shandong Luneng. After making a lightening start to his Toon career, Cisse failed to maintain the standards he set in 2012. His goals did arguably keep Newcastle up twice but the 31-year-old become a faded figure last season. The Senegalese-man will be on big money in China.
Andros Townsend – joined Crystal Palace. Newcastle fans were gutted to lose Townsend after he impressed in his short six months in the North East. However, the blow was eased by the arrival of Ritchie
Georginio Wijnaldum – joined Liverpool. Wijnaldum spent just one season at St James’ Park. The Dutchman was excellent in the first of the season but his performances decreased as United battled relegation. Ended on poor terms with Toon fans, however, his goal-scoring threat from midfield will be missed.
Strong goalkeeping department
Sels signed to rival Rob Elliot, Karl Darlow, Tim Krul and Freddie Woodman in the goalkeeping area. At first, there was confusion to why Benitez signed Sels as the goalkeeping position was deemed as United’s strongest.
But as Krul and Elliot continue to recovery from their long-term knee injuries and Woodman being deemed to young, that left Darlow as Newcastle’s only suitable, fit, keeper.
Benitez is keen to make a quick start in the Championship, so an early injury to Darlow could have ruined that early on. However, there is now some early season competition involving two capable goalkeepers that will go head-to-toe in a bid to establish themselves in that number one jersey.
Nevertheless, once Krul and Elliot return, the goalkeeping department will have four talented goalkeepers on their books.
Back four – replacing Taylor and Coloccini
With the departures of long-serving centre-back pair, Coloccini and Taylor, it was important for the Magpies to replace them.
The Toon Army’s defence has been the club’s most fragile area over recent season where a couple of injuries has caused chaos. To contend with 46 games with a possibility of your defence collapsing at any point would be criminal.
Taylor was consistently injured so to bring in Hanley and Clark will feel like bringing in an extra central defender.
In the right back position, it is now looking likely that Daryl Janmaat will stay at the club despite his departure looking imminent earlier in the summer. Benitez has taken to youngest Jamie Sterry, which will give the Spaniard no qualms in rewarding Sterry with a first team place if needed. Vurnon Anita can also fill in if needed.
The versatile Gamez can fit in at either full-back position as the left-back role sees Paul Dummett the only recognised left-back given game time in pre-season. Kevin Mbabu rarely featured.
Central midfield – Diame adds goals
Cheick Tiote and Henri Saivet have been strongly linked with moves away from the club. That leaves Anita, Hayden, Jack Colback and Jonjo Shelvey, who are saw deep-lying central midfield players which would have made it hard to pinpoint a central goal-scorer.
The Toon Army look covered when they are required to defend but Newcastle fans will know from their club’s last Championship outting how crucial goals from midfield are. Kevin Nolan worked wonders in the number 10 role with 17 goals and Diame is likely to play a similar position.
The new signing joins United on the back of scoring 10 goals from midfield last season, which is more than what Newcastle’s midfield scored last season if you take Wijnaldum out of the equation.
Wingers – Perez to take up role
Moussa Sissoko is expected to join Florian Thauvin by departing Tyneside this summer with Thauvin leaving for French club Marseille.
In the wide area, Ritchie and Rolando Aarons are Benitez’ first choices behind the surprise re-inclusion of Yoan Gouffran.
Recognised striker Ayoze Perez has featured regularly on the wing since arriving from Tenerife in 2014 but has tended to be used as a number 10 in pre-season. That is soon to change with Diame becoming the favourite to feature in that position - leaving Perez to take up a wide position or striker role. For United, Perez’ quality is something the Magpies will need this season.
However, with Perez not being an affirm wide-man, a move for a convincing winger would suggest that Benitez is continuing his non-risky approach.
Strikers – in the market
Gayle and Aleksander Mitrovic manufacture United’s strike partnership. But after the sale of Cisse, Benitez is looking one more to that department.
Mitrovic will miss the first four games due to suspension. Still, he is still expected to play an immense part of United’s hopeful success. The 21-year-old had a rocky debut season on Tyneside but still become a fans’ favourite.
Linking back to United’s last second tier season, there is optimism that Mitrovic can replicate the similar affect that the Championship had on former-striker Andy Carroll. There is no reason why the Serb can’t take inspiration from Carroll.
Besides to Mitrovic, Gayle has an impressive goals to games ratio at with Peterborough. Benitez remains very cautious, he feels a striker is needed due to risk of either Gayle and Mitrovic obtaining an injury.
Captain, Jamaal Lascelles
The 22-year-old has gone from strength-to-strength since his publicised criticism of his team-mates on the back of the defeat against Southampton in April. Since then, Lascelles stepped up as a noticeable leader on and off the pitch which increased his stature among the Newcastle fans.
His captaincy confirms his place in the starting 11 for the upcoming season. The Nottingham-born defender will be responsible for the organisation of his team, its back four and any behind the scenes matters.
It will be a hard season for Lascelles, however the prospect of guiding the Magpies back to the Premier League will make it all worthwhile – he certainly looks fit for purpose.
This may come as a surprise inclusion. Hayden only make 18 appearances in the Championship for Hull last season but based on pre-season, he can feel that he should've warranted more.
The 21-year-old has shown glimpses of Cheick Tiote when he first joined Newcastle and if Hayden is to match Tiote’s better performance, he will be huge. The ex-Arsenal midfield seems to stick to one job whilst offering a strong, physical present in central midfield.
The Magpies need and love committed players. With Hayden in the centre of the park, there is no reason why he won't become a huge player for the promotion hopefuls.
You can’t under-estimate how big of a signing this is for Newcastle United. Ritchie bossed the Championship when Bournemouth triumphed in 2015. The 26-year-old played every one of The Cherries’ 46 games - hitting an impressive 15 goals from wide midfield. His Championship experience will be second to none.
Ritchie later impressed in the Premier League for the South Coast side, this time making 37 appearances. His lively performances attracted an offer from West Ham United but the bid was turned down. The Magpies then came calling and persuaded Ritchie to join their Championship project following their lost of Townsend.
Townsend play a massive part in how Benitez set up his United side last season. And with the signing of Ritchie, his similar attributes to Townsend means Benitez can rely on Ritchie to offer an identical affect.
His ability to rarely miss a game is also a huge bonus for Newcastle as they look to have a player of Ritchie’s calibre ever-present in their side this season.
As mentioned earlier, if you compare the goals that Newcastle scored in their last Championship, the input from midfield was a deciding factor in their promotion.
Diame was Hull’s key player last term with his 10 goals from midfield, including the goal that sent the Tigers back to the Premier League. The 29-year-old is likely to take up a similar position to what Nolan did the 09/10 season, and if the Senegalnese-international is to execute that robustly, then the Geordies are in for glory.
His experience will be key to United’s promotion hopes with the attacking-midfielder carrying an inner drive that a promotion hopeful requires.
The new Toon number nine has a big responsibility to fulfil. With Gayle taking the iconic shirt number, he will need to cope with the expectations that the shirt carries.
The number nine shirt is seen as a number that can energise your performances and drive you towards consistent goal-scoring. and the 25-year-old has been known as a natural finisher. Gayle scored 13 goals in 29 appearances for Peterborough when he was with them when they were in the Championship.
With more games on offer and under the guidance of a top European manger, Gayle has an enormous chance of firing the Geordies to promotion and enter his name in number nine history.
It’ll be hard, but Newcastle will achieve promotion
If you had of asked Newcastle whether they’d achieve promotion without Benitez, the response would have been mixed. However, now the Geordies have Benitez, each and every fan will believe that the type of manager they’ve craved for years will guide them back to the big time.
The Championship is a tough division, and this year there is some really good reputational outfits with Sheffield Wednesday, Derby County, Norwich City, Aston Villa and others are all capable of going up. It will also be important that the Magpies don’t become complacent at any point in the season. Still, the signings Benitez has made gives the Geordies the cutting edge in a difficult pack.
Benitez has signed hungry players as well as quality. The signings have given the club strength-in-depth in each and every position. The 56-year-old is still looking to add to the wide and central forward, and there is no doubt among fans that he won't do that.
The coup to keep Benitez at the club has changed the club from top to bottom which has connected the club and the fans together once again, after their relegation damaged the connection. The whole city is pulling together in the right direction, and when Newcastle are a unit, they are a hard one to break.
There is one over-riding factor that is the created off this knock-on positivity affect, and that is Rafael Benitez.