Rarely during the past several decades has Newcastle United stood among the elite of English soccer, but so deep is the club’s tradition and so passionate are the fans that every new season at St. James’ Park is fraught with hope and foreboding.
Stepping into the managerial breach is the well-traveled Spaniard, Rafael Benitez, who a year ago was at the helm of Real Madrid and in 2005 steered Liverpool to a remarkable treble that included the Champions League. Fired by Real in January, Benitez took over the Magpies from Steve McLaren in March to rescue them from relegation.
That quest failed but Benitez came back, armed with money and a mandate from managing director Lee Charnley to sell and spend and get Newcastle back into the Premier League. Prior to his League Championship debut at Fulham on Friday, Benitez had offloaded several stalwarts and spent about $59 million on eight players. Five of the eight started for Newcastle at Craven Cottage, where a 1-0 defeat reminded him and the club’s followers that their grand old days won’t be recurring any time soon.
Sent on their way during the summer were Fabricio Coloccini, Papiss Cisse and Steven Taylor, who wound up as the replacement for injured Nat Borchers in Portland. Sold at hefty prices were Georginio Wijnaldum to Liverpool ($33 million) and Andros Townsend to Crystal Palace ($17 million). Still on the squad but expected to join the exodus was Moussa Sissoko.
The shift is to a decidedly English flavor, rather than the cosmopolitan makeup of most teams in the Premier League.
“We needed players with experience of the Championship and of English football that knew about the physicality, the importance of every contact,” Benitez, whose tenure at Chelsea along with Liverpool helped his understanding of the game as well as the language, told the Guardian. “It was important to get players with knowledge of this side of the game.”
If that means the Magpies will play rough rather than refined, the supporters are all aboard. Amazingly, after the team went down, season-ticket sales went up. More than 33,000 have been sold and the home opener at St. James’ Park is still a week away.
“It says a lot about our fans,” said Benítez. “They’re really disappointed about going down but they’re still positive. We’ve changed the atmosphere and the mentality.
“Going down is never good news. It was very difficult but it does mean we can start building something new, something different which will hopefully be good for the future. Relegation can never be a positive but it allows you to change things and move in another direction.”
The battle of two recently relegated teams exemplified the gap in poise and class from the Premier League. Since going down after an 11-year run in the top flight, Fulham has finished 17th and 20th n the 24-team League Championship. Their physical, pragmatic approach bore fruit in first-half stoppage time when Matt Smith rose uncontested to head Tom Cairney’s corner kick into the net.
Of the Newcastle newbies Scottish winger Matt Ritchie, who played out his contract with Bournemouth, caused a few problems. With a cross and a shot he provoked two Newcastle appeals for handball and while the first seemed a certainty yet wasn’t called, the Magpies didn’t fare well enough in their return to League Championship play to deserve a point.
Benitez is Newcastle’s third manager in the last 18 months but neither McLaren nor his predecessor, ex-Toronto FC head coach John Carver, has been given the resources provided this time around by owner Mike Ashley. Relegation can do that, and not even escaping on the final day of the 2014-15 season spurred Ashley into shaking up the squad.
Since leaving Merseyside in 2010, Benitez has bounced amongst some big clubs -- Inter Milan, Chelsea (interim basis), and Napoli -- as well as the grandmaster Real Madrid. He won the Europa League with Chelsea three years ago, so there’s a track record of success, at least in England. Restocking his squad with a heavily English team may not work so well in the Premier League, but first he has to get there.