It’s not even two weeks into the summer transfer window (officially at least), but a side about to ply their trade in the Championship next season have already recruited two players with Champions League experience and another two players with Premier League experience. Even in the days of inflated transfer fees, that is incredible.
Newcastle United, a club with a rich history and proud fans, found themselves staring at a return to the second-tier Championship after an abject year of football, albeit tempered by the arrival of Rafael Benitez. The question surrounding Newcastle at the end, though, was whether Benitez would stay. Lee Charnley pulled off a masterstroke in convincing Rafa to commit to the club. That was huge for the club and for the fans, who were vocal on social media in trying to convince the Spaniard to stay. Real Madrid to Newcastle was a steep fall but with some of the more passionate fans in the country and a clear project at hand, Benitez was clearly convinced he could achieve something big at the club.
Promotion at the first attempt to the Premier League is always a difficult ask and fans were fearful Newcastle could end up the way of Portsmouth and Leeds United in floating down the pyramid, but with Benitez committing, the future is brighter than it was in the end of May. He’s already endeared himself to the fans, but this is only the start. He was promised control of transfers, which could be dangerous at times. What could Benitez do to improve the club?
He’s already brought in a wave of optimism at the club, restructuring the way things are run, especially during training. Increased focus on the first-team squad during training is just one of the aspects of the new regime. However, what has really been pleasantly surprising is the transfer activity at St. James’ Park.
Last season, the Toons splashed the cash on some young and promising players after much-maligned owner Mike Ashley was criticized for the lack of spending. They did spend, but in a haphazard manner, with no clear sense of identity. The Anderlecht recruits Chancel Mbemba and Aleksandar Mitrovic have been fairly good for the club and are clear pillars of the club’s future, while Georginio Wijnaldum has blown hot-and-cold, disappearing into mediocrity in the new year. He may yet leave the club this window. The biggest failure was Florian Thauvin, bought from Marseille, who impressed more for his fashion choices than his play and was loaned back to the French side in the winter. He’s rumoured to be heading out on loan again.
In the winter, Ashley desperately spent the cash on Englishmen Jonjo Shelvey and Andros Townsend, who did their best but couldn’t keep the club up. Townsend in particular was a favourite and sadly has gone back to the Premier League for Crystal Palace to keep his England hopes alive. Shelvey should be part of the future going ahead though.
Henri Saivet and Seydou Doumbia were the other recruits. Saivet has been underwhelmingly disappointing while Doumbia didn’t get much of a chance. Luckily the Ivorian was only on loan, but Saivet remains at the club. Thauvin and Saivet are representations of the scattered transfer policy with a lack of ambition followed till now. But no longer.
Benitez’s aim is to bring in players who can improve the first-team squad while having the ability to cut it in the Premier League. That points to his confidence in the squad being able to return to the big-bucks Premier League next season. Matz Sels and Jesus Gamez are superb transfers for the club in that sense. Sels could have arguably been in France for the Euros this summer and impressed for underdogs Gent in the Champions League last season. Only 24 and costing €5million, Sels is good enough to be a starter at any mid-level club in the Premier League, so for Newcastle to get his signature is a major coup. Sels adds quality to a position where Newcastle have rare depth - Tim Krul, Rob Elliott, Karl Darlow and Freddie Woodman (likely to leave on loan). With both Elliott and Darlow impressing last season at times during Krul’s injury layoff, Sels will have competition for his place, but he is a definite upgrade on the injury-ravaged Krul, who is likely to leave the club.
Jesus Gamez is another coup for Rafa to celebrate. On the verge of a move to Malaga from Atletico Madrid, Benitez intervened and convinced the Andalusian to move to England. Gamez brings experience to the squad and his ability to play on the right and left side of defence will be valued by Benitez. Defending is his forte. He is more defensively sound than the incumbent right-back Daryl Janmaat, who offers a fair bit going forward but can be caught wanting in the defensive third. He’s clearly been won over by the new project at Tyneside and his signing could spell the end of Janmaat’s time at the club. An excellent signing all over of a player who is good enough to play in the higher leagues.
Apart from the duo, Newcastle have been quick to secure the services of Palace frontman Dwight Gayle for £10million and Bournemouth wideman Matt Ritchie €12million. Let the inflated prices not take away from the quality of the players. Gayle has been Palace’s top scorer in the last season despite missing parts of it, and while more-known for his goals which scuppered the Liverpool title campaign in 2014, he could be the striker Newcastle need, especially in the Championship. He can be a goal-scorer and if used the correct way, could be a very good buy for the Toons. Matt Ritchie has excelled for a solid Bournemouth line-up and was a major part of their growth in the last few years. Fans will be heartened to see he had 15 goals and 17 assists in 46 games in the 2014-15 season in the Championship, and a further four goals and six assists last year. It’s a smart signing and could do well in the coming season.
The departure of Andros Townsend may hurt a bit, especially as he’s moved to ex-manager Alan Pardew’s Crystal Palace for £13million, but the relegation clause in his contract was always going to be exercised. It’s best for his career and Toons will know this with a twinge of regret. He was unfortunately unable to keep them up but he did well and has left with good wishes. His departure has been patched up by the arrival of Ritchie, and in that respect it is not the end of the world.
The departures of Steven Taylor, Fabricio Coloccini and Papiss Cisse, along with Gabriel Obertan and Sylvain Marveaux in May, should be greeted with far more enthusiasm. Taylor was a Toon all his life but became more of a defensive liability and his release is best for all parties. As is the case for Coloccini and Cisse. Ex-captain Colo was a top defender in his prime for the club but should have arguably left two years ago, and his departure to San Lorenzo has been long overdue. Cisse was a striker who had a stunning first six months at the club but couldn’t recreate it again, with his first touch deteriorating with time. He was a nice and kind man who gave back to the fans and so he leaves with the best of wishes. The likes of Gouffran and Riviere, failures at the club, still are yet to find suitors, while Thauvin heads a list of players likely to leave, but it is clear Rafa is intent on clearing the deadwood at the club and this bodes well for the future. He is ensuring his stamp on the squad is made.
Newcastle have also seen the arrivals of two youth prospects, Stuart Findlay from Celtic and Yasin Ben El-Mhanni from non-league Lewes. Findlay is a centre-back, a position Newcastle don’t have too much depth in, so with time he could play a part in Rafa’s first-team plans. El-Mhanni isn’t entirely an unknown quantity as he has trialed at Chelsea and West Brom. Known for his freestyling skills on YouTube, he will find it tougher at Newcastle but it is an intriguing signing and one with less of a downside to it. With the pair of Rolando Aarons and Adam Armstrong at the club, the future looks fairly bright.
Isaac Hayden and Grant Hanley are the next players on the shopping list. Hayden is a defensive midfielder who can also play at centre-back and was on loan at promoted Hull from Arsenal last year. He is a player with a lot of upside on him and could grow leaps and bounds this season if given a chance. The likely-to-leave Chieck Tiote is the only natural defensive midfielder at the club and Hayden’s arrival, especially on a permanent long-term deal, is very promising. Hanley is a lesser-known player, but he is a centre-back at fellow rivals Blackburn. He has the experience to fit in well at the club as a rotational centre-back behind the younger duo of Jamaal Lascelles and Mbemba.
We’ve talked about Benitez’s impact, the new arrivals, the departures and the rumoured arrivals. There surely will be more names coming in but Benitez’s eagerness to get them involved in pre-season is a refreshing change for Toon fans. There is now a lot of anticipation among the Magpies for the coming season. There is a lot of trust placed in the capable hands of Benitez. For once, focus is now on-pitch rather than off-pitch. I’ll definitely be following their fortunes this season. English football needs Newcastle United in the Premier League. Let’s hope they return soon. Howay the Lads!