In the past few weeks, the mood at Newcastle United has shifted in a positive manner, assisted by significant occurrences both on and off the pitch. Here, we revisit the key aspects that eased the tension among the Toon Army.
The Magpies endured a bleak festive period, with only two wins out of eleven from December and January’s fixtures, coupled with another fourth-round exit in the FA cup, further enhancing their dismal record in the competition in recent years.
Manager Rafa Benitez addressed the cup elimination in an outburst, stating that he couldn’t compete in both the league and the cup competitions due to the thin squad at his disposal; another hint towards owner Mike Ashley to invest in the squad, with Rafa publicly expressing this desire on multiple occasions.
By this point, Newcastle remained deep in the relegation mix. With Mike Ashley away on holiday, no movement on a potential takeover deal with Peter Kenyon and no incoming transfers, a sad state had encompassed St James’ Park. Benitez was interviewed around the same time, with reporters asking for an update on his future.
The Spaniard responded with reluctancy, giving no guarantees that he would remain at the helm. The vision of Newcastle United without Rafa Benitez would be heart-breaking for the Magpies faithful, given the state of the club before his arrival. With Rafa not promising to stay, this supplemented the sadness among the club even more.
Adding to United’s January woes, they missed out on two transfer targets. Winger Gelson Martins opted to join Monaco; snubbing St James’ Park for a struggling Monaco side. While a move for left-back Jordan Lukaku also fell through after the defender failed a medical after travelling to the North-East.
Newcastle’s fortuned began to change in the last few days of January, when it seemed the least likely. On January 29th, the Magpies faced title challengers and current champions Manchester City – a team who they had not beaten in the league since 2005. The match began in the worst possible manner, City took the lead after just 24 seconds with Sergio Aguero scoring his 15th goal against United in 13 games.
At this point, given Newcastle’s record against the holders, a hammering seemed to be pending. As the match endured, Newcastle withstood City’s pressure with the Citizens looking sloppy and lacklustre in comparison to their usual selves. The Magpies grew into the game and their resilience was rewarded with a goal as Salomon Rondon fired in from close range in the 66th minute. The Toon were then awarded a penalty late on, with Matt Ritchie slamming home for what was a huge result at both ends of the table.
In the same week, news broke that Newcastle were set to smash their long-standing transfer record by signing Paraguayan playmaker Miguel Almiron from Atlanta United for a fee of £21m, eclipsing the £16m they paid for Michael Owen 14 years prior. Almiron was Rafa’s main man and a player who had been scouted extensively.
The transfer was confirmed on deadline day, along with another – left-back Antonio Barreca also joined the Magpies on a loan deal with an option to buy. United had strengthened in areas that needed improving, while also bolstering their offence and defence. Benitez had wanted a left-back for over two years, with Paul Dummett the only recognised player in his position. The two arrivals increased competition within the squad as well as lifting the mood in the Magpies’ camp and most importantly the mood of the manager.
Since the busy week, United have also displayed robust performances away at Spurs and Wolves; two games in which luck went against them. The Magpies defended well at Wembley, with ‘keeper Martin Dubravka unfortunate to let Son’s shot slip under him. While at Molineux, United almost clinched three valuable points until conceding right at the death, with Willy Boly’s controversial goal denying the Toon Army a joyful trip home.
Record signing Almiron made a cameo appearance at Wolves – coming on for a huge reception from the travelling fans – and displayed glimpses of his pace and ability.
There are positives to take from United’s recent performances, while the new signings will no doubt assist them in the run-in with only 12 games left to play. Newcastle will hope for a similar scenario to last season, in which their form took off at a comparable time, while they took the positive energy with them throughout the end of the campaign.