Returning to the Premier League should bring joy and happiness to those that flock to St. James’ Park. It is another chance for one of the most storied franchises in football to right the previous wrongs and have a chance to earn trophies. It should be an exciting time for Newcastle United.
So why does everything feel so utterly grim and depressing? Because it is Newcastle United. Newcastle are a side with a rich history in English football yet who consistently seem interested in shooting themselves in their own foot. It is the team of Alan Shearer, Peter Beardsley, Kevin Keegan, and Jonas Gutierez (a slight drop-off but considering he came back from testicular cancer he gets his name mentioned). It is a team that has won the Football League Championship twice in the past decade and came within a whisker of winning the Premier League in 1995-1996 (the name ‘Cantona’ is banned in the Maslin household).
Yet all of these things have either been forgotten or washed away. While Newcastle’s issues go back generations their recent troubles seem to be centered around owner Mike Ashley.The owner of Sports Direct International, a retailing store in the United Kingdom, Ashley bought Newcastle in 2007. The hope was at the time that the club would once again be contending for the Premier League title and for a spot in Europe, as they had done in the late 1990s. Instead the club suffered, getting relegated twice and never really contending for the FA or League Cup.
Supporters would normally brush those issues aside if they believed that the club was doing everything that they could to put out a winning product. But the problem with Newcastle under Ashley is it has an image problem and that they aren’t too terribly bothered by it. From the club using loan shark company Wonga as a sponsor to changing the name of St. James’ Park to the public relations disasters Newcastle under the Ashley era have done everything in their power to draw the ire of their supporters.
This summer has been no different. Even before the first match there is drama at Newcastle over the lack of funds for new players. On one side is manager Rafa Benitez who recently told Sky Sports, “I am not happy [with transfer dealings]but for me it is a challenge. I want to do my best. Every manager wants to improve and have better players, but at the same time, I am happy with the players I have because the team spirit was good last season and hopefully we can replicate that.”
On the other side is Ashley who in his own interview with Sky said, “If you said to me I am wealthy – in theory I am a billionaire or maybe a multi-billionaire – but in reality my wealth is all in Sports Direct shares.” He would go on to elaborate in the interview by saying, “I don’t have that cash in the bank so I don’t have the ability to write a check for £200m. I don’t have it, it’s simple.”
Whether Ashley does or does not have the money is debatable. But Newcastle’s additions during the offseason even for players not going for 200 million has left some concerned about their long-term viability in the Premier League. The club has spent just 30 million pounds on the offseason on players, with 12 million going towards Jacob Murphy a forward formerly of Norwich City who has yet to score a single goal in the Premier League. While they were able to secure the services of Christian Atsu after a successful loan spell from Chelsea one has to wonder if they have the right players to put goals on the scoresheet. Benitez will need a brilliant season from either Aleksandr Mitrovic or Dwight Gayle (23 goals last season) as it doesn’t appear that much else in the way of help is coming.
On defense things are a little less dire. Right-back DeAndre Yedlin and center-back Jamaal Lescelles both had the best club performances of their career last season and worked seamlessly with veterans Paul Dummett and Ciaran Clark to build an imposing defense that surrendered just 40 goals last season. Lescelles in particular stood not just for his ability to cut off attackers with timely challenges but also for his expert passing. With Atsu and midfielders Jonjo Shelvey and Matt Ritchie Lescelles gave Benitez a spine that could only control possession but also seemed to know when best to attack. Having that level of patience will help as the side figures things out on the attack.
So all hope is not lost in Newcastle. With the likes of Yedlin, Lescelles, Gayle, and Ritchie Benitez has players that he can build around and make a go out of the season. But will it be enough? History is not on Newcastle’s side and Benitez may need to do the best managerial job of his career to put points on the board and keep the drama off of the pitch.