One of the most crucial 12 months in Newcastle United’s modern history came to a close in a way that confirmed nothing has really changed. On Saturday, the Magpies took to the pitch at St James’ Park for the final time in 2017; their opponents could not have been more fitting to sum up what has been achieved this year, but also the feats have that been left unreached
The 0-0 draw against Brighton in the Premier League laid bare Newcastle’s state of flux; they battled with and beat the Seagulls to the Championship title this year, completing the first phase of Rafa Benitez’s long-term vision to help the club fulfil its huge potential. But the fact they couldn’t beat Chris Hughton’s men, which they did twice last season, only served to further prove phase two is still waiting to kick into gear. Mike Ashley, the Magpies owner, is still in the process of selling the club; 365 days ago, as his team sat top of the Championship, it looked as though the club may finally succeed under his stewardship. But successive transfer windows without support for Benitez saw a complete erosion of trust between owner and manager and as a result, the club’s growth has been stunted.
Sitting in 16th place, just a point above the drop-zone without a home win in six games and just one in 11 was never part of Benitez’s plan. He has always been realistic, knowing just how tough the first season back in the top flight would be but, expecting the same backing he initially received, Benitez wanted a team that could afford to approach the campaign with bigger ambitions than avoiding the drop. Reality has hit hard, though; Newcastle’s 2017 has been necessarily positive with promotion achieved, but the dream scenario of Benitez leading the club from a decade of darkness is on hold, and if a takeover doesn’t happen soon, destined never to become reality.
Not all the blame can be put on external factors for small details such as the Brighton game, though. Newcastle showed against West Ham last week just what they can do when on song, even without heavy investment. Hughton, a very popular figure on Tyneside following a brief, but successful spell as manager between 2009 and 2010, had a clear gameplan. Rather than trying to force Newcastle into a record sixth consecutive home defeat, Brighton sat deep and settled for a point, fully aware they were struggling to score goals themselves having netted just once in open play during the previous eight games.
If ever there was a call to attack, it was then; Benitez deserves some criticism but having set up in a 4-4-2 again, with the same attacking players on show as at the London Stadium, it is they who must be held responsible for a criminal lack of ideas and movement that, in truth, allowed Brighton to coast to the point they came for.
Dwight Gayle, Matt Ritchie and Christian Atsu all made themselves heroes at West Ham, but they slumped in an awful display just seven days later. Caution against Manchester City is one thing, but not putting a more emphatic performance in against a team as shot-shy as that begs the question of when this team will. Hughton is doing a typically dignified job at the Amex Stadium, and his side has the best defensive record outside the top six. To beat them, there needed to be intensity from the start; getting the fans onside in these potentially season-defining encounters is completely fundamental.
Benitez will want backing in the transfer market in the New Year. If the takeover does not go through in time, perspective buyer Amanda Staveley’s consortium, PCP Capital, could reimburse Ashley for funds in January. Benitez wrote two lists last summer and worked mainly off the second, cheaper one; talk of a new striker has been rife in recent weeks and he is also known to be keen on a goalkeeper. But if this horror 11-game run has shown anything, it is that the team needs a spark in between the lines, a man to link a solid defence and midfield to a stranded attack. If Ritchie and Atsu don’t have space to run into, which they didn’t on Saturday, very little happens; Gayle has proven he can score goals, but he needs a more consistent stream of service. Talk of such has gone quiet, but a playmaker really should be the priority next month.
Before focus can turn to the ins and outs, there is the small matter of a trip to Stoke City on New Year’s Day. Mark Hughes’ side are fellow strugglers and there is definitely another opportunity to get a win to ease the nerves again. Newcastle will be glad to be going on the road, with some of the momentum from before Christmas hopefully carrying over. Hughes is under immense pressure, especially from his own fans, and a heavy defeat at Chelsea this weekend did not help his cause. Two wins from their last three at home makes them a tough nut to crack, though, and Newcastle have not opened a New Year with a win since 2011.
Dull, frustrating and underwhelming, with concerns of what is to come; Newcastle United summed up 2017 by ending it in the same fashion against Brighton. There have been some highs, but those have since been outweighed over the last 12 months; 2018 is still full of hope; everything is still in place if the takeover goes through, but things must begin well in the Potteries on New Year’s Day.