As frustration and angst grow amongst a fanbase desperate for answers, never has there been a better reminder of the desperate need for Newcastle United to part ways. Early January brings with it the FA Cup third round, the Magpies’ annual attempt to break a duck that has defined their recent history; 49 years without a major trophy is a heavy weight to carry for any team professing to be as big as them.
Success this season seems as far away as it ever has, despite having one of the world’s best managers in Rafa Benitez at the helm. The Spaniard’s impressive list of honours includes the FA Cup from his time at Liverpool, in 2006, but with relegation and strengthening his squad in the transfer window being the more pressing concerns, a cup run may be seen as a distraction. Such an attitude has typified Mike Ashley’s reign at Newcastle; he has always demanded the focus be on obtaining a higher Premier League position, even when the squad was stronger than it is now and surviving didn’t seem so in the balance.
By this point of his Magpies career, Benitez would have liked to be targeting the FA Cup, which, by all accounts, has lost its magic and does not resonate with the bigger clubs in the same way anymore. It is all ifs, buts and maybes, but had this takeover business stuck to the slightly hasty schedule originally proposed, meaning Amanda Staveley’s consortium, PCP Capital, would now be in charge and ready to back Benitez, then this weekend’s clash with League Two high flyers Luton Town would be generating a lot more excitement than it is right now.
As it is, Newcastle are not in a position to target a cup run; victory at Stoke on New Year’s Day means the Magpies have already won as many games as they did in their last two top fight seasons combined, and provides a two-point gap to the bottom three, but the squad is too weak in both quality and depth to be able to focus on something other than preserving its Premier League status.
Watford, who are tenth and a matter of weeks ago looked set for a European challenge, are just five points above the drop zone, but they will fancy their chances against Championship promotion-chasers Bristol City. Every side will give it their all this weekend, but some are better placed to focus on a cup run than others; it may put unnecessary strain on Benitez and Newcastle if they focus too much on other factors in their season.
After years of disappointment in the FA Cup, not only because of the results but also the club’s entire approach to the competition, having Benitez in charge was supposed to be the game changer. Not only is he a man with the ambition to match the fans and a willingness to eradicate the poisonous attitudes that ran throughout the team during the reigns of Alan Pardew, John Carver and Steve McClaren, but he knows what it takes to the biggest trophies. All the intent and tactical nous in the world is worthless when he hasn’t got the tools to put them into practice, though.
Winning trophies anywhere turns ordinary folk into legends, but winning them at Newcastle would make Benitez much more and he knows that; it is the very reason he arrived in the first place. He has had to roll with the punches, but he knows the magnitude of the job in hand and the obstacles in his way; winning a trophy is the end goal that must be built towards, at the moment it looks further away than ever thanks to Ashley and his distrust of the Champions League winner.
Going on past experiences of Benitez’s approach to the cup competitions, he will likely rest a number of key players. Newcastle progressed to the fourth round last year by beating Birmingham City, but they were knocked out emphatically by Oxford United immediately after. In both games, Benitez rested the spine of his team with promotion a much bigger goal.
A number of the players he reportedly wanted to sell in the summer were involved in the 3-2 Carabao Cup defeat to Nottingham Forest in August, too. Benitez will plan to win, but his focus will be on the more important job. Luton are three divisions lower, but they are confident and will be more than up for what could be their cup final, at one of English football’s biggest stadiums on Saturday.
Pundits and press alike will use this as a stick to beat Newcastle fans with. Having moaned and groaned at Pardew and McClaren for their team selections in these games, questions will be asked why the same people then sing Benitez’s name from the stands if he does it. But it is not the action of resting players that is the issue; it was his predecessors’ appeasement of the negativity in Ashley’s reign. Benitez would love the opportunity to go on a cup run, but doing so may put the squad in more danger than it ever would in years gone by, all because Ashley refused to fully back the cause.
Only Newcastle United would have a manager like Rafa Benitez, a fanbase willing to support through almost anything and a billionaire owner, yet still, go into their FA Cup campaign full of caution. If the wins come, they come, but the excitement that once engulfed a city at the prospect of trying to end a near 50-year run of disappointment has been stifled thanks to yet more unwillingness to progress from the boardroom.