Family ties a lot together at Newcastle United; their most successful years in the modern era came under the stewardship of a father-son double act. Sir John Hall and his son Douglas owned and helped run the club during the 1990s and early 2000s, almost ending the long wait for silverware that has since gone on 49 years. On Saturday at St James’ Park, the latest attempt to end that run began with split loyalties for one particular Magpies legend.
Rob Lee is the embodiment of why the suggestion Newcastle fans hate people from London is complete and utter nonsense. The central midfielder, signed from Charlton Athletic in 1992, spent ten years on Tyneside during the Halls’ reign, and he played his part in many a cup run and of course the 1995/96 campaign under Kevin Keegan, when Newcastle let slip a 12-point lead atop the Premier League to Manchester United.
Lee is still thought of fondly both in and around the club; he still refers to them as “us” whenever discussing them in a television appearance. But when Luton Town made the 500-mile round trip to St James’ Park for the FA Cup third round tie at the weekend, he was cheering them on for two very good reasons.
One was his son Olly, the other was his son Elliot; both were in the matchday squad for Luton. Unfortunately for them, and their father Rob, who had said before the game he was in a no-lose situation, they were powerless to stop Newcastle progressing with a comprehensive 3-1 victory. Olly started, Elliot came off the bench, both to warm receptions from the home fans; but the Premier League class told over the League Two grit, as Ayoze Perez’s brace and Jonjo Shelvey’s strike secured progression to round four.
Calling Luton “gritty” because of their division is a rather harsh and unfair generalisation; one that doesn’t do them justice at all. They top the fourth division of English football and only Manchester City have scored more goals across the entire league ladder this season. Rafa Benitez felt he needed to play a strong side, something he perhaps won’t do later in the competition, depending on how far the Magpies get and what their situation looks like in terms the relegation battle. Freddie Woodman aside, Benitez selected arguably the strongest side he could.
Luton had enough about them to cause problems, as they showed during a spell of pressure during the second half; Danny Hylton took advantage of a defensive mishap to pull a goal back, and he thought he’d made it 3-2 later on, but he was caught offside. Their confidence was increased by the substitution of Newcastle captain in the first half; given the gulf in class between when he plays and when he doesn’t, the home fans could be forgiven for fearing his return to the treatment table. Benitez, though, set the record straight by telling the press after the game that he tweaked his groin and was taken off as a precaution.
His inclusion in the squad to face Swansea at home on Saturday is fundamental to getting a victory; it is a game Newcastle cannot afford to lose. Chancel Mbemba missed out on this game with injury and it is unlikely he will play against the Swans. This past weekend, though, there was a lot of interest in Woodman’s performance; the youngster is highly rated by both Newcastle and England, having helped the under-20s side to World Cup success last year.
After just 29 professional club games, and a number of loan spells in the lower leagues and in Scotland, there is hope that he’ll succeed the likes of Rob Elliot and Karl Darlow. There were some shaky moments, as to be expected, but it does seem as though some are being overly critical of his display, even though his mistake is partly why Luton scored. His future is bright, but he is going to need some bedding in time, and seeing his captain exit proceedings so early will have shaken him, as it appeared to do with the entire side.
Benitez is still looking for a goalkeeper; he’ll not have expected Woodman to change his opinion on that need. Reports suggest Real Madrid’s Kiko Casilla, who arrived at the Santiago Bernabeu under his watch in 2015, and PSG’s Kevin Trapp are on his wishlist, while West Ham have rejected the idea of ending Joe Hart’s loan at the London Stadium early and allowing him to join the Magpies.
Whether it was a clever way of getting the media onside and pressuring existing owner Mike Ashley into supplying more funds, only he will know, but Benitez has said he doesn’t yet know his budget for this transfer window. Any money offered by prospective buyer Amanda Staveley seems to have been rejected, so it is looking bleak for the Newcastle boss, who had set a deadline of the 20th January to have his squad in place for the second half of the season.
Any transfers will have to be seen to be believed for Newcastle fans; it feels like it will be another long month. Besiktas striker Cenk Tosun was among the striker targets as Benitez looks to add firepower to his side, but his £27million move to Everton ensured Newcastle were never truly in the running for his services.
Once again, it comes down to Newcastle fans’ faith in Rafa Benitez, which, as always, is significant and unwavering. On the pitch, things are going well; off it, things are as frustrating and unclear as ever.