For the entirety of last season, Rafa Benitez’s rhetoric on his situation at Newcastle United was a constant, unmoved focus on the job in hand. The Magpies needed to gain promotion to the Premier League after the long, bitter, dark story of their slow death, which culminated in relegation the previous season. But thinking of life in the top flight never publicly entered the Magpies manager’s mind.
Even when everything was stacked in his favour and most people thought the job was easy or even already done, Benitez remained the meticulous planner that he has always been. Winning the Champions League and coaching some of the world’s biggest clubs led many to think he didn’t understand just how hard life in the Championship was; what he didn’t know, he learnt, and he built a squad to do a thoroughly professional job right up until promotion was confirmed and the league won on the final day.
Most of his signings were suited to that level, and as he had been led to believe, they would be replaced with better quality in conjunction with Newcastle’s rise back into the Premier League. Grant Hanley, Daryl Murphy and Mohamed Diame appeared as players with very specific, short-term roles at St James’ Park; they’d battled their way through the division before and knew what it required but were never going to cut it after the perspective step up.
Two of them have gone, and it is likely only down to the lack of funds for a replacement as to why Diame remains. Other arrivals, Isaac Hayden and Christian Atsu for example, were young, impressionable players who could grow with Benitez’s help, as has transpired.
There were two, though, who only signed for Newcastle, a club with a very unsteady ship at the time, because of its captain. Dwight Gayle and Matt Ritchie, who faces his former club Bournemouth for the first time since leaving on Saturday, were both solid Premier League players.
Gayle had finished the previous campaign as Crystal Palace’s top scorer, while Ritchie had reported interest from West Ham, which he shunned. They cost a combined total of £22million, and it became clear very quickly that they, along with Jonjo Shelvey, were too good for that level and the decisions to sign them were probably the only two Benitez made with a bigger vision in mind.
Never one to hide his true feelings, Benitez puts them across in such a calculated manner that he can give the impression of being cold. He once made it clear at Liverpool that he was not there to make friends; his explosive relationship with Marco Materazzi still sizzles to this day after his quick divorce from Inter.
Offering Gayle the number nine shirt, which can make or break any Newcastle striker, was a clear indication of his faith and where he saw him in relation to his main competition, Aleksandar Mitrovic.
Fast-forward 16 months and it would appear that faith has eroded. Gayle finished the last campaign with 23 goals, but constant struggles with a recurring hamstring injury halted his progress then and have continued to more recently. Benitez always wanted another striker, but only to replace the departing Murphy.
His top target was Tammy Abraham, a rival of Gayle’s for the Golden Boot in the Championship; the Chelsea youngster scored the same number of goals for Bristol City on loan. Another temporary deal was almost done to bring him to St James’ Park, only for him to move to Swansea instead; the 20-year-old’s inexperience and the lack of a permanent deal suggested he would be a support act.
It was only as reports of psychological weakness on Gayle’s part, in relation to his injuries, and an unimpressive attitude emerged that talk of interest in a bigger name striker followed.
Such was the ferocity of Gayle’s fall from grace, that he was reportedly up for sale towards the end of the transfer window provided a replacement could be found. Fulham were keen and wanted to pay £18million for him; an £8million profit on a striker struggling for fitness and whom the manager didn’t fully trust seemed like a good deal, but it would have caused another unnecessary problem for an already weak-looking squad.
Benitez’s ruthless nature has been in full view; Gayle has barely featured and Mitrovic has not even made the squad on a few occasions since returning from a ban. Fitness and discipline are their respective issues, leaving Joselu, the new £5million signing from Stoke this summer, to become the first choice up front.
An already defensive style of play looks even more toothless with the Spaniard’s hold up play met by the lack of pace and end product of playmaker Ayoze Perez. The missing flair in attack reared its ugly head in the defeat at Burnley on Monday, sparking calls for change.
Most of the questions have centred on Mitrovic and whether he will feature prominently under Benitez again. The Serb has long been linked with a move away and it is becoming less and less likely, but the story is far from over for Gayle.
Benitez saw something in the man he brought from Palace before they tackled the Championship together, but the trust disappeared as time went on. Joselu has scored two goals so far this term and has not done badly at all, but Bournemouth will leave space at the back, something Dwight Gayle can exploit.
He was promoted as Newcastle United’s main striker and now is the time for him to earn that recognition once again, starting at James’ Park on Saturday.