The Football League Paper - - CHAMPIONSHIP PREVIEW - By Chris Dunlavy

ST James’ is tense. Rafa is terse. Play­ers, pre­vi­ously happy to stop and chat, hun­ker be­hind head­phones and scurry from the tun­nel.

Hav­ing coasted serenely above the mael­strom for nine solid months, the Magpies are fran­ti­cally flap­ping to stay air­borne just as dry land hoves into view.

Mon­day’s shock 3-1 de­feat to Ip­swich means New­cas­tle have taken just nine points from a pos­si­ble 24 since the be­gin­ning of March. Over the last eight games they lie 17th in the form ta­ble. Nerves are jan­gling at the worst pos­si­ble mo­ment.

Re­al­is­ti­cally, the Toon look cer­tain to stag­ger over the line. By the time to­mor­row evening’s match against Pre­ston kicks off, three points may be enough to se­cure an in­stant re­turn to the Premier League. If not, vic­tory over Cardiff or Barnsley could seal the deal.

“Ev­ery­thing de­pends on us,” said Chris­tian Atsu, the winger on loan from Chelsea.

“We are not look­ing at what Huddersfield or Reading are do­ing.

“You can see in ev­ery­one’s face how much they want to be pro­moted. We have to keep press­ing high, be more ag­gres­sive, cre­ate more chances.

“We have to play with free­dom, like we did be­fore. We fought from the start of the sea­son and this is not the time to give it away. We must go all out.”

Hardly mu­sic to Si­mon Grayson’s ears. The Li­ly­whites were thrashed 6-0 the last time they vis­ited St James’ for a Car­ling Cup tie in Oc­to­ber.

Yet, even if New­cas­tle do get the job done, their trou­bles are far from over.

When Ben­itez signed a three-year deal in May, he did so on the strict pro­viso that owner Mike Ash­ley make him­self scarce and take Gra­ham Carr – the chief scout re­spon­si­ble for sign­ing a suc­ces­sion of gut­less French flops – with him.

Work­ing along­side CEO Lee Charn­ley, Ben­itez de­manded full con­trol over trans­fers and as­sur­ances that his judge­ment would be trusted.

The spec­tac­u­lar suc­cess of £22m duo Dwight Gayle and Matt Ritchie served only to strengthen his hand. Or so it seemed. In Jan­uary, a move for An­dros Townsend – sold to Crys­tal Palace for £13m just six months ear­lier – col­lapsed when Ash­ley baulked at the £3m loan fee.

Ben­itez was livid. Hav­ing failed with bids for An­thony Knock­aert and Fer­nando Forestieri in Au­gust, the Spa­niard knew his side were a winger and play­maker short of divi­sional dom­i­nance.

Short, too, of cover for Gayle, the only player blessed with gen­uine pace at the top end of the field.

In the end, not a sin­gle player ar­rived in Jan­uary. Ben­itez felt be­trayed and sources close to the club con­firmed he was very close to walk­ing out in the weeks that fol­lowed.

This month’s strug­gles will not have helped his mood. Key play­ers look jaded. In­jury to Gayle and the lack of a like-for­like re­place­ment has robbed New­cas­tle of any threat in be­hind.

As a re­sult, em­bold­ened op­po­nents can press high, deny­ing Jonjo Shelvey the space to slice and dice. Ev­ery­thing Ben­itez feared has come to pass.

Ahead of Pre­ston, the New­cas­tle boss spoke of “see­ing the job through”. Whether he will do like­wise with his con­tract de­pends on how much cash Ash­ley of­fers for trans­fers in the sum­mer and, crit­i­cally, whether Ben­itez feels the owner can be trusted to fol­low through. For Toon fans, the wait to find out prom­ises to be ev­ery bit as tense as the fal­ter­ing crawl to pro­mo­tion.

PIC­TURE: Ac­tion Im­ages

UP AND ATSU: New­cas­tle loa­nee Chris­tian Atsu evades a chal­lenge by Ip­swich’s Jor­dan Spence In­set: Rafa Ben­itez

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