NERVY TIMES – EVEN WHEN TOON SEAL IT
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.
UP AND ATSU: Newcastle loanee Christian Atsu evades a challenge by Ipswich’s Jordan Spence Inset: Rafa Benitez