TOON ON THE UP

Chris Dunlavy wit­nesses New­cas­tle’s low-key pro­mo­tion cel­e­bra­tions

The Football League Paper - - INSIDE - By Chris Dunlavy

IT’S 11.30pm on Mon­day in the Straw­berry, the iconic pub that sits in the shadow of New­cas­tle’s fa­mous Gal­low­gate End. Two hours ear­lier, a com­fort­able 4-1 win over Pre­ston had sealed an in­stant re­turn to the Premier League.

Yet there are no rau­cous hordes throng­ing the bar. No chants, no ju­bi­lant songs as­sault­ing the eardrums. As last or­ders rings, the old place echoes to the sound of stacked stools, life­less as Moussa Sis­soko on match day.

On the pitch, too, there was scant sign of un­bound joy. No pitch in­va­sion. No lap of hon­our. Rafa Ben­itez milked the adu­la­tion as La Bamba belted round St James’, but swiftly scut­tled back down the tun­nel.

Soon his play­ers emerged, sober in ev­ery sense. Daryl Mur­phy headed straight for his car. Matt Ritchie am­bled up to the play­ers’ lounge.

“We’ve got a day off to­mor­row,” said Rob El­liot, the keeper who made his first ap­pear­ance in 12 months. “So yeah… I’d imag­ine a few of the lads might pop into town for some cel­e­bra­tions.”

In con­trast to the cathar­tic eu­pho­ria at Brighton, when play­ers sang from the Press box and sup­port­ers swarmed the turf, this was pro­mo­tion with a small ‘p’.

Per­me­ated

Such has been the ral­ly­ing cry from Ben­itez. From the mo­ment he took charge in May, the Spa­niard had in­sisted that pro­mo­tion was a min­i­mum re­quire­ment. That a re­turn to the top flight was no achieve­ment, merely atone­ment for the sins of sea­sons past.

That mes­sage has per­me­ated the dress­ing room and the stands. Un­like 2009-10, when rel­e­ga­tion was a nov­elty and the Cham­pi­onship a mys­tery, the ma­jor­ity of fans re­mem­bered Chris Hughton’s romp to the ti­tle and ex­pected no less.

Sky had even been warned in ad­vance: don’t ex­pect a party, don’t bother bring­ing your ‘We’re go­ing up’ ban­ners. If you want that, take your cam­eras to Brighton.

“This was al­ways the bare min­i­mum,” ex­plained DeAn­dre Yedlin, the Amer­i­can full-back who has made 30 ap­pear­ances for the Toon fol­low­ing a £5m sum­mer move from Spurs.

“From the day the sea­son kicked off, we were ex­pected to win ev­ery game. There’s been a lot of pres­sure and it has been tough at times.

“Ob­vi­ously there’s a lot of joy at the re­sult and at win­ning pro­mo­tion. We’re go­ing to en­joy it. But the over­rid­ing feel­ing is prob­a­bly relief.”

Those thoughts were echoed by mid­fielder Jack Col­back. “We are re­lieved,” ad­mit­ted the 27-year-old lo­cal lad, signed from arch-ri­vals Sun­der­land last sea­son. “When you get rel­e­gated, you feel a sense of re­spon­si­bil­ity. The only way to make amends is to bounce back.

“We were nailed on favourites to go up and I think that comes with the club, the stature of New­cas­tle and the sta­dium. No dis­re­spect to the league, but we are in the wrong place.”

Yet this has been far from plain sail­ing for the Toon. In 2010, Hughton’s side lost just four matches en route to the ti­tle. This sea­son’s tally of ten de­feats (and count­ing) is more than all but three of the 14 teams to win au­to­matic pro­mo­tion since. Yedlin, left, was one of sev­eral play­ers sur­prised by the cal­i­bre of op­po­si­tion. “I was, very much,” said the 23-year-old. “It wasn’t a di­vi­sion I knew much about but, in my opinion, it’s ac­tu­ally very un­der-rated. “Put it this way, it wasn’t like any­thing I’ve ever played in be­fore. You’ve got play­ers of great qual­ity, but you’ve also great phys­i­cal in­ten­sity and fit­ness. To be con­sis­tent over so many games takes a lot more strength and dis­ci­pline than maybe peo­ple re­alise.”

Alek­san­dar Mitro­vic was widely tipped to take the Cham­pi­onship by storm, but the mus­cu­lar Serb has man­aged just six goals and spent vast tracts on the bench.

“Tough, very tough,” he said when asked about the Cham­pi­onship. “For me, phys­i­cally, it is even harder than the Premier League.”

In the end, though, New­cas­tle’s qual­ity proved enough. The goals of Dwight Gayle, the vi­sion of Jonjo Shelvey, the com­po­sure of Ciaran Clarke and the re­lent­less con­sis­tency of Ritchie, surely New­cas­tle’s player of the year.

None, though, can match the

im­pact of Ben­itez. A con­sum­mate politi­cian, the Spa­niard very de­lib­er­ately dis­tanced him­self from de­tested owner Mike Ash­ley, forg­ing a bond with sup­port­ers un­seen since the days of Kevin Kee­gan. The en­mity is real. Ben­itez trusts nei­ther Ash­ley nor his chief scout Gra­ham Carr. With­out a guar­an­tee of con­tin­ued con­trol over trans­fers and enough cash to launch a top-ten push, the 57-year-old will walk away. Asked di­rectly after pro­mo­tion was sealed, Ben­itez talked about “analysing the sit­u­a­tion”, and said it was too soon to talk about next sea­son. Events this week – with club of­fices raided and New­cas­tle CEO Lee Charn­ley ar­rested as part of an HMRC in­ves­ti­ga­tion into sus­pected tax and na­tional in­sur­ance fraud – will also frus­trate Ben­itez at a time when trans­fer tar­gets are be­ing drawn up.

Pre­ferred

Mitro­vic in­ad­ver­tently ad­mit­ted to the uncer­tainty over Ben­itez’s fu­ture.

“The play­ers like him and we have all learned a lot,” he said. “I hope he stays. We all do.”

Yedlin, meanwhile, pre­ferred to fo­cus on next sea­son. “The man­ager has been great,” added the right-back. “He’s al­ways been calm and that’s trans­ferred it­self to us as play­ers.

“You’ve seen tonight the way the place was full and rock­ing. That’s down to him and the re­la­tion­ship he’s got with the sup­port­ers.

“It feels like the club is mov­ing in the right di­rec­tion, and for us it’s re­ally im­por­tant that we build on what’s been achieved this year.

“The re­silience we’ve shown, the way we’ve ground out re­sults at tough times. We need to take that into the Premier League and make sure this doesn’t hap­pen again.”

Ob­jec­tive achieved. But Yedlin, like the rest of his team­mates, knows that, for all the op­ti­mism and good­will en­gen­dered by pro­mo­tion, only a re­turn to the glory days of fight­ing for top-six fin­ishes will bring gen­uine ju­bi­la­tion back to the stands of St James’ and the gang­ways of the Straw­berry.

This was a small step on a long road.

PIC­TURE: Ac­tion Im­ages

SEAL­ING THE DEAL: New­cas­tle’s Ay­oze Perez cel­e­brates scor­ing the first goal against Pre­ston Insets (L-R): Chris­tian Atsu nets the sec­ond, owner Mike Ash­ley, right, in the stands with manag­ing direc­tor Lee Charn­ley, and Rafa Ben­itez salutes a re­turn to the top flight

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.