Following the news that Rafa Benitez is on his way out of Newcastle, I will be reviewing his tenure on Tyneside. This isn't an article I wanted to do now but I will be doing a similar one when Mike Ashley leaves.
When Rafa arrived on Tyneside to replace Steve McClaren, the club was on it's knees and sitting 19th despite spending approximately £80m in the two transfer windows. Things didn't start well for the Spaniard though as only one point from his first four games (including against relegation rivals Norwich and Sunderland) left most fans accepting relegation but when Jamaal Lascelles stood up to the players not giving their all after the 3-1 loss at Southampton, things started to change and he opened the scoring in a 3-0 win over Swansea a week later and belief we could stay up came back and the following week, we held Man City to a 1-1 draw and came from 2-0 to draw 2-2 against Liverpool on Rafa's return to Anfield.
We got out of the bottom three as Andros Townsend's free kick before Karl Darlow's penalty save from ex Magpie Yohan Cabaye sent Alan Pardew's Crystal Palace back down south with a 1-0 loss on his return to St James' Park but as we failed to score away to an already relegated Aston Villa whilst Sunderland beat Chelsea 3-2 and Everton 3-0, relegation was confirmed. However, the final game of the season at home to Tottenham was a completely memorable afternoon as we won 5-1 whilst fans chanted for Benitez to stay on in the Championship and he did just that. The summer saw us sign Matz Sels from Gent, Matt Ritchie from Bournemouth, Dwight Gayle from Crystal Palace, Jesus Gamez from Atletico Madrid, Isaac Hayden from Arsenal, Grant Hanley from Blackburn, Ciaran Clark from Aston Villa, Mohamed Diame from Hull, DeAndre Yedlin from Tottenham, Daryl Murphy from Ipswich, Achraf Lazaar from Palermo and Christian Atsu on loan from Chelsea and sell Andros Townsend to Crystal Palace, Papiss Cisse to Shandong Luneng, Georginio Wijnaldum to Liverpool, Daryl Janmaat to Watford, Gael Bigirimana to Coventry and Moussa Sissoko to Tottenham. Meanwhile, Gabriel Obertan, Sylvain Marveaux and Steven Taylor all left on expiry of their contracts.
After we lost our opening two games of the Championship season, we got six straight wins in all competitions, including a 2-0 home win over Brighton & Hove Albion that proved to be vital at the end of the season and our biggest away win for fifty-four years as we smashed Queens Park Rangers 6-0 at Loftus Road. Dropped points against Wolverhampton Wanderers and Aston Villa (although we did beat the former in the EFL Cup in between) left us 9th in the league going into a crucial home against Norwich Ciyu, Dwight Gayle put us 1-0 up but the Canaries led 3-1 in the second half, however, Gayle scored his second to half the deficit before the last two minutes of stoppage saw Yoan Gouffran head home the equaliser and then Gayle fire home to complete his hat-trick and win the game for us. Gouffran's equaliser lifted us into fourth from tenth before Gayle's winner left us third in the league. This game started a nine game winning run all competitions that put us top of the league and into the EFL Cup quarter-finals as we smashed Preston North End 6-0 but after a shock 1-0 home loss to struggling Blackburn Rovers ended the run, failure to convert our chances and an error from Matz Sels saw us forced into a penalty shoot-out against Hull City in the quarter-final and we lost it 3-1 before two controversial red cards and a Ciaran Clark being wrongly disallowed ruined our night as we lost 2-1 at Nottingham Forest.
We went into 2017 top of the league but Brighton had a game in hand and ended January top whilst articles suggesting a change in transfer policy, the failure to sign anyone then Rafa's interview after we were held 2-2 at home by Queens Park Rangers left fans worried about his future but he made it clear he wouldn't quit the day before a 1-0 win over Derby County on Steve McClaren's return to St James' Park. Despite retaking the lead in the title race, we dropped back to second ahead of the crucial away game against Brighton & Hove Albion at the end of the February and after Glenn Murray's penalty gave the Seagulls a 1-0 half-time lead, Mohamed Diame's bizarre equaliser and Ayoze Perez's late finish gave us a 2-1 win before promotion looked sealed as we beat Huddersfield Town 3-1 four days later but two separate three game winless runs either side of home wins over Wigan and Burton in quick succession left us seven points behind Brighton. The following weekend couldn't have gone better for us though as Brighton, Huddersfield and Reading all lost, meaning our slim title hopes were still alive and a win over Preston that Monday night would seal promotion and we beat the Lilywhites 4-1 to confirm our place back in the top flight.
After Lee Charnley was arrested as part of an investigation into suspected tax and National Insurance fraud, the title race went down to the final day as we beat Cardiff 2-0 for a club record fourteenth away win of the season and Brighton surprisingly lost 1-0 at home to Bristol City and as we ended the season with a 3-0 win over Barnsley, Jack Grealish's late strike meant Chris Hughton's men could only draw with Aston Villa and we were Championship champions. That summer saw chief scout Graham Carr leave whilst spending was low as Jacob Murphy's £12m move from Norwich proved to be our biggest signing as our other arrivals were Florian Lejeune from Eibar, Javier Manquillo from Atletico Madrid, Mikel Merino on loan from Borussia Dortmund and Joselu from Stoke City whilst Christian Atsu's loan move from Chelsea was made permanent. The season started badly as we lost 2-0 at home to Tottenham Hotspur with Jonjo Shelvey sent off for a needless stamp on Dele Alli, 1-0 away to fellow newly promoted side Huddersfield and 3-2 at home to Nottingham Forest in the EFL Cup but Joselu scored on his first start in a 3-0 win over West Ham United and Jamaal Lascelles scored the winner in our next two games as we beat Swansea City 1-0 and Stoke City 2-1 to move up to an incredible fourth.
In mid October, Mikel Merino's move from Borussia Dortmund was made permanent and Mike Ashley put us up for sale (let's hope the BZG takeover goes through) but a 1-0 home win over Crystal Palace (with Merino coming off the bench to head home a late winner) proved to be our last win for two months as we really missed Jamaal Lascelles when he was injured. Going into January, it was clear we needed signings and after PCP's takeover fell through, three players were brought in on loan - Kenedy from Chelsea, Martin Dubravka from Sparta Prague and Islam Slimani from Leicester City. Slimani only played four games due to injury problems but Kenedy and Dubravka made a superb impact over the remainder of the season as we finished tenth and beat Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea at home, Dubravka's move was inevitably made permanent whilst Kenedy returned for another season long loan. It was hoped the Premier League TV money would help us sign better players but another difficult summer saw us make a profit of approximately £20m and left Rafa's future in real doubt, leading to 'If Rafa Goes We Go' being set up and protests returning. We failed to win any of our first eleven games in all competitions and could only manage 0-0 draws at Cardiff City, Crystal Palace and Southampton but a 1-0 win over Watford started a three game winning run as new signings Salomon Rondon, Ki Sung-Yueng and Fabian Schar started to make real impacts.
An injury to Paul Dummett whilst on international duty left no cover at left-back so Rafa decided to start using wing-backs as we beat Burnley 2-1 for our first away win of the season, the last league game that saw him use the 4-2-3-1 formation proved it didn't work without Dummett as we were beaten 3-0 at home by West Ham United and things looked bleak going to January, particularly with Rafa claiming we'd need a miracle to survive after a dire 0-0 home draw against newly promoted Fulham but the month saw academy graduate Sean Longstaff start to impress as he scored in a 4-2 win at Blackburn Rovers in the FA Cup as well as in league games against Chelsea and Cardiff City either side of the win at Ewood Park. The following nine days after the crucial win over Cardiff, however, saw reports that Rafa would not talk about a new deal without the signing of Atlanta United's Miguel Almiron and a left-back before a 2-0 home loss to Watford in the FA Cup left all of us dreading champions Manchester City's visit to St James' Park three days later. However, a club record fee of £21m was agreed for Almiron hours before kick-off and despite Pep Guardiola's side going 1-0 up in the opening minute, second half goals from Salomon Rondon and Matt Ritchie gave us an unbelievable 2-1 win that really changed the mood on Tyneside. The win had even come despite injuries meaning we could only play Sean Longstaff and Isaac Hayden in the midfield, both impressed on the night and Hayden's season in particular changed that night. It proved to be the Citizens' only dropped points of the second half of the season as they went on to retain the league title.
Two days after that memorable win, Almiron's signing was announced as well as a loan deal for Monaco's Antonio Barreca after Lazio's Jordan Lukaku failed a medical the previous week and only a late Martin Dubravka error denied us a valuable draw at Tottenham. Almiron came off the bench for his debut in a 1-1 draw at Wolves before coming close to opening the scoring in his first start against Huddersfield but Salomon Rondon and Ayoze Perez did the business in a comfortable 2-0 win whilst another 2-0 home win three days later against Burnley saw Fabian Schar open the scoring with a rocket of a strike before Sean Longstaff scored his first Premier League goal but his season came to an end as he went off injured in a 2-0 loss at West Ham four days later. The mentality that Rafa had installed into our team was shown once again against Everton as we went 2-0 by half-time with ex Sunderland goalkeeper Jordan Pickford saving a Matt Ritchie penalty but Salomon Rondon and Ayoze Perez caused damage in the second half as we came back to win 3-2, the first time we came from 2-0 down to win a Premier League game since Fulham away in October 2003.
After losses against Arsenal and Crystal Palace in early April, wins over Leicester and Southampton confirmed our survival with Ayoze Perez netting a hat-trick in the latter game with fans chanting for Rafa Benitez and Salomon Rondon to stay towards the end of the season, especially as we smashed already relegated Fulham 4-0 in what proved to be the Spaniard's final game as manager whilst Rondon netted the last goal of the game. He seemed positive in his press conferences towards the end of the season but as the Bin Zayed Group were reported to have agreed a fee to buy the club, leaving us unable to sign players, it was confirmed earlier this week that he would not sign a new contract so we have to pray the takeover goes through but regardless, I will be there to cheer the lads on next season and whoever gets the job (as long as it's not proven garbage like Pardew) although I may not be at every game. The memories of the end of the 2015/16 season and during 2016/17 have even persuaded me to buy FIFA 16 and FIFA 17 from CeX just to relive them with Toon FIFA careers and at least if we hire a bad manager next season, I can buy Football Manager and do a Newcastle career without replacing a popular manager.
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