They’re back. Many people thought (and many others hoped) that Newcastle’s stay away from the Premiership might last a while after they were unceremoniously dumped from the league after the 2008-2009 season, sending a warning to some of the “mid-major” clubs that even semi-large clubs can face the drop if they don’t watch themselves. With owner Mike Ashley (when he wasn’t making a fool of himself in the stands) looking to sell the club cheaply and an astronomical payroll for the Championship, Newcastle looked like they might be set to become the next Leeds.
But reports of Newcastle’s demise were greatly exaggerated. They not only won promotion in their first year down, but bulldozed the Championship, finishing unbeaten at St. James’ Park and with a ridiculous 102 points, 11 clear of West Brom in second, but more impressively 23 in front of Nottingham Forest for the last automatic promotion spot. What does that mean for the Premiership? I guess we’ll find out:
11) NEWCASTLE UNITED
2009-10 standing: 1st in Championship (automatic promotion)
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Gaffer: Chris Hughton (3rd season)
Best new signing: Dan Gosling – Although he didn’t get a whole lot of playing time with Everton (he’s only 20), Gosling is very versatile, and capable of producing in dramatic moments. He should also arrive at Newcastle hungry, and – with his style of play – may quickly become a fan favorite.
(By the time you read this, Newcastle may also have secured Tom Cleverley on loan from Manchester United. Cleverley was outstanding on United’s tour of the United States and may be a steal for Newcastle.)
Biggest loss: Nicky Butt – Butt had a fantastic career and after holding aloft the Championship trophy last season retired at the age of 35. Off the field, his leadership will surely be missed, but when a 35-year old retiring is your biggest loss, you’ve done pretty well for yourself, although you’d expect a promoted side to add more than they would subtract.
Key player: Kevin Nolan and Andy Carroll (tie) – Newcastle scored 95 goals in the league last season, but spread them out well, with Nolan and Carroll jointly sharing the team lead with 17. Neither one has a proven scoring record in the Premiership, and they are two different types of players. Will one of them step up and put up a decent amount of goals this season? Carroll might be the choice, he showed flashes two years ago, and at 21, it might be his time to make himself into a household name.
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Random fact: Nolan and Carroll also led Newcastle in yellow cards last season, with Nolan picking up 10 and Carroll 9 over the course of the Championship campaign, so you know they’ll be feisty at least.
As I just talked about, even though they led the Championship in goals scored (90), it’s not entirely clear where their offensive output is going to come from this season. It will probably be a lot of players contributing, which seems like a good thing, but can also lead to frustrating days against Premiership defenses. Also, there are a lot of names that want playing time up front, and that could lead to some team selection problems for Hughton.
At the other end, a lot of the defense that struggled in the Premiership two years ago returns, and injured Steven Taylor will be out until November. The central defense pairing might consist of Argentinian Fabricio Coloccini and Sol Campbell, which is a couple of question marks to say the least. In goal, Steve Harper was a rock last season, but still might have some nightmares about that relegation run-in two years ago, which saw him struggle after Shay Given went to Manchester City.
What was most surprising about Newcastle last year was their defense, with Harper leading the way in goal. The Magpies conceded only 35 goals in 48 league matches, and hadn’t really changed their team that much. So there has to be some confidence there heading back to the Premiership. Campbell, while obviously at the end of his career, will not be intimidated or scared by his surroundings.
What may help more than anything else, too, is motivation. For those that were around two years ago (and there are plenty), it had to be a little embarrassing to have the uniform on when Newcastle got sent down. It is a proud club, and – as they proved last season – most of the players are proud to play for them (or many more would have left, although contracts and finances obviously play a role). They, almost shockingly, played as a true team last year and it showed in the final table.
The jump from the Championship to the Premiership is never easy, so many teams (even teams that won the title in the Championship) have proven that in the past. But so many of the Newcastle players have previous Premier League experience that I think that should be less of a hindrance and more of a help with this club. They remember how good it was to be in the Premiership and learned their lesson from two years ago.
There are still big question marks: Who will be the playmaker? Who will score goals consistently? Is the defense ready for some of the best strikers in the world? But people forget (although they have no one to blame but themselves), it took a lot of things coming together at the same time to get Newcastle relegated two years ago, including only 22 home points (as opposed to 59 last year). In 2008-2009, they were 11 points out of 11th place, and I think the second time around, that’s about how much they will improve.