THEY won’t be taking anything for granted after Monday’s meek capitulation at Ipswich, but at some stage over the next two-and-a-half weeks, Newcastle United will almost certainly be promoted back to the Premier League.
Chances are they will go up in second place, with Brighton crowned as champions, and the likelihood of that eventuality has sparked a lively debate this week. Would going up in second spot represent a significant achievement? Or is it merely a minimum requirement for Rafael Benitez and his squad given the advantages they possess over the majority of their rivals in the Championship?
If the bookmakers’ pre-season prices are taken as a gauge of a side’s position, then Newcastle have under-achieved. The Magpies started the season as strong favourites to claim the Championship title, reflecting both the size of the club and the perceived strength of the squad that Benitez was able to assemble in the wake of relegation.
Newcastle boast the biggest wage bill in the second tier, and spent more than any other Championship club last summer. The £55m they splashed out to sign the likes of Dwight Gayle, Matt Ritchie and Ciaran Clark was more than Real Madrid and Paris St Germain spent on new signings, and while the Magpies still finished the transfer window in credit thanks to the big-money sales of Moussa Sissoko and Georginio Wijnaldum, Benitez was able to spend a sum that would have been unthinkable to just about any other club in the second tier.
With that in mind, wouldn’t it have been a remarkable failure not to have made it into the top-flight? Shouldn’t Newcastle be running away with the title rather than scrambling to cobble together the five points they still require to guarantee automatic promotion? With the financial clout he has been able to wield, shouldn’t Benitez be sweeping all before him rather than watching his side lose at Ipswich and suffer home defeats to the likes of Wolves, Blackburn and Fulham?
It is a compelling narrative, but also a false one. The simple truth is that countless other clubs have enjoyed similar advantages to those currently being enjoyed by Newcastle, and come up short in the final reckoning.
The Championship is an exceptionally hard division to get out of, no matter who you are or what you have going for you. If, as looks likely, Newcastle accompany Brighton into the top-flight this summer, they will have succeeded where so many others have failed. And their achievement will rank alongside those of the other two Newcastle sides to have been promoted in the last three decades.
Ah, you might say, but it’s easy for relegated clubs to bounce back now with the growth of parachute payments. Well, the history books, not to mention the current Championship table, suggest it isn’t.
Aston Villa accompanied Newcastle into the second tier last May, and were very close to matching the Magpies’ spending last summer. Villa spent £51m in the close season, with the £15m they splashed out on Jonathan Kodjia representing a new Championship record, yet they currently find themselves in 12th position, a whopping 15 points adrift of the play-off places.
It was widely assumed that Norwich would waltz back into the top-flight given the number of players that were retained from their Premier League campaign, but the ten-point gap currently separating the Canaries from the top-six means they have no chance of an immediate return.
While Newcastle have not been out of the top two since the start of October, Norwich and Villa have never looked like promotion candidates. Clearly, acclimatising to life in the Championship is much tougher than Newcastle have made it appear.
Indeed, in the last five seasons, of the 15 clubs that have been relegated from the Premier League, only one, Burnley, have managed to win automatic promotion at the first attempt. If Newcastle also manage it, that will be two from 18, a tally that immediately highlights the extent of their achievement.
Is that achievement on a par with the success enjoyed by Kevin Keegan’s title winners in 1993 or Chris Hughton’s side that swept to promotion in 2010? The answer has to be ‘not quite’ given that both of those teams won the title. But in terms of bare statistics, there is not much to choose between the three seasons.
Keegan’s side are generally regarded to have obliterated their opposition, but after a record-breaking start, the 1992-93 team actually stuttered somewhat in the remainder of the season. After 43 games, they had 87 points and 26 victories. The current side have also recorded 26 wins, but with two fewer draws, their points tally stands at 85. Clearly, there is not much difference.
Hughton’s side had a better total at this stage – 95 points with three games remaining – and their form from mid-February onwards was sensational as they went on a 17-game unbeaten run that stretched to the end of the season. For much of the earlier part of the campaign, though, they were grinding out victories in a manner not too dissimilar to the current team.
Since Newcastle’s last promotion success in 2010, only four teams have had more than 85 points after 43 Championship matches, and one of those is the current Brighton side. Brighton’s performances are one of the reasons why Newcastle’s efforts have been questioned, but just because Chris Hughton’s side have been exceptional, it does not mean the Magpies’ achievements should be diminished.
For all last summer’s expenditure, even the most ardent of Newcastle fans would be hard-pushed to claim that the current team is as good as the one that Hughton led to promotion. Gayle, Ritchie and Jonjo Shelvey are three of the best players in the division, but there are deficiencies in key areas, as evidenced by Benitez’s unsuccessful attempts to secure further reinforcements in January.
Benitez has assembled a functional Championship side, and if he steers it to a top-two finish in the next three matches, he will have achieved the task he was handed at the start of the season.
That might not be sufficient for some, who expected Newcastle to cruise through the campaign unbeaten and win the title by a dozen-or-so points. But it would still represent a genuine success. All that remains now is to complete the challenge in the final three matches.