I tried to enjoy it. I really did. Relegation can cause havoc for a club but this felt different. It was the second relegation I’ve had to suffer in my football supporting lifetime – hardly a crisis compared to what some have gone through in the same period – and inevitably the season to come would be filled with comparisons to “the last time we were down here.”
It’s difficult to write a piece like this without coming across as some sort of modern day, spoiled football fan. I’m not that way inclined but it is only natural that I don’t feel Newcastle United belong in the Championship. We’ve had Champions League football on a few occasions in the last 20 years, Europa League in the last 5, and with a stadium housing 52,000 it is fair to say we should be capable of mixing it in the country’s top division. It is down to severe mismanagement that we had to go through “this” again, but that’s a story for another day.
As I sat disconsolate in a pub in 2009 watching Alan Shearer’s Newcastle struggle to a 1-0 defeat at Villa Park, condemning us to relegation, I tried to take a positive outlook. Shearer would surely get the job on a full time basis, the so called bad eggs and high earners (not necessarily the same people) could be shipped out and we’d be a better club for it. What followed was a summer of uncertainty, where Alan Shearer was not appointed, the club was put up for sale and basically nothing happened. Chris Hughton was interim boss for 3 months before it became apparent that nobody else was going to get involved and whilst Damien Duff, Michael Owen, Mark Viduka and Seb Bassong (among others) departed, we were fortunate that seasoned pro’s like Kevin Nolan, Shola Ameobi and Steve Harper created a siege mentality to put us back in the big time. The emergence of Andy Carroll also helped, and after surviving a rocky winter with just a handful of hits, the January window allowed us to strengthen and ease home in style.
There were similar question marks over whether Rafa Benitez would stay on as manager after our most recent relegation. Like Shearer, he had arrived too late into a tumultuous season and despite a late run of form, it was not enough to preserve our Premier League status. Benitez had signed a deal with a release clause for such an eventuality, but had indicated he could stay if the terms were correct. On the final day of the 2015/16 season, an already relegated Newcastle thrashed Tottenham Hotspur 5-1. The crowd were incredible, singing Rafa’s name constantly, including the not so subtle chant of “Rafa Benitez, we want you to stay!” An already relegated team were afforded a rapturous reception, and I honestly believe Benitez fell in love that day. Perhaps Mike Ashley had learned from the Shearer debacle 7 years earlier, but Benitez signed a new deal and was given control of transfers. The comeback was on.
We had the summer we should have had in 2009 – the players who wanted to leave were allowed to leave if their asking price was met, meaning we pocketed £55m for Wijnaldum and Sissoko. Andros Townsend also left after his £12m release clause was met by Crystal Palace, but the club moved quickly to convince Matt Ritchie to drop down to the Championship to immediately fill the void. Dwight Gayle, Mo Diame, Grant Hanley, Daryl Murphy, Jesus Gamez and Isaac Hayden were also recruited, with Cristian Atsu arriving on loan. Things were looking up.
There was soon a sign of things to come. An opening day defeat by Fulham, where Newcastle had three decent penalty shouts turned down, was followed up by a home defeat to Huddersfield. United hadn’t lost a home game at all during 2009/10, but it was already apparent that the Championship is a stronger division now. Not only are clubs operating on larger budgets, there’s a whole new approach to that of the class of 2009/10. Far more Championship clubs play “Proper football” now, and there are far less journeyman managers around. Newcastle United were the biggest scalp in the division, and teams were no longer terrified of playing in front of such a crowd. This was the game to win, a feeling encapsulated by Huddersfield’s celebrations at the end of that game.
Fortunately, Newcastle found their feet and the wins were beginning to flow once Gayle found his shooting boots. Rafa would rotate the team at will, sometimes to the frustration of fans when a team that won 6-0 at QPR in midweek was dismantled and the replacements suffered a 2-0 loss in the home reverse to Wolves on the Saturday. As inexplicable as results like that were, the manager always avoids the flack. There’s a feeling of respect and “Rafa knows best” around the stadium now, something that I don’t think has been there since the Sir Bobby days. The quality of football wasn’t always the best, but playing against 11 men behind the ball is rarely easy. Unless we scored early, in which case it would be fairly routine. Away from home was another story, as we controlled games and won at a canter. Yes, this Championship lark might be a laugh after all.
My feelings soon changed in December though. A Friday night game at Forest really summed it up. I know there are some Premier League games on a Friday night now but it really is the worst time to have a football match. We were having the better of the game when a Forest player, who shall remain nameless, got into a tangle with Shelvey and our playmaker was dismissed. Despite it being off the ball, play was still going on so this equated to a penalty. In my opinion, the Forest lad pulled Shelvey to the floor in the first place but that didn’t seem to matter. Darlow saved the pen and we took the lead with 10 men, only to be pegged back by a second red card and penalty for a dive by the same player. Again, Darlow saved the penalty. In the second half, playing against 9 men, Forest scored from an offside position and then scruffed in an own goal from a corner to win 2-1. They celebrated like they’d won the World Cup. Thankfully, both red cards were overturned later.
The standard of officiating would come into question numerous times, a total lack of consistency being the main problem. Of course this reached a new low in April when Matt Ritchie scored a penalty, only for referee Stroud to disallow the penalty for encroachment and award a free kick to Burton Albion. It was at this point I was fairly convinced there was a vendetta against us, that these referees like the limelight and see this as their chance to impress by making a big decision. Benitez dared to raise this – asking how a referee with alleged allegiance to Huddersfield is allowed to referee the team they are in direct competition with for promotion. The result was an FA Charge. Ridiculous!
By the time we’d let in an injury time equaliser at home to Leeds in a game we dominated but couldn’t put to bed, I was ready to leave this behind. We’ll not win anywhere near as many games next season but it’s not hard to see why so many teams fail to come back at the first attempt. It is a dog fight of a league with an enormous financial prize that could change any club for years to come. Naturally, there were great celebrations when the title was clinched in unlikely fashion on the final day of the season, but it’s the manner in which you would most would like to win a title. In a sick sort of way.
To the fans of any clubs going down to the Championship, you will have one of the best season’s ever for the real things that football are about. Affable fans, some lovely traditional stadiums mixed in with some brand new monstrosities, less fanfare and unpredictable results. You’ll also have some of the most frustrating matches of your time (often due to the latter) with questionable officiating thrown in for good measure. Oh and playing twice a week is fun, if you’re not having to travel to Brighton on a Tuesday like we had to.
In summary I was happy to visit the Championship but I’m happier to leave. It’ll always be a season where we scored two injury time goals in the same game to equalise and then win the game, but it’s the type of league where that sort of thing doesn’t surprise you. I’m looking forward to seeing it unfold next season as a neutral.