Job done, then. Newcastle United defeated Preston North End 4-1 on Monday, securing their promotion back to the Premier League. They were heavy favorites to finish in the top two of the Championship this season, and they’ve done it with a few games to spare.
Last season’s tumble out of the Premier League was risible, embarrassing, and shambolic, but over the summer it became clear that as far as everybody important was concerned, Newcastle would not — could not — be more than temporarily absent from England’s top flight.
Players left, inevitably, but others who might have found places in the Premier League were persuaded to stay, including Ayoze Perez and Jonjo Shelvey. Money was spent: Just shy of £60 million in total, including £10 million on Dwight Gayle, £12 million on Matt Ritchie, and £5 million on Ciaran Clark.
Most importantly, Rafa Benitez was affection-bombed into sticking around in a city that he’d taken to, and that had taken to him. “The love I could feel from the fans was a big influence for me,” he said. Along with all that spending, naturally. Preseason predictions from most had Newcastle romping away with the league, and bookmakers were offering odds on 100-point and even record-breaking seasons.
Accordingly, there was much amusement when Newcastle lost their opening two games of the season and briefly found themselves in yet another relegation zone. Common sense soon asserted itself, and Newcastle found their way into the top two by October, then never left.
But the promised romp never materialised. As season’s end approaches, the 100-point mark is out of reach, and plucky little Brighton, whose team was assembled for buttons and pocket lint, have already been promoted and are five points ahead of Newcastle in the race for the Championship title. This might, perhaps, be a sign that we should do away with the lingering assumption that Championship sides will swoon before their notional betters, and instead acknowledge that it’s a competitive league full of awkward, ambitious, capable teams.
We might also nod towards to the churn of the squad over the summer, and note that buying players isn’t the same as building a team, particularly under the highest possible expectations. Or some inconveniently timed injuries to key players. But if you really want it to mean that Rafa Benitez is a fraud and Jonjo Shelvey a clown, then you can probably get away with it. Having opinions is a game of opinions.
We can probably all agree, however, that Newcastle’s return is going to be fascinating. For any newly promoted side the immediate priority has to be survival, yet Newcastle’s reputation, and that of their manager, suggests that loftier ambitions will be inevitable.
The squad is in a strange place: We know that plenty of these players are good enough for the Premier League; we also know that plenty of them got relegated from the Premier League in recent memory. Gossip around January time suggested that there was some friction between the manager and the club’s hierarchy regarding money for reinforcements, and while that turned out not to affect the club’s push for promotion, it’s been a constant refrain in Benitez’s career.
There’s a delightful unpredictability about what’s to come. It’s perfectly easy to imagine the club making a couple of sensible purchases — Ryan Shawcross has been suggested — and quickly reestablishing themselves towards the upper end of midtable. Jostling with Stoke and West Brom on the edge of European qualification. Maybe putting together a decent cup run. Then building from there.
But it’s equally easy to imagine the entire club imploding in a clatter of accusation and counter-briefing, broken promises, and stabbed back, the requesting of sofas and the acquisition of lamps. Such entertaining uncertainty is, perhaps, what Newcastle are best at. On that basis, it’s a blessing to have them back in the Premier League.