The last few years have been bleak for Newcastle United. One of the largest clubs in English football had been facing a period of gradual decline, before the horrific second half to the 2014/15 season saw them avoid relegation on the final day, only to then crash out of the English top flight the following year.

With the loss of Premier League status and the club still run by Mike ‘Cashley’, a man renowned for the poor wages he pays to his Sports Direct employees and a figure who draws anger from every Newcastle fan at the mention of his name, this grand old club to many is at a real low point.

Yet this season Newcastle fans have been witnessing a long overdue rebirth of the club; they have undergone large-scale squad and coaching changes that present a more hopeful future for the Magpies.

Firstly, there are the changes to club’s management. Rafa Benitez’s arrival on Tyneside was met with excitement by Newcastle fans who saw this as the being of their return to being a major player in English football once again.

Although Benitez could not prevent their relegation, his appointment in March last season was felt as too late to save the club from the Steve McClaren’s disastrous time in charge, enabling his reputation to remain unaffected in the eyes of Newcastle fans.

The so-called ‘Rafalution’ that has taken over Newcastle has filled the fans with hope that with a manger of Benitez’s status and focus on tactical strength, not only will their stay in the Championship be short, but once they are back in the Premier League they will be a top half team again.

For Benitez too, after tumultuous years at Real Madrid, Chelsea, Inter and Napoli, where he often faced fans hostile towards him from the outset, having the Toon Army’s support must have been a welcome change.

As for the squad, the drop down a division saw the inevitable departure of players. Moussa Sissoko and Georginio Wijnaldum, two of Newcastle’s highest earning players, left for £30 million and £23 million respectively whilst ‘dead wood’ players Steven Taylor and Fabricio Coloccini were released for free, signalling a rebuild and club clear out.

In the summer of 2016, eight squad players were sold on or released, whilst a further 13 players including Tim Krul, Florian Thauvin and Siem de Jong were all loaned out with options to buy included in their contracts.

In exchange, Newcastle last summer brought in 11 players, including Matt Ritchie and Dwight Gayle, both for £10 million, with an average age of 25 for the new signings against 27 of the departed players – indicating a focus on developing the clubs future.

Benitez has combined these transfers with some of the stand-out players from last season, namely the now Newcastle captain and ex-Nottingham Forest defender Jamaal Lascelles, to create a young team that have the best goal difference in the Championship of +33.

This has been largely thanks to Newcastle boasting the best attack in the division, which has scored 54 goals, 20 of which have been converted by the league’s top scorer Dwight Gayle. All the signs are positive and this talented team, combined with Benitez’s focus on tactical solidity and ability to get the best out of his players, points towards Newcastle now becoming a force to be reckoned with.

Although Newcastle are currently only one point in front of Brighton in the EFL Championship, they are seven points clear of the play-off places and have a game in hand. This means if they beat QPR at home they can extend that gap to nine points and possibly leapfrog Brighton should they lose or draw in their trip to play Huddersfield.

As we move into the second half of the season, Newcastle are in a strong position to achieve automatic promotion into the Premier League and look ready to return as a big club in that division. This year in the championship has presented Newcastle the much-needed chance to rebuild and they now look a far stronger team than they were this time last year.

Jeremy Dunn

Image courtesy of marl via flickr.com

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