Monday, April 24, 2017

We All Follow United: A Further Tiding Of Magpies!

Yer actual Keith Telly Topping his very self shall say this but only once - and rather quietly - dear blog reader. Because karma is, as we all know, a right bloody bitch. And because gloating is so common and unbecoming. Most of the time.

When this blogger's favourite football team first gained entry into the equivalent of what is, now, the English Football League Championship (it was called the Second Division in them far-off days), they looked like this. And William Ewart Gladstone was the Prime Minister of Great Britain and her - massive - empire.
When this blogger's favourite football team first won promotion to the top division of English football - four years later - they looked like this. And, at the Battle of Omdurman, British and Egyptian troops under Horatio Kitchener (he needed you) defeated Sudanese tribesmen led by Khalifa Abdullah al-Taashi. Who didn't like it up 'em, apparently.
Staying in the First Division for the next thirty five years (they actually won the damn thing four times, the last one in 1927) and, then, having got themselves relegated for the first time, they spent fifteen years back down among the dead men of the second tier. (Admittedly, this included all of World War II during which time football wasn't, exactly, the first thing on most people's minds.) The next occasion that this blogger's favourite football team won promotion, they looked like this. And, the actor and comedian Ronnie Barker, aged nineteen, had just made his stage debut in the play Quality Street at the County Theatre in Aylesbury.
Thirteen years of, very successful, top flight football followed (during which time, United won the FA Cup three times in five years) before another disastrous relegation occurred in 1961. Thus, the next time this blogger's favourite football team won promotion, they looked like this. And, the popular Merseyside beat combo The Be-Atles (you might've heard of them) made their second movie, Help! ... whilst stoned out of their collective gourd for the majority of the time on 'herbal jazz cigarettes.'
Another thirteen year itch followed - during which time, The Magpies won their last major trophy - the Inter City Fairs Cup, in 1969 - before another, largely self-inflicted and thoroughly depressing relegation campaign. The next time this blogger's favourite football team won promotion, they looked like this. And, the comedian Tommy Cooper collapsed and died on stage from a heart attack during a live televised show, Live from Her Majesty's.
It didn't last long, however, and five years later they were back in the Second Division (and, in serious financial trouble due in no small part to signing far too many ridiculously overpaid, lazy waste-of-space gutless cowards). But, a quasi-revolution was about to be sparked thanks to the acquisition of a talismanic leader. The next time this blogger's favourite football team won promotion, they looked like this. And, three members of the popular beat combo One Direction were in the process of being born.
An exciting decade followed with five top four finishes in the Premier League (including twice as runner-up), a couple of thrilling European adventures and two appearances in the FA Cup final (albeit, on both occasions the team turned up but then forgot to actually play) before a series of calamities and much crass mismanagement at boardroom level resulted in another relegation. Nevertheless, Th' Toon bounced back at the first attempt, whilst looking like this. And, a general erection resulted in the first well-hung parliament since the 1930s.
Developing, thence. a reputation for being up and down more often than the pants of some of the lasses doon Th' Bigg Market, like, United slithered to another disgracefully incompetent and cowardly relegation in 2016. But, thanks to the hiring of - for the first time in a very long time - a manager who vaguely knew what he was doing and despite more than a handful of hiccups along the way, now, The Black & Whites are back messing with The Big Boys. And they look like this.
How long they will stay there this time is a question probably well worth asking, dear blog reader. But, not today. Now is the time to have a - small - celebratory glass of a tasty beverage of your choice and go to bed in the knowledge that, next season it'll be visits to Old Trafford, The Emirates, Anfield, Stamford Bridge and The City Of Manchester Stadium (and, a bunch of five-nil spankings, like as not) rather than Griffin Park, Brentford, the Pirelli Stadium, Burton or the DW Stadium, Wigan. It's a necessary difference this blogger feels.

So, as you've probably gathered dear blog reader, yer actual Keith Telly Topping's beloved (though unsellable) Newcastle United secured an immediate return to the Premier League with an - eventually - convincing four-one home victory over Preston Both Ends on Monday evening. Christian Atsu put the Magpies two-one up shortly before half-time after Jordan Hugill had cancelled out Ayoze Perez's early opener. On a tense evening at St James' Park, the players' nerves (and, those of their long-suffering supporters) were settled when Preston's Paul Gallagher was sent off for handling an Isaac Hayden shot on the line and Matt Ritchie scored the resulting penalty. The establishment of a two goal cushion brought about an almighty roar of relief from the Geordie faithful and a fourth Magpies goal quickly arrived as Jonjo Shelvey's in-swinging corner rebounded off the far post and was deflected into the Gallowgate End goal via the shoulder of Perez to send Newcastle up along with Brighton & Hove Albinos. Satisfaction rather than euphoria was the order of the day after the final whistle and while the players were applauded as they saluted the fans, the biggest cheers were reserved for Rafa Benitez as he took to the field to acknowledge the backing he had received not only tonight but all season. The vague possibility of snatching the Championship title from Brighton still remains - a record-breaking fourteenth away victory at Cardiff on Friday evening would leave United just one point behind The Seagulls. Benitez's side had taken only one point from their previous three matches - and played like a bunch of gutless glakes whose collective arse had dropped out in two of those games, frankly - but their late-season wobble was not punished by their closest rivals. Defeats for Reading and Huddersfield on Saturday left Newcastle needing just one more win to guarantee a top-two finish. Nevertheless, nerves were evident among the players and the crowd, which was - as usual - in excess of fifty thousand, until Ritchie converted his spot-kick to stretch Newcastle's advantage against ten-man Preston with twenty five minutes to play. The hosts took advantage of poor Preston defending for all four goals, with Perez netting twice from corners and Atsu finishing a terrific lightning three-man counter-attack in first-half stoppage time after North End had lost possession in midfield. As the final whistle blew, the Tyneside air felt Arctic but Benítez bore the look of a man feeling the warmth of the sun on his back for the first time following a long, hard winter.
Benitez had made a huge impression on Newcastle supporters in his two-month stint at St James' Park at the end of last season, despite being unable to save The Magpies from dropping out of the Premier League. He was widely expected to leave a club destined for the Championship in the summer - he was, after all, a former Champions League winner with Liverpool and had been in charge of Real Madrid only two months before replacing the hapless Steve McClaren. However, instead of activating the clause allowing him to leave Newcastle in the event of relegation, the Spaniard chose to sign a new three-year contract. 'The love I could feel from the fans was a big influence for me,' he said in May 2016, upon signing the deal. 'This is a huge club and I wanted to be part of the great future I can see for Newcastle United. The main thing for me is that I have assurances that we will have a strong team - a winning team.' Benitez was backed extensively in the transfer market last summer and more than fifty million smackers was spent as one of the most expensive squads in Championship history was assembled. Among the in-comings were striker Dwight Gayle and winger Ritchie, who cost a combined twenty two million notes from Crystal Palace and Bournemouth respectively and they have repaid their sizeable transfer fees with thirty four league goals between them. Newcastle recouped all of that outlay - and more besides - with the sales of disgracefully underperforming cowards such as Moussa Sissoko, Georginio Wijnaldum and Andros Townsend to Premier League clubs. Indeed, it was something of a running joke on transfer deadline day that Newcastle were the only club in the summer to spend over fifty million quid and still end up making a more than thirty million knicker profit! As for those who stayed following relegation, they have also played their part in Newcastle's success. Jonjo Shelvey, an England international as recently as November 2015, has featured in every league match he has been available for this season and has been the team's main creative forces in midfield. He may not have got here in time to avoid relegation, but Rafa The Gaffer managed to restore competence, commitment and belief in both the dressing room and in the stands - a truly monumental achievement given the years of chaos and mismanagement that had preceded his arrival. Now, of course, the question remains whether he will be backed in the summer with the funds he clearly wants to build a side that can compete in the Premier League. Whether, in fact, owner Mike Ashley shares his ambition. Time will tell, it usually does. As always with this club, uncertainty surrounds the future after Benitez resisted the opportunity on live TV to guarantee his own future with the club. 'You never know, that's football,' he said. 'I'm very happy and very proud for everything we have achieved. Hopefully we have the foundations that can guarantee the future. We need to enjoy this day and afterwards we will see.' The message was clear for all to hear: Benitez will not commit himself to the long-term at Newcastle unless he is given substantial backing from Ashley to create a squad capable of doing more than just surviving in the Premier League. Ashley was not at last night's game when Benitez provided the answer to those who questioned whether he would be able to handle the difficult demands of the Championship. 'It feels really good,' he said. 'I'm really proud of everyone because we knew it would be difficult at the beginning, when everyone was saying, "Rafa has no experience of the Championship and it will be tough." They were right, it was very difficult, but the commitment and hard work of the players every day, and the staff and everyone involved, and then the support of the fans, has made a massive difference. '
Playing to bumper home crowds of fifty two thousand punters can make or break a player, particularly when the club they play for are such hot favourites for promotion. Whilst Aston Villains, also relegated last season, failed to acclimatise to life in the Championship, with their league position dipping at one stage as low as twentieth, The Magpies have not been outside the top four since September 2016. 'It's not easy to drop into the Championship,' former Newcastle winger Chris Waddle (a vital part of the 1983-84 promotion side) told 5Live. 'Newcastle are a big scalp, with the fan base they've got, home and away, so every game has been difficult for them. As we saw, Aston Villa found it difficult and they've got a big support as well. But Newcastle, for all they've had a bit of a wobble, they've been up there all season.' Newcastle secured promotion this term with two games to spare, but they will not match the achievements of the last Magpies side to go up from the second tier in 2009-10. They had been relegated in 2009 with the club's record goalscorer Alan Shearer in caretaker charge - and began 2009-10 in apparent chaos with Chris Hughton as caretaker manager. After a positive start to the season, the popular Hughton was given his first permanent managerial role in October and he led Newcastle to the title with one hundred and two points from their forty six games - twenty three points more than third-placed Nottingham Forest. There was little investment in new players but the majority of the squad from the previous season remained. Captain Kevin Nolan led by example, scoring seventeen league goals from midfield, a tally matched by emerging striker Andy Carroll. Although promotion to the top flight has once again been achieved at the first opportunity, the Championship title is likely to elude Newcastle this time around. Leaders Brighton - ironically, now managed by Hughton - will be crowned champions if they win either of their final two league matches.
Former Newcastle coach Steve Stone believes the current squad needs strengthening again during the summer. 'They still need an awful lot of new players before next season,' he told BBC Radio 5Live. 'Fans realise they're not going to win the Premier League next season and they will struggle to get into the top ten. They need to get a foothold in the Premier League first, otherwise they will become a yo-yo club. It's been a long time since Newcastle were battling at the top of the Premier League. They finished fifth under Alan Pardew the season I was there [2011-12], but they haven't been up there on a consistent basis since Bobby Robson left [in 2004]. Now is the time to buy and build, and make sure club doesn't have to play in this division ever again.' Stone added: 'The fans absolutely adore Rafa Benitez and they have from the start. They chanted his name throughout the game. But he knows now that he needs money and it will be interesting to see if they give him the money he deserves. Everywhere Rafa goes, he gets a massive reception. Newcastle were lucky to get him - they needed him more than he needed Newcastle. Since getting here he has realised what it's all about and he's bought into it.' Meanwhile, club legend Alan Shearer added that Benitez is 'a huge figure at the club. He loves the place and the passion of fans - and it's hugely important Newcastle keep hold of him. I'm sure he will demand the team has to be improved and will demand a few quid to do that. You can't stand still. You can't be loyal and give all the players that have got the team promoted a chance. You've got to go out and buy new players. People realise the team needs improving to get to where they want to be and that's got to be the top half of the Premier League. Now it's about where Newcastle want to be - do they want to get up to the Premier League and be in the bottom three or four fighting against relegation, or do they want to have a go at it? I'm pretty sure I know what Rafa will want to do.'
Several United promotion-winners from previous decades were in attendance, with Frankie Clark (1964-65) a guest of his former team-mate and now club director, Bob Moncur. John Anderson (1983-84) was on his regular radio duty for BBC Newcastle. Peter Beardsley (1983-84) was also there in his role as a member of the club's coaching staff, as was Robert Lee (1992-93) fulfilling a punditry role for Sky Sports and Steve Harper (2009-10) was spotted in the stand. Messages of congratulation from ex-Magpies flowed in on social media after full time, with the likes of Alan Shearer, Jonas Gutierrez, Warren Barton, Shay Given, Danny Simpson, David Edgar, Jermaine Jenas, Peter Lovenkrands, Mick Quinn, Steve Howey, Joey Barton and Mehdi Abeid all contributing. Even Andros Townsend managed to squeeze out a tweet of support. It may have been past Moussa Sissoko's bedtime, though, as he was curiously silent on the matter. Which is jolly surprising as he always had plenty to say for himself when he was up here.