Newcastle Seal Promotion and Focus Shifts to Rafa Benitez’s Future
Newcastle United are heading back to the promised land of the Premier League, but the narrative has already shifted from the 4-1 win over Preston North End to the future of manager Rafa Benitez.
It’s been a nervy time of late for Benitez’s Newcastle, as they went into the game with Preston on the back of two losses and a draw from their last three games.
But as nervous as Newcastle had become, the chasing pack failed to exert any pressure – with Huddersfield Town and Reading both losing at the weekend.
Huddersfield and Reading’s defeats meant a win over Preston would guarantee Newcastle’s immediate return to the Premier League and they got themselves over the line.
It was not plain sailing, though, despite taking an early lead through Ayoze Perez. Preston could have been forgiven if they had rolled over, as their season is effectively over with them sat in mid table in the division and safe from relegation but adrift of the play-off places.
That was not the case, as Simon Grayson’s side played with an attacking vigour and gained a deserved equaliser on 14 minutes through a clever finish from Jordan Hugill.
For a spell, Newcastle looked extremely jittery and the tension inside St James’ Park was palpable. The Magpies needed something to settle the nerves and while a decent malt whisky might have done the trick, a goal was the favoured option and it was provided by Christian Atsu on the stroke of half-time.
Atsu’s finish breathed life into Newcastle and they were a different side after the restart. The promotion party kicked off in style on 65 minutes, as Matt Ritchie tucked home a penalty after Preston’s Paul Gallagher had handled on the line.
Perez grabbed his second of the night on 67 minutes to seal the win and promotion, and allow Newcastle to turn their focus on to the title.
Brighton are in command of the destiny of the title, as they are four points clear of Newcastle with two games remaining, but any slip up will open the door to Benitez’s Magpies who have a superior goal difference.
Capping an immediate return to the top flight with the Championship title would put some gloss on the season, but the only target was promotion – no matter how it came about – and that has been achieved with two games remaining.
There’s no time to bask in the glow of promotion, as Benitez’s future is headline news. The Spaniard has cut a frustrated figure since being denied the chance to boost his squad in the January transfer window. He made it clear to owner Mike Ashley that he must be allowed to run the team as he sees fit, and in the aftermath of the win over Preston he put the focus back on the Newcastle board.
When asked if he would be in charge at St James’ Park for Newcastle’s return to the Premier League, Benitez said: “You never know.”
Adding to that in a press conference carried by the Guardian, Benitez: said: “That is football. I am really pleased to be here, and really happy and proud for everything we have achieved. Hopefully we can put in the foundations for something that will be a guarantee for the future.
“The fans have been amazing with me, their loyalty means everything. Having this city behind you means everything; they should have a top team. That is why I decided to stay [after relegation in 2016], and now I am even happier than before that I made this decision. I am really proud and really pleased.
“Now is the time to enjoy what we have done. But then I must make sure we do the right things. We have to prepare everything to be strong enough for the Premier League.”
Newcastle have been treading water for years after a series of terrible decisions and the failure to learn from them.
Benitez has a proven track record in getting teams to challenge for honours and the raw materials are in place for the Magpies to be a force. But Ashley has to give the Spaniard enough rein to run the club.
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