By Toyin Akiode
Rafael Benitez couldn’t keep from the drop into the second tier last term. However, under the Spaniard, who committed his future to the club before the season started, it has been a short stay outside the top flight.
Few clubs begin life having been relegated from the Premier League with an air of optimism but Newcastle United did, in no small part to Benitez’s presence.
Supporters, who had campaigned for the former Real Madrid and Liverpool boss to stay despite the drop, were rewarded with his decision to stay and the knock-on effect was an English Football League record 37,000 season ticket sales.
Benitez was also key to tempting Premier League players in Matt Ritchie and Dwight Gayle to step down a division to join the Newcastle cause.
“He is a great manager and has great experience,” Gayle told BBC Newcastle on arriving at St James’ Park from Crystal Palace. “There’s expectation, but under the manager here I believe he can help me to perform.
“There’s a great history at Newcastle. I’m looking forward to getting this club back in the Premier League and proving a few people wrong.”
Gayle and his team-mates have backed up those words with action.
Playing to bumper home crowds of 52,000 can make or break a player, particularly when the club they play for are such hot favourites for promotion.
While Aston Villa, also relegated, failed to acclimatize to life in the Championship, with their league position dipping at one stage as low as 20th, 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 told BBC Radio 5 live. “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.”
Jackie Milburn, Malcolm Macdonald, Les Ferdinand, Alan Shearer… Dwight Gayle. The former Crystal Palace striker has continued a lineage of free-scoring strikers in black and white, all wearing the number nine shirt.
Only two teams have scored more Championship goals than Newcastle this season, and that impressive strike rate has been a key factor in their success.
Gayle, recruited in pre-season for £10m, has weighed in with 22 goals despite missing chunks of the season with a recurring hamstring problem.
“It’s not just the goals,” Benitez said after Gayle netted twice in a 2-0 win against Leeds in November. “It’s the movement he gives to the team.”
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While the signing of Gayle last summer made the most headlines, arguably the transfer that has had the most impact was that of Ciaran Clark.
The Republic of Ireland defender has been key to a miserly defense that has conceded only 39 goals and has only been on the losing side five times in 34 games this season.
Clark and PFA Team of the Year member Jamaal Lascelles have combined to give Newcastle a steel to complement the silky attacking play of Ritchie, Jonjo Shelvey and Gayle.
“Ciaran Clark’s been the best defender we’ve had all season,” said ex-Newcastle defender and BBC Newcastle summarizer John Anderson. “He’s been a big loss when he’s been out.”
The home support was massive for the team. Record attendance stood at 1.1 million. That helped a great deal to return Alan Shearer’s favourite club back to the first tier of English football.
Culled from BBC Sport.