Newcastle United: How Rafael Benitez turned relegation into promotion

By Matt NewsumBBC Sport
Rafa Benitez
Rafael Benitez took over at Newcastle in March last year, with the club a point from safety in the Premier League with 10 games left

Newcastle United's return to the Premier League at the first time of asking - sealed by Monday's 4-1 victory over Preston - marks a successful first full season for manager Rafael Benitez.

The Magpies were unable to avoid 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.

BBC Sport assesses some of the key factors behind the success.

The Rafa effect

Matt Ritchie
Matt Ritchie, scorer of Newcastle's third goal against Preston on Monday, turned down a new deal at Premier League side Bournemouth to join Newcastle

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.

Responding to pressure

Rafael Benitez flag
Newcastle's Gallowgate Flags supporters group have added to the atmosphere at St James' Park

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 acclimatise 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."

Goalscoring 'number nine'

Dwight Gayle
Dwight Gayle's 22 goals have only been bettered by Leeds striker Chris Wood and Bristol City forward Tammy Abraham

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."

Shoring up at the back

Ciaran Clark
Newcastle signed Ciaran Clark from Aston Villa after both sides were relegated from the top flight last season

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 defence 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 summariser John Anderson. "He's been a big loss when he's been out."

Reinvesting funds

Newcastle United players
Newcastle brought in 11 new players for this season

Although there are some survivors from the team that were relegated, Benitez had little hesitation in moving on big name players on arriving in the Championship.

Before a ball was kicked, Georginio Wijnaldum moved to Liverpool, and once the season was under way, Daryl Janmaat and Moussa Sissoko also departed for Watford and Tottenham respectively.

Those transfer fees brought in revenue and lightened the wage bill. And along with Clark and Gayle, Grant Hanley, Mo Diame, DeAndre Yedlin, Matz Sels, Jesus Gamez, Isaac Hayden, Daryl Murphy and Achraf Lazaar have all arrived to bolster the promotion bid.

"Benitez got two out and got about £55m to bring players in," Waddle added. "He's bought well.

"It gave them the funds to challenge in this league. He spent a lot on different players to make sure he had a strong squad that would be very competitive for the Championship.

"It's a hard league to get out of, and he's bought well."

All singing from the same hymn sheet

Newcastle United fans
Newcastle United fans celebrate during their side's win over Preston

While having the funds to invest has given Newcastle a strong squad, it has also given Benitez the headache of accommodating all those big personalities.

Injuries and suspensions to key personnel such as Gayle, Shelvey and Clark have given opportunities to others in the squad.

"Togetherness is a massive strength of what we've got here," defender Hanley said in March as Newcastle closed in on promotion. "The lads who have been playing have done really well and that's the way it is.

"Everybody knows they have a part to play, so it's important to be constantly ready and on top of your game so when you're called up you're ready to go."

Newcastle's promotion in numbers

  • 1.1m - the total of Newcastle's home attendances in the Championship this season. The next highest is Aston Villa with 705,000
  • 237 - Newcastle have had more shots on target this season than any other Championship side
  • 80 - The number of goals Newcastle have scored, two behind top scorers Fulham
  • 102 - The number of points Newcastle finished with in their 2009-10 promotion campaign. They can pick up a maximum of 94 this season

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