Newcastle United: 18th (relegated)
FA Cup: Round Three
Capital One Cup: Round Three
A worrying slide down the table that almost resulted in relegation in 2015 tested the patience of Newcastle supporters. They had long since grown tired about the club’s apparent lack of ambition and its policy of seemingly prioritising profits over success on the pitch. Merely staying in the top-flight appeared to be the only significant aim of those at the top, but the squad had been allowed to fall into disrepair and as such even that modest expectation was proving difficult to meet.
So in the summer owner Mike Ashley was finally persuaded to open his chequebook, and a lot of money was spent on acquiring the likes of Dutch international midfielder Georginio Wijnaldum, central defender Chancel Mbemba, and striker Aleksandar Mitrovic, who arrived from Anderlecht with a growing reputation for being an occasionally reckless character, yet full of ability.
As for who would be leading the side, former England boss Steve McClaren was always the preferred choice to take over from John Carver as Head Coach and eventually a deal was agreed for him to return to the Premier League after nine years away. He would have a place on the club’s board, though little say over transfers. It is fair to say that the appointment divided opinion far and wide.
Handed a difficult run of fixtures to begin the season, the first signs of concern came on the second weekend as Swansea City as they were well beaten after putting in a dreadful performance. It was the first of a series of away days to forget, although resilience was temporarily regained in the next match with Manchester United as they emerged with an impressive draw.
A red card for Mitrovic led to defeat against Arsenal and it did not get any better for the Magpies after the international break as their wait for a first win of the season continued. A late Chelsea comeback at St. James’ Park thwarted them in late September and they began the following month by being thrashed 6-1 at Manchester City, so already the pressure was on McClaren as the club lay bottom of the table.
The result they wanted finally arrived at the ninth attempt as they hit six of their own in seeing off Norwich City, with Wijnaldum scoring a hat-trick to cap an outstanding individual display. However the defensive frailties were still obvious and a punishing loss to bitter rivals Sunderland served a reminder of their plight, and emphasising that they faced a tooth and nail battle for survival.
November ended with a large dose of discontent as eight goals were conceded over the course of two heavy defeats to Leicester City and Crystal Palace in which they failed to compete with their opponents. But then they somehow found something from somewhere to totally upset the form book and defeat Liverpool 2-0 at home; Wijnaldum getting both again to reffirm his status as the club’s top scorer.
That result inspired some belief among the players and led to an even better result a week later as Tottenham were stunned by two late goals at White Hart Lane. After an awful first few months, at long last things seemed to be on the up, but any renewed sense of optimism quickly evaporated after just one point was taken from their four festive fixtures.
Many reasons were given for the struggles on Tyneside. A lack of intensity in midfield was a common one, as was the absence of a killer instinct in any of the striking options. Mitrovic and Ayoze Perez was arguably the best forward combination, but even they were doing little to suggest they could propel the club up the table and away from the relegation mire.
There were clearly matters to be addressed in the January transfer window, and no team in the Premier League ended up spending more than Newcastle, who obtained the services of England international duo Jonjo Shelvey and Andros Townsend, along with French midfielder Henri Saivet. It did not take long for Shelvey to make his mark as he impressed in the victory over West Ham United on debut, but he was to have no positive effect on the away form.
Five goals were shipped at Chelsea on February 13 as their shortage of pace and proneness to individual errors was exposed yet again, and it soon became clear that McClaren’s job was under threat. Ahead of the home encounter with Bournemouth on the first weekend of March the talk was that defeat would spell the end of his reign, and so it proved as a miserable showing had fans airing their emphatic displeasure. The news was confirmed a couple of days later.
When Rafael Benitez has touted as a possible successor it seemed fanciful to believe that he would accept the chance to manage a side in such dire straits, but to the surprise of many he agreed to take on the challenge, albeit with a clause to cancel his contract should the bid to stay up prove futile. He began with defeat at leaders Leicester before finally ending their run of defeats to Sunderland by claiming a 1-1 draw.
With Aston Villa all but relegated already, it was now a case of two from three to go down. Sunderland were among them, as were Norwich City and it was to Carrow Road that they headed next only to suffer the crippling blow of conceding a winner right at the death. They were seemingly still smarting from that when they were beaten easily by Southampton a week later.
But Benitez had learnt a lot about his players in his early weeks in charge and soon set about making subtle changes, including the decision to leave out Shelvey, as well as bringing young defender Jamaal Lascelles into the starting XI along with Townsend. From then they made a determined bid for safety as those two players led from the front, helping to pick up eight points from 12 as they hauled themselves out of the bottom three.
It was still, however, not in their hands as Sunderland were staging a resurgance of their own and more importantly, had a game in hand. The killer blow for Newcastle came when they were held at Villa while Sunderland overcame Chelsea, and another win for the Black Cats the following midweek sealed their fate. The battle against the drop had been lost and this massive club was back in the second tier, but Benitez had endeared himself to the fans.
Everyone had expected the final game of the season to be his last charge before moving on to pastures new, but in recognition as one of the world’s top coaches he was met with desperate pleas to stay on. A 5-1 thrashing of Tottenham only added to those calls and eventually he decided to remain and lead the bid for an instant return to the Premer League.