Whilst Newcastle United will be under no illusions that automatic promotion is a foregone conclusion, there is an undoubted weight of expectation that they will achieve it at the first time of asking after convincing Rafa Benitez to stay at St. James’ Park.
There is a new-found optimism on Tyneside that suggests that relegation is the best thing that could have happened to the club, with the knock-on effects yielding the greatest chance of success in Newcastle’s recent history. Indeed, the bookmakers have priced Newcastle at 5/2 favourites to win the league – the shortest ever price for a team in the second tier. With this expectation comes a degree of pressure, but from a tactical perspective it also offers a couple of lucrative advantages.
Firstly, the few dregs of genuine talent at the club may buy into the notion that Newcastle will come straight back up. Accordingly, there’s every chance that they may decide to stay at the club and help in its revival. The likes of Lascelles, Mbemba, Townsend, Wijnaldum, Perez and Mitrovic would easily gather a plethora of potential suitors, but each has shown promise in a black and white shirt and received adulation from the Toon Army that few other clubs could rival.
There is the possibility that spending just a solitary year in the Championship would be a worthwhile sacrifice if they coud go on to write their name into Geordie folklore and make an instant return to the Premier League. These players may relish the prospect of being integral to Rafa’s plans and being the face of a new, optimistic Newcastle United.
Secondly, carrying the tag of being “the best team in the league” is something that Newcastle aren’t very well acquainted with to say the very least. Being in such a position is rare for the club, and it would be foolish to not utilise it. Whilst The Magpies’ Premier League trend was generally to send scouts overseas for cheap talent, Rafa Benitez now has the final say on matters and he will undoubtedly be looking a lot closer to home. The Championship is a hotbed for talent – domestically, more and more England players now sport Championship experience on their CV’s.
Being “the best team in the league”, the general consensus is that Newcastle have already claimed one of the promotion spots to the Premier League. As such, the most talented and most promising players in the Championship may feel that a move to St. James’ guarantees them a place at a (potentially exciting) Premier League club for the 2017/18 season whilst still being able to develop in their current division. From a Newcastle United perspective, what better way of improving your chances of winning the league than signing some of the opposition’s best players? Here is a proposed 8-man list of such players that should be on Rafa’s list.
The 24-year-old Brighton centre back has amassed over 100 Championship appearances for The Seagulls, becoming one of the key members of Chris Hughton’s 2015/16 promotion chasing team that finished 3rd. Ultimately, Brighton were knocked out of the playoffs by losing finalists Sheffield Wednesday, but the 6’4″ Englishman was one of the stars of the season. Brighton conceded 42 goals in the regular season – a figure standing as the 4th fewest in the league – with Dunk being integral to their defensive efforts.
Dunk also has achieved a reputation for being a goalscorer, with his threat from set-pieces in particular netting him 9 league goals in the last two seasons. Famously struggling at this facet of the game, Newcastle United could benefit from this attacking threat whilst his addition to the squad would bolster the young centre back duo of Jamaal Lascelles and Chancel Mbemba and his wages likely to be a fraction of Fabricio Coloccini’s.
Perhaps not a name that most will be familiar with, 20-year-old Kortney Hause is a promising central defender who plays for Wolves. Originally progressing through West Ham’s academy, Hause made his senior debut for after signing for Wycombe Wanderers at the age of 17.
A successful start to the 2013/14 League Two season saw Hause snapped up by then League One promotion chasers Wolves. After an initial loan spell at Gillingham, Hause has staked a claim for a regular spot in the Wolves defence and not looked out of place despite his relative youth in what is regarded as a very physical league. His 6’2″ frame and powerful physique are the perfect physical attributes for a player of his age with all the time in the world to learn the more tactical facets of the game.
He made 25 league appearances for Wolves this season – though it would certainly have been more had injury not disrupted the youngster’s year. Capped at England U21 level, Hause is fresh from being part of the England’s 2016 Toulon tournament winning side which boasts the likes of Calum Chambers, James Ward-Prowse, Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Nathan Redmond. Clearly capable of playing at Championship level, Hause could prove to be a future star and may just be the ideal man to give Rafa Benitez a positive headache in the centre of defence.
Derby County’s 23-year-old Cyrus Christie is the archetypal “modern full back”. Blessed with pace, an affinity for dribbling and a penchant for crossing, Christie has evolved into one of the Championship’s best young right backs. Originally at Coventry City, Christie made his debut for the club as a 17-year-old before going on to make 102 league appearances for the club at both Championship and League One level. It was reported at the time of Derby County signing him that they had to fight off a lot of competition for the highly rated, out-of-contract player but gave him assurances he would be a key player for the team after Andre Wisdom’s departure.
Indeed, his debut season for The Rams saw him pique the interest of Ireland manager Martin O’Neill, who was impressed enough with Christie’s performances to attempt to persuade him to play for the Irish national team because of his eligibility. Successful in his attempts, the Derby starlet has since competed with Everton’s Seamus Coleman to be Ireland’s first choice full-back after excelling for the nation whenever called upon – most notably in Ireland’s famous, crucial Euro 2016 qualifying match against Germany which ended in a 1-0 victory for O’Neill’s men.
Predictably, Christie has made the Euro 2016 squad and will be one to keep an eye on over the course of the tournament should Rafa Benitez decide to make a move for this potential Daryl Janmaat replacement.
Keeping things ‘Derby County’; next up is The Championship’s worst kept secret, 21-year-old Will Hughes. The English prodigy has quietly verged on excellence for a number of years now, being a key member of Derby’s promotion hopes that routinely fall one step too short. Making his debut for the club at just 16 years old, Hughes has gone on to make over 125 appearances for the club despite being ruled out for most of the 2015/16 season with a dreaded anterior cruciate ligament injury. His career has been defined by brilliant performances on the pitch as well as the constant speculation about which major club will sign the prodigious talent off it.
At various times over the years, the 2013/14 Football League Young Player of the Year winner has been linked with moves to Manchester City, Chelsea, Arsenal, Tottenham, Liverpool and even Barcelona. The fact that reports are now suggesting he is one of Rafa Benitez’ top priorities should rightly bring excitement to the Toon Army. Gifted with the phenomenal passing and dribbling abilities of a midfield ‘architect’ whilst also displaying a tireless work rate, Will Hughes possesses all of the on-field attributes that makes him a managers dream and endears him to the fans. His economy on the ball gives him the priceless gift of being able to control the midfield, but more importantly than this, it has a calming reassurance that resonates with players and fans alike. In fact, former manager Nigel Clough said of Hughes’ ability on the pitch “just give him the ball. That’s what we tell the lads.”
The England U21 international also has a maturity that belies his age – suggesting that his attitude to the game mirrors his ability to go as high as he wants. After missing out on promotion yet again, one can only ask how much longer Will Hughes can afford to let his career stagnate. Moreover, given that his contract expires in 2018, Derby County have to ask themselves whether they are prepared to gamble losing Hughes on the cheap if the promotion they crave eludes them for a fourth successive year.
The latest domestic craze to light up the Championship is Leeds United’s Lewis Cook. At 19 years of age, Cook is definitely still plying his trade in the league and could do with the developmental bonuses it would offer him. Nonetheless, as he closes in on 100 league appearances in the heart of the midfield for the Elland Road outfit, he has already gathered list of impressive accolades. His debut season saw him claim the 2014/2015 Football League Championship Apprentice of the Year award and the 2014/15 Leeds United Young Player of the Year award. He reclaimed this honour at Leeds for the 2015/16 season, as well as adding the hugely impressive 2015/16 Football League Young Player of the Year award. Previous winners of this award include Nathaniel Clyne, Gareth Bale, Dele Alli and the aforementioned Will Hughes.
Though not without his critics – Cook is known for his combative style, leading to him picking up 10 yellow cards in the league in 2015/16, as well as his end-product needing some polishing – the Leeds United player his a potential diamond in the rough. What potential fee he will command is anyone’s guess, with paper speculation claiming a bid in the region of £5m will be enough to let him leave Elland Road. At 19 years of age, he may not be quite ready for a regular starting berth in a Newcastle team that is expected to lead the way in the Championship. But under the wing of Rafa Benitez, Lewis Cook could develop into a brilliant player and be a mainstay in The Magpies’ defence for years to come.
Without a doubt one of the most exciting and naturally gifted players in the Championship, Brighton’s 24-year-old Anthony Knockaert has experienced somewhat mixed fortunes in England. Twice being involved in a promotion campaign that faltered in the playoffs and deemed surplus to requirements at a then-struggling Leicester City in the Premiership, the Frenchman would have been forgiven for taking an indefinite leave of absence from the English game. Much like his style of play however, the Frenchman is full of surprises that never fails to catch the imagination of the fans.
Cut from the same cloth as the Hatem Ben Arfa’s and Riyad Mahrez’ of this world, the left-footed winger operates on the right hand side of the field and cuts inside with devastating effect. His natural ability on the ball from open play and set-pieces is unrivalled in the Championship, and few would argue that he was integral in Brighton’s surge for automatic promotion. Since arriving at the club from Standard Liege in January, Knockaert changed Brighton’s fortunes. Of all the games that Knockaert was involved in, Brighton collected 40 points out of a possible 57 available in the league. In these 19 games, Knockaert registered 6 assists and scored 5 goals to prove his skills to any sceptics of his ability.
Very much one of Chris Hughton’s prized assets, it may take a relatively sizeable bid to pry away the mercurial Frenchman from the Amex. Should Rafa Benitez actually sign the Frenchman, though, Knockaert will very much want to follow in the footsteps of David Ginola, Laurent Robert and Hatem Ben Arfa in terms of achieving cult status amongst the Toon Army. However, recent flirtations with French ‘prodigies’ have led to the club having their fingers burnt by the likes of Remy Cabella and Florian Thauvin. But a reason for optimism over Knockaert is the fact he’s Championship proven in both his ability to terrorise the opposition defence and capture the imagination of his own fans.
At 26 years of age, the Sheffield Wednesday supremo is the oldest person to feature on this list of potential Newcastle United targets. After having a turbulent career in Italy’s Serie A and Serie B leagues which saw him play for six different clubs, Argentinean-born Forestieri found his feet in England’s second tier with Watford. Initially signed on loan at the age of 23, he was quickly made a permanent signing after impressing in his spell and endearing himself to the fans. Likened by fans and players to his compatriot Lionel Messi due to his style of play and similarities in physique, he has repeatedly proven himself to be one of the Championship’s most unpredictable and thrilling talents.
Leaving Watford once making the leap to the Premier League due to managerial changes, he has since returned to the Championship after being sought after by Sheffield Wednesday who eventually captured their man for a reported fee in the region of £3m. Playing in an attacking midfield role, he has most often been used on the left hand side to devastating effect, scoring 15 league goals and providing 6 assists.
As such, Forestieri was voted as The Owl’s official Player of the Year in their best domestic campaign for over a decade which saw them make it all the way to the play-off final at Wembley. Another livewire of a talent, the pursuit of Forestieri wouldn’t be an easy one for Newcastle United but he is another of those exciting players who could prosper under Benitez and light up St. James’ Park at will.
Few players enjoyed as much of a breakthrough season in the Championship as Fulham’s 19-year-old striker, Moussa Dembele. Signing for the club at the age of 16 from Paris Saint-Germain, Dembele carried on his prolific goalscoring record at youth level in helping Fulham to win the 2012/13 Premier Academy League. He made his Premier League debut at 17 years old in a Fulham team that would ultimately be relegated. Unfortunately for Fulham, their fortunes don’t appear to have changed despite keeping hold of one of their brightest prospects.
The Cottagers finished 20th in the 2015/16 campaign despite scoring the joint-fifth most goals in the league (66). A large portion of that can be attributed to Moussa Dembele. Even in playing for a team that finished perilously close to the relegation zone, the French teenager managed to score 15 league goals for the club as well as assisting 6 more – meaning the athletic forwarded provided almost 33% of all of Fulham’s league goals for the entire season.
This season has allowed Dembele to showcase his skills that previously drew comparisons with Nicholas Anelka. Some may recall Tottenham’s pursuit of the player in the January transfer window, in which a £6m fee was agreed for the youngster but Fulham were only willing to sanction the deal if a loan-back agreement could be made. As such, the deal broke down. In doing so, however, Fulham knew what they were at risk of losing: Moussa Dembele’s contract runs out in a matter of weeks.
Given that a deal was previously struck with Tottenham, it would stand to reason that they would simply come back in and sign the player now for a discounted fee. However, given their title credentials, they may have changed their targets or had a change of heart over the youngster. What Newcastle can offer, on the other hand, is more regular football than Tottenham Hotspur.
A deal with Newcastle may seem unlikely should Spurs come back in for Dembele, and with Aleksandar Mitrovic likely to stay and Adam Armstrong poised to return from a successful spell at Coventry there may be calls of “do we need him?” Yes, Mitrovic may eat the Championship alive and Armstrong may be able to carry his form up a level. But Newcastle’s first season in the Championship isn’t a time to gamble on hypotheticals. A proven goalscorer is needed, and anyone who has provided a relegation-battling team with 21 goals in their first full season ought to be seriously considered for a team with ambitions of promotion.
So there you have it. Eight of the Championship’s brightest prospects, dazzling talents and match winners. Whilst not all of them will be signed, capturing one or two of these players would signal that Newcastle United mean business and they are a forward-thinking club once again.
Whether it be to replace outgoing players, to improve our squad or simply to create a healthy competition for places, the above players could soon be turning out at St. James’ Park in front of 52,000 fans and taking Newcastle United back to the Premier League. Don’t agree? Anyone we missed out? Let us know!