With five games remaining Newcastle United have one foot in the Premier League already. The Magpies are ten points clear of third-placed Huddersfield Town and it will take an almighty collapse to miss out on promotion now.
The first part of the job is almost complete for Rafa Benítez. Returning to the top flight, by hook or by crook, was the only target for the Tynesiders this season.
But here we look at what the North East’s biggest sleeping giant need to do to be ready for English football’s top flight.
Find a reliable alternative to Dwight Gayle
The former Crystal Palace striker has been the Magpies’ star man this season. With 22 goals from just 26 league starts and five substitute appearances, he has been revelation since his £10.2million move last summer.
His form saw him nominated for the Championship Player of the Year award won by Brighton & Hove Albion’s Anthony Knockaert. Understandably, Newcastle struggle when their talismanic forward is unavailable.
The rest of the club’s forwards have struggled to fill Dwight Gayle’s boots in his absence. None of them have the same skill set. Daryl Murphy is a targetman who brings others into play by using his sizeable frame. Aleksandar Mitrović, when he’s not getting in disciplinary trouble, does the same. But with four goals each, neither have been prolific this season.
Matt Ritchie – with 11 goals – is the only other player who has reached double figures this season. That will have to change when Newcastle are promoted because Gayle is unlikely to enjoy such a prolific season in the Premier League.
He is a different player from when he first joined Crystal Palace from Peterborough United in 2013 – and he has the benefit of the Newcastle system being built around him – but chances will be harder to come by. It is that simple.
Worryingly, the former Dagenham & Redbridge forward could be ruled out for the remainder of this campaign.
Improve their home form
Newcastle have the best away form in the Championship. Thirteen wins from 21 fixtures on the road is a remarkable return. Even more impressive is the fact the Magpies have only lost four times away from St James’ Park.
But their form in front of their own supporters will be cause for concern for Benítez. Five of Newcastle’s nine league defeats have come at home. The problem is teams who come to St James’ Park to make life difficult for the hosts by frustrating and playing for a draw. Benítez’s side have struggled to break those sides down and that is something which cannot be repeated in the top flight.
In Ritchie and Jonjo Shelvey they have the players to unpick most locks. But clearly that has not worked. If the Toon are to avoid an immediate return to the Championship they must make their home the clichéd fortress.
Get the best out of Mo Diamé
Despite being the strongest team in the division with the highest wage budget and deepest squad, Newcastle have tended to set up in a 4-4-1-1 system this season with either Shelvey, Mo Diamé or Ayoze Perez playing off of Gayle.
Benítez is unlikely to deviate from that system in the Premier League. He is a naturally cautious coach who prefers to start with one out-and-out forward and have the option to pack the midfield out of possession.
For Shelvey this works. The England international has enjoyed one of the best seasons of his career – albeit at a lower lower – and has been the link between attack and midfield for the Magpies. Perez has not fared so well, preferring to carry the ball instead of moving it quickly, while Diamé has also struggled to deputise. He even went as far as admitting his form this season has been the worst of his career.
But the Senegalese was a key figure for Hull City last season as they returned to the Premier League at the first time of asking. A return of ten goals and four assists was his best of the last four seasons and it came from the No. 10 position behind Abel Hernandez.
The job for Benítez is to work out why Diamé has failed to replicate last season’s form when played behind Gayle. If the Spanish boss can do that he has two fantastic No. 10s to pick from.
Make decisions on youngsters
Newcastle have had a handful of talented young players come through from the club’s academy in recent years. However, owing to the turmoil surrounding St James’ Park they have not been given much of a look-in at first-team level. This season it has been a similar story with nothing getting in the way of the Magpies’ promotion push.
Next season might be the best – and last – chance for Rolando Aarons, Sammy Ameobi, Adam Armstrong, Ivan Toney and Haris Vučkić. That is a group who are all highly thought of, who have all – bar Aarons – had loan spells in the Football League and are all at a make-or-break point in their Newcastle careers.
Ameobi and Vučkić are 24. Opportunity might already have passed them by. But the rest – particularly Aarons and Armstrong – must be integrated or moved on by Benítez because leaving them in limbo for another season is not helping either party.
Mike Ashley's going to have to splash the cash big time if he wants us to be anything other than relegation candidates next season #NUFC
— ⚽Gavin Brumwell ? (@Gav_brumwell_) April 8, 2017
The single biggest problem at St James’ Park is owner Mike Ashley. The Sports Direct founder has loosened the purse-strings prior to relegation – though Steve McClaren’s signings did not work out – and allowed Benítez to spend £57million last summer. On the face of it that was a generous budget for a second tier club. However, that outlay was more than covered by the £87million recouped in player sales.
Reports in the north east suggest that Ashley will revert to type this summer and hand Benítez a miserly transfer kitty. Additions are desperately needed to get this Newcastle squad up to scratch, though, and a number of last summer’s acquisitions have made a limited – at best – contribution this season.
The difficulty of working with Ashley has been well documented since his takeover in 2007 and cited on more than one occasion as holding the club back.
Benítez’s appointment was a statement of intent from Ashley. The Spaniard began last season as Real Madrid manager, was Napoli coach before that and has won the Champions League, Europa League and World Club Cup during his career.
After trying to do it on the cheap for years, Ashley finally appointed a manager of real distinction. But he will have to allow the 56-year-old to do his job. And it will be on Benítez to manage up this summer in order to continue the Magpies’ progress.