HE’S won the Champions League and Europa League, but getting out of the Championship might just prove to be Rafa Benitez’s biggest achievement yet.
His Newcastle side certainly haven’t made it look easy.
There have been plenty of highs for what, on paper, looks the perfect blend of youth and experience in the Spaniard’s set-up.
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But this has been a squad that is partial to a stutter from the very first day of the season.
On day one, Benitez’s uninspiring Newcastle side got an early wake-up call with a 1-0 defeat to Fulham at Craven Cottage.
That call turned to full-on alarm when Huddersfield won 2-1 at St James’ Park eight days later, leaving Benitez’s side slumped near the bottom of the Championship in 21st place.
The pressure was on. There was trouble on Tyneside.
Luckily for the former Liverpool and Chelsea boss, it wouldn’t last long.
The Magpies hit Reading for four in their next match and proceeded to win their following four, including a 6-0 romp away at Queens Park Rangers.
That was part of a run of five clean sheets in a row. This was more like it, what the Toon faithful had been waiting for.
The run brought stars to the fore that the Gallowgate had hoped would power a swift return to the big time.
Dwight Gayle hit four goals, Jonjo Shelvey was bossing the middle of the park as an England international should, and Ciaran Clark begun to set about establishing a formidable partnership with the impressive Jamaal Lascelles.
All seemed to be right back on track.
Even a royal rumble defeat to Wolves – which saw eight yellows, a red and an untimely Chancel Mbemba own goal – couldn’t throw them off course.
They bounced straight back, going 10 unbeaten and roared back to the summit, two points clear and in pole position.
That run was sparked by probably the game of the season – a seven-goal thriller at home to Norwich which featured an incredible rescue mission.
Losing 3-2 heading into injury time, Newcastle turned the game on its head and sent the St. James’ faithful into wild delirium.
First Yoan Gouffran levelled from close-range on 95 minutes, then Dwight Gayle completed his hat-trick to win it.
Despite a minor blip in November – which saw the Toon go three without a win – Rafa was able to enjoy the view from the top as Newcastle entered the Christmas period.
They were finishing the year firmly in the promotion driving seat.
But two losses in the festive period, at the hands of fellow promotion chasers Sheffield Wednesday and relegation fodder Blackburn, meant Benitez’s side relinquished first place after 25 games of the season.
Again they stumbled, but again they bounced back.
This time the unbeaten stretch went on for 11 games, surely they would break away from the pack?
After all, by now Benitez had his dependable stars ready to deliver the title.
Shelvey and Jack Colback gave him dominance in midfield, Lascelles, Clark and Karl Darlow brought calm at the back.
But still they couldn’t seal the deal.
A 3-1 loss to Fulham, inspired by two goals from 16-year-old Ryan Sessegnon, and the goalless draw away to Birmingham were signs of vulnerability in their promotion push.
Narrow wins against Wigan and Burton papered over the cracks and kept Newcastle on course to win the league, before an April collapse handed pole position to Brighton once again.
Sheffield Wednesday were value for their 2-1 win in April – Steven Fletcher completing a season double for the Owls – while Benitez was left cursing his luck when Chris Wood’s 95th minute goal rescued a point for Leeds the following game.
A terrible month got no better when another opportunity to seal a return to the big time went begging, as Ipswich humbled them 3-1 at Portman Road.
They were not going to do it the easy way, but they finally got it done with the convincing win over Preston.