From lows in Premier League with Steve McClaren to highs in Championship Rafa Benitez – it’s been a funny old year for Newcastle

Newcastle United manager Rafael Benitez
Newcastle United manager Rafael Benitez

From lows in the Premier League to highs in the Championship.

From Steve McClaren to Rafa Benitez.

It’s been a funny old year. A year ago, the club was 18th in the Premier League.

Newcastle United were hopeless, in more ways than one. Twelve months on Tyneside, is full of hope thanks to Benitez.

Last season was forgettable, yet this season is proving more memorable than any recent season.

The club is on the up, and Benitez has helped reestablish a bond between its custodians and a fanbase which had become disillusioned, disheartened and, increasingly, disinterested.

Newcastle is again united in English football’s second tier.

And that’s taken some doing.

The weekend before Christmas, the club took on Burton Albion at the Pirelli Stadium.

This was the fixture which was supposed to show how much the once-proud club’s stock had fallen in the wake of relegation from the Premier League.

Yet it showed the opposite.

It showed the club’s strength.

Newcastle have lost big names, but the club has gained more than the £30million-plus it banked in profit last summer.

And the 1,600 United fans, many standing, who watched Benitez’s side beat Burton 2-1 will have enjoyed the game far more than last season’s visits to gleaming Premier League grounds.

The year, of course, started with McClaren at the helm.

McClaren, a capable coach, never had the authority needed to manage Newcastle.

He was weak from day one, and Newcastle limped into the New Year.

Soon, they were out of the FA Cup, and a 2-1 win over West Ham United, inspired by new signing Jonjo Shelvey, proved to be a false dawn.

The club was even humiliated in a behind-closed-doors game against Sunderland, who won 6-0.

Nothing was going right. Everything seemed wrong.

McClaren should have gone after a 5-1 drubbing at Chelsea, after which there was a break.

But he limped on for two more games, which both ended in defeat.

Newcastle lacked ideas and inspiration on the pitch. They were listless and lifeless. Too many players went missing under McClaren, who had wanted his team to attack with pace and purpose.

We only ever got a couple of glimpses at what McClaren, badly let down by his players had been trying to do at Newcastle.

Fabricio Coloccini, the club’s captain, didn’t kick a ball again for the club after the loss at Stamford Bridge because of injury.

Then there was Moussa Sissoko, a player who has everything and nothing.

McClaren will go down as one of the worst managerial appointments in the club’s history, though his players must share some of the blame for an abject few months on the field.

The end finally came after a home loss to Bournemouth in March.

Nine months later, the club is unrecognisable.

And 2016, ultimately, will be remembered more for Benitez than McClaren.

It was the year the club thought big and recruited one of Europe’s most respected coaches.

Benitez had 10 games to keep United in the Premier League, but the damage had been done. The club succumbed to relegation before the last game of the season against Tottenham Hotspur, which Newcastle won 5-1.

That game saw an outpouring of support for Benitez, who, clearly, had a decision to make at the end of the season.

That day helped Benitez make up his mind. He stayed, but not before being given a number of assurances by managing director Lee Charnley.

Unlike McClaren, he was strong from day one.

Benitez, given control over recruitment, bought well. He added Championship experience to a squad which looked ill-equipped for the rigours of the division.

Benitez and Charnley also got £30million for Sissoko. Nice work.

United now have a squad of players who WANT to play for the club.

Benitez quickly moulded the squad into a fiercely-competitive team which has both pace and power.

Shelvey, so disappointing last season, has been a revelation.

It has won nine of its 12 away fixtures, which is remarkable.

In Dwight Gayle, Newcastle have a natural finisher who can score at this level with ease.

United’s opponents, faced with a defence ably led by new captain Jamaal Lascelles, haven’t found it so easy scoring against them.

Benitez’s team has both steel and style.

Newcastle led the division by a point ahead of Sheffield Wednesday’s visit to St James’s Park.

It’s a slender margin, but the nine-point gap between United and third-placed Reading is far more significant.

Newcastle and Brighton have been the division’s two outstanding teams in the first half of the campaign.

There are still 24 games to go, but few will bet against United finishing the job.