What will 2017 bring for Newcastle United?

Rafa Benitez
Rafa Benitez

A year ago, things weren’t looking good for Newcastle United.

The club was on a downward spiral.

The hardest thing in the Premier League is scoring goals, and Benitez would need more attacking options.

Twelve months on, the mood on Tyneside is very different – thanks to Rafa Benitez.

The club is again on the up.

Benitez has energised the team – and the city – in much the same manner as Sir Bobby Robson and Kevin Keegan.

So where will we be in a year’s time? In the Premier League?

Few would bet against Newcastle winning promotion. As for the Championship title, that would be a bonus.

Brighton and Hove Albion, the league’s other outstanding team, will push them hard.

Promotion is all-important to the club, and the coming weeks – on and off the pitch – will have a significant bearing on United’s chance of returning to the top flight at the first attempt.

Newcastle, arguably, have the best squad in the Championship.

But Benitez would like at least one player to arrive in next month’s transfer window.

The will is there. So too is the money.

However, Benitez has spoken about the difficulties United face in the window.

The club isn’t looking for any more Championship specialists, and there are few players in the division that Benitez feels would be better than what he already has at St James’s Park.

So then there are the players in the Premier League and Europe’s other elite divisions that Benitez believes could strengthen his squad.

Clubs and agents are already demanding hugely-inflated fees for potential targets.

The players themselves would be asking for Premier League money.

Would they take a risk and join a Championship team in the New Year?

Or would they wait until next summer when United’s fate will be known.

In the meantime, Newcastle must come get through the next few games without the suspended Jonjo Shelvey, banned for four more games.

And then they must do without Mohamed Diame, Christian Atsu and Chancel Mbemba, who are all expected to head to the African Cup of Nations next month.

If, and it’s a big if, United can still be in an automatic promotion place when they all return from Gabon, then Benitez’s side will be very confident of pushing on towards April, when Benitez feels the Championship will be decided.

Beyond that, Benitez, having transformed Newcastle in a relatively short space of time, looks more than capable of re-establishing the club in the Premier League given the right backing.

Benitez already has the nucleus of a good top-flight squad, but the gulf between the divisions is widening by the year.

And United would need to invest heavily in players in the event of promotion.

Benitez knows this, and so too does managing director Lee Charnley.

The Premier League doesn’t stand still.

That’s why, after years of under-investment, Newcastle repeatedly found themselves at the wrong end of the table.

Charnley trusts Benitez’s judgement.

And so too does a fanbase which has seen millions wasted on players ill-equipped for either United or the Premier League.

Benitez won’t get every player like, but he has a clear idea of what he wants and what the club needs.

The club’s immediate needs lie in midfield given that Benitez lacks a creative player that can fill in for Shelvey.

Beyond that, Newcastle will need to find at least one striker.

Will Aleksandar Mitrovic still be at the club in 12 months’ time?

Maybe. Maybe not.

Mitrovic, for his part, won’t want to spend another season on the bench.

The hardest thing in the Premier League is scoring goals, and Benitez would need more attacking options.

He has Premier League players. He just needs more of them.

But it’s hard to look far in the future when so much depends on the present.

United need to go through next month which ever way they can.

The players – who have shown great unity and togetherness on the field – need to stay united.

And so do supporters.

Remarkably, there were a few boos after the Boxing Day defeat to Sheffield Wednesday.

Really?

Newcastle have come a long way in a short space of time.

And let’s not forget that.