Ben Dawson and Matt Ritchie caught by surprise at Newcastle United press conference

Ben Dawson and Matt Ritchie knew the questions would come their way, but they weren’t expecting what came at the end of their press conference.

By Miles Starforth
Tuesday, 16 July, 2019, 04:45
Matt Ritchie, second left, and Ben Dawson, second right.

When the last question had been asked, there was a round of applause from the Chinese journalists who were there to cover Newcastle United’s first Premier League Asia Trophy press conference.

And they hadn’t been expecting that!

Dawson, put in interim charge along with fellow Academy coach Neil Redfearn following the departure of Rafa Benitez, faced the media in Nanjing ahead of the club’s Premier League Asia Trophy game against Wolverhampton Wanderers today.

They were sat alongside the tournament trophy, which was last won by Liverpool in Hong Kong two years ago.

Around 50 journalists had gathered at the plush Shangri-La Hotel for the press conference, which was immediately followed by one for West Ham United, who were represented by Manuel Pellegrini and Pablo Zabaleta ahead of their game against Manchester City.

That said, the game isn’t the talking point it might have been back home on Tyneside had Benitez, now in China himself having taken over at Dalian Yifang, stayed at St James’s Park.

The media call was dominated by the expected appointment of Steve Bruce this week as Benitez’s successor.

However, Dawson – who is not involved in the recruitment process – was unable to give an answer, and there wasn’t a senior official on stage to speak for the club, which finished 13th last season.

“No news, at this moment in time,” said Dawson. “We’re waiting to hear, as is everybody else. What we can focus on is the job here, work hard and hopefully get a positive result.”

There isn’t much positivity on Tyneside, though the mood behind the scenes is surprisingly positive, and Ritchie, while “disappointed” to see Benitez leave this summer, is keen to get to work under a new manager.

“I was surprised,” said the winger. “I thought he would stay, but he didn’t, and we have to move on as a club. I’m sure a new manager will come in with new ideas, and we’ll look forward to that. We’ll prepare so when the new manager does come in, we’ll hit the ground running.”

Ritchie had been convinced that Benitez would stay.

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Speaking after the club’s season-ending win over Fulham at Craven Cottage in May, he said: “I'm optimistic that he will stay. I hope he stays – everyone hopes he stays. There’s no point talking about ifs and buts, as we don't know yet, let's just wait and see.”

Ritchie is now keen to draw a line under the events of this summer. The 29-year-old believes in his team-mates – and he will get behind the new manager.

“Obviously, to see the manager leave was disappointing,” said the 29-year-old. “He had a good reign at the football club, but it was a decision that was made between the manager himself and the club’s owners. It was out of our hands. We now look forward to a new manager and a new season.”

They really will have to hit the ground running given that the new Premier League season, for them, starts on August 11 with a televised home game against Arsenal. Some fans are planning to boycott the game in protest at Ashley.

The club’s players – who arrived in China on Sunday – have been doing double sessions in hot and humid Nanjing ahead of the friendly at the 62,000-capacity Olympic Centre. The squad, while keen to know who their new manager will be, have been getting on with the job in hand, according to Dawson, who was keen to stress the “normality” of the preparations.

“Obviously, all we can do is focus on the job out here,” said Dawson. “We have good staff and a good group of players. We work hard, and we’ll prepare the players in a normal way. The preparations are just as normal.”

Nothing, however, is normal about starting a pre-season campaign without a manager.

Asked for his message to fans, Dawson said: “I think, from our point of view, the players have been really professional. The group that we have got here are working really hard. They have the club’s best interests at heart, and they’ll be trying to put on a good performance and get a positive result tomorrow evening.”

Is there a siege mentality behind the scenes?

“A siege mentality is something you probably want all your teams to have,” said Dawson, who will again face the media after the Wolves game.

Dawson can only make 10 substitutions for the game, so one player will have to play the full 90 minutes in the energy-sapping heat and humidity of a summer evening in Nanjing. The game, if drawn, will go straight to penalties. The winner will face either Wolves or Manchester City in Shanghai on Saturday.

It is unlikely that Bruce will be able to travel to take charge of the team for the second fixture given the time needed to secure a visa to travel to China. Instead, his first game is likely to be the July 30 friendly against Scottish Premiership side Hibernian at Easter Road.