It’s an injury and fixture nightmare for Rafa Benitez. For Sean Longstaff, it’s a dream.
The Newcastle United midfielder is set for a third successive start at Ewood Park tonight.
The way the squad is at the minute there are a few injuries to key players. That’s what you need, you need a chance.Sean Longstaff
Twelve months ago, Longstaff was playing League One football for loan club Blackpool.
Now, the 21-year-old is getting a chance at Premier League level.
Longstaff was handed his first league start for the club in Saturday’s 2-1 defeat to Chelsea at Stamford Bridge.
Benitez was without Mohamed Diame, Jonjo Shelvey and Ki Sung-yueng for the game.
“I saw it was a free hit, almost,” said Longstaff, who signed a new four-year contract at St James’s Park last month.
“The way the squad is at the minute there are a few injuries to key players. That’s what you need, you need a chance.
“I think, for me, to play at Anfield and now here, it’s not the easiest of baptisms, but I’ve loved it.
“Playing against the best players in the world can only improve you as a player.
“It’s amazing to see where I’ve come in just a short space of time – playing in League One last year to starting a Premier League game.
“Obviously, it’s something I’ve dreamt of as a kid and I’m over the moon. Now it’s about doing well enough every day to get another one and another one.
“They’ve got Premier League winners (at Chelsea). You name it, they’ve got it in their team. For me, there’s no better place to learn than on the pitch.
“It’s good being on the training ground and watching videos, but nothing like experiencing it first-hand. It’s unbelievable.”
Longstaff and his team-mates left the field at Stamford Bridge frustrated that they hadn’t taken anything from the game, having been level at the break thanks to an equaliser from Ciaran Clark.
Willian scored a 57th-minute winner for Chelsea.
“It was a disappointed dressing room, but I think there were a lot of positives to take,” said Longstaff.
“You saw for a lot of the game we more than matched them. We were in their faces.
“We were under pressure for some parts of the game, but that was always going to happen against one of the top teams.
“It’s a day of mixed emotions. We’re disappointed we haven’t taken something from the game. We caused them real problems.”
Pedro had given Chelsea an eighth-minute lead.
“We spoke about staying in the game for as long as possible and they scored after eight minutes,” said Longstaff.
“It’s not the best start, and it would have been easy to let in a second and third and it becomes a rout.
“But the fans don’t pay their money to see that. They saw 11 players giving absolutely everything trying to get something for the shirt.
“Everyone’s very disappointed that we haven’t got anything. There are loads of positives.”
Benitez was frustrated that his team hadn’t beaten Blackburn at the first attempt.
For Longstaff, however, the game is another opportunity to impress.
“Any time I get the chance to play a game for Newcastle, I’ll snap your hand off,” said Longstaff.
“Hopefully, I’ve done enough to stay in the team. We’ve got a lot of injuries at the minute. It’s another game.
“We’d have liked to have finished it last Saturday, but it wasn’t to be.
“We’ll go into it with confidence. It’ll be good to get a win – it doesn’t matter what competition it’s in.
“That’ll bring more confidence for the game on Saturday.”
Benitez praised Longstaff – whose younger brother Matty plays for the club’s Under-23s – after the Chelsea game.
“He did well,” said United’s manager.
“We had some problems in the middle in terms of numbers, so to play a young player like him and see how he did, I‘m quite pleased with him.
“We knew we had some problems with Diame and Shelvey, and we have a lot of confidence in him.
“We didn’t want to put him in a position that would be too much for him, but we knew it would be a difficult game.
“At the same time, we had confidence he could do well.”
Meanwhile, Newcastle United Under-23s eased to a 4-2 victory over West Brom last night, thanks to goals from Oisin Mcentee, Rosarie Longelo, Yannick Toure and a George Harmon own goal.
The Baggies replied with goals from Nick Clayton-Phillips and Jamie Soule.