Sorry, but this is NOT a good season for Newcastle United
This was a good day for Newcastle United – and an even better one for Ayoze Perez.
But this, let’s be clear, hasn’t been a good season for the club.
Mike Ashley might be happy, having seen the club survive, again, and turn in a profit.
But Rafa Benitez wants more – and so do his players.
The club’s fans also want more, having been used to top-half finishes in the Premier League, cups runs and European football before Ashley bought the club 11 years ago.
Benitez has built an entertaining, disciplined and hard-working team since taking charge just over three years ago.
What’s more, he’s built that team on a relative shoestring. Imagine what he could do with even a modest budget.
Perez scored his first Premier League hat-trick in Saturday’s 3-1 win over Southampton. Fans, however, will be concerned that it will also prove to be his last.
The result took the club up to 13th and mathematically secured top-flight safety.
The day started well, with Tyneside bathed in glorious sunshine.
And things hotted up early in the game at St James’s Park, when Newcastle, and especially Perez, Salomon Rondon and Miguel Almiron, took the game to Southampton.
Almiron was everywhere. He had an early cross-cum-shot saved by Angus Gunn, and Southampton were struggling to stop him.
James Ward-Prowse crudely blocked him in his own half when it was two-on-one. Referee Anthony Taylor opted to only show Ward-Prowse a yellow card, but had he not stopped Almiron, there would have been a goalscoring opportunity for him for Rondon, who was on the left.
Benitez, understandably, was furious. So too was Mikel Antia, his assistant. Antia was sent to the stands for his protests by Taylor before play resumed.
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The apparent injustice of that decision only seemed to spur Newcastle on.
Southampton – who had been trying to get on the front foot at that point – found themselves back on the back foot. Isaac Hayden won the ball in the 27th minute with a forceful challenge and played it forward to Perez, who broke into the box and shot across Gunn and into the far corner of the net.
Four minutes later, it was 2-0 to Newcastle. Rondon broke down the left and crossed for Perez, who stretched and poked the ball past Gunn at the far post.
A reorganised Southampton were better after the break, and substitute Mario Lemina got a goal back.
United weren’t finished, and Perez redirected a diving Matt Ritchie header past Gunn.
The win, however, came at a cost. Benitez lost Almiron, Hayden and Fabian Schar to injuries. Almiron’s season is almost certainly over. The midfielder left the pitch in tears after suffering a hamstring injury.
Almiron, signed for a club-record fee from Atlanta United in January, has played his part in United’s push for safety.
Newcastle’s form since mid-January has been very, very good. Only Manchester City, Liverpool and Arsenal have fared better.
Almiron didn’t get the goal that he had been craving, but his energy and enthusiasm has created opportunity after opportunity for Perez and Rondon. But will Rondon and Perez be here next season?
And what about Benitez? There are more questions than answers at the club.
The footballing foundations, built by Benitez and his players, are solid. The players care, and there’s a bond between them and supporters.
Does Ashley care? Does he want to built on those foundations?
Benitez and the club’s fans are waiting for an answer, but they know from experience that Ashley’s response might not be the one they want to hear.