There's a staleness about Mike Ashley's Newcastle United – and without fresh faces the future looks bleak

Maybe the only surprise was that almost 35,000 turned up at St James’s Park.

By Miles Starforth
Monday, 28 January, 2019, 11:11
Matt Ritchie and Rafa Benitez. (Pic: Martin Swinney)

After all, most Newcastle United fans knew what was coming – and the result wasn’t a surprise.

The club hasn’t made it beyond the FA Cup’s fourth round for 13 years, and that dismal run didn’t look like ending against Watford on Saturday.

Alan Shearer labelled the club’s 2-0 defeat “pathetic”.

Fans, however, were using stronger language as they left the stadium.

Admittedly, there wasn’t much between the two sides, though Watford, over the 90 minutes, deserved to go through.

Newcastle had had some momentum and positivity going into the game following victories over Cardiff City and Blackburn Rovers.

That’s gone now.

Those players rested by Rafa Benitez should be fresher for tomorrow night’s Premier League game against Manchester City, but there’s a staleness about the club ahead of some tough fixtures.

Benitez doesn’t know if his squad will be freshened up in this month’s transfer window with the deadline three days away.

United’s manager claimed after the game that he felt that his team – he made seven changes – was strong enough to go through to the fifth round.

“We have to try and go through with what we have in the squad – it makes no sense to lose players (to injury) when we have to wait and see what happens in the future with the draw,” said Benitez.

“I thought this team, with these players, I was convinced we could beat Watford, but we could not do it.

“We have what we have and we have to carry on and concentrate on the league.”

That will suit owner Mike Ashley, who, not surprisingly, was not at St James’s Park.

Benitez wasn’t just protecting the likes of Salomon Rondon, Ayoze Perez and DeAndre Yedlin, he was also protecting Ashley’s bank balance.

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Ashley hasn’t allowed Benitez, forced to sell to buy in the summer, to assemble a squad capable of fighting on more than one front, and, yes, it would have been a risk to field Rondon, signed on loan from West Bromwich Albion.

The fact that so much seemingly rests on a striker signed on loan from a Championship club tells its own story about the club’s plight.

Most Newcastle fans, however, would have wanted Rondon on the field for the last 20 minutes as Benitez’s side, trailing to Andre Gray’s 61st-minute goal, chased the game.

Benitez didn’t want another cup replay – and he kept Rondon on the bench.

Isaac Success added a second in injury-time, and that was that in the FA Cup for another season.

Benitez, we know, is likely to leave in the summer. The only things that would keep him is a takeover or investment from Ashley, and there isn’t much hope of either on Tyneside.

The 58-year-old – who guided the club to a 10th-placed finish last season – wants to leave the club with his head held high, and to do that he needs to keep the club in the Premier League.

That’s easier said than done with what he has at the club, but Benitez feels it can be done.

There were few encouraging signs against Watford.

Kenedy and Jacob Murphy were ineffective out wide, while Joselu wasn’t a threat up front.

The performance of Kenedy, so influential last season, was alarming.

Kenedy, one of the few match-winners in Benitez’s squad, looks devoid of form and confidence. Time is running out for him – and Newcastle.

Newcastle had either won the FA Cup or been relegated after their previous four meetings with Watford in the competition.

United supporters fear that history will now repeat itself unless Ashley backs Benitez between now and the deadline.