This summer has seem a remarkable change on Tyneside.
The bleak mood induced by the spectre of relegation has been replaced by a sparkling optimism over promotion. Absent is any sign of arrogance; supporters know promotion is not a God-given right but requires hard work, yet they are confident of achieving that aim.
What a difference three months makes.
At the heart of it all is Rafa Benitez. His decision to stay at St James Park may yet prove to be the best signing of the summer. The Spaniard has set about remodelling the squad, signing a mixture of youth and experience, and imbuing those players who remain with a sense of purpose.
This morning sees talk that the Magpies have triggered the release clause for Aston Villa’s Ciaran Clark. Landing the Northern Ireland captain would be a major coup for the club, particularly with many seeing parallels between Benitez’s tenure and the arrival of Roberto Di Matteo at Villa Park.
Coming twenty-four hours after Newcastle employed the same tactic with Hulls’ Mohammed Diame and there’s a sense of purpose building in the days leading up to the opening game at Fulham.
It’s not a one-way street. Georginio Wijnaldum moved to Liverpool, Andros Townsend to Crystal Palace whilst the experience of Steven Taylor and Fabricio Coloccini left holes in the defence. Benitez addressed these departures with Grant Hanley, Matt Ritchie and Dwight Gayle. He may yet lose Tim Krull but Matz Sels is already on board to cover that eventuality.
The transfer ethos has been underpinned by the requirement for Championship experience. Even Isaac Hayden, £2.5m from Arsenal, spent last year on loan at Hull City. Everything is geared toward promotion.
Translating that momentum onto the pitch is a different matter. For the first time in two decades, Newcastle United were undefeated in pre-season. That has to be tempered by the standard of the opposition but some useful sides in Vitesse Arnhem and KSC Lokeren, were also beaten as well as the chaff.
The one black cloud hanging over the club remains the future of Moussa Sissoko. The French international was issuing ‘come and get me’ pleas even before moving centre stage at Euro 2016. Newcastle’s board weren’t slow to try and capitalise on his performances for his country, upping his valuation to £35m.
Interested clubs from Europe’s elite have steadfastly refused to meet that price tag – or come even close to it – which suggests that Benitez’s biggest task may be motivating a player who doesn’t want to be at the club.
Sections of the travelling support made their views clear at Doncaster and Sissoko won’t be the most popular player in black and white this season. A few goals and good performances may change that view…
Crucially for Newcastle, Rafa has prepared the squad for his absence and with the club still active in the transfer market, could emerge even stronger.
The bookmakers are rarely wrong on these matters and Newcastle are overwhelming favourites with most, head and shoulders clear of the field with 15/8 at Paddy Power the most generous through to 7/4 at Skybet. For those looking to have a bet, make sure to check out SaferGaming for tips on how to stay responsible whilst gambling.