February 2016: Newcastle United, led by Head Coach Steve McClaren, head off to the reputable and luxurious La Manga resort instead of partaking in the FA Cup Fourth Round having been knocked out of the competition in the previous round.
Despite the very real threat of relegation, the general feeling amongst the squad was that the break was a exactly that, a break – a mid-season holiday if you will. Scores of supremely talented, international footballers on Newcastle’s books failed to take the trip or the management seriously and subsequently the club succumbed to relegation just three months later.
This time around, the record was set straight before the squad departed for Alicante. The premise of a 135-minute match versus Belgian side Royal Antwerp highlighted the disparity between the two trips. Now at the helm, manager Rafa Benítez insisted that the trip would be a training camp focused around keeping the players sharp, team-bonding and his staff having the opportunity to assess the entire squad.
Two years ago, certain members of the United squad – who have since left the club – seemingly undermined then-boss McClaren by not taking the task at hand seriously. This time around, the respect for manager Benítez is evidently present throughout the entire squad. It’s Rafa’s way or the highway.
It is not up for debate, the Class of 2016 were on paper a better, more equipped squad, however at the same stage of the season, found themselves worse off than the current crop. This group display a togetherness and bond with each other, rather than isolate themselves in cliques. Of course there are still certain players who prefer to associate with one another rather than others, but the general consensus is that it is a happy dressing room.
While the threat of relegation remains present, it is not as pressing as it has been in previous weeks, but Benítez does not intend to let his team take their foot off the gas, just as he insisted the squad retain their high standards of training whilst away in Alicante.