If Southampton was playing anyone but Newcastle United this would be a normal 3 p.m. kickoff on Saturday — instead we’ve been dragged into their sixth Sunday fixture of the season.
And to get a better grasp on what our opponents are all about, we’ve brought in our SB Nation brethren the Coming Home Newcastle blog and contributor Greg Troxell.
St Mary’s Musings: Tell us a little bit about yourself, your own passion for Newcastle and about the Coming Home Newcastle blog.
Greg Troxell: I became a Newcastle fan in 2004 and I fell in love immediately. The passion of the fan base was the biggest draw. There is only one club in Newcastle, similar to Southampton, so you have about 1 million die hard blue-collar fans that will do anything and travel anywhere for their club. Here at Coming Home Newcastle, we try and reach out to the global fan base to share our love for the club similar to that of the locals.
St Mary’s Musings: Newcastle is back in the Premier League at the first asking - what needs to be different this year to avoid a return to the Championship?
Greg Troxell: The Championship was tougher than we anticipated. We won it on the last day of the season and it was definitely a grueling schedule. From the last time we were in the Premier League to now, the difference is a full season under Rafa Benitez. He is a tactical genius and constantly puts us in positions to get points. If our players stay disciplined (I’m looking at you Jonjo Shelvey and Aleksandar Mitrovic) we should manage to stay up.
St Mary’s Musings: Despite sitting ninth early on, what do you make of Newcastle's hot and cold start to the season?
Greg Troxell: Hot and cold is the perfect way to describe it. I am obviously happy to sit in 9th, but I know we have work to do. Most Newcastle supporters would agree that 40 points or more would make this season a successful one. We have a brutal schedule coming up in November and December, so we are going to need as many points now as we can get. It’s still tough to say with this team. Most people would say were not one of the top 10 teams in terms of talent, but Rafa has us playing like it at times.
St Mary’s Musings: What do fans make of Rafa Benitez and how have players adapted to his style of play? And more importantly, is it working?
Greg Troxell: Rafa is an absolute legend. He’s won on every level and he’s doing it with Newcastle also. Everyone was shocked including us when he decided to stay in the championship. He stayed and we won it. The fans sing his name for the most of every match and all the players speak very highly of him. In my opinion, the best example is USA’s own Deandre Yedlin. His improvement that he’s made under Benitez has been tremendous. Yedlin used to only rely on his pace but would often find himself making unwarranted mistakes. After a year and some change under Rafa, he is positionally sound as well. He is constantly causing trouble going forward and has become a very sound defender.
Rafa likes to build out of the back and uses a 4-2-3-1 formation almost religiously. He has a very micro-managing style and has a lone striker waiting in the ‘hole’. The key is being able to create a consistent defensive shape that transforms to an attacking unit. You can see this if you watch our CB’s Lascelles and Clark play together. Our back line is pretty impressive so far.
St Mary’s Musings: Which Newcastle player will be most vital to ensuring they enjoy a comfortable position in the table, as opposed to a relegation battle?
Greg Troxell: I believe it all comes down to Jonjo Shelvey. The lad is good. When he’s really on, he can boss any game. His long-range passing is some of the best I’ve ever seen. Its his discipline that’s the problem. He was already suspended this season. However, if we can get him in 30 Premier League matches this season that would be great for us.
St Mary’s Musings: It's never dull with Mike Ashley as owner. Do you believe the rumours of a potential sale of the club or is it all just hot air and he'll get cold feet?
Greg Troxell: As a Newcastle supporter, you hope every rumor of someone buying the club is true. However, as every rumor get closer you realize that Mike Ashley is there to ruin your hopes and dreams. Its simple, the fans want him out. We were a Champions League club in the early 2000’s and then he took over for two relegations in 8 seasons. It’s unacceptable.
That being said, I think the rumors of potential buyers are true. We have a massive stadium, sold out every weekend, a loyal fanbase, and a world class manager. The appeal is definitely there, but we have to remain cautious because Ashley loves to take away things that we like.
St Mary’s Musings: Newcastle has won the Championship both times they were relegated this century. Would you trade mid-table Premier League finishes for a league title every other year?
Greg Troxell: At times last season I was caught saying “This is fun”. We had some pretty impressive games, but I think most of us were more happy returning to the Premier League than winning the Championship. So yeah, I would definitely take mid table over winning the Championship. Since 1994 we’ve played in a European competition 12 times, so there is a potential with this club that we think eventually we can get back to that. Just not this year!
St Mary’s Musings: Who is a player that should concern Southampton fans?
Greg Troxell: My vote is Matt Ritchie. I feel like that man will never back down. He has pace, has a knack for scoring great set piece goals and can whip a mean cross in the box. He will play on one of the wings, and he can really take over an attack if you let him. If you take him out of the game, we lose a lot of creativity.
St Mary’s Musings: Yes, our goal scoring record is pants, but which Southampton player will Newcastle be most worried about?
Greg Troxell: It will be interesting to see how you line up with Shane Long being injured. Manolo Gabbiadini would seem to be the one that could make the most difference. If he isn’t left alone up top and is left to be a free attacking player he could really do damage do to how creative he is. He could be a massive headache.
St Mary’s Musings: Who on Southampton most fits the mould of a typical Newcastle player?
Greg Troxell: This was a hard one. I would go with Dusan Tadic. He just seems like a hardnosed blue-collar player. He has a good work rate and is smart enough to know when to take chances. That’s Rafa’s way. We are fine with giving up possession, but when it’s our turn to go on the attack we will go for it. I feel like Dusan has that type of leave it all on the field mentality.
St Mary’s Musings: Finally, a prediction?
Greg Troxell: This will be a difficult game for us. On the road, across the country. We also have a terrible record against you lot. The good thing is that our back line has been great, and Southampton have trouble scoring. I think there will be enough to see each team get the back of the net. This has boring 1-1 draw written all over it for me.