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Despite Premier League return, unease remains at Newcastle

Once again, this is not quite what supporters of Newcastle United had in mind. Having made an immediate return to the Premier League under the management of Rafa Benitez, it seemed that a period of much-needed stability might follow.

Instead, as the team prepare for a testing trip to Huddersfield on Sunday, uncertainty reigns. A very public disagreement between Benitez and owner Mike Ashley over financial backing has raised fears that the club may slide straight back down again.

Huddersfield TownHuddersfield Town
Newcastle UnitedNewcastle United
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"Three months is an incredibly long time in Newcastle United years," says Martin Hardy. "The mood from May has changed markedly. It has a hangover feel now."

Hardy is a journalist and author of three books on Newcastle, including "Rafa's Way," which detailed the club's promotion year.

"Benitez is trying to make the best of the goalposts moving, but that tidal wave of optimism has dissipated," Hardy told ESPN FC. "Momentum screeching to a halt has been a symbol of the last 10 years at Newcastle United."

For many supporters, this has come as little surprise. Taylor Payne, one half of podcasting duo "Taylor & Besty" certainly saw it coming.

"I had a feeling that we wouldn't have a lot of money to spend," he told ESPN FC. "I was hoping we'd be able to shift some of the dead wood and open up spaces for new players, but it's proving difficult. Unfortunately with Mike Ashley in the background, optimism is often in short supply."

Benitez expected to be able to reinforce the squad more emphatically. The £12 million signing of 22-year-old Jacob Murphy has been the standout deal so far, but he's a player with more potential than proven quality. The arrival this week of Joselu, a peripatetic £5m forward who has never hit double figures in a single league season, is unlikely to improve the mood.

It seems impossible for Newcastle to ever enjoy a period of calm; every success is quickly followed by a crisis and, frustratingly, most of them are avoidable.

In a rare TV interview last weekend, Ashley admitted to making a string of mistakes since taking control of the club in 2007, including what he felt was the hasty dismissal of Sam Allardyce, the treatment of former managers Kevin Keegan and Chris Hughton, and the controversial renaming of the stadium. To this, he might have added the appointment of Joe Kinnear (twice) and the failure to significantly strengthen after Alan Pardew's fifth-place finish in 2011-12.

Rafa Benitez has had a frustrating summer at Newcastle.

What is most concerning is that, with the exception of the axing of Allardyce, which was well-received at the time and hardly regretted since, all of these errors were obvious without the benefit of hindsight and were vehemently opposed by supporters and local media alike.

For example, you didn't need to be a football genius to know that Keegan would be undermined by the appointment of Dennis Wise as executive director above him, thrusting unwanted players into his squad and then demanding he finish in the top four.

Meanwhile, you didn't need a fortune teller to know that the commercial benefits of changing the name of an iconic stadium, such as St James' Park, would be nothing compared to the catastrophic PR damage. These were unforced errors. And so too, it seems, is the failure to back Benitez.

"The club and the city had fallen out of love with each other when he arrived," says Hardy. "Benitez preached togetherness and he took the players and himself into the community. That was vital. He brought professionalism, leadership and trust back to his position. He united the place."

In spite of the gathering problems in the background, Newcastle coped reasonably well with the visit of Tottenham last Sunday, at least until Jonjo Shelvey's moment of extraordinary foolishness reduced the team to 10 men.

They kept pace with Spurs' movement and, though they scarcely created a chance of their own, that is no disaster: Tottenham are one of the best teams in the division. But if Newcastle slip up against Huddersfield, widely tipped for relegation, doubts will multiply.

And David Wagner's side will not be easy to beat. They thrashed Crystal Palace last weekend, destroying Frank de Boer's hopes of a persuasive passing game by throttling them every time they crossed the half way line. They are fit, organised and tenacious and, backed by a euphoric home crowd, will tear into Newcastle from the first whistle.

Benitez will have a plan for this. Obsessed by the game, there's very little he hasn't experienced before, but once he's handed down the instruction, he can only hope that his players keep their nerve on the pitch.

"The confidence has waned," says Hardy. "It is a young and inexperienced squad. Benitez has to make them overachieve and he can do that and he wants to do that, but it's not how it was in the brochure. The relationship between the owner Mike Ashley and Benitez is just about nonexistent. That doesn't bode well."

Newcastle can ill afford any more mishaps; the soothing balm of points is required urgently. But you do wonder if anything short of Ashley's departure from the club will calm the nerves of supporters.

Iain Macintosh covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @IainMacintosh.


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