Everton will look to put Sunday’s derby disappointment behind them when they host Newcastle United on Wednesday night.
A dreadful start to the season saw Newcastle joint-bottom and winless after the first ten matches, but three consecutive victories have propelled them out of the relegation zone.
Saturday’s 3-0 hammering at home to West Ham United brought them back down to earth, though, leaving them just three points above the drop.
Rafa Benítez’s side have a grim record against the Toffees; they have won just one of the last eleven meetings between the sides and have not left Goodison Park victorious since September 2010.
Ahead of Wednesday’s game, we spoke to Graeme Bell (@GraemeBell_NUFC), Newcastle season-ticket holder and writer for SB Nation’s Toon Army blog, Coming Home Newcastle.
RBM: Firstly, describe the atmosphere at St James’ Park so far this season.
Graeme: The atmosphere has been strange; last season we were all in it together and the atmosphere at St James’ Park was the best it had been in a long time.
This season, with protests causing divisions in our fan base, the atmosphere has suffered. We are still firmly behind Benítez; the chants in support of Benítez haven’t gone away.
RBM: Owner Mike Ashley’s unpopularity among fans is well-documented; is Benítez limited in what he can achieve at Newcastle while Ashley is still at the club?
Graeme: Absolutely; Benítez is shopping in the bargain basement. Newcastle fans don’t ask for much, but yet another summer went by with very little investment. For a club the size of Newcastle United, it should be able to compete with the likes of Bournemouth and Watford in the transfer window.
If Benítez was given more room to manoeuvre in the transfer market, Newcastle could be a top seven side. Newcastle have everything in place to be successful; a world-class manager, great support and a fantastic stadium. The only thing that’s lacking is ambition from the owner and investment.
RBM: There was another anti-Ashley demonstration at Newcastle on Saturday, with fans walking in on 11 minutes to highlight their anger at his 11-year tenure. Are protests like this making a difference?
Graeme: The protest on Saturday wasn’t successful in my opinion, as not many took part. The protests have caused a bit of division in the fan base, with some thinking their opinion is better than others. It will be interesting to see how many boycott the game against Wolves [next Sunday]; however, judging by Saturday’s protest, I can’t see many taking part.
I believe Ashley has no intention of selling - why would he? He has Sports Direct plastered all over the stadium, good income from the TV money and he will not invest that in the team. He’s happy if we just survive in the Premier League. Ultimately, Ashley will sell when he wants to.
RBM: How much do you fear Benítez walking away?
Graeme: It’s my biggest fear; he’s changed this club completely. We were a lost cause until he walked through the door. He reunited a fractured fan base and gave us hope of a brighter future.
Without Benítez the club will go backwards yet again; no other manager could do a better job on this budget and with these players. He’s worked miracles.
RBM: Roughly how much money do you think it would take to make Newcastle challenge at the top end of the Premier League again?
Graeme: Tough question; when Steve McClaren was here, he spent upwards of £80 million one summer. [Newcastle were relegated the following season under McClaren and then Benítez]
If Benítez was given that amount, I don’t think Newcastle would be far away from pushing for the Europa League places.
RBM: Irrespective of matters off the pitch, have Newcastle regressed on the field this season?
Graeme: When you take into consideration the start Newcastle had, it’s very hard to judge. However, against Leicester City, Brighton & Hove Albion and West Ham at home we have been very poor.
Though, Newcastle played Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester City, Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal during the opening weeks of the season - that’s one of the toughest starts to a season you can have.
The run up to Christmas is vital; we play teams in and around us before a tough trip to Anfield on Boxing Day.
RBM: Despite Newcastle’s problems, does any part of you feel Benítez could, or should, be getting more out of the squad at his disposal?
Graeme: Personally, I don’t think Benítez can do a lot more with what he has. He maximised their potential last season, finishing 10th; nobody would’ve predicted that.
This season has been harder with the start we’ve had but I still see us finishing safely away from danger. If we didn’t have Benítez, it’d be a different story.
RBM: Would merely surviving signal a successful campaign for Newcastle?
Graeme: Yes and no. We all want this club to stay in the Premier League, of course, however Mike Ashley just wants Newcastle to survive. He’s happy gambling on the club’s future.
Benítez and the fans deserve better, I’m not saying we should be challenging for titles etc, but at least having a go at getting into a Europa League spot.
RBM: How do you expect Newcastle to set up on Wednesday?
Graeme: I wouldn’t be surprised if Benítez set up like he did against Burnley [2-1 away win] and play five at the back.
Javier Manquillo struggled at the weekend, so I wouldn’t be surprised if Ciaran Clark came back in. It will be pretty much the same side and set up as the side that beat Burnley. Jamaal Lascelles and Jonjo Shelvey could return to the starting eleven.
RBM: Who do you think could cause Everton the most problems?
Graeme: Kenedy has all the skill and flair to cause Everton problems, however he’s been very inconsistent. My player to watch is Ki Sung-Yueng. The former Swansea midfielder has been outstanding in the absence of Shelvey.
RBM: Finally, what’s your prediction for Wednesday’s game?
Graeme: This is a tough game for Newcastle. Everton will be heartbroken with the way they lost to Liverpool on Sunday; they’ll want to come back strong. My heart says a draw but my head says Everton will win this one 2-1.
Our thanks to Graeme for his time.