Last week’s win will have made people sit up and take notice. Most expected that this would be a comfortable three points for Crystal Palace but from the very beginning, we’ve set the right tone.
Now we have a more difficult task in hand. Last season, we saw how Rafa Benitez was a manager who was far superior to the level of the Championship.
Having masterminded a 3-1 victory over Town at the John Smith Stadium, he will be looking to do something similar as he looks to kick-start Newcastle’s season.
However, even though Newcastle are much more prepared than Crystal Palace to face David Wagner’s side, the enigmatic German head coach will be looking to right the wrongs of this fixture and take all three points.
Ahead of Town’s first-ever Premier League home match, I got in touch with respected journalist Kristan Heneage. The name may ring a bell for Town fans as he has written a number of glowing pieces about Town over the past twelve months including his most recent piece.
We discussed his beloved Newcastle United, his perception of Huddersfield Town and the game itself.
1. What have you made of Newcastle’s summer overall?
“I think our summer has been a rush of very contrasting emotions. We signed Mikel Merino, who looks a player, but you can tell Rafa Benitez has been restricted in the market.
For the first time since Sir Bobby, there’s a feeling of togetherness between fans and team and we see the potential the club has.
I like a lot of the signings, but the lack of investment is frustrating if not a consequence of our relegation”.
2. Have you been impressed by Rafa’s signings or is more needed?
“I like Merino, Lejeune, and Murphy. Joselu feels like a big gamble so too does Manquillo.
I’d love a big summer like the one under McClaren but I don’t think that will happen, unfortunately.
I think I’d always like more, but not for the sake of it. We need attacking quality and even a semi-proven goal scorer would ease my worries.
Granted, the last time we came up Carroll kicked on and we found a patch-work of Best, Lovenkrands and Nolan to fire in the goals. It’s a big ask, but I trust Benitez’s tactical nous against most”.
3. Do you feel the off the field tension between Rafa and Ashley has or will have an on the field impact?
“I think it could galvanize us for sure.
The fans adore Rafa for last season, and they hate Ashley even more for hamstringing his attempts to make the team better.
Rafa treats the supporters and the club with a respect that’s been missing since Chris Hughton departed and I think they appreciate that.
I think and hope we channel it in the right way and the players take a real sense of energy from what Rafa is doing and the challenges they possess”.
4. Who will be your key players this season?
“I’d have said Shelvey 8 days ago ha!
I think Ritchie, Gayle, maybe Merino if he grows in the right way, and probably Lejeune.
We’re not going to be a team of stars, it’s going to be about out working most teams so I’m hopeful we can do that”.
5. What are your hopes and realistic ambitions for the remainder of the season?
“Hopes and ambitions are survival.
It’s maybe not ‘ambitious’ but we’re building something here.
There’s no point demanding top half finish when we’re not even close to being ready for it. The aim is stay up, invest PL money wisely, and continue to grow under Rafa”.
6. Where do you see Newcastle finishing come May?
“I’m hopeful of 15th-16th. For the first time in my life, I’m counting the points. Once we get to 42-45, I’ll breathe a big sigh of relief”.
After offering some very humble and honest opinions about Newcastle United, our thoughts turned to Town as we discussed Town’s opening day victory, the progression under David Wagner and what our survival chances are.
1. Having watched Town over the past twelve months or so, how do you feel Town’s progression is going under Wagner?
“I think Town fans will agree with me in saying it’s ahead of schedule in the best ways possible.
I remarked to a Town fan friend of mine after the game at SJP “I can see them sneaking in the playoffs’ and I think that was based on the clear style David has imparted on the team.
I think maybe if he was looking at things he might have expected the promotion push this season, but things aligned and they made the most of it.
I give him a lot of credit for the speed of turn around because common sense often suggests it takes 18 months to properly shift deadwood and get your new ideas in”.
2. How highly do you rate David Wagner and what do you make of the signings he has made this summer?
“I like it a lot because I think they’ve dabbled in two different markets.
You’ve got players like Mooy and Ince who have a point to prove but won’t struggle if the team is relegated.
On the other side there are players that improve the current group and are making the most of the financial clout a PL team has.
I know a lot of people like to praise Webber for his role in hiring Wagner, but I think in the next 12-18 months we’ll see just how influential he was”.
3. How do you rate Town’s survival chances this season?
“I’ve genuinely gone back and forth on this so much. I think your perspective influences it drastically.
There are fewer games this season meaning the team won’t hit fumes as quickly as last season.
At the same time, more teams will likely come on to Huddersfield — see Leicester the year they won the league — in the belief, they can outplay them.
The cons are that Wagner’s style could leave the team open. You saw the way Fulham played through the team last year and I could see some sides in this league doing that.
Palace certainly had chances, they just didn’t really take them.
I think once October hits we’ll have a considerably better idea because I think we’ll see how adaptable Wagner is.
Last year he showed his nous against Benitez at SJP by camping in, but he also showed his naivety in the reverse fixture by just throwing themselves onto Newcastle”.
4. Do you think their style of play will suit the Premier League?
“Haha, see 3! It definitely could because counter-attacking is prevalent. I think they’ll have to keep up that clinical nature they showed at Palace, but I will not be surprised at all if come March and April we’re talking about Huddersfield’s second season in the Premier League”.
5. Who in your opinion are Town’s standout players?
“I love Aaron Mooy. I said after that SJP game he could play in the Premier League. He’s what Jonjo Shelvey should be in a lot of ways, and that’s what makes it so interesting to me that he’s going to be the fulcrum.
I like Schindler, but after that, I haven’t seen enough of the new guys to comment really. I think the goalkeeper looks very solid”.
6. What did you make of Town’s opening day victory? Promising signs from a Town perspective or were Palace the architects of their own downfall?
“I think, to be honest, a bit of both. The style was perfect for that day. Palace wanted to come out and show the world their new style and you pooped all over that party by being aggressive, intense, and forcing the wrong players (from a Palace perspective) to play football.
There were some hairy moments with Zaha, but I don’t think it’ll be that easy for Town every week. Some teams will be more clinical and I think they’ll not be as nervous. Palace aren’t made for 3 at the back yet and I think what you saw play out was a drilled ideology come up against a team on day 1 of a new idea”.
After making some very interesting observations about Town, we finally moved onto the game itself as we discussed the tactical battle between Benitez and Wagner and how Kristan thinks the game will go.
1. What did you make of Newcastle’s 2-0 defeat on the opening day of the season? Could it have an impact on Sunday considering the injuries and suspensions?
“I was frustrated because we looked comfortable without the ball. Spurs were ok but they weren’t causing us issues.
There’s been a bit of revisionism about it really. No one talks about the Kane tackle or the fact we lost two defenders to injury but yeah there were positives”.
2. Do you think the match will follow a similar path to the one at the John Smith last season?
“I think Rafa will look to frustrate again. He’ll try to do exactly what he did last time and just suck the momentum and energy from the game”.
3. How do you think Wagner will approach the game? Will he take last season’s defeat into consideration?
“I’m genuinely not sure because he’s such a young coach we have no idea.
He’s shown some versatility but then sitting deep at home isn’t what fans will want in the opening fixture.
Saying that you’ve got much better attackers than you did then so they may make more of the space”.
4. What will be the key battles that could decide the outcome of the match?
“I think Mounie v Whoever, and Gayle v your defence. Gayle is a nuisance and I’m hoping he scores the goals we need this season”.
5. If you had to pick the Newcastle starting XI for Sunday, who would you pick?
“Woof. Elliott, Manquillo, Mbemba, Lascelles, Clark, Merino, Hayden, Ritchie, Perez, Atsu, Joselu”.
6. What’s your score prediction for the game?
“I’d take a 1-1 draw right now haha”.
For Huddersfield and Newcastle, both sides have managers who have galvanised the full backing of their supporters. With not much difference between the quality of the two sides and both sides looking to outwork the other, it could be the tactical battle between Rafa Benitez and David Wagner which makes all the difference come Sunday.
Make sure to give @KHeneage a follow on Twitter and check out some of his excellent content!