A Primer For The First Five Matches

Domestic football is finally returning, and though some in the Toon are still likely bitter about relegation, it’s now time to look ahead to a season in the League Championship. It’s been a little bit difficult to focus on the upcoming matches given the flurry of transfer rumours and activity occurring in recent weeks. Just now, Chronicle Live’s transfer news has pointed to Newcastle as being “close” to multiple deals, all while attempting to keep Barcelona target Ayoze Perez. No matter what happens with these alleged moves, however, the season begins on Friday, August 5.

As of now, the outlook for the Magpies is understandably strong. Heading into the season, Betfair’s football oddsmakers have listed Newcastle as a strong favourite not just to secure promotion and jump back up to the EPL, but to win the Championship outright. At least on paper, they certainly appear up to fulfilling this expectation, and with any luck the stay in the Championship will be short-lived. But it all really comes down to the matches, and come this time next month five will already be in the books. So let’s take a quick look at the opponents, some of which will be a little unfamiliar after six straight seasons in the EPL.

Fulham – Craven Cottage, 5 August

Fulham may be a nice early opponent for Newcastle to face, because this club hasn’t had a lot going for it of late. Finishing with just 12 wins and 51 points left Fulham in 20th place in the Championship tables a season ago, though it’s worth noting that eight of those wins were at Craven Cottage, so this is a substantially better club at home. Furthermore, 29-year-old striker Ross McCormack—currently the subject of a bid from Norwich—could pose a problem. His 21 goals were second best in the league last year, and as we know Newcastle surrendered over 60 goals in the Premier League. That’s not to say every great scorer will dismantle a struggling defence, but this first match is both a winnable one and a potential gauge of whether or not Mike Ashley has improved the back line.

Huddersfield Town – St. James’ Park, 13 August

This is another appealing early fixture for the Magpies. Huddersfield, for lack of a better word, was uninspiring last season, finishing even with Fulham in the points. There is some talent on hand. Bermudian forward Nahki Wells is a consistent scoring threat, and we can expect Tommy Smith and Mark Hudson to provide some steady work on the defence. But this has the look of a bottom-dwelling squad once again, and the opportunity is certainly there for Newcastle to open the St. James’ Park season with three points.

Reading – St. James’ Park, 17 August

At the risk of sounding monotonous, this is another nice early opportunity for Newcastle. If Fulham and Huddersfield’s 51 points apiece were underwhelming, Reading’s total of 52 was hardly more impressive, and once again the Magpies will be playing in the comfort of the Toon. If Reading has a strong point, it’s in the back; their 59 goals allowed was good for 16th best in the league and better than each of the seven clubs that finished beneath them in the tables. But it’s another Championship team that Newcastle ought to be able to take advantage of with superior talent and form.

Bristol City – Ashton Gate Stadium, 20 August

Bristol City, too, finished with just 52 points last season, and an identical 13-13-20 record to Reading. However, their goal differential was 10 goals worse, and their defence significantly inferior. Bristol City took a while to get going last season, failing to win a match at Ashton Gate until mid-October (when they beat Nottingham Forest 2-0). They earned seven of their 13 wins at home, with the bulk of those victories coming later in the season. That said, they seemed to improve as star forward and Ivory Coast national team standout Jonathan Kodjia got more comfortable with the club. While a report by Winner Sports toward the end of the 2015/16 campaign indicated Kodjia would be moving on, he’s still at Bristol City. That’s a threat, and this team could be poised to improve, but it’s still a group that finished in the bottom half.

Brighton – St. James’ Park, 27 August

Things kick up a notch in late August when the Magpies will host Brighton, a club that finished four points shy of the top spot in the Championship a season ago. Brighton just missed out on promotion to the EPL, falling to Sheffield Wednesday (who in turn fell to Hull) in the four-team playoff for the final promotion slot. Brighton did a little bit of everything a year ago, and tied for the league lead with 72 goals forced over the course of the season. It’s a well-rounded club with plenty of EPL-calibre players that should be the toughest challenge for Newcastle in the early portion of the season.

The point of all this is by no means to suggest that Newcastle is in for an easy ride. But the early part of the schedule appears to offer the club a nice opportunity to get settled in the Championship, and hopefully establish supremacy that will result in a successful campaign and quick promotion back to the EPL.

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