Former Leeds and Newcastle winger Steve Stone fancies the Whites to beat the Magpies on their home turf this evening.Here he explains how he thinks Garry Monk’s play-off chasers can do it. Phil Hay reports.
Newcastle United in Steve Stone’s eyes are an example of what money buys you in the Championship. Even if the club reach their own benchmark by nailing automatic promotion, he will not remember this as an immaculate season. “They’ve been efficient,” Stone said, “but they haven’t been great. That little bit of quality is seeing them through.”
He would go so far as to make Leeds United favourites at St James’ Park tonight, convinced that Leeds have as much form on their side and less pressure too. Garry Monk’s claim that the play-offs are a “bonus objective” will only wash for so long if Leeds qualify for them but United’s head coach did not start this season with that weight on his shoulders. Rafael Benitez, in contrast, was in it for the title and second place at worst. The Spaniard is still not certain of either.
The lingering threat posed by Huddersfield Town, the only club with any chance of disrupting the top two, is why Stone expects Newcastle to feel tension this evening. “They’ve been doing enough but even the most die-hard Newcastle fan would admit that this season’s been hard work,” he said. “I’ve seen plenty of games where they’ve been second best but they’ve got the advantage of that extra quality which most teams don’t have.
“Jonjo Shelvey, Dwight Gayle and Matt Ritchie – they’re all £10m players and the number of times those three have made the difference in games which could have gone either way shows you what £10m players are worth in the Championship. That for me is one of the main reasons why Newcastle are where they are. You couldn’t say they’ve bulldozed the league.”
Newcastle have two wins in five and Ritchie, the former Bournemouth winger, earned both of them. Two goals from Gayle were enough to beat Leeds at Elland Road in November – a game which Stone, a lifelong Newcastle fan, describes as “one of the best performances of the season” – but the striker will miss tonight’s game with a hamstring strain. Shelvey is Shelvey; a dynamic and powerful midfielder who was the width of the crossbar away from scoring the goal of the season at Sheffield Wednesday last weekend. “The one thing Leeds can’t afford to do is let Shelvey have his way,” Stone said. “He’ll kill you if he gets the run of the midfield.”
Stone, though, has been impressed by Leeds, a club who made the play-off final during his injury-ravaged spell at Elland Road in 2006. “I make Leeds favourites tonight, I really do,” Stone said. “It sounds strange to say that about a game at St James’ Park but I’d say they’ve been less up-and-down recently. There’s probably more nervousness at Newcastle than you realise.
“I don’t sense any huge pressure on the players at Leeds, even though they’d expect to get into the play-offs now. The look like a strong, powerful unit who know exactly how they’re supposed to play.
“The teams who’ve done well at Newcastle this season have all come here to have a go. They’ve come to St James’ Park and been really positive. If you let Newcastle play their own game you’ll not see much of the ball and you’ll be dead on your feet after an hour. Then you get picked off by the quality up front. I’m sure Garry (Monk) will be well aware of that.”
Monk alluded to an aggressive approach on Wednesday when he admitted that his players had been too passive in the first game between the clubs; guilty of “playing the occasion”, as United’s boss put it. Leeds are not in the habit of starting games quickly and the club have, remarkably, scored only three times in the opening 15 minutes of Championship matches this season. The bulk of their finishes come in the last half-hour, a positive indictment of the fitness of Monk’s squad.
“They don’t want to be gung-ho and they certainly don’t want an end-to-end game because that sort of situation plays into the hands of Newcastle’s best players,” Stone said. “But you need to be aggressive and you need to press high up the pitch.
“Newcastle will try to retain the ball from the start. It’s what they always do under Benitez. They’ll keep possession quite happily if you let them and that can wear teams out. The teams who’ve done well against them have been good at limiting their space, forcing mistakes and then taking chances. At the same time, you have to accept that even playing well against Newcastle sometimes isn’t enough. You might be the better side but someone like Ritchie or Shelvey can come up with something from nothing. That’s why they cost what they cost.
“It’s a fascinating game and a huge game and I still think there’s time for the table to change. I don’t think either club should be feeling comfortable yet. You’ll see in the intensity of the game how hard they’re fighting.”
Stone, a former England midfielder and first-team coach at Newcastle, will be at St James’ Park tonight as a pundit with BBC Five Live. “I’m one of a lot of people who wants both clubs to go up,” he said. “My Newcastle links are obvious but in my career I felt genuine affinity for every club I played for.
“I think it comes naturally and I felt it at Leeds, despite the fact I had terrible injury problems there. It’s a cliché to say that both clubs deserve to be in the Premier League but it’s the only level where they can ever realise their potential. It’s there for them this season if they want it.”