Having taken the decision to sign Matz Sels from Gent in the close season, it was rather inevitable that Rafael Benitez would choose to start Newcastle United’s season with the Belgian in goal. Mistakes crept in and with some sections of the crowd (albeit unnecessarily) on his back, Benitez took the decision to replace him with Karl Darlow.
Darlow did not let Benitez down and has been in stunning form all season long. Not 1, but 2 massive penalty saves in one half of a highly controversial match against former club Nottingham Forest in December were a real highlight for him and the reaction of the fans that evening showed their admiration for the man from Northampton, twice going utterly wild in the away end and chanting his name.
His expertise at psyching out Nicklas Bendtner and pantomime villain Henri Lansbury shouldn’t have been a big surprise however. In a crucial relegation clash against Crystal Palace in the Premier League in April, former Newcastle favourite Yohan Cabaye had the chance to equalise a tense game from the penalty spot with just 20 minutes to go, only for Darlow to produce another brilliant stop aided by a crucial sliding tackle from Paul Dummett to ensure victory.
Darlow is of course not immune to mistakes. A blunder against Norwich City at Carrow Road meant Newcastle throwing away an early lead that night. However, all goalkeepers, especially at just 26, make these mistakes and it is how you deal with them that matters. Not for the first time this season, Darlow did react superbly and has continued to be rock solid in Newcastle’s goal.
He still seems to be pretty underrated if the truth be known. Brighton’s David Stockdale has been named as the EFL’s goalkeeper in their Team of the Year and when Newcastle played away at Brighton in a top-of-the-table clash recently, the question was asked by pundits as to why is Stockdale not in the Premier League? The official Man of the Match that evening – a certain Karl Darlow!
With Tim Krul still on Newcastle’s books but out on loan in Netherlands, Rob Elliot around but injured, top prospect Freddie Woodman banging on the door and new signing Matz Sels looking to impress, Rafa Benitez had a lot to think about last summer and can be forgiven for not starting the season with Darlow. He has however reacted in the way a proper professional should and has done his talking on the pitch when given the opportunity. Benitez responded and has retained Darlow even after one or two errors which shows he has truly changed Rafa’s opinion of him for good.