Dwight Gayle has had an interesting journey to the top of the game, famously making his name in non-league before working his way up the Football League.
Despite his natural talent and determination to establish himself at the very top, he has been pigeonholed as a player that is too good for the Championship, but not good enough for the Premier League.
During his time at Crystal Palace, he showed flashes of his ability and scored some crucial goals. He became an unpopular figure among Liverpool supporters, often scoring against the Merseyside club. He has four goals against the Reds total – his best record against any individual club.
However, he failed to secure a regular starting berth at Selhurst Park, regularly being used as an impact substitute. On the rare occasions that he did find himself in the first elevn, he was played out of position.
It became a topic of debate for Palace supporters as Gayle was seen as the club’s biggest goal threat. In each of his three seasons with the London outfit he was a regular scorer, but he never managed to fully convince.
His instincts in the final third weren’t enough to impress the number of managers that he worked under and, during the summer of 2016, he was forced to take a step backward in order to progress. Gayle’s career was stagnating in South London and a transfer to recently relegated Newcastle United, for a reported fee of about £10m, was too good to turn down.
The Magpies are a club that have become famous for their goal-scoring number nines. Their supporters are among the most passionate in European football and Rafa Benitez was the manager leading the revival.
Although Gayle had to drop down a division, it was far from a backward step as there was potential to be part of an exciting project at St James’ Park and develop as player under one of the best managers in the world. BBC Sport reported the following quotes from the striker after the transfer was announced:
“He is a great manager and has great experience,”
“There’s expectation, but under the manager here I believe he can help me to perform.
“There’s a great history at Newcastle – I’m looking forward to getting this club back in the Premier League and proving a few people wrong.”
The fee of £12 million was seen as a bargain by Benitez. Newcastle were getting a proven goal-scorer in the Championship with potential to grow with the club. Upon signing for the North East club, it was noted that the famous number nine shirt was vacant and Gayle immediately became a leading candidate to take the jersey.
There was competition from Aleksandar Mitrovic, but the new signing won the battle and that heaped even more pressure on him to hit the ground running.
He certainly did that and if it wasn’t for a second-half of the season hampered by injuries, Gayle could have had a record-breaking season.
The striker scored 23 times in just 32 matches and averaged a goal every 93.3 minutes. His strike rate was considerably better than any other player in the division and he looked a class above. After Newcastle sealed promotion, it was expected that the 27-year-old would now make a name for himself in the top-flight.
That hasn’t been the case and he has once again struggled to secure a regular starting place in the Premier League. He has started 14 times and his performances have been inconsistent. There has been some concern over his mental state, as Benitez alluded to with these comments in August reported by the Shields Gazette:
“He’s fine. Hopefully, he’ll carry on training. If everything’s fine, he will be available. It’s not his hamstring, it’s more the feeling. He’s not comfortable. We don’t want to take any risks and be sure he is fine.”
The Guardian reported that Benitez was ready to sell Gayle towards the end of the summer window, due to these concerns. However, the striker remained at St James’ Park and it has been a slow road back to a starring role.
Goals against Manchester United and Chelsea offered encouragement, but he remained a shadow of the player that stole the headlines in the Championship.
Admittedly, it was a lower standard in the second tier, but there had been a noticeable regression in Gayle’s performances since the end of last season.
He now lacked confidence and didn’t possess the razor sharp edge that allowed him to terrorise defences as Newcastle romped to promotion. There was clearly a problem and it has taken him some time to deal with it.
However, after being given a run in the team, there have been some good signs from Gayle and he could be ready to finish the season strongly. It couldn’t come at a better time for Newcastle with the bottom of the Premier League table is tight. Now, every point is valuable in battling against relegation.
Against Manchester United, he played his part in an important victory. It wasn’t an easy game to lead the line, with Newcastle possession at a minimum, but Gayle worked hard and contributed when he could.
He got the important assist for Matt Ritchie, with a lovely piece of intelligent play in the penalty area, flicking the ball into the path of the winger, and he never stopped running for the team.
He then followed that up with a classic Dwight Gayle performance against Bournemouth as he got back among the scorers. The 27-year-old bagged a brace, but neither goal was anything to write home about.
The striker showed excellent awareness and movement to take up the right positions in the penalty area. Then, when the ball was alive, he was quick to react and grabbed two poachers goals.
Gayle was a constant threat, attempting five shots, and he linked up the play well with a pass success rate of 88%. He completed two key passes during the contest and made one tackle to show his work rate out of possession. It was another step in his battle to prove himself as being good enough to start for a Premier League club.
This provides Gayle with momentum heading into the run-in. Newcastle are in a good position as they battle to survive in the Premier League and they have lost only two of their last 10 league matches. However, five draws have seen them remain in touching distance of the bottom three.
They need to score more goals to earn the victories that they need and an in-form Gayle could be the answer. If he manages to fire the Magpies to safety, he will finally have proven himself as a Premier League striker.