Susan Jardine looks at the rejuvenated Geordies who are continuing to confound the critics this season.
Just over two thirds of the season gone and the top of the Premiership table looks as you would expect. The two Manchester clubs and the London duo of Tottenham and Chelea.
But who is that in fifth and breathing down the necks of the Pensioners? Liverpool, no, Arsenal ,no. It is Newcastle. Yes, the team who the bookies regarded as certainties for relegation have confounded the so-called experts and put a few noses out of joint in the process.
Sport is full of irony, and no more so than when Alan Pardew was appointed as successor to Chris Hughton when the highly popular Hughton was dismissed in December 2010. There was outrage on Tyneside as the fans left the board in doubt as to how they felt at the departure of Hughton and the introduction of a man who had been sacked at Southampton. Managing Newcastle is a hard enough task on its own but winning over the Toon Army would test the mettle of any manager. But Pardew proved equal to the task as he guided them to safety last season earning the respect of the fans.
But then came two massive blows as both Kevin Nolan and Jose Enrique were sold to West Ham and Liverpool respectively leaving the most resolute fan fearing the worst. But here is where Alan Pardew showed his man management skills as he blended together a bit of heart with a positive attitude to instill into his side a formidable team spirit.
It all began when Newcastle held Arsenal to a draw at St James’ on the opening day of the season. A solid start but that was merely the warm up to the match that all fans of Newcastle and indeed Sunderland await with fear and trepidation. The Wear-Tyne derby. Sat commentating on it for local radio along with my colleague who is of a Sunderland persusaion it was a pleasure to be calling Ryan Taylor’s free kick that gave Newcastle a 1-0 victory. From there Newcastle never looked back as victories were chalked up with regularity until their unbeaten run was ended at Eastlands, a result that flattered Manchester City.
Still though the Magpies were being denied the respect they deserved with columnists writing off their chances.
The experts were soon saying that the bubble had burst but Newcastle lifted themselves to be still in the top six at Christmas time. But then came the acid test of Liverpool and Manchester United. They fell to Liverpool at Anfield, perhaps giving them too much respect. But in front of a capacity crowd at St James’ Newcastle were to end the proud away record of the champions
Newcastle had snatched a contentious draw at Old Trafford earlier in the season thanks to a penalty converted by Ba but on home turf they outplayed the champions 3-0 with Ba and Yohan Cabaye doing the damage. An own goal from Phil Jones merely added to the misery for Sir Alex Ferguson.
Still though the Magpies were being denied the respect they deserved with columnists writing off their chances of staying in the top six and entering European competition. In many ways it has probably been the best thing the experts could have done as without Cheik Tiote and Ba Newcastle were expected to struggle while they were away on Africa Cup of Nations duty.
To an extent the critics had a point as a horror show against Fulham coupled with defeat at the hands of Brighton in the FA Cup was hardly ideal preparation for trips to Blackburn and the visit of Aston Villa. But a Scott Dann own goal and a Gabriel Obertan effort saw off Blackburn at Ewood Park, and the impending return from Demba Ba together with new signing Papisse Demba Cisse was a perfect bonus.
And the boy was back in toon as Ba handed Newcastle an early advantage against Villa only to see Robbie Keane cancel it out. A touch of magic was needed to wrap up three precious points. And in the 71st minute it came as Cisse who had missed easier chances pivoted on the edge of the penalty area and let fly with a left footed volley that left Shay Given with no chance. The Gallowgate End of St James’ celebrated the arrival of a new idol, wearing the iconic number nine shirt.
Alan Pardew has the nucleus of a successful side but the future rests in the hands of Mr Ashley.
So how have they sustained it? Tim Krul has proved himself to be an oustanding goalkeeper. Fabricio Coloccini has transformed himself from an error prone defender some three years ago into a re-assuring presence at centre half. Yohan Cabaye and Cheik Tiote have an intuitive understanding of each other in midfield while Ba and Leon Best have gleefully devoured all of the the food fed to them by Jonas Guttierez. Ba’s record in particular of 16 goals in 20 games represents inspired business on the part of Newcastle signing the Senegal international on a free transfer.
But the success has not been solely down to those named. It is also because of the committment and belief shown by Alan Pardew that has transmitted itself to the likes of Ryan Taylor, Danny Simpson, Mike Williamson (covering the injury sustained by Steven Taylor), Danny Guthrie, Hatem Ben Arfa and James Perch that have seen Newcastle stay in the top six throughout the season so far.
And there is every indication that Newcastle will stay there. At present they are just one point behind Chelsea in the league table. Wrestle fourth from their grasp and it won’t be just Europe that awaits for the Magpies it will be Champions League football. Europa League is probably more realistic though either would be a fitting reward for a team who have combined a solid defence with their traditonal attacking flair.
Alan Pardew has the nucleus of a successful side but the future rests in the hands of Mr Ashley. If he ensures the team remain together on Tyneside and refrains from selling their assets to the highest bidder then the fans will back him. The fans want the best and like any set of fans they deserve the best.