It is certainly fitting of Newcastle’s unexpectedly successful season that, on the night of the 12th March, after a 2-1 defeat to Arsenal at the Emirates, they trailed the 4th placed Gunners by eight points. It looked like the wheels had come off the North East bandwagon and they would slip into the mid-table mediocrity that had been predicted after a summer of unrest at the newly named Sports Direct Arena. However, under the stewardship of manager Alan Pardew, what has followed has been remarkable: five straight wins means they close the gap on a now third-place Arsenal to three points, and have moved level on points with Tottenham Hotspur who occupy the last of the four Champions League spots.
It is a million years away from the negative talk that had been prevalent last summer when Mike Ashley jettisoned the outspoken Joey Barton, let captain and scorer of 12 goals for the previous season Kevin Nolan go to West Ham for little over £2 million and shipped the talented left-back Jose Enrique out to Liverpool after he voiced concerns over the running of the club. The irony of that particular episode could not have been given a more prescient portrayal as the Spaniard ended up farcically playing the last ten minutes of Liverpool’s recent 2-0 defeat at the hands of Pardew’s team in goal, following Pepe Reina’s dismissal.
Enrique’s forecast that the board axis of Ashley and Llambias lacked ambition was understandable. As the £35 million recouped from the sale of Andy Carroll – now looking each day like the most ludicrous of transfer dealings – weren’t being invested in a manner to ensure success for the coming year, Enrique thought he was leaving a side in backwards transition to join an ambitious one. Liverpool had spent over £50 million on acquiring Stewart Downing, Luis Suarez, Charlie Adam and Carroll to make a significant claim for the top 4, and on the surface it would have taken a very brave man to bet against that coming true. However, Enrique’s Liverpool currently sit three places below Newcastle in the table, languishing with a 16 point deficit.
While alarm bells rang as the St James Park exit door turned quicker than a controlled evacuation, Pardew kept a quiet dignity and entrusted his faith in his scouts who unearthed the battling midfield talent of Yohan Cabaye for a relatively small £4 million fee from French champions Lille. He also took a gamble on Demba Ba, deemed a medical risk by Stoke. Newcastle gave the green light to a free transfer and the Senegalese hit man has repaid the faith with a tally of 17 goals. Davide Santon came from a gifted youth set-up at Italian giants Inter Milan to replace Enrique while the two Frenchmen, Sylvian Marveaux and Gabriel Obertan came in for just £2 million combined to provide depth to an already impressive wide area. The criminally underrated flair of Hatem Ben Arfa and the ferocious tenacity of Jonas Gutierrez also gave a successful balance either side of Cabaye and Cheik Tiote- another bargain from mainland Europe- who graft away in the midfield engine room to provide a platform for the attacking players to shine.
That was before the January signing of Papiss Cisse, arriving for £7.5- £9 million after a fruitful first half of the season at German side Freiburg with 9 goals. Newcastle closed in on the Senegalese striker to bring him to the North-East. It was another superb Pardew scouting success as the 26 year old has displayed predatory instincts verging on the remarkable, justified by his 9 goals in 9 games since scoring on his debut against Aston Villa. His run of form has, rather fortunately for Pardew, coincided with fellow countryman Ba’s goal drought since that game with Villa, but one must mention the quality of the link-up play that Ba provides. Indeed it was at its most deadly as the triumvirate of the two Senegalese and Ben Arfa rampaged through West Bromwich Albion to gain a 3-1 away win. Shola Ameobi has also provided his worth from the bench, setting up Cisse for his goal against Bolton on Easter Monday, whilst Leon Best, currently injured, made valuable contributions early on to Newcastle’s superb season with valuable winning goals against Fulham and QPR.
The defence, despite shipping the highest number of goals in the top eight, has survived injury crises enough to provide Newcastle with a solid backbone embodied by the resilience of Fabricio Coloccini and Steven Taylor who were a rock-like pairing in the first half of the season. Blighted by injury, Mike Williamson and James Perch have both given solid cover in recent weeks, which have seen just the one goal conceded in the run of five straight wins post-Arsenal. Tim Krul, the 24 year old Dutch goalkeeper, has emerged as one of the best in the league and is now attracting interest from Chelsea as they seek a long-term replacement for Petr Cech. The spine of the team is infallible and it is cultivated brilliantly by the skilful creative flair that was on show with Ben Arfa’s spectacular solo run that managed to break down a dogged Bolton on Monday.
Their run-in still consists of a trip to Chelsea and hosting Manchester City but this is an ambitious Newcastle side that will be looking to win those games to gain a Champions League spot, something that looked like the craziest of dreams at the beginning of the season. As the media tried to make a story of owner Ashley’s decision to rename the stadium and other off the field issues, Pardew, a strong manager of the year contender, held it together to give them a superb chance of qualifying for Europe for the first time in six years and it is a testament to him that everybody is talking about what’s happening on the field with Newcastle once more. So often the mocked, self-defacing club, the new era of sporting achievement has been ushered in with a quiet integrity and the papers will have to look elsewhere for a controversial story, they won’t find it in Newcastle anymore.