A seasoned Newcastle United-watcher knows that the only real competition that we’re in every year is the perennial battle for 40 points and safety.
With 10 points from 12 games after Bournemouth that seems achievable, but is this really all the 2015-16 season has to offer us – the desperate gratitude of crawling across the lines with a lucky shot in Bournemouth?
NUFC spent big money over the summer and so far is sticking by new man McClaren. Despite supposedly star players delivering performances more suited to the Ebac (Northern League) than the Barclays (Premier) League, this is supposed to be the year of transition back to the top: so with around one-third of the games played, is this a season of nerve-shredding anxiety or the return of self-confidence?
It’s easy to forget with the cult of the superstar player that football is a team game. When public schoolboys playing British Bulldog dribbling a ball started being beaten by the open, passing, professional teams, success has always relied upon a mix of individual brilliance and team cohesion.
In recent Premier League seasons we’ve seen a succession of modest teams win promotion against the odds and manage a season or two’s survival. Once promotion-winning players start to drift away, then these clubs can find it hard to recruit new blood and the fall from grace can sometimes be hard.
The art of long-term success in contemporary football is managing the team’s evolution. Fergie’s great strength was building a core of great players, surrounding them with more disposable star turns and ruthlessly disposing of almost everyone before they declined.
Clubs outperform their prospects when they get a steady group of players who turn out week-in, week-out for one another. They learn over time to perfect communication with their team mates, anticipating each other’s choices, developing a footballing sixth-sense allowing vital extra time for decision-making.
Communications laid the foundation of Fergie’s first big win when he disproved the popular wisdom of not winning anything with kids. But it’s also been part of the winning formula of Championship clubs that have managed to make a fist of Premier League survival, most notably Southampton.
It’s that process of team-building that has been woefully absent (at Newcastle United) in recent years. Not just because of Ashley’s ‘selling club’ mentality but also the chaos of Shepherd and Hall, when not counterbalanced by the great Sir Bobby Robson’s common sense.
Given the Ashley regime’s generally miserly and short-sighted approach, building a solid core group that play above themselves could well be our best chance this season for survival. Let’s not kid ourselves – last season we were in absolute free-fall after Pardew, and a few panic marque signings haven’t reversed our fortunes.
We’ve ground out some good results –Southampton and Chelsea were solid draws that you’d expect from a serious mid-table contender. The hammering of Norwich was an unexpected flashback to happier days when on any given Saturday we could turn over Stoke, Sunderland or Man U with a handful of goals.
We’ve also performed poorly and lacking in concentration at times, as the bizarre Man City implosion and the distressing SAFC capitulation suggest. Sissoko remains an enigma, yo-yoing erratically between dogged, creative performances and lifeless, brainless plodding from one game to the next.
Vurnon Anita alternates flashes of brilliance with the clown-like displays that saw Danny Blind drop him from the Dutch squad for the autumn friendlies.
But the very fact the back line withstood 20 shots from an admittedly anaemic Bournemouth attack, suggests that we have the makings of something good. No one expected Rob Elliot to be able to perform like that, and maybe, just maybe, he’s good enough for this level.
Our outfield players may be slow to collectively react, something Bournemouth failed to exploit, but I can see with a little more time and space, individual players certainly have the quality to quickly pile on the pressure.
We know that time and space are the two things that Premier League opponents don’t allow you. But I believe the current players group has the necessary individual quality to succeed if they can improve their communication, gel as a team and outperform expectations.
If we can get a consistent starting XI who anticipate and react effectively to each other, then we might have a decent chance of a second-half season run.
The small squad size and McClaren’s preference for a consistent starting eleven is certainly a good starting point here. With the right purchases in January and the summer, then we could realistically be on the way to competing for a top half finish by 2017.
It does pain me to describe that as a decent outcome – rather than competing in cup competitions, in Europe, or even for the title, but the malaise we are in is not going to be solved overnight – or even one season.
For me, if this can be the season we turn the corner, then I’ll be a happy man going into next summer’s European Championships.
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