The Steve McClaren juggernaut is starting to roll at Newcastle, with a comfortable six point return from Liverpool and Tottenham giving the St. James Park faithful cause for optimism.
Georginio Wijnaldum, Rob Elliot and Ayoze Perez have taken the plaudits, with many pundits asserting Wijnaldum’s claim as the key man in McClaren’s revolution. The reality is different. There’s one player more crucial to Newcastle’s hopes of success than any other: Jack Colback.
Newcastle born-and-bred, Colback showed immense mental strength in June 2014, becoming the first player in 16 years to move from Sunderland to Newcastle.
Colback adapted well to his return home, receiving an England call-up, coming second in one Evening Chronicle Player of the Year Reader’s Poll and winning over an initially sceptical crowd with his tenacious performances.
Colback is the style of player whose contribution can go unrecognised, but his importance to Newcastle is highlighted if you analyse the first half of the season as two different periods.
McClaren endured a real baptism of fire, with Newcastle starting as underdogs in seven of their first eight matches. Southampton, Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City were perceived as a level above the Newcastle squad, while Swansea and West Ham would both expect to win at home against the team that finished 15th last year.
The only match Newcastle could have expected a result was against Watford at home; any more than three points after eight games would have to have been considered a bonus. Colback was instrumental in stabilising Newcastle during their regime change, performing to a particularly high standard against Manchester United and Arsenal.
The second period for analysis is from the Chelsea match onwards. The reason for this is that this was when McClaren first deployed his new formation for Newcastle.
What followed was a tight, defensively-solid performance against the Premiership champions, which Newcastle deservedly led 1-0. After 53 minutes, Colback was replaced because of injury and, while Newcastle managed to score a second, Chelsea went on to claw back two goals.
A Colback-less Newcastle then conceded six goals in the match he missed against Manchester City, meaning that in the two hours of football they played without Colback, Newcastle conceded eight goals.
Colback returned for the home game against Norwich, the only change to Newcastle’s outfield team. His presence liberated Wijnaldum and Moussa Sissoko, who bagged 4 goals and three assists respectively as Newcastle hit the Canaries for six.
Against Sunderland, Newcastle were a goal down but in complete control, even after going down to ten men, until that thug hit Colback with a cheap shot. Without their leader, Newcastle fell apart and were humbled 3-0.
Newcastle turned in performances so poor against Stoke, Bournemouth and Leicester that McClaren was forced to rush Colback’s return from injury. Despite a half-fit Colback’s gutsy display, Crystal Palace swept McClaren’s men aside.
It all changed the weekend after, when a fully-fit Colback ensured Newcastle dominated proceedings in a 2-0 win, inspired again by the unleashed Wijnaldum. Last weekend, Colback dictated midfield as Newcastle came from behind to end Tottenham’s 14-match unbeaten run.
Since McClaren debuted this formation, a fully-fit Jack Colback has played 354 minutes of football. Newcastle have been better than their opponents for this entire period of time, producing their best results and performances of the season.
In the 402 minutes Colback was injured or lacking fitness, Wijnaldum went missing. Sissoko went missing, the goals dried up and the defeats piled up as Newcastle gave their worst performances of the season. The only difference between Newcastle’s team being relegation certainties or Europa League contenders has been Jack Colback.
In addition to his impact on the team, Colback is also crucial to Newcastle in other areas. In the era of mercenaries and short-term signings, Colback keeps Newcastle’s team connected to the crowd, giving supporters someone to identify with and youngsters someone to aspire towards.
Colback is good enough to be in the Newcastle team for five or six years, which gives McClaren a great local foundation to build his team around. Colback offers long-term stability for the club, and could develop into a fine captain one day.
Newcastle are at risk of developing into one of the Premiership’s best teams. With three or four quality signings in January, Newcastle could push Liverpool, Spurs and Southampton all the way in the second half of the season and, who knows, could maybe win the F.A. Cup – the displays against Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool and Spurs show that, with Colback in the team, Newcastle can compete with, and beat, anybody.
With Euro ’16 around the corner, Roy Hodgson will be keeping a close eye on the ‘Ginger Pirlo’; should Colback continue performing at his current level, his tempo-dictation, tenacious defending, range of passing and cultured left foot could be the key to unlocking both Newcastle and England’s potential.
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