About a week ago, comedian and Sunderland fan Andy Dawson tweeted an interesting question. Asking “shouldn’t this Newcastle United squad be about 15 points clear at this point of the season?”, it didn’t spark any particularly illuminating answers in the social media discussion.
Andy said that the question was serious and not vexatious, and it’s a question that certainly bears further consideration when I think back to some of the wilder predictions at the start of the season. My favourite podcast was still talking about getting a hundred points well into October, even after the harsh reality of the division had long hit home.
A starting point for a sensible reflection has to be nufc.com’s overview of the team standing by number of games in 2010 and 2016. It’s illuminating to put that graph alongside the current season’s chart to see how the two seasons are panning out comparatively.
In 2010 it was only after round 28, after we had slipped from first to second place, that we then regained top of the table until our promotion with 102 points at the end of the season. This season we have been likewise first or second since week 12, and appear to have cemented a fairly serious lead over our nearest rivals with eleven games left to play.
We had a weak October last year where it seemed our progress had stalled and a tricky couple of televised games around New Year where we repeatedly lost points and sometimes games against much weaker teams. But we also had a very weak October in 2010 when we took 2 points from four games, and continued the slowdown with a sticky Christmas and January with too many drawn games for comfort.
Given the hyperbole that we felt at the start of the season – almost a guarantee to go up with more than 100 points – the hard reality of life in the Championship has kicked in. But it is worth remembering that although this season started weakly, and we took till week 12 to get into the top two, after that point, we’ve spent the same number of weeks (3) in second place in both seasons.
The reality is that after 35 weeks we had fewer points in 2010 (73 after a 2-2 draw to Boro, 4 points and a game in hand ahead of West Brom) than we now have (76 and 5 points ahead of Brighton). We still managed to be promoted with that astonishing points total.
But Dawson had a serious point, and as some of his respondents to the tweet noted, there’s a definite negative feeling to this season that seemed absent in the last promotion romp. But we need to remember that it wasn’t until the last nine games of the 2010 season, when we took 25 of the 27 available points, when we really started to run away with the division.
Unbeaten in the last 17 games, it’s almost certain that our memories of that glorious season have been conditioned by the phenomenal final leg the club ran.
So, the real question is whether Newcastle United are now positioned to accelerate away from the pack, or whether it’s going to be a desperate scrabble to make it first over the line.
I wrote a couple of months ago that it seemed Rafa had put the foundations in place for a team to run a marathon and not a sprint. Selling flash but febrile star players and building strength in depth works well, if you are worried in players losing their guts for a fight.
The sudden emergence of Daryl Murphy suggests that this squad has a depth and a stamina that outshines other top clubs. So, it might be that with Shelvey and Gayle back in the squad that the team steps on the gas and purrs away to the 100 point line in a way reminiscent of spring 2010.
But we’ve got to be realistic and accept that the competition is now much tougher than it was last time around. With the competition arguably the richest rewarded in the world through the TV rights and parachute payments that promotion brings, it’s attracted outside investors willing to throw money at chasing these three places and to likewise invest in strength in depth.
And for me, that’s the one unknown factor for Newcastle as we enter the last quarter of the season. Are other clubs going to experience their own wobbles and hiccups as we enter the sharp end of the season, and can our manager and players keep their heads as all around them are losing theirs?
I remain optimistic that we’ll get promoted and I am hoping that the last few games will increasingly resemble a lap of honour rather than the current dogfight.
We certainly shouldn’t worry that we are underperforming in a very strong, competitive division where we dominated the top spots for a half-season.
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