Three Things That Have Raised My Expectations For Newcastle United
The last time I went to a pre-season game at SJP with such high expectations was in 2008, for the double-header against PSV Eindhoven and Valencia. We’d just signed Jonas Gutierrez and Danny Guthrie, and Kevin Keegan was still manager: expectations were high, despite Keegan’s vocal protests against a failure of the board to back the team.
Of the summer’s signings, it was Gutierrez that most impressed in the pre-season friendlies with a strong turn of pace and a high work-rate. Given the summer’s sales had been a pruning of the squad, the foundations seemed in place for a strong season, maybe even improving on the previous season and ending in the top half of the table.
With hindsight, we know how that ended up, with the farcical and acrimonious departure of Keegan, Joe Kinear’s foul-mouthed cameo and a gutless relegation on the last day. The management’s seeming neglect let the players’ group drift half-heartedly downwards, and the blood-letting that followed relegation seemed to be precisely what was necessary for the manager to bring back to Newcastle the sort of football longed for by fans.
Fast forward to 2014, and it’s hard to avoid comparisons with that fateful relegation season. In 2013, we avoided relegation by the skin of our teeth, and completely failed to rebuild, claiming that January’s panic-bought players were strong enough to compete in the Premier League.
There was a strange voice amongst Newcastle fans last season, the tone set by the club’s sole ambition of avoiding relegation whilst turning a healthy profit. Even a strong first half of the season, which led to an early surge past the magical total of forty points, led at best to a strange suspension of belief.
Abject performances in the Cup and League in the New Year certainly placed the club in a harsh light, certainly when compared against gutsy battling performances from the Mackems (much as it pains me to admit). A series of incomprehensible club decisions including HBA’s ongoing cold shouldering added to a sense that whatever the management wanted, it was certainly not going to bring sexy football back to St James Park.
Fans’ summer expectations were certainly low, knowing that we needed a good set of purchases but also remembering management’s track record of promising investment but bringing nothing over the line. But it’s proven to be the summer where the club decided to spend, reinvesting the cash from Cabaye and Debuchy, the saviours of 2013, in eight new players.
So standing on the terraces as Real Sociedad came out, what I needed to see was evidence whether this rebuilt squad had changed enough to break the old sloppy habits of last season, and could seriously challenge once more for a place in Europe. Three things gave some much-needed cheer after the corrosive grind of last season.
The first was the sheer class of Remy Cabella, whose individual flair and creativity could well provide a half-decent replacement for Cabaye. He seemed to link well with Sissoko and initially with Gouffran, that could provide a solid basis for the sixty goals that a club needs to score to be challenging for a European place.
The second revelation was Daryl Janmaat, who had drawn confidence from Holland’s exceptional run in Brazil under the tutelage of Loius van Gaal. Gone were the stuttering performances of last season in Feyenoord, having developed into a player truly committed to Van Gaal’s total footballing style. His speed and commitment in the counter, charging 70 yards downfield in support then tracking quickly back is certainly very different from standard NUFC fullback fare.
Finally, and perhaps most surprising, is the ongoing rehabilitation of Gabriel Obertan. He’s never gelled at the club and seemed at best squad meat, but his Saturday substitute performance was quite amazing.
My eye was caught by his persistent drive in going forward, quality in linking the backline and midfield, coupled with a newly found ability to find his man in the small spaces of the 18-yard box. This suggests that at worst the new squad have the talent to make an average player look good, and at best that Alan Pardew has finally put all the pieces into place for a solid season.
Some nagging doubts remain, despite the quiet optimism. How will Janmaat be able to maintain his workrate on a waterlogged November field whilst getting hacked to pieces by tough Premiership defending. Will Cabella, Gouffran and Sissoko get the opportunity to dazzle defences or will we fall back to playing percentages with a long-ball game? How will the team develop a winning mentality to survive against the big six if the club is emphasising survival above all else?
If I feel positive now, it’s really because the last eighteen months have been so oddly subdued. Last season, Newcastle fans never really felt elation in dodging the drop or surging ahead, just warily waiting for the nail-biting business as usual under the new management. In reality, they’ve done the best they can from the mess we were in May, but whether it will be enough to really make things better, only time will tell.
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