The new season is almost upon us.
We were talking about it at work the other day; some folk were optimistic; some were pessimistic. Around the table the predictions ranged from a top 7 finish to certain relegation.
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That’s part of the love of the game; it can split opinion and create fiery debate without a ball to be kicked for weeks.
It got me wondering: over the years, how has our pre new season optimism compared with how the season actually played out…?
Of course, I can only speak for myself, but going back to our first season in The Premier League in 1993/94, here’s how it’s been for me.
That first season, 93/94, was a pretty positive build up. Kevin Keegan’s side had just steamrollered the Championship and won promotion in highly impressive style. There was a feel-good factor around the club and the city alike and I craved the new fixture lists like a child craves Christmas.
Peter Beardsley returned to SJP to partner Andy Cole and although he was one of only a few acquisitions (Alex Mathie and Malcom Allen being modest others) I went into the season full of belief.
I was expecting a top 10 finish and to be miles away from the drop zone. We of course finished an amazing 3rd place with only Champions Manchester United and runners-up Blackburn Rovers ahead of us. We also became known as The Entertainers.
I was even more optimistic come 94/95 – the season that Andy Cole left in January – and I was probably a bit disappointed that we finished 6th. Jesus, my expectations were all out of whack!
It all just seemed so easy back then. I was 20 years old and Newcastle seemed almost invincible. Perhaps my greatest failing was that I had begun to believe that all I dreamed of was not just possible; it was inevitable. It was the kind of certainty that I now only associate with disappointment.
The rebuilding job that was the summer of ‘95 only furthered that flawed sense of invincibility. In came Shaka Hislop, Warren Barton, David Ginola and Les Ferdinand.
The season started breathtakingly with instant chemistry between the new additions and the likes of Beardsley, Rob Lee and Keith Gillespie. I began to take the wins and the points for granted.
I remember being a few months shy of 21 years old and out in The Bigg Market with the lads one Friday night in January ’96. We talked about when we win the league, with the same cocksureness that Bruce Ismay did, of how fast The Titanic would reach New York. We all know how both scenarios played out. 20 years later and Newcastle have never really scaled such heights again.
The hangover from 1996 spilled over into the 96/97 season. I remember thinking this won’t be as good as last year and although Alan Shearer coming home did much to blind me from that, in the end my feelings proved correct.
Yes, Newcastle finished strongly and claimed runners up spot under Kenny Dalglish’s guidance but with so many changes it just didn’t feel the same anymore.
I entered the 1997/98 season cautiously hoping for a title challenge. We finished 13th and although we were never in a relegation battle we ended up just 4 points clear of the drop zone, playing God-awful football and rolled over and died in our first FA Cup Final in 24 years. To this day it remains the last time I went into a season with genuinely high hopes.
Imagine that pre season was an arm wrestle. On one side of the table is a fat kid called pessimism. He’s all about disappointment and under-performance and his sweaty T-shirt is stained with cup exits and injuries. On the other side sits a fit and healthy kid called optimism. He’s all about entertaining football and lofty league placings; cup runs and derby wins. His clean white Tee is fresh with hard work and local pride.
Pretty much every August since 1998 has seen the skinny kid fist down on the table in my mind while the fat kid punches the air.
Aside from two seasons where Sir Bobby Robson guided the team to 4th and then 3rd place finishes and perhaps 2011/12 when Alan Pardew steered us to 5th place I’d argue my pessimistic fat kid was justified.
Those two glorious seasons under The Bobfather came off the back of finishing 13th, 13th, 11th and 11th in the previous four years and I truly didn’t see them coming. Soon they were gone… The bubble didn’t so much as burst as it did deflate.
The club didn’t build on what it had achieved and although slipping back to 5th place wasn’t a disaster, it was the start of the demise. Each year that followed, the Managerial changes became more frequent and the club began its slide towards relegation. Before each season I expected very little and at the end of each season the club delivered just that.
Not many predicted relegation before the 2008/09 got underway. I certainly didn’t. But the smart ones saw the writing on the wall as early as September. They were right. I didn’t expect us to come straight back up but we did and staying up so comfortably also exceeded expectations, as did that 5th place under Alan Pardew in 2012.
Over the last 22 years I reckon I’ve been optimistic at the start of only 5 seasons!
That’s 17 seasons since our Premiership debut in 1993/94 that I’ve braced myself for disappointment! And I’m a pretty upbeat bloke I think… for what it’s worth I reckon my pessimism was only misplaced on 5 occasions.
The fat kid and the fit kid are about to lock hands again.
Am I aiming too high to hope for mid-table safety, 4 points in the derbies and a cup run that at least keeps our name in the hat come February…?
“Full steam ahead, Mr Ismay!”