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Opinion

It started with a miss…

2 weeks ago
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Catchy music first heard in your formative years tends to stick.

Nearly half-a-century after Sailor mimed Goals, Goals, Goals on Top Of The Pops and the late Errol Brown MBE belted out Goal Crazy as frontman of Hot Chocolate, those tunes come to mind when considering recent Newcastle United results.

Four-four at home to Luton Town didn’t prompt me to raise A Glass Of Champagne (Sailor, 1975) although the fightback after trailing 4-2 certainly showed Pride In The Name Of Love (U2, 1984).

Ten strikes in our past three Premier League games is some achievement, especially with so much potential firepower nursing injuries. Nobody can be sure we would have hit more if Isak, Willock, Joelinton, Anderson, Barnes and the rest had been available every week this season. In our first 12 games we scored 27 times; in the next 12, a mere 24.

Perhaps surprisingly, an average of more than two goals a game, places Newcastle United only joint-fourth in the goals table with 14 matches remaining.

Last season, five teams exceeded our total of 68. If progress is measured by how many times a team sticks the pig’s bladder into the onion bag, we have clearly managed to Get On The Right Track, Baby (Titus Turner, 1956). We are on course to score 80 or so by the time this memorable campaign ends on May 19 at Brentford.

That total would be the most productive for Newcastle United since Sky reinvented the wheel in 1992. We did score 82 on our Premier League debut but in that 1993-94 campaign there were 42 matches. What we are witnessing with Eddie Howe is entertainment of the highest order.

Without wishing to count chickens, if United maintain this form the goals-to-games ratio will be the best for exactly 40 years, since we scored 85 goals in 42 games when finishing third in the second tier under Arthur Cox. The forward line in those days was led by Keegan, with a couple of promising youngsters called Waddle and Beardsley supporting the former European Footballer of the Year as we regained a place in the top tier.

Football has changed massively since 1984, of course, and comparisons are tricky. Keepers are no longer allowed to handle back passes, tackles from behind are nearly always penalised, the speed of play is immeasurably faster. Each of those factors makes life tougher for defenders.

The game is marketed aggressively as a spectacle. Three points rather than two for a win encourages attacking play. Draw a game and you risk falling two points behind your rivals. The pitch, which was often as heavy as a cabbage patch, is now more like a bowling green. A 0-0 feels far less common than when I started watching football in the early Seventies.

The 10 games played over the first weekend of this month yielded 45, a Premier League record and a total helped in no small part by the eight at St James’ Park on an unforgettable Saturday afternoon. The trend is upward, not just for United but for the top flight in general. Maybe that is one reason the number of goals we are scoring seems to have gone under the radar.

Bruno Guimaraes Goal Celebration

Our current league position helps to explain why we aren’t Dancing In The Street (Martha Reeves & The Vandellas, 1964). So does the goals-against column. Last season, no Premier League team conceded fewer, with only the all-conquering Manchester City matching our miserly 33. The next-best defensive tally was 43.

This season we have already shipped 39 so far. Only eight teams have let in more. Our scoring is better, despite all our injuries, and we are conceding loads, partly because of our injuries. The high-energy pressing tactics that were successful in 2022-23 have proved impossible to maintain in recent months.

A bench devoid of top-quality substitutes in many matches has placed an intolerable burden on the starting line-up.

As well as our Premier League matches, we have already played 11 times in other competitions since August. The FA Cup tie at Ewood Park will be a twelfth, with the smart money backing us to progress to the quarter-finals at least. Last season, we played only eight games in the cups.

Is there something else?

Sir Isaac Newton, that renowned pundit, stated in his third law of motion: “For every action, there is an opposite and equal reaction.”

Is our porous defence an inevitable consequence of playing in an expansive style? In other words, have Eddie, Jason and Co tried to turn back the clock 30 years to the heady days of The Entertainers? Or are the players simply knackered through lack of rest and rotation?

There’s no one explanation for this rollercoaster season. Pope’s prolonged absence is clearly a factor. But with three months remaining, we lie seventh in the league, are odds-on to beat Blackburn in the Cup and can look forward with hope. Another visit to Wembley is a distinct possibility. Spurs, Villa and Man Utd are not out of reach in the chase for a Champions League berth. We are scoring for fun.

You may say I’m a dreamer but just Imagine (John Lennon, 1971). Hot Chocolate had a song for most scenarios. Every 1’s A Winner (1978) if we can overhaul the three teams immediately above us. No Doubt About It (1980) we have Chances (1982).

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