Remember when Damien Duff’s own goal against Aston Villa condemned Newcastle United to relegation? Relegation that would have been unimaginable several years prior to its occurrence, considering Newcastle’s high spending and exploits in European football. The summer that followed had just about every pundit trying to get a collective opinion out there, which can be summed up with “Newcastle will struggle in the Championship it’s a difficult league to get out of”. The press seemed to be rolling on their ever confusing reporting of Newcastle United’s “pending” sale and the team was often described as broken, in disarray and lacking confidence. Pre-season only seemed to give a proverbial full stop to the media’s judgement on the Toon’s chances: a 6-1 thumping at the hands of League One’s Leyton Orient, a mass brawl against Huddersfield and a team that was growing thinner by the second. Mike Ashley was making himself even more unpopular by refusing to give the manager’s job to fan favourite Alan Shearer (a move many touted as “definite” after Shearer’s admirable attempts to save the club last season) and then suggesting that the name of the city’s famous stadium be changed to bring extra revenue in. A scenario that was rightly tipped to struggle for a return to the top flight.
Newcastle United lined up for the first day of the season against league favourites West Brom in their much ridiculed yellow away kits and were thankful to second choice keeper Tim Krul for gaining them a point after West Brom peppered the United goal. Some spirit to say the least, but the performance still suggested many of the problems from the previous season remained. Beyond this though, something at Newcastle changed. Chris Hughton was given the job on a permanent basis after stringing together an early unbeaten start and Newcastle sat at the top of the table looking confident in the way they played. Newcastle racked up the wins and tonight sits on the brink of promotion and a return to the top league at the first time of asking. So the team a appears to have proved everyone wrong despite a number of problems and it has been refreshing to hear many of the usually shrewd analysts admit they were wrong (although their predictions were pretty valid considering the situation the club was in!).
But it is heavily down to a change in approach for the North East club. Although it isn’t a season completely without incident, the club seems entirely focused on football for a change and any incident appears to be muted and played down as opposed to creating a media circus that we have seen in past seasons. The Newcastle fans have a new found respect for manager Chris Hughton, appearing to have not only galvanized a lethargic and uninspired squad, but also keep the focus on football and get about his job. Obviously most recently was the incident between Andy Carroll and Steven Taylor, a situation that confused many of the fans at the club, yet Hughton had the guts to play Carroll and keep him focused on the task at hand, and Newcastle were rewarded as the towering striker scored to get Newcastle an important three points against Doncaster. Many people, including myself, believed Carroll should be dropped for hitting not only a team mate, but a one who is loved by the clubs faithful – yet Hughton took a different approach and what in previous seasons would have been a typical self implosion from the club has instead been put to one side so the club can focus on its most important aspiration.
So tonight, the Geordies are preparing to celebrate at a full St. James’ Park, unless of course Sheffield United can spoil the party and Newcastle can already look forward to the next season, where they’ll be able to watch their team against some of the best players in the world and of course see the return of the heated Tyne-Wear derby. So theory would suggest that Newcastle’s team isn’t strong enough to stay up, considering it is the same team that went down, only weaker, and what signings the team can make is anyone’s guess. Mike Ashley has already apparently set a limit of £30,000 a week on any future signings, a move that will most likely be the norm in the future due to the heavy debt experienced by a number of top flight clubs and I believe it is something that shouldn’t be a problem if the club wants to stay up.
One of Newcastle’s biggest advantages is that they already have a number of players that can hold their own in the Premiership. Argentina internationals Jonas and Coloccini were flops when they first signed, but have both proven what they can do with confidence; the former particularly appears to have added some much needed grit and common sense to his game. There have been cries for Jose Enrique to win Championship player of the season after a very impressive season not only going forward but in his defensive duties as well. Danny Guthrie has been a bit of an unsung hero for the team, passing the ball freely across the park to set up a number of vital goals for his team. And then there is Newcastle’s strike force, many of the Geordie faithful are eager to see if Carroll can continue to be a handful for some of the top defenders in the world and Peter Lovenkrands has proved perfect company up front for the Geordie target man.
So there is a good base for the club there and after seeing Jose Enrique bagged his first goal against Nottingham Forrest, it is clear to see that Newcastle have a dressing room that enjoys playing with each other. It would be a shame to break this up, and although any team obviously needs to make improvements following promotion, Chris Hughton has created a good atmosphere at the club. The Toon army could certainly benefit from looking at what Birmingham has done: signing a number of experienced players to accompany their original base as well as looking into other markets for players they feel would fit in well. For Newcastle, the job now is progression, the club can plan early for next season and their main focus is to make sure they survive next season and then make even more strides for the season after that. Overall, Newcastle fans will be delighted if they can go up tonight, but at the same time they will no doubt look back and reflect on how they’ve enjoyed some of their visits to various parts of the country and the overall journey this season has brought. In some respects, they will miss the Championship for the drama and entertainment it brings*. So who knows, maybe relegation was a blessing in disguise?
*(Newcastle fans will not miss Steve Claridge on the football league show).
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