The 200% Pre-Season Previews: Newcastle United
It’s easy to forget, when the news is throwing stories at us at such a high velocity as they do these days, that this time two years ago that Newcastle United supporters were anxiously returning to the Premier League after a brief sabbatical and worrying whether their club would get dragged into a relegation battle again. Time, however, makes fools of us all. Newcastle Uniteds performance last season, which ended in a fifth-placed finish, was arguably the stand-out performance of any club in the entire division and the question that must now be asked is a straightforward one: is Alan Pardew capable of repeating the alchemy that he managed last season? Such an achievement would be a quite remarkable one. Last season, the torpor that hung over Stamford Bridge and Anfield allowed a window of opportunity that may not be available again this time around. But for all the cries of last season’s performance being a flash in the pan, there are enough chinks in the armour of those that would seek to compete with them around these places in the table to suggest that a repeat may not necessarily be beyond them.
True enough, Chelsea are unlikely to be as weak in the Premier League again this season as they were last time around, but both Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur have taken something of a leap in the dark with their new managerial appointments and the notion of some sort of hysterical madness descending upon on or two of the other clubs expected to finish around the top six or seven in the table hardly feels inconceivable either. If there has been one recurring theme around our brief look around the clubs of the Premier League this summer so far, though, what has stood out more than anything else has been the extent to which several – perhaps many – clubs may need to prove over the coming months that last season, whether for the right or wrong reasons, was not a thirty-eight game long series of surprising coincidences, and the same applies as much at St James Park as anywhere else.
None of this, however, will be easy. Over the course of a week at the end of this month, the club has a two-legged qualifying match against the Greek club Atromitos for a place in the group stages of the Europa League. This may or may not – how easy can it be to tell before a competitive ball has been kicked this season? – be a comfortably winnable match, but when Alan Pardew looks at the fixture list for the coming season, he might well be tempted to not take this match too seriously. Getting through to the group stages of the Europa League would, after all, increase the workload on his squad by a considerable amount and the tendency of many clubs these days is to sacrifice cup competitions at the altar of so much as the possibility of improved performance in the Premier League. It’s not necessarily the prettiest of outlooks, but such is the way of the divisions clubs these days.
This, however, all overlooks one key fact, which is that Newcastle United supporters have been starved of major silverware in a way that no other club of their profile has been for such a period of time. The last major trophy – and no, we’re not counting winning the Championship at a canter two years ago here – that the club won was the Inter City Fairs Cup in 1969, and this knowledge may just temper any ambitions that Pardew may have of voluntarily sacrificing cup competitions for, say, the difference between an eighth place and sixth finish in the Premier League come the end of this season. Forty-three years is a long time to wait for a trophy to come along, for the memories that come with such a run – for the moments that define a large part of what being a football supporter is all about. To a point, Pardew has only achieved so much in getting Newcastle United to fifth place in the Premier League last season. If he wants to go some way towards writing himself into the clubs history books, a Europa League or FA Cup win – the League Cup, we’re willing to concede, might not be quite enough – may be his ticket to popularity amongst the clubs support that isn’t qualified in some respect, as it still seems to be in many respects at the time of writing.
And perhaps the point to make at this point is that the team that he has at present is good enough to achieve this whilst keeping it secure in the upper mid-table area of the Premier League. In Tim Krul he had one of the best-performing goalkeepers in the whole of the Premier League last season, and in Fabricio Coloccini he had a captain worthy of the responsibility. Meanwhile, players such as the versatile Jonas Gutierrez, Yohan Cabaye, Demba Ba, Pappiss Cisse and Hatem Ben Arfa are all capable of volatility in their own ways but are talents more than capable of unlocking the best Premier League defences. If Pardew can continue to bring the best out of these players, Newcastle United are certainly more than capable of building upon the achievements of last season. Whether that takes the form of progress in the cup competitions, repeating last seasons achievement in the Premier League or – be still, the beating hearts of Newcastle United supporters – a little of both remains to be seen.
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