At St James Park this lunchtime, Newcastle United beat Everton by two goals to one and in doing so leap-frogged Manchester United – for a couple of hours, at least – into second place in the Premier League table. Such a result may prove to be the tipping point for a rewriting of the popular perceptions of the competence (or otherwise) of Mike Ashley and, while the knee-jerk journalistic response is something along the lines of, “Yeah, but they have to play Manchester City, Manchester United and Chelsea next”, it is difficult to argue against the simple point that a team can only be judged upon how it has already played, rather than the ones that it has yet to play. Upon his arrival at St James Park, Mike Ashley did his public image no good whatsoever in trying to portray himself as an ordinary man on the terraces rather than a multi-millionaire, and this faux-pas, along with the other has taken a long time to begin to wither away. He has managed to even the financial keel of a club that was jettisoning money left, right and centre and, following the club’s return to the Premier League, his still surprising decision to sack the popular Chris Hughton last December further fuelled the mind-set of those who believed that this was a man that was trying to destroy the club that he had purchased.
The arrival of Alan Pardew at the club was greeted with similar hoots of derision from all quarters. Pardew, however, has also managed to reinvent his reputation, to the extent that some – perhaps prematurely – are now suggesting that he could be the next England coach. He has shipped out the egos that seemed to be proving to be such an obstacle to the team’s progress and has replaced it with a team that is playing for itself, each other and, with a little consistency that has been an inevitable effect of a more conservative transfer policy, has so far this season reached one of the holy grails that any football club can achieve – it is playing as something greater than the sum of its parts. After eleven games, they remain unbeaten in the Premier League through continuing to grind out results. This afternoon’s win against Everton was not particularly pretty – indeed, the stoppage time at the end of the match was accompanied by the fraying fingernails and exhortations to the referee to put the home supporters out of their collective misery – but this is a team that has been built on solid defensive play and a handful of players, including goalkeeper Tim Krul and striker Demba Ba, enjoying the form of their lives.
Institutionally, Newcastle United are back in the sort of financial health that they have not seen for a few years and perhaps the greatest irony of the club’s recent history is that it was relegation to the Championship in 2009 which proved to be the shock to the system to get it back to where it is now. That season in the Championship got the team and the club’s support back into the habit of winning matches, and forced it to face down the reality of (albeit temporarily) reduced financial circumstances. This year’s Newcastle is leaner and hungrier than its predecessors and, even if the club can’t maintain this start to the season, the pre-season concerns of the more pessimistic of the club’s supporters seem unlikely to be realised.
Will the press, though, revise their opinion of Ashley and Pardew? It may be that this start to the season will turn out to be a flash in the pan. It may be that Mike Ashley got lucky with the appointment of Alan Pardew. It may be that both of them got lucky with a team that clicked together at just the right time. Whatever the circumstances that led to the club being, almost a third of the way through the Premier League season, in a Champions League place in the Premier League, those of us that were outright dismissive of Ashley’s style of ownership and Pardew’s qualities as a manager should, perhaps, be eating a little humble pie for the time being, at least. We have been critical of Ashley in the past – and, we would maintain, rightly so – but if he has learned lessons from the mistakes of the past, it is only fair to offer praise if his club is successful.
At this stage, it is impossible to say where Newcastle United’s season will end up. They may, over the next couple of months, slide back towards the middle of the table, but we have seen little so far this season to indicate that they are not capable of, at the very, very least, capable of maintaining a challenge for a place in the Europa League at the very least. Considering the pre-season pessimism that tempered the expectations of many of the clubs supporters, though, even slipping to fifth or sixth place in the Premier League would out-strip what most would have predicted before a ball had been kicked in August. If Ashley can resist the temptation to cash in during the January transfer window and sell one or more of the players that have got his club into the position in which it finds itself today – and such a decision would presumably incur the wrath of those that have been critical of him in the past – then he may well find that his reputation on Tyneside continues to revive itself.
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