The 9th October 2011 will mark 15 years since Kevin Keegan’s Entertainers lost 4-3 to Liverpool in a game that played a significant role in derailing Newcastle United’s title aspirations. Whilst the class of 2011 may be a far cry from the days of Beardsley, Ginola and co, The Magpies fine start to the new season may have triggered off signs of a return to the golden days on Tyneside – albeit under very different circumstances.
English football has changed considerably since the 1995-1996 season and with it, it appears, have Newcastle United. Acknowledging that it can no longer compete with the financial muscle of the Manchester United’s, Manchester City’s and Chelsea’s of this world, a decisive change in mentality at board level has taken place on Tyneside in the last year – one which has signalled a decisive break with the past. Gone are the days of the big-name signings and the large wage packets under previous Chairmen Sir John Hall and Freddy Shepherd, instead current controversial owner Mike Ashley has opted to take the risky strategy of building a young team of cheaper, relative unknowns who have little or no experience of English football and are on modest wage packets. For now, at least, Ashley’s master plan is paying off.
A similar effect has taken place on the field under the management team consisting of assistant manager John Carver, coaches Steve Stone and Peter Beardsley – significantly all locally born and bred – and, chief amongst them, Alan Pardew. Since his surprise appointment eleven months ago following the equally surprising dismissal of the now Birmingham City boss Chris Hughton, the former Reading, West Ham United and Southampton manager has played an integral role in the restructuring of the club’s facilities. This summer witnessed United’s training ground at Benton Park transformed, with a large amount of capital invested in new playing surfaces and the Youth Academy. The hope is that the club, having most recently produced the likes of Sammy Ameobi and Haris VuÄkiÄ‡, will continue to produce technically accomplished, mentally strong and talented youngsters in the future.
Resources have also been turned towards Newcastle United’s scouting network with Pardew keen for some of the club’s scouts to be deployed to visit Barcelona’s new world famous Masia-Centre de Formació Oriol Tort. However since Pardew’s appointment, a large part of the recruitment drive has been due, in no small part, to the fundamental role played by chief scout Graham Carr, father of Chatty Man Alan Carr. The former Tottenham Hostpur, Manchester City and Notts County scout has been pivotal in unearthing rough diamonds from across the European leagues. Take for example last season’s undoubted Bargain of the Season – that of the Ivorian midfielder Cheik Tioté for a mere £3,500,000 from Dutch Eredivisie club FC Twente. Indeed, Carr’s canny recruitment drive continued apace this summer.
Far from Gerodie Shore, the club’s transfer activity was akin to that of the third instalment of The French Connection, with a large influx of players arriving from French football’s Ligue 1. Whilst some on Tyneside were half-expecting Gene Hackman to sign on the dotted line, what the supporters were presented with was creative midfielder Yohan Cabaye from last season’s Ligue 1 Champions LOSC Lille Métropole, winger Sylvain Marveaux from Stade Rennais and defensive midfielder Medhi Abeid from Racing Club de Lens. Juxtaposed alongside, was the controversial fire sale of the club’s high-earning players, namely Kevin Nolan, José Enrique and Joey Barton. Whilst the policy was seen to be, by outsiders and fans alike, a disastrous piece of business, what both sets of groups were yet to realize was the potential from the summer recruits.
The new look Newcastle United set-up, whilst noticeably smaller, is well organized, hungry for success and, above all, united. The summer recruits have arrived with a point to prove, replacing those high-profile players who demanded longer contracts, higher wages or felt that their future lay away from St James’ Park. The cosmopolitan squad now has a distinct air of calmness and steadiness about it, encapsulated by Pardew on the sidelines and Argentine captain Fabricio Collocini on the pitch, who alongside defender Steven Taylor, has been key to a Newcastle United defence which has experienced defeat just eight times in 31 league and cup games. All these newly polished components were present in The Toon’s latest victory on Saturday against Mick McCarthy’s Wolverhampton Wanderers – their first over the West Midlands club in the top-flight since 1958.
Whilst Pardew’s team rode their luck in parts of the game at Molineux and were also indebted to the excellence of their highly-rated Dutch goalkeeper Tim Krul who pulled off a number of world-class saves, The Magpies controlled large chunks of the match – something which has turned them into a far more efficient outfit. Amongst the many positives to come out of the game was the speed and sharpness of the team’s passing and movement. Yohan Cabaye was again economical with the ball, rarely misplacing a pass, whilst his central midfield enforcer Cheik Tioté was a commanding presence throughout. Strikers Demba Ba and Leon Best continued their promising partnership upfront, with Best looking particularly impressive in running the channels and Jonás Gutiérrez capped off an excellent display on the wing with a fine solo goal.
The real test of the team’s resolve will come in November, after the final set of matches in the Qualification Stages for next year’s European Championships in Poland and Ukraine. The Toon begin with a testing away trip against Stoke City at the Britannia Stadium at the end of October and following that are home games against David Moyes’ Everton and André Villas-Boas’ Chelsea. Sandwiched in between those two fixtures comes the small matter of consecutive away trips to Manchester, first to the Etihad Stadium and Roberto Mancini’s Manchester City and then to Old Trafford for Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United. Whilst the squad only looks a couple of injuries away from being stretched, fans will be pleased to hear of the imminent return of midfielder Hatem Ben Arfa and defender Davide Santon from injury.
Doubts continue to persist on Tyneside over the lack of firepower upfront, with the club failing to sign another striker during the Transfer Window. The club are however continually monitoring the progress of Sochaux striker Modibo Maiga and will look to tie up a deal when the Transfer Window reopens in January. In the meantime, the Geordie faithful can sit back and look gleefully on at the unrest at North East rivals Sunderland and the fact that for once, The Magpies are making the headlines for all the right reasons.