On 18th of August 2012, Newcastle United kick-off their 19th Premier League campaign, the recent but brief visit to the Championship now seeming a very distant memory.
Far from the highly selective ‘second season syndrome’, NUFC’s campaign last time out was our most successful , and arguably exciting, in years – the club visibly growing in strength and confidence as each month passed, each game was won and each goal went in. Newcastle United undeniably exceeded expectations – even if stereotypes would have you incorrectly believe the finish merely satisfied the unquenchable thirst of the locals – but once success, in its many forms, has been tasted that taste is hard to ignore.
On the eve of last season, we described the months leading up to it as “some of the most radical and revolutionary in recent history” – the preceding months this time around have been nowhere near as volatile, but they have not needed to be. Scroll down the squad list at this very day and you’ll see talent in abundance – established internationals and model professionals standing shoulder to shoulder with ambitious youth gazing on. And Nile Ranger. But for every ‘realist’ (and he will be correctly ignored) there has been a multitude of fresh faced upstarts beating on the proverbial door of the first team.
Krul’s rapid ascent from obscurity to key first teamer was as logical as it was encouraging, and with the likes of Abied, Tavernier and Vuckic, as well as the recruited Anita, Amalfitano, Bigirimana and Good replacing a mixture of spent and cumbersome players the squad is full of energy and ambition on the fringes to compliment the experience in the starting eleven. The quality is definitely there. However, pre-season preparations for the squad itself have again been lacking finesse. Hastily arranged, then re-arranged fixtures altered destinations drastically – a long-haul to South Africa became neutral friendlies on European soil with a strange frequency. Add into the mix the extended holiday for those on European Championship or international duty and all of a sudden games were falling at inconvenient times to reintroduce players into the cycle. Some players, particularly Marveaux and Steven Taylor gathered valuable playing time – adversely key figures Cabaye and Ben Arfa received mere minutes and once again look unlikely to start the season fully fit.
A hectic start of five games in 15 days, part of which takes in Athens and London in 48 hours, will undoubtedly be demanding – particularly given the level of Premier League opposition faced. But home comfort can be called upon in these tricky times as well as the aforementioned fringes of the squad who should be capable of assisting in traversing our Europa League qualifier successfully. If only to provide more reassurance, we need only look to the shambolic pre-season experienced last time around and the unbeaten 11 league games that followed it. A particular caution and resilience was required then – a time when we understood and worked to cover our weaknesses, regularly at the sake of open attacking football. I can only suggest we adopt the same mentality once again to sail through potentially choppy waters.
European football, naturally, is a welcome return. Beyond waving passports at makems, NUFC can once again further their reputation across the continent and the players themselves can enjoy the lower tier of what seems to be a minimum requirement of club involvement. The extra strain of games in the Thursday / Sunday cycle (or Saturday when Sky’s shilling dictates) has the well recited word ‘fatigue’ echoing in your ears, but perhaps the most frustrating aspect to overcome is in the training routine itself. As Alan Pardew himself said whilst being interviewed on Radio Newcastle, preparation for the games themselves (defensive set-ups etc) and traveling severely limit the opportunity to work on the finer points of a player’s, or the team’s overall game. Whether this has any serious effect on the progress of a given player, such as Santon, or Ben Arfa’s improvements on the field last season, is unclear.
Talk has been of using the Europa league games as a vessel for getting mainly young players some invaluable experience – almost a ‘throw away’ competition where progress is preferred, but not required. Undoubtedly there will be younger players involved, and the experience invaluable – however, given the many issues the mere participation in the competition creates perhaps it would be far more sensible to prioritise success in this, over the League cup first, then the FA cup after? League position will unfortunately take unchallenged priority again – the circumstances of modern football binding our hands along with every other top flight club. After all, with every single move up the final Premier League table being worth £750k (a figure which is rising season by season), not to mention the reputation than goes with it, league position has a strong say over a club’s ability to retain their talent or not.
So, back to this season ahead, trying to calculate a realistic expectation poses great difficulty. Would it be unfair to expect the same lofty heights from a group of players who undeniably hold the talent to compete with all but the very, very best? Or will the strains of a difficult start coupled with the unfamiliarity of weekly jet setting deliver a sizeable enough early dent to our season-long perch? Certainly one major worry is the potential return to form of those teams we overtook last season – Liverpool may continue to flounder, Chelsea perhaps not so. Above, Tottenham look vulnerable in flux and Arsenal unpredictable without the goals of Robin ‘he leaves when he wants’ Van Persie – but will either of these yield?
The crux of success will once again lie in the bread and butter games – dropping the absolute minimum of points at home whilst grinding out sensible results away. Yes, we expect to be entertained but form follows function – the function of points and league position. It means hanging on to 1-0 at home to QPR, packing the midfield at Sunderland, and allowing Swansea to having 99.99% of possession, because it is all about getting the best end result. But this season, if we are to be ambitious, it also means results at Anfield, Goodison, White Hart Lane and The Emirates. If you want to sit securely at the top table, your place has to be earned…
Whatever happens, once again I personally will be satisfied to simply see our players match the effort mixed with occasional flamboyance shown last season. It can’t be repeated enough the ability possessed with in pockets of the first team is as good as we’ve witnessed in black and white for years – all it needs is the right organisation and a strong backing. And as fans we know what part we have to play in that…
Ho’way the mags.