Newcastle were the surprise package of last season. A fantastic start, going without defeat in their first 11 games, saw them sitting pretty in third at the start of November. It then seemed to turn ugly (as many expected) as they managed just one win and five points from their next eight. However it turned out that that was a bad patch and a run of just three defeats in their next 15 – including six wins on the bounce – meant they were still in contention for a Champions League spot with two games to play. They missed out on Europe but they vastly exceeded expectations. The question is can they do it again? At face value there’s no reason why not.
Alan Pardew eulogised about the team spirit in the dressing room and the fact they have (at the time of writing) kept all their key players suggests that not only will they be as strong on the pitch but that, just as importantly, the players want to be at the club. Three young players have been added – Romain Amalfitano, Gael Bigirimana and Curtis Good – without splashing the cash and they look likely to make a more significant outlay on Ajax’s Vurnon Anita.
Once again the club appears to be relying on the knowledge of chief scout Graham Carr to find the players and Pardew to mould them into a team. Given last season’s success, it is hard to argue against this formula.
There are some imponderables however. Firstly, the Europa League. If there was a downside to last season it was that Newcastle’s challenge for the top four exposed their lack of strength in depth. Should they extend their first European campaign in five years beyond the two-leg qualifier with Atromitos, Newcastle will be stretched even further and will have to contend with the Thursday-Sunday schedule that seems to cause so many clubs difficulties.
Secondly, there is the month-long African Nations Cup from mid-January. As Senegal play Ivory Coast in a play-off over two legs in coming months, Pardew faces losing either Demba Ba and Papiss Cisse if Senegal win or Cheick Tiote if Ivory Coast run out victors. He will probably be hoping for the latter as Tiote’s absence will be slightly easier to deal with.
That leads on to the third point. What if Ba and Cisse hit a barren spell at the same time? They grabbed 29 of the Toon’s 56 league goals between them last season but they weren’t sharing the goals. Ba scored for fun until his compatriot arrived in January, then dropped the baton when, thankfully, Cisse picked it up by scoring 13 in 14 games. No one else at the club reached double figures which means the team will be relying heavily on the African duo unless they can make a quality addition up front.
Pardew is already managing expectations by saying that with the extra European competition to play in, his league target is eighth but he must realistically be hoping for higher. Given the club is finally being run properly the manager, the players and the fans will probably be disappointed if they don’t hit the top six.
Key signing – Graham Carr: No, seriously. The fact that he was locked in to an eight-year contract in June – longer than Alan Pardew’s deal – demonstrates how important Carr is to the club’s long-term strategy.
Key sale – No one: Newcastle are in the luxurious position of being able to trim the deadwood, like Alan Smith and Leon Best, while holding on to their key players. Unless someone triggers Demba Ba’s release clause or tests them with silly money for someone else, that’s how it will stay.
Keep an eye out for…Andy Carroll. It seems the big Geordie is not part of Brendan Rodgers’ long-term plans and Newcastle were one of the first clubs to make a move for him. But why? They have moved on from the route one style of play that suits him so well and are better for it. A return could be a backward step for Newcastle.