Return of The Entertainers?

Posted: November 3, 2010 in Blogs
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For Keegan, read Hughton. For Ginola, Gutierrez. Shearer: Carroll, Ferdinand: Ameobi, Beardsley: Nolan… You get the picture. Newcastle’s emphatic Tyne-Wear derby destruction of hated local rivals Sunderland led to fans harking back to the days of “The Entertainer’s” in the mid-nineties. Comparisons have been made with the infamous ‘Howay 5-0h” five-nil drubbing of Manchester United in October 1996. Darren Bent’s late consolation goal aside, the scoreline against the mackems on Sunday would have replicated that of arguably Newcastle’s greatest ever game.

Sunday's atmosphere and feel-good factor have been compared to that of the 5-0 win over Man United in 1996

Granted, times have changed (massively) and Sunday’s game was played between two relegation rivals (Or mid-table at best), rather than the clash of the title-challenging giants that took place on the same pitch some 14 years ago. Since the heady days of challenging for the FA Carling Premiership under Kevin Keegan in the mid-90’s, Newcastle have had 8 permanent managers and several others whom held the fort temporarily, not least Tyneside’s local hero and record goalscorer Alan Shearer. Keegan himself returned for a brief period before leaving under a cloud once more. The club reached two FA Cup finals then languished in the lower echelons of England’s elite league before returning to Europe under Robson after the turn of the century. Robson came and went, as did the club’s stature and relative success. The club went into decline once more and soon became the laughing stock of the country, spearheaded by chairman Freddy Shepherd and his successor Mike Ashley. The decline of the club, once commonly known as “everyone’s second favourite team”, culminated in its relegation in May 2009. The team on that day contained supposedly World-class players. The likes of Michael Owen, Damien Duff and Obafemi Martins all helped to sink the club into the depths of England’s ‘Championship’, or Division 2 in old money. The players of season 2008/09, although undoubtedly unsettled by the constant managerial changes and off-field troubles, seemingly didn’t want to be there and they played like it too.

Comparisons were quickly drawn with other fallen footballing giants including the likes of Nottingham Forest and Leeds United. Yet, guided by Chris Hughton, Newcastle returned to the Premier League at the first attempt, selling their uncommitted players and installing a new-found camaraderie along the way. A 6-1 pre-season defeat to Leyton Orient and the subsequent inquest is seen as the turning point in Newcastle’s recent history that paved the way for the club’s immediate return to the Premier League; the team’s fighting spirit evident throughout a season in which the Magpies went unbeaten at home. At the start of this season, pundits from far and wide queued up to offer their opinions that the Newcastle squad that came up would just as quickly be going back down. Whilst that may still happen, the baffling reason most pundits gave for Newcastle’s predicted relegation battle was that the playing squad had changed little and was, in fact, weaker than the one that took them down:

“It worries me that he has come up from the Championship with pretty much the same Newcastle team that got relegated from the Premier League.”

Andy Gray, 13 August 2010

What Andy Gray somehow forgot to include in his analysis, however, is that a good or bad team is much more than simply a collection of good or bad players (as Man City are demonstrating at present). If that were the case, Newcastle would surely have never been relegated in the first place and FA Cup ties between Premier League giants and non-league minnows might as well never take place, as only one team is guaranteed to win. Gray completely omitted the effects of mentality (including team spirit, determination and confidence) on a teams performance from his pre-season predictions. As a result, he has been made to look somewhat silly, as Newcastle and their promotion counterparts West Brom and Blackpool have taken the league by storm. To be fair to Gray, however, he later admitted that the new-found confidence in United’s squad was both surprising as well as responsible for their decent start to the season:

“The biggest difference for me between this team and the one that went down is confidence and it’s amazing what that can do for a team.”

Andy Gray, 24 September 2010

Newcastle’s improvements since that fateful day at Villa Park in 2009 stretch far further than just an increase in confidence however. For a start, stability both on and off the pitch has helped dramatically. The appointment of Chris Hughton as the team’s permanent manager just over a year ago has led to similar starting eleven’s, week-in week-out. And arguably, for the first time since Sir Bobby was in charge, players have been played in their correct positions, with the exception of the occasional deployment of Messrs Guthrie and Barton on the right wing. Hughton has by and large been a success in the transfer market too, despite what some of the media would have you believe. The signings of Mike Williamson and Wayne Routledge in January provided the team with a timely boost, changing Newcastle’s return to the big time from a steady process into an emphatic one. Add to that, the arrival of Ivorian midfielder Chei(c?)k Tiote in the summer. The battling anchorman has proved to be a snip at £3.5 million and is surely an early contender for Premier League signing of the season.

Cheick Tiote has been a revelation since signing for £3.5 million from FC Twente

Yet the main differences in Newcastle’s squad from 2009 lie within both mentality and player improvement. In dropping to the Championship Newcastle’s players, with their newly instilled fighting spirit, had to do what no Magpies side had done successfully since the Robson days; win away from home. Regularly. For too long, Newcastle have relied on their home form to have a decent season, far too often turning in poor performances when playing away. Whether or not they scraped survival or challenged for Europe depended mainly on how many points they picked up on their travels. In order to gain promotion, the mentality of the players needed to change. Spurred on by the external criticism of them, the players took on a winning mentality, especially away from St James’ Park. That mentality has been carried through into the Premier League, with victories at Everton and West Ham having already matched the amount of away wins the club recorded during the entire 2008/09 season.

The technical improvements in United’s existing playing squad have also been underestimated by those who blatantly never bothered to watch Newcastle play last season before predicting a bottom-three finish. Andy Carroll, Jonas Gutierrez, Fabricio Coloccini and Jose Enrique all benefited hugely from their year in England’s second flight. For Carroll, the much needed playing time he received significantly improved his game, transforming him from a raw, lanky striker into Newcastle’s new number 9, with rumours of a full England call-up growing at the same rate as his criminal record. As for the latter three, the Spanish speaking trio all arguably possessed the talent required to succeed in the Premier League, yet they had failed to show it on a regular basis. In the Championship, they flourished, adapting to the English game with 46 physical battles coming thick and fast.

Spanish speaking trio Enrique, Coloccini and Gutierrez benefited greatly from their 12 month secondment to the Championship

The settling in period proved invaluable as the trio each staked their claim for player of the season, with Enrique eventually picking up the accolade. The vast improvement of Enrique and the Argentine duo over the past 12 months has undoubtedly helped the team in the Premier League this season. Behind Ashley Cole, Evra and Clichy, you would be hard pressed to find a better Premier League left back than Enrique, whilst Gutierrez, since being dropped at Goodison Park, has put in some performances akin to his debut at Old Trafford, when he looked every inch a World-beater. As for Coloccini, mocked the length of the country during the relegation season, he has returned to the top flight with a point, and a hefty price tag to prove. Now idolised by the fans with a song to boot, the fact that Coloccini has worn the captain’s armband in the absence of Kevin Nolan this season is testament to the curly-haired centre back’s progress and increased importance to the team over the last year.

In the 14 years since St James’ Park rocked to The Entertainers 5-0 thrashing of Man United, much has changed, but arguably more change has occurred over the past year than in the preceding 13. For a team that was predicted by many to collapse into obscurity, they have returned with a vengeance and whilst the 5-1 victory over Sunderland at the weekend may not have seen the return of The Entertainer’s, it certainly signaled that times are changing at St James’ Park and the Geordie faithful can once again have pride in their team. Whether or not they can survive come the end of the season is unknown, but one thing is for certain; if Newcastle do return to the Championship in May, it will not be for want of trying.

  1. Toontastico says:

    Good article mate – not getting too carried away and some good points. I must say all in all I’m really happy with the way the first 10 games have gone and the way we’ve tried to play football at all times producing some lovely play.

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