By Jason Dasey
They’re an English Premier League club with a realistic chance of playing in Europe next season, whose sometimes-stubborn manager has overcome the odds with some shrewd signings. And, in an era of excessive spending, they’re in decent financial shape.
The description could be applied to Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal but it also fits their opponents on Monday, Newcastle United. If the Magpies are able to record their 13th victory of their campaign, at the Emirates Stadium, they will climb to 47 points – exceeding last season’s tally with 10 matches to go.
Fifteen months ago, Alan Pardew arrived on Tyneside amid much negativity after the sacking of the popular Chris Hughton, who’d brought stability after winning promotion. The BBC called the appointment the “twisted, madcap logic of a club that seems only comfortable with chaos”.
Pardew has not only proved the doubters wrong but has slowly endeared himself to the Geordie faithful. This week, he was named North East Sports Personality of the Year.
So much for shunning the so-called Cockney mafia at Newcastle: Pardew was born in London and owner Mike Ashley hails from Buckinghamshire in the capital’s commuter belt.
It is almost inconceivable that Newcastle should be in the top-6 after parting ways with so many of their biggest personalities in 2011. Andy Carroll and Jose Enrique went to Liverpool, while both Joey Barton and Kevin Nolan headed south to join London sides QPR and West Ham respectively.
But thanks to the skilful eye of chief scout Graham Carr, Newcastle have barely missed a beat this season. Demba Ba, who moved from West Ham in a free transfer, has turned into one of the biggest bargains in recent times with 16 league goals. Fellow Senegalese striker Papiss Demba Cisse has also made an instant impact since joining in January from SC Freiburg.
French midfielders Yohan Cabaye and Gabriel Obertan and Italian defender Davide Santon are among the other newcomers to have contributed to Newcastle’s surprising campaign.
After starting the season with an 11-game unbeaten run, Newcastle endured a shaky spell in which they went six matches without a victory. They were also thumped 5-0 by Tottenham and 5-2 by Fulham. But last weekend’s battling draw against in-form Sunderland in the Northeast derby is a sign that the Magpies have rediscovered their mettle.
With the unlikely dream of a top-four finish fading, Newcastle are now in a battle for fifth spot with Chelsea and Liverpool.
If Carling Cup champions Liverpool finish fifth, the Premier League’s Europa League qualifying position will drop down to sixth. But seventh could be enough for Newcastle if the Reds, or any club outside the Champions League spots, win the FA Cup.
A quarter of the way through a five-and-a-half year deal, Pardew deserves a lot of the credit for Newcastle’s resurgence. Having achieved promotion with Reading and West Ham, he’s been long known for making his teams well organised and competitive.
A cautious yet strong start to the season provided the perfect platform. Newcastle kept clean sheets in three of their first four games of the campaign and had conceded just seven league goals by the start of November.
Pardew may not have the same emotional connection to the fans like previous bosses including Kevin Keegan or one-time caretaker Alan Shearer, but he’s exactly what the club needs after years of instability and underachievement.
Off the field, things are looking up as well. This week, it was revealed that Newcastle made a loss of just £3.9m for the 2011-2011 financial year with turnover rising from £52.4m to £88.4 million, which would have been unthinkable in the days of overspending a few short seasons ago. Certainly, the sale of former favourite son Andy Carroll to Liverpool for £35 million in January 2001 now appears to be a masterstroke.
Newcastle do still have debts – a reported £140 million – but the fact that these are in the form of interest-free loans from owner Ashley instead of the banks means that the club’s financial future appears as solid as its central defence, led by inspirational captain Fabricio Coloccini.
The Magpies were boosted last week by the news that Argentina international Coloccini and Dutch goalkeeper Tim Krul have committed to new long-term deals. Even if they do have a budget smaller than the other teams in England’s top seven, Newcastle are understandably keen to retain their unlikely heroes.
The coming few weeks will be crucial to how the Toons’ 2011-2012 season will be remembered. After the trip to Arsenal, they will also face near rivals Liverpool and Chelsea over the next month.
With the renaming last November of the beloved St James’ Park as the Sports Direct Arena after his own retail chain, head honcho Ashley will never win any popularity competitions amongst the purists. But he’s taken the necessary tough decisions to turn Newcastle into one of the sport’s most unlikely success stories.
Just three years ago, in the 2008-2009 season when they were relegated, Newcastle could boast strikers like Michael Owen, Mark Viduka, Obafemi Martins and Andy Carroll. Yet they won only seven league games to finish in 18th position, two points off the bottom.
The age of excess on Tyneside is over. Underperforming fat cats no more, the lean and mean Newcastle are certainly better value with a lot less fuss.