By Andrew Kennedy
Expectation by far exceeded, the end-of-season atmosphere at Sports Direct Arena last year was one that belied the air of cynicism that so routinely surrounds Newcastle United.
Often touted as loyal but ultimately deluded fans, the Geordie faithful endured years of mismanagement under the Freddy Shepherd regime, and even before current owner Mike Ashley’s tinkering created a sour atmosphere between the club’s hierarchy and supporters, their relegation back in 2009 was certainly foreseeable.
However, the Magpies made an immediate return to the top-flight from the Championship, and the impressive 12th place finish that followed was soon bettered by an unexpected charge for Champions League qualification last season.
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Newcastle's opening fixtures
||Atromitos (A) (Europa League)
||Atromitos (H) (Europa League)
|Sep 2||Aston Villa (H)|
The Europa League spot they eventually secured will have more than sufficed, yet the biggest challenge that now awaits Newcastle is not breaking the glass ceiling of Europe’s secondary competition, but merely coming close to their exploits of the previous campaign.
After a relatively quiet summer on Tyneside, only prospects Romain Amalfitano, Gael Bigirimana and Curtis Good have been added to the squad. While all three represent a continuation of Ashley’s sound investment policy, the depth of quality does not extend much beyond the starting XI.
Last year, Alan Pardew was rarely hampered by serious injury to his squad. Yet in the winter months, when the fixture list piles up and striking duo Demba Ba and Papiss Cisse, or Cheick Tiote, depart for the African Cup of Nations due to Senegal and Ivory Coast's qualifier showdown, the Magpies boss may well feel the pinch.
Moves for Mathieu Debuchy and Vernon Anita have stalled, and although the club’s bid for former striker Andy Carroll appeared out-of-sorts with their recent activity in the market, Ashley has consistently refused to spend beyond his and chief scout Graham Carr’s valuation of a player.
Originally seen as frustrating and stifling to Newcastle’s development, the club owner’s business model is now regarded as sensible and calculated, although some still retain suspicion as to his long-term motive.
However, there has been a changing of attitudes towards Ashley, as former Newcastle and Arsenal striker Malcolm Macdonald exclusively told Goal.com: “If there is a lingering concern, then I think it’s coming from the quarter that houses the great pessimists.
“The north east is always a huge place of expectation in the summer as to who comes in. It goes back to the 60s and 70s when Joe Harvey was the manager, and it keeps everyone happy.
“I was one of those big signings in 1971. It almost became tradition.
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“I’m not sure many people from the north-east and outside understand Newcastle could have disappeared down a financial black hole. Mike Ashley took that on and he’s put the financial world at SJP to the rights.
“I think most have conceded, put their hands up, and think maybe he is doing a good job after all.”
A lack of new recruits isn’t Pardew’s only concern. There will be something of a second-season syndrome about Newcastle. Not only will they struggle to match the heights they reached last season, but no longer are they a surprise package.
When Ba ran out of steam in January, Cisse’s empathic introduction ensured the void was more than adequately filled, but when neither player is in the midst of a hot streak it is difficult to see who will step up to the plate.
Yet such a statement does not take into account the tenacity of Pardew’s management. The 51-year-old marshals a focused side who stick to their game plan, and when things do go wrong, have consistently shown the ability to bounce back in the following fixture.
Pardew’s decision to switch from a 4-4-2 formation – which had already reaped heavy rewards in the first-half of the season – to a 4-3-3, was a risky but natural progression that propelled Newcastle to the cusp of the top four.
And more important than any of the above factors has been the club’s ability to hold onto their star players. The front-pairing of Cisse and Ba has rightly received plaudits across the board, but just as key a component has been the midfield partnership of Yohan Cabaye and Cheick Tiote.
Cabaye has the ability split a defence open with a classy touch while also being able to keep a game ticking over by retaining possession, and Newcastle can consider themselves fortunate the 26-year-old has yet to appear on the radar of Europe’s top clubs.
Equally as impressive has been Tiote. Awareness and passing may not be the Ivorian’s strong points, but grit and determination certainly are, and the former FC Twente man so often forms the fulcrum of winning Newcastle sides, as also discussed by Macdonald.
“The biggest boost for Newcastle United is the fact that no business has been done on Tiote or Cabaye. It’s not who you buy, it’s who you don’t sell,” the ex-England international added.
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“They were so, so good together last season. Some of the football really was quite exhilarating. A team sort of builds itself around a wonderful combination like that.
“Tiote has to calm himself down a bit and not get so many bookings. When Tiote isn’t there because of suspension he’s hugely missed – none more so than by Cabaye.
“Nobody gives Cabaye that sense of security that he can springboard from, and cause the damage that he sees fit, knowing that he’s not looking over his shoulder.”
Indeed, Newcastle may not have invested heavily in their squad but they have maintained it, and it’s this stability that Pardew needs to ensure reflects upon the pitch.
And if there is a man to do it, it is surely Pardew. He defied the odds when taking over from fan-favourite Chris Hughton, and again after the club’s sale of Andy Carroll. Following on from last season’s exploits, Newcastle will be expected to upset the balance again.
Yet as Pardew will know, things could just as easily go the other way.Follow Andrew Kennedy on