By Rob Stewart at the Sports Direct Arena
The way Newcastle United went from woeful to wonderful in their FA Cup tie against Blackburn Rovers typified the Tyneside club.
In veering to the sublime from the ridiculous, this game encapsulated everything that has made Newcastle one of the Premier League’s most curious and fascinating clubs.
Since Kevin Keegan guided Newcastle into the Premier League back in 1993, the club have gone from one extreme to the other and back again many times and so the Blackburn game was in keeping with their topsy-turvy tradition.
After all, this is the club that went into the Guinness Book of Records after giving us the greatest comeback in Premier League history in that 4-4 draw with Arsenal last February.
It is also the club that choked when the title beckoned in 1996 and the same one that was relegated three years ago before bouncing back in style when many were tipping Newcastle to ‘do a Leeds’ and end up alongside Hartlepool in League One.
The last few days have been Newcastle in microcosm as a stunning victory over Manchester United was followed by a major comedown.
Nursing a collective hangover from the excesses of the 3-0 win over their Old Trafford rivals, Alan Pardew’s weary men had expended so much energy against the champions that it took them a while to get going against lowly Blackburn, bar a couple of early surges in activity.
An early exit looked on the cards due to David Goodwillie’s goal for bottom-of-the-table Blackburn as Newcastle toiled.
But the Magpies were resurgent after the break and the manner in which they clinched a pulsating victory through a wonder goal from a revitalised Hatem Ben Arfa and Jonas Gutierrez should raise hopes that the 57-year wait for a major domestic honour could be ended this season at Wembley in the FA Cup final.
Morale will certainly be high in the Newcastle camp because they not only gained revenge for their League Cup exit at the hands of Blackburn this season but victory was achieved without their two most influential players in the shape of prolific striker Demba Ba and combative midfielder Cheik Tiote who are on Africa Cup of Nations duty with, respectively, Senegal and Ivory Coast.
The Toon Army foot soldiers are regarded as the most hopeless optimists in English football and so you would be expecting them to be dreaming of FA Cup glory and a place in European football following a first win over the reigning champions since September 2001 and a safe passage into the fourth round of the FA Cup after a bullet was dodged against Rovers.
However, that old stereotype would be wrong because relegation under Alan Shearer’s auspices was the ultimate reality check for Newcastle supporters who are now singularly pragmatic.
That is also down to the fact that club owner Mike Ashley sold star player Andy Carroll last January in what is now looking like a smart piece of business but is a constant reminder that no one is sacred when it comes to balancing the books for the sports retail tycoon.
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It was thanks to Pardew’s managerial acumen that Newcastle avoided a skirmish with relegation with plenty to spare last season and the former West Ham boss has made sure the club kicked on again this term despite losing influential trio Joey Barton, Kevin Nolan and Jose Enrique.
In a smart bit of business, Newcastle replaced Nolan with French international Yohan Cabaye who took to English football surprisingly quickly and was instrumental in a win at arch-rivals Sunderland that proved to be an early-season tonic for Pardew, as Newcastle spent much of the first half of the season in a Champions League spot before a 3-0 defeat by Chelsea on Tyneside.
That game saw Steven Taylor ruled out for the season with an Achilles injury and was part of a run of just two points from six games for a club that always seems to live life on the edge.
With 15 goals this season, Ba has been Newcastle’s talisman - but the revelation by Tottenham boss Harry Redknapp that he has a £10 million release clause in his contract is bound to fuel uncertainty over his future, and that will make January a nervy time for his colleagues and for Pardew.
Tiote, too, is bound to be the subject of intense speculation following his excellent show against Manchester United, and a £20 million offer for him would be irresistible for the Newcastle hierachy.
It is no secret that Newcastle are on the look-out for a new centre-half to bolster their defensive options – West Ham’s James Tomkins topped their wish-list - but more significantly they need to persuade skipper Fabricio Coloccini to sign a new contract with his current £80,000-per-week deal due to expire this summer.
It would be risky for Newcastle not to bring in reinforcements in January but they gambled last year when Carroll was sold on transfer deadline day and brought in Shefki Kuqi as his replacement on a free transfer from Swansea.
The trouble is for Pardew is that he is proving to be his own worst enemy. He thrived in adversity last season when Carroll left and he is doing the same again this time around as the restless and hitherto disappointing Hatem Ben Arfa showed as he came in from the cold with his scintillating goal against Blackburn that showed the club can get by without Ba for the time being at least.
As well as still being on course for Wembley in the FA Cup, Newcastle are currently seventh in the Premier League and a Europa League place remains a viable prospect, but Pardew will settle for a place in the top ten this season.
That would represent decent progress for a team that finished 12th last May and is only back in top-flight football for the second season following the trauma of relegation.
With such a thin squad and a reluctance to spend in the January sales, Newcastle could easily slip down the table again, especially if they fail to keep hold of Ba and Tiote who has again been linked with Manchester United.
There could be plenty of ups and downs over the next few months on Tyneside - but then again we are talking about Newcastle. What else would you expect?
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