June 2009, and things at Newcastle United Football Club are not looking good. They’ve just been relegated from the Premier League, are manager-less and the club’s controversial owner Mike Ashley has put the once grand old side of St. James’ Park back up for sale. Things look dire, pundits are saying they may well be heading for England’s third tier of football, a far cry from a side who as recently as 2003 found themselves in the Champions League. Fast-forward to April 2012, and they might just be heading back there.
The intervening 3 years at the Toon haven’t been without scandals though, with Championship-winning manager Chris Hughton sacked after a good start to the season in 2010, being replaced by new unwanted man Alan Pardew and the club’s biggest player (in size and arguably quality) Andy Carroll sold against both Pardew’s and the player himself’s (depending on who you believe) wishes for £35 million. They limped home to a 12th placed finish, just happy to remain in the Premier League. Owner Ashley also ensured he was hated around the city, by renaming the locals beloved stadium the Sports Direct Arena, it didn’t go down well.
Season 2011-12 was supposed to be one of consolidation, to see how Pardew’s new foreign recruits mixed, as a result of the Carroll money, with the current bulk of the squad. However, they club have managed to surpass both fans, pundits and their own expectations this year, and currently sit, with four games of the season left, in 4th place, the last remaining Champions League place. They’ve gone about their work quietly and consistently, picking up points from the games they should, and even shocking some of the big boys of the league, with Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal and Spurs all coming leaving St. James’ without the win.
It’s down to long-serving players, the likes of Argentinian’s Jonas Gutierrez and Fabricio Coloccini now in their 4th seasons at the club, the hard graft of Englishmen Danny Guthrie and Danny Simpson in defence and the creative forces that are the two Frenchman Yohan Cabaye and Hatem Ben Arfa. In addition are the three Africans, who have become instant Geordie heroes, Ivorian Check Tiote and Senegal pair Demba Ba and Papiss Cisse, the last two gaining almost 30 goals between them.
The first half of the season was all about Demba Ba. The powerful, direct forward struck two hat-tricks as the Toon got off to an incredible start, hitting 3rd in the league and maintaining an 11 match unbeaten run. Before heading off to the African Cup of Nations, Ba signed off with a strike against Man United, helping his side to their first victory over the current league champions for a decade. As Ba then took his leave, missing 5 games, Newcastle maintained their steady form, and added a fellow forward in Papiss Cisse to their ranks, for £10 million from Bundesliga side Freiburg. Both Cisse and Ba returned home earlier than thought as Senegal made a group stage exit from the tournament, returning at the beginning of February for Aston Villa at home. The two combined to full effect, scoring a goal apiece and repaying their side’s loyalty in a 2-1 win, that saw them rise back into 5th place and a Europa League spot.
However, this game saw a change in fortunes for both strikers. Ba was moved out wide to accommodate a 4-3-3 formation with Cisse playing straight down the middle. With a reinvigorated Hatem Ben Arfa also chipping in with goals and assists every now and then, the absence of a Ba goal since the Villa game hasn’t been noticed, but that may also be down to the main man Cisse. He has broken a Premier League record of scoring 11 goals in his first 10 games, with three consecutive doubles against West Brom, Liverpool and Swansea.
The underrated Cabaye then saw his name up in the lights with a couple of cracking goals in a comprehensive 3-0 win over the mid-table Stoke City. Cabaye was an inspired purchase, taken from the French Ligue Un champions of last season, Lille, where he gave up Champions League football for the bright lights of the Premier League, but surely he couldn’t have expected to be reaching Europe’s top competition just one year later?! Fellow Frenchman Ben Arfa looks to have finally found a place where he can reach his full potential, having having long-term injury problems and clashes with players and managers at past clubs Marseille and Lyon, he never truly accessed all of his skill. A couple of seasons at Newcastle, part of which have again been interrupted by injury, have seen him find a home where he isn’t the best player on the side, but part of a squad that work for one another, and at the age of 25, he still has his best years ahead of him.
This aforementioned run of form saw United really start to push for the top European spots, leaving historically successful sides Liverpool trailing in their wake, and challenging the recently successful teams of Spurs and Chelsea for their Champions League places. An indication of just how far this side have come, can be seen just by looking at the current league table. Newcastle sit a whopping 16 points clear of Liverpool, with 4 and 3 separating them from Chelsea and Spurs respectively.
Whatever happens in the last 4 games of the season, Newcastle can be proud of themselves. With a Europa League spot secured, and the potential big bucks of the Champions League on the horizon these look to be exciting times at St James’ Park, as Alan Pardew has defied the press and the fans to deliver a side worthy of the plaudits.