The 2011-12 season has undoubtedly been one of the most, if not the most, exciting Premiership seasons ever. Ever since the crazy August afternoon when Manchester United beat Arsenal 8-2 and Manchester City beat Tottenham 5-1, there has been almost constant drama.
The bizarre results continued throughout the season, as City beat United 6-1 at Old Trafford, Arsenal put 5 past Chelsea at Stamford Bridge and United came back from 0-3 down to draw 3-3 with Chelsea in the dying embers of Andre Villas Boas’s ill-fated reign. Meanwhile, AVB himself, not to mention the travails of Andy Carroll and Fernando Torres have provided seemingly endless column inches.
The season has also had positive stories of course; not least the panache and application of two of the promoted clubs, Norwich and Swansea. Swansea’s players in particular have left commentators drooling at their collective Barcelona impression.
The highlight of the season for me though has quite simply been Newcastle United F.C. In what has become a tediously predictable league (certainly at the top end), it has been exhilarating to watch them this season.
What has made their performance particularly impressive is how recently the club was viewed as a laughing stock, and the way in which many of the key protagonists in their success had been portrayed as villains or joke figures, or both.
Mike Ashley for instance was a man who was derided by all observers, with the accepted wisdom that he had no idea how to run a football club. This wisdom became fact when Newcastle were relegated in May 2009, and according to many the club was set to capitulate in a manner reminiscent of Leeds United. Three years on, he oversees a profitable club who are on the verge of Champions’ League qualification.
Alan Pardew was the subject of similar derision (coincidentally his reputation also reached its nadir in 2009, though that was due to him describing Michael Essien as having ‘raped’ a Manchester City opponent). Upon his succeeding the popular Chris Hughton in December 2010, there was uproar and universal criticism of a man who was last seen in the premiership getting unceremoniously sacked by West Ham four years earlier. Pardew also took the brave decision last summer of selling Kevin Nolan and Joey Barton, a move that was met with skepticism and disdain from many in the game.
The removal of Barton and Nolan, and the subsequent replacement of them with the likes of Yohan Cabaye has typified one of the most exciting aspects of Newcastle’s season. It has been the signings that Newcastle have made, and the imagination of them, that has been so compelling.
While most sides who are newly promoted, or are indeed looking to consolidate, look to the same old reliable Premiership pros (I’m looking at you Luke Young) Newcastle, masterminded by the exemplary scouting of Graham Carr, have signed gems of true quality. Even the likes of Manchester City under Mark Hughes or Liverpool under Kenny Daglish have seemed to eschew a scouting network in favour of a policy of looking at the clubs immediately around them and signing their better players.
The individual who has most symbolized the fantasy of Newcastle’s season is surely Papiss Demba Cisse, a player who embodies everything that makes being a football fan great. For a start he is a striker, and there is simply nothing better as a fan than signing a new striker who scores goals. Cisse, with 13 goals from 13 games has been scintillating, and the goals he has scored have been majestic. From his debut goal (a half volley with his left foot against Aston Villa) to the howitzer against Chelsea, he has been irrepressible.
A goalscoring striker may not seem remarkable, but try telling that to Torres or Carroll, or those who have poured scorn on these two misfiring forwards. It is also something pretty special to have such an impact so quickly and devastatingly, and again Newcastle should be praised for taking a gamble and not signing an established ‘Premier League pro’ (happily Bobby Zamora had already just been signed by Mark Hughes).
At the time of writing it looks likely that Newcastle will just miss out on the Champions League. Yet even if they do fail to qualify, nothing should take away from what they’ve achieved this season. They have reminded us that the established order can be upset-not just by spending a small fortune or by signing overpriced English youngsters but by taking a gamble on players with a technical pedigree and a willingness to take risks. The top four places may end up being filled by the usual suspects (less so in Spurs’ case) but no one in recent seasons has reminded fans of why football can be such an exciting game quite like Newcastle this season.
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