Newcastle United: A Usain Bolt or A Moses Kiptanui?

I can't hold this fake smile much longer...

If you ask any football fan about big football teams in England you will always get similar answers; Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool seem to roll off the tongue, plus whoever is doing well at the time. If you ask any football fan to name 10 big, well supported sides in England, Newcastle will usually crop up. Newcastle, as a place, seems to only have one way of life for the majority of the population…the Toon.

I am not a Newcastle fan, but I am always strangely drawn to the men in black and white, despite my team having a surprisingly bad record against them. Maybe it’s because I have had fond memories of Newcastle in general; Gazza floating down the Tyne singing ‘Fog on the Tyne’ waving at giggling Grannies on passing boats, the big market, the steps up to the rafters of St.James Park that make you feel like you are ready to die by the time you reach the top, girls with no coats, the list goes on.

My memories of Newcastle United are from when they were in the Champions League for the first time in the 1997/98 season. Looking back it was a squad of big names; Alan Shearer, David Batty, Temuri Ketsbaia, Jon Dahl Tomasson, Gary Speed, Ian Rush, Philippe Albert, John Barnes…Tino Asprilla…remember Andreas Andersson or Nikos Dabizas? Probably not, I am sad like that. Kevin Keegan failed to get them past the group stages of the Champions League , but along the way they beat Barcelona 3-2 with a Asprilla hat-trick before both manager and player departed at the half-way stage of the season.

Newcastle United also qualified for the 2002/03 Champions League and after a scintillating start to this season’s campaign, it seems like European football could be a possibility again. A lot of people have knocked Newcastle so far this season saying they haven’t played any really tough teams and that their early success cannot last. I have found myself swaying between a team I think are over-performing and a team that is actually a decent side and as we approach the Christmas period could it be that Newcastle are the surprise package of this season?

The summer didn’t go too well for Newcastle with more of a negative vibe coming from the club rather than a positive one and I think this formed a lot of people’s expectations for the Newcastle team this season. The high profile Joey Barton left in a blaze of glory and publicity after an outburst on Twitter where he criticised the club and owner Mike Ashley and was handed a free transfer despite having time to run on his contract.

Barton’s departure left a bad taste and many thought this would signal another period of demise for the club, no big additions were made to a mediocre squad during the summer and other good players, like Jose Enrique, had left the club. The additions were not that inspiring; Demba Ba was a striker with a lot to prove, Gabriel Obertan was a Manchester United reject who seemed about as good a signing as Bebe, the unproven Davide Santon arrived from Inter and other players like Sylvain Marveaux and Yohan Cabaye were largely unknown.

Sometimes out of crisis comes an opportunity and Alan Pardew had the opportunity to mould a squad with no big stars or ego’s and create a strong unit with good team cohesion who could actually play some decent football. The backbone of Newcastle’s success so far this season seems to be a midfield that is ready to compete, but stars have started to emerge in this team that was written off at the start of the season.

Demba Ba has produced so far this season and currently sits 5th in the Premier League scoring charts, having scored 8 goals in 11 games. Perhaps the biggest revelation so far this season has been midfielder Yohan Cabaye who is quickly establishing himself as one of the leading midfielders in the Premier League and is supposedly already attracting interest from so-called ‘bigger’ clubs. At the back Steven Taylor has returned to form as his commitment to the club seems to be stronger than ever. Taylor has been helped at the back by the form of goalkeeper Tim Krul, who is starting to challenge for the Dutch number 1 spot.

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves though. Yes Newcastle have made a good start, but surely such form from a team in only their third season back in the Premier League cannot last forever. If you look at Newcastle’s results, they haven’t been thrashing teams; all scorelines have been pretty tight. Newcastle’s display against Spurs was probably their best of the season and even though they lost to Manchester City, it was another encouraging display. To those who say they have only played ‘easy’ teams, you can only beat what’s in front of you.

Newcastle may face Manchester United and then Chelsea in their next two games, but for me December will tell the world the true progress of Newcastle United. They face a tough trip to Norwich, whilst also facing the wily West Brom and Swansea, with the month culminating with a trip to Anfield to face Liverpool. If we are logical and Newcastle’s league position is not flattering to deceive, Newcastle should beat West Brom and Swansea at home, as well as Bolton away…these types of games will be the true test.

In my opinion I have a feeling inside that says Newcastle are over-achieving despite them constantly proving me wrong. I think a top half finish would be a very respectable finish for Newcastle come the end of the season and I think they will have thrown it away if they now don’t manage that feat. Newcastle always have the added benefit of a crowd that is consistently a ‘twelfth man’, which seems to galvanise the team at home.

If Ben Arfa can show his early promise and with some additions in January, especially up tops, they could push on and go for Europe; their early season form has certainly presented them with a good opportunity to do this. Whatever happens, you have to tip your hat to Alan Pardew and the Newcastle squad, they have emerged from a troubled close-season unified and motivated and if that attitude continues and players arrive, then Europe could be a distinct possibility.

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