Monday, August 9, 2010

Newcastle United FC: Fluke year 2009 or 2010?

After years of flirting with European competition, the 2009 incarnation of Newcastle United did as their roster had promised for a year or two and fell without murmur into the Championship. They'd No question it was a stinker of a year: banshee-d by injuries, Joe Kinnear's entrance, two management Messiahs in Keegan and Shearer failed to get the job, Joe Kinnear's 37 F-bombs in two minutes, Michael Owen still drawing six-figure weekly wages, Joe Kinnear's exit and Denis Wise's antics as “Director of football and alleged Cockney mafiosa”.

When examined in-depth, United deserved to be relegated. In building a “Championship Manager” squad, they ignored the first rule of common sense: in the real world, a good reputation and high transfer fee doesn't always mean a guarantee of Premier League quality. The list of big names – and big money – is impressive but must be sickening in the extreme to the Toon army: ultimately every single one of Owen, Alan Smith, Nicky Butt, Joey Barton, Kieron Dyer, Obafemi Martins and Fabricio Coloccini all flopped on Tyneside. The results were humiliating as a succession of bosses failed to get players with some experience of success to buy-in to the team plan. That there were four separate team plans behind Keegan, Hughton, Kinnear, Hughton again and Shearer made that buy-in nearly impossible to achieve.

Last year amid constant speculation that they would nose-dive into League One a la Leeds United, Newcastle United banded together behind promoted assistant Chris Hughton to clinch promotion easily and reclaim their divinely-decreed level of football. They did this with unfussy football as the departures of finesse-type Martins & Owen; a capital “f” Fighting Spirit formed the team's backbone more than Harper, Taylor, Nolan & Carroll. As Hughton infused self-belief and direction, the fight got stronger until they proved to be not only the biggest team in the second tier, but the best.

So which season was the fluke? The squad barely changed between the two years as NUFC were unable to trim their titanic wage bill much before last term. The same squad played exceptionally against Scunthorpe or Blackpool where in 2009 they'd performed dismally against Hull & Stoke. Success in 2010 rests on the expectation of the fans and board. Should those expectations become (cf. our Blackburn preview) too lofty it becomes automatically injurious. The day of “because they're a big club they need a top-10 finish” is past and if the current squad hears this they are likely to look quizzically at the fans and throw their arms up in disbelief. With their ageing catalogue of fallen angels this is no better than a 12-14th placed squad and the likelihood is that they know it. The first aim should be staying up and should Hughton encourage play as in the Championship last term it is achievable.

The fluke wasn't in Newcastle going down in 2009; the fluke was in them staying in the second-tier only one year. Rather than chalking it down to random factors or bad luck, Hughton chose to see it as a warning about the dangers of complacency and overreaching. He did an astonishing job with the players on hand in getting them focused on only one thing – redemption. Not redemption in the eyes of the fans but redemption in their own eyes: there should be no doubt at all in the players' minds that relegated Newcastle United of 2009 was a better squad than survivor Hull. There should be little doubt they were a better squad than 12th placed Stoke City. If Hughton gets the players to understand that they still need to prove their own quality to themselves, then Newcastle can survive and even thrive (like Stoke City or Bolton) in the Premier League. Survival in this manner mighn't please the Toon Army, but survival at the top level is preferable to threatening vaguely from lower leagues. Just ask Leeds United.

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