The Toon Army are often pilloried for expecting too much from their side, that they feel it is their God-given right to be hanging about in the big boys’ league and a regular fixture of European football. For anyone who still holds that belief of the life and blood of Newcastle United, try asking the supporters what would represent satisfaction come May, and you will find anything from mid table mediocrity to 17th.
Because unfortunately, for now at least, the reality is that survival is just about as good as it can get for a side which will return to the Premier League with many of the same players who took them down in 2009. Of course, this can be read in two ways, as it is also the same group of players who bounced back so spectacularly last season by pretty much walking a division many of our game’s apparent ‘experts’ have decided is the ‘toughest league to get out of’. Now obviously, we know that just isn’t true, because the Magpies are going to find it a lot harder to remain in the Premiership than they did in getting out the Championship at the first time of asking with 102 points.
The spine of the Coca-Cola class of 2010 remains in place. Steve Harper, Fabricio Coloccini, Kevin Nolan and Andy Carroll are all set to return to the big time as stronger players it is hoped, while if the latter two can get even half the 37 goals they grabbed between them last time round it would be considered a success. Added to that, Jose Enrique, Steven Taylor (before his injury which may or may not have been extended by Carroll… allegedly), Danny Guthrie and Alan Smith all showed signs of significant improvement during the previous campaign.
Yet the million pound question hanging over their heads is whether they have actually improved their game, or have merely found their level? For some within this group, such as Nolan and Smith, this question mark stands taller due to their consistently poor showings in past Premier seasons before they suddenly rediscovered their ability in the second tier.
However, for the likes of Enrique, Coloccini and Gutierrez, who ran rings round the Championship, these are not second-class footballers by any means. The latter two are full internationals of Argentina, no less, and have played at some of the top clubs in Europe. You don’t just lose your ability when you step afoot on English soil because the Premier League is ‘too big’ for the continental athlete, despite the arrogant claims from a vast group of people in this game, but it is to be hoped all the same that they have now adjusted to the more rugged brand of football we offer on these shores.
Every Geordie’s favourite Spaniard, Senor Enrique, meanwhile, may return with much to prove to the Premier League but he has already won a place in the hearts of the black and white support (that goal against Forest to all but secure promotion will not be forgotten quickly). He was arguably the best player in the Championship last season, even if the award did go to Nolan, and was simply just too good for the calibre of player he came up against. Indeed, it would not be going too far to suggest that further improvement could result in a call-up for the World champions, especially when the left-back position could be seen as the team’s rare weak spot.
The new investment and financial policy being exercised by Mike Ashley has forced Chris Hughton to work within a very limited budget, meaning that there have been few additions thus far. James Perch has been brought in as a versatile candidate to cover anything across defence, while Dan Gosling is a brilliant free signing and could be a future England international in the making. But the biggest addition has to be Sol Campbell. His transfer will raise many doubtful voices who point to his lack of pace and awareness that his best years are behind him, but his unrivalled experience at the very top level can only benefit the entire squad. He may only be a stop-gap for a season or two at best, but if he can keep the club in the Premier League then that can only be considered a sound piece of business by Hughton.
Newcastle face a tough beginning to the new season, with a visit to Old Trafford followed by the opportunity to get one over a Martin O’Neill-less Aston Villa, the team who put them down 15 months ago. But it is the games which follow against Blackpool, Wolves and Wigan which are the key matches. Three points are imperative against sides which will be classed as nothing less than relegation rivals for the season. If Hughton’s men can achieve this, and get off to a good start, then they can begin to enjoy life back in the big time again and cement a solid position towards the top of the league’s bottom sides.
Yes, for now this will represent success, even if the long term goal is a strand or two higher for the Geordie faithful.
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