Half term report at St James' Park
Newcastle United have reached the half way mark of the season. In 7th place with 30 points things look good - or do they?
The season started with supporters in 3 main camps, optimistic, some like most pundits, pessimistic about prospects and the middle of the road 'wait and sees'. With the cash fuelled transfer window set to run, we brought in a new contingent with French connections, Cabaye, Ba, Marveaux and Obertan with the Italian, Santon for good measure.
Despite the best efforts of our own Popeye Doyle, in the shape of Graham Carr, the big fish of a number 9 eluded us, starting a Premier League season without the famous shirt on display - Cole, Ferdinand, Shearer, Martins, Carroll and then nobody!
The pessimists pointed to the core of Nolan and Barton being exported to either side of London and Enrique exiled to Liverpool. Yes, wage bills had been helped by the departure of Sol Campbell too.
The "wait and sees" pointed to the balance in the squad, thin central defensive cover, no left footed full backs, how would the foreign arrivals cope with an English winter, how would the ACN affect our prospects, would Pardew be able to improve his Newcastle record of only beating bottom teams, how would we cope with injury?
The optimists seemed to be proved right, a positive outcome against Arsenal, contract rebels Nasri and Fabregas among them. The big guns did not bang, at least until they had left their club for greener fields. 0-0 was a good start for us.
Next up the Mackems, with hardly a home win against us for a generation. Raylor did the business with a stunning free kick. Leon Best took over, Ba looking slow when fasting. A Neon Leon brace secured the points against Fulham, Joey Barton`s QPR a tactical draw, Neon saving a point at Villa.
Come the end of Ramadan, Ba`s goal famine also came to an end. He was the hat trick hero against a awful Blackburn, set the ball rolling against an out of form Wolves and regained the momentum at home against the hot Spurs. Cabaye got off the mark against resilient yet lowly Wigan.
Demba`s 2nd hat trick came at the Potteries, against a Stoke side that was in a run of 4 points from 27. Everton couldn`t hit back sufficiently in a run of 1 win in 6. We were in 3rd, 11 games unbeaten in the league, the joint best defensive record - the optimists carried the day. What could go wrong?
Those first 11 games were marked by a consistent combination in defence. Raylor covered at left back, shakily at first but with effort and a little help from his friends in central defence and Jonas, he got by. Krul justified his number 1 status as another old hand, Harper, was sent out on loan. As Cabaye pulled the strings, Tiote held the fort.
Surely nothing could go wrong - or could it?
A tough run of fixtures was accompanied by key injuries. Tiote had a knee problem, to miss the Manchester City defeat, Marveaux victim to a recurrent injury possibly associated with his failed Merseyside medical. Jonas saw red at Old Trafford which witnessed a famous rearguard action. Chelsea gave us the blues with a refereeing mistake.
After the top 3 came what must be a period of respite. Unfortunately, Delia Smith`s Norwich provided the fishy Perch with a new recipe battering. The organised Swans defence penned us in the corners to hold out for a draw. West Brom came to St James` Park, known by some by another name and countered effectively to steal the win. Since that mythical name change, little went right on the pitch.
At the bottom of the leaguer, the Trotters provided a canter for the Toon. Ben Arfa made his comeback complete, despite a paucity of playing time. Ba sealed the win finally having company on the scoresheet after around 500 minutes of football. The half way mark came against Andy Carroll`s Liverpool, another old boy, Bellamy, doing most of the damage.
So this has been a half season of extremes, one of the best defensive records over 11 games followed by one of the worst over 8. 25 points from 33 was followed by 5 from 24.
The optimists will point to the lofty 7th, ahead of expectations. The pessimists will highlight that the "inevitable" decline has begun. The "wait and sees" are just waiting to see what happens in the 2nd half, just as the transfer window reopens.
Supporters will no doubt note that the nominal transfer fees during the summer show the club as breaking even. This might not be the case with cash flows, fees for incoming players paid up front, uncertainty over whether instalments have been allowed for outgoings. It is known, however, that the bulk of the Carroll fee (plus interest according to the Mirror`s report on Llambias) was paid up front.
News stories doing the rounds suggest that Pardew will be allowed to spend around 25% of the Carroll money, which is being kept in the club allegedly. The Maiga deal is dead, having failed the sort of medical that Ba, Marveaux, Gosling and others have sailed through despite injury ridden pasts.
Defensive cover is apparently the priority in the transfer window. With 4 right footed full backs and no left footed ones, he may have scope for dealing. The powder from the Carroll sale is still dry and, according to reports, his replacement will not be a panic buy - an 18 month wait could prove that to be the case, or prove to be utter folly.
Pardew still insists that a European challenge is on the cards. After almost relegating West Ham, relegating Charlton and being within a stone`s throw of another relegation at the Valley, he has much to prove after consecutive sackings.
In the meantime, Stoke are resurgent and within a point of the possible 7th European place. Moyes has yet again masterminded an Everton revival. The experienced O`Neill, Jol and Hodgson have got their teams back on track. Newcomers at Norwich and Swansea are starting to make their marks, skid marks for Newcastle in recent games.
Ba and Tiote are off to the African Cup of Nations. Steve Taylor is out for the rest of the season.
Survival is surely almost guaranteed. The transfer window will provide a clue as to how ambitious Ashley and Llambias are for the club. Will Pardew be right about Europe and are the management ambitious? Has Pardew learned from previous mistakes? Perhaps we shall just have to wait and see.