The Full Premier League Season Preview – Newcastle
For once, during the Premier League’s summer hiatus, there is an usual wave of optimism fluttering around Tyneside following a season that exceeded the wildest expectations of any black and white clad Geordie. For all intents and purposes Newcastle United were the top-flight’s obligatory surprise package last term. Cynically tipped by pundits and rival supporters to suffer the agony of a second relegation in three years the Magpies left their critics tucking into sizeable portions of humble pie finishing comfortably in fifth, ahead of Champions League winners Chelsea may I remind you, and securing a spot in the Europa League just narrowly missing out on a place in Europe’s elite club competition.
Replicating that success will be the main assignment for Alan Pardew and his players in the upcoming campaign as the Magpies ready themselves to diligently juggle their commitments on the domestic front with those on the continent for the first time in six-years. Acclimatising to the Thursday – Sunday routine won’t be plain sailing for a team still desperately thin on the ground in terms of squad depth. But Pardew has proven his credentials as a wise tactician and intuitive man manager during his short spell at St James’ Park guiding Newcastle to a level beyond their wildest dreams in such a short space of time. The bar has been raised. Can they exceed it for a season running?
The summer so far
You could say it’s been somewhat of a mixed bag for Newcastle since last season came to a rather dischanting end at Goodison Park with a 3-1 defeat at Everton. The inevitable trimming of dead wood from his squad didn’t pose too many problems for Alan Pardew with the wage bill slashed by the departures of free agents Alan Smith, Peter Lovenkrands and Danny Guthrie whilst Leon Best was sold to Blackburn for a reportedly handsome fee. Incomings so far have been low-key and largely focused towards boosting a development squad that has been radically overhauled during Mike Ashley’s five-year tenure on Tyneside.
Even so Gael Bigirimana has shone since arriving from Coventry gaining comparisons with Cheick Tiote for his tenacious style in central midfield. There are high hopes for fellow new recruits Curtis Good, signed from Melbourne Heat, and winger Romain Amalfitano following his move from Reims with Pardew hoping his foray into the French market comes up trumps once again. The return of Sammy Ameobi and Haris Vuckic from injury has also provided a welcome boost with both expected to feature heavily in Europe with both catching the eye during pre-season. Vuckic, in particular, has suffered a torrid time with injuries but will be determined to put those behind him and finally make the breakthrough from bit-part reserve to fully bloomed first teamer.
Keeping his blue-chip players at St James’ Park will surely rank as Pardew’s most notable achievement of a window that has been less than kind this year. 12-months ago the Magpies were revelling in the cost-effective captures of Yohan Cabaye, Demba Ba and Davide Santon but have struggled to obtain fresh faces this time round despite utilising the same protocol. The saga surrounding France international Mathieu Debuchy has underpinned Newcastle’s transfer frustration as owner Mike Ashley refuses to bow to the brinksmanship deployed by Lille president Michel Seydoux. One last throw of the dice shouldn’t be ruled out though with Debuchy still making noises about following former teammate Cabaye to the North East. A move for Vurnon Anita holds a certain amount of promise with the Ajax star set to fly in to the North East for a medical after the two clubs agreed a fee. The 23-year-old would unquestionably be a huge asset to Pardew as he can operate in midfield and at left back – something that has sparked up a fervent debate amongst supporters on twitter.
A sensational move to bring Andy Carroll back to his hometown club is still said to be in the pipeline despite Liverpool rejecting Newcastle’s opening bid for the England forward. Twente defender Douglas also remains on Pardew’s radar although complications over his desire to gain Dutch citizenship could scupper any potential deal. And while the squad still appears in good health, aided by the comeback of Steven Taylor and Sylvain Marveaux from long-term injuries, there still remains a lingering fear that it still lacks the necessary depth to compete on four fronts.
Holding onto 16-goal top scorer Ba will also be considered a major triumph as he was widely expected to leave for pastures new with several clubs milling over whether to activate the very public £7.5 million release clause in his contract. It will have as a huge sigh of relief to everyone connected to Newcastle that the 31 July deadline passed without incident with the Senegal strikers potential suitors unwilling to take a risk on him due to his well documented knee condition – something described by Pardew as a ‘deficiency’. With all key personnel retained, for now, bringing in one or two new recruits by the end of August should leave the Toon Army in decent shape for the season ahead.
Leon Best (Blackburn Rovers) Undisclosed
Danny Guthrie (Reading) Free Transfer
Alan Smith (MK Dons) Free Transfer
Peter Lovenkrands (Birmingham City) Free Transfer
Fraser Forster (Celtic) Undisclosed
Romain Amalfitano (Reims) Free Transfer
Gael Bigirimana (Coventry City) Undisclosed
Curtis Good (Melbourne Heat) Undisclosed
What can we expect?
This is certainly a season that Newcastle are looking forward to with renewed optimism and don’t expect them to rest on their laurels as supporters gear up for the excitement of a first European campaign in six-years. Still, they face an unenviable task of managing a schedule that will see them traverse the continents vast plains on a Thursday before dashing back home to honour their domestic responsibilities on Sunday with little time in-between to catch their breath. The physical and psychological burden the Europa League can have on a team has been well documented with Stoke and Fulham noticeably suffering last term.
It’s a fresh challenge that Alan Pardew will no doubt thrive in having displayed his shrewd man management methods in order to maintain a high-level of morale in the dressing room. The players have bought into his ideology of positive reinforcement to cultivate a harmonious environment and it is that which will be of significant importance in the event that the campaign starts going pear shaped.
Burnout also remains a huge threat to the Magpies’ ambitions of breaking into the top-four and Pardew will need to ensure he manages his squad effectively to keep his key personnel fresh and focused on the challenges ahead beyond the torrid Christmas period. A couple of new signings will naturally make his task slightly easier whilst it’s expected that he will give the youth players a chance to shine in the group stages.
Depending on whether Pardew manages to boost the senior side of his squad and devise a perfect squad rotation policy it’s within the realms of possibility that Newcastle can comfortably cope with the pressure of delicately balancing their priorities as they compete for honours on four fronts.
Continued on Page TWO