Mystery. It is a funny sort of quality for a successful football team, but mystery has been the story of Newcastle United’s season. Opponents have turned up at St James’ Park, been brushed aside and supporters have been left wondering precisely how it happened.
If you asked fans to nominate their player of the year, there would be a long list of candidates. Steve Harper has been brilliant in goal but not hugely overworked. Jose Enrique and Fabricio Coloccini have been solid in defence, Kevin Nolan has scored a lot of goals, but then so, too, have Andy Carroll and Peter Lovenkrands whilst Jonas Gutierrez has added something different to the side, and no it’s not Spiderman.
That collective spirit has been epitomised by Chris Hughton. The Newcastle manager has been a credit since stepping into a role he was initially uncomfortable filling, but he gives so little away in public that it is impossible to say precisely what makes him tick. Among the club’s hierarchy, there have been fewer gaffes than previously, fewer arrogant pronouncements.
After all those years of self-inflicted mishap, it has been precisely what Newcastle have needed; no controversy, few negative headlines and an opportunity to remodel themselves away from the glare of publicity. Team spirit, rarely a feature of life on Tyneside, has been key; it is something the players and management have talked up repeatedly.
That has been their story, but Newcastle cannot escape history, however much they might wish to. Any incident in training, on the pitch, in the city, offers an opportunity to dredge up memories of Joey Barton, Kieron Dyer and Lee Bowyer, Craig Bellamy and countless others. However much they might have moved on, they once again become ‘fight club’, ‘loony Toons’ and all those other clichés.
With one punch from Andy Carroll and one broken jaw for Steven Taylor, their mystery has been blown. It is unfair on loyal supporters who have stuck with their team through the tough times and on those players who have knuckled down and restored their reputations. It is also a test of their spirit. Every challenge which has presented itself has, thus far, been tackled manfully, but from here on in, every movement will be scrutinised.
The dispute between Carroll and Steven Taylor, however grubby and unpleasant, is not representative of Newcastle. It is representative of all the old things – too much, too young, ego, self-importance and money –they cannot escape their history, but what they can do is shape their own future.
Another example of how close footballers tread the fine line between composure and over exuberance arrived last weekend when Reading defender Matt Mills reacted angrily towards his own fans which was a disgrace. Supporters pay their hard earned money to travel across the length of the country to watch their beloved team and therefore have a right to voice their opinions.
I can understand players when they say ‘we’re only doing our best’ but sometimes their best is not good enough. They should not take their frustration out on their own fans; they are professional footballers who get paid thousands of pounds of week. They should learn to deal with the criticism and get on with the game.
Pleasingly, Mills accepted that he was in the wrong for the way he reacted and his apology to the Reading fans sounds like it was well received. But if more poor performances were to emerge, then I’m sure Reading’s fans will not hesitate in voicing their frustration once again.