Seemingly unable to evade the shadow of his infamous England umbrella, question marks have lingered over the head of the former Middlesbrough boss ever since he took the reins at St. James’ Park in the summer – even more so as the Magpies picked up just ten points from their first 14 games in the Premier League.
One of the biggest criticisms thrown his way has centred around man-management and his ability to motivate. The players have often looked lifeless, apathetic and disillusioned this term and the idea that McClaren is more a coach than a manager harks back to his dreaded England days.
But where others saw ineffectual football I saw counter-intuitive progress. McClaren took the squad back to basics at the start of the season to try and reinvent a side that had suffered from an absence of leadership and identity for far too long. It wasn’t exactly pretty but one way or another, it was essential to add the consistency to Newcastle’s game only organisation and resilience can bring, to stop the polarised patches of form that perpetually plagued them under Alan Pardew.
That’s no easy feat when you’re working with a porous backline and a lack of dependable firepower, but the Magpies have already claimed half as many clean sheets and draws as last season in just 16 games, despite going winless for their first eight.
Successive defeats to Leicester City and Crystal Palace, incurring an aggregate scoreline of 8-1, suggested the wheels were falling off before McClaren had even got the Toon back on the road. Yet Sunday’s result proved not only that Newcastle are moving in the right direction, but that McClaren’s methods are providing the players with the spirit, determination and grit they’ve lacked over the last few years.
Make no mistake about the significance of Sunday’s game. This was Newcastle’s first consecutive victory in over a year, their first victory against top five opposition in over a year and most importantly of all, their first win from a losing position since a 3-2 comeback against Everton last December.
It’s the manner of the result McClaren can draw the biggest positives from. On one of the only occasions I can remember, Newcastle went from looking doomed to defeat in twenty minutes to indisputably deserving all three points by the end – epitomised by Ayoze Perez claiming the winner with virtually the last kick of the game. It wasn’t the prettiest goal, squeezing past an astounded Hugo Lloris, but it was pushed into the net by Newcastle’s sheer will and was justified fortune for their miraculous turnaround in the second half.
Tottenham, likewise, are no easy customers. They hadn’t lost since the opening day of the season, had the best defensive record in the league and had conceded more than once on just two occasions before last weekend. They’re also famed for late winners under Pochettino, so for Newcastle to force them into a change of roles is really something.
There was no great secret, no miraculous formula of noughts and crosses on the tactics board, involved either. It was simply Newcastle’s players rolling their sleeves up instead of letting their heads slip down. The fact both of the Magpies’ goals came from substitutes disappointed to find themselves out of the starting line-up was testament to that, as well as what was reportedly quite an animated dressing room scene at half time.
“Half-time was a big test for this team,” McClaren revealed post-match. “We’ve come in at half-time before and the dressing room has been quiet and disappointed, but it was so vocal here. There was such a determination among the players not to lead down the normal path of losing the game. The response in the second half was fantastic. There was so much going on in there – Robbie Elliot, Fabricio Coloccini, to be fair, all of them. We couldn’t shut them up, and they took it on board. That’s the pleasing thing for me.”
That doesn’t sound like the response from a group of players struggling to find motivation under their manager – in fact, quite the opposite – and I’m sure Newcastle fans will be delighted with that reaction; a sign that the players are taking responsibility and pride in their own performances despite repeated accusations otherwise.
And McClaren will hope that the nature of Sunday’s game provides a template for the rest of Newcastle’s season. A very disappointing start and a subsequent long, hard look in the mirror followed by a much more positive and successful end.
Of course, the next challenge is to beat an Aston Villa side fighting for their lives next Saturday. It will be an entirely different game and Newcastle won’t be able to rely on simply holding shape until chances materialise on the break, as they have done to great success against the Premier League’s bigger clubs this season.
But results like Sunday’s give the Magpies the confidence to play more positive football and McClaren will be well aware that victory essentially kills off any chances of a great escape at Villa Park – one less club to think about in the Premier League’s relegation race.
A third consecutive victory, after all the accusations thrown Newcastle’s way during the first few months of the season, would be a massive achievement for a side McClaren is rebuilding from the ground up.