First and foremost let’s make this Sunday, Stevie Harper Day. The most loyal of loyal Newcastle players signs off after 20 years at Newcastle in what will be his last game. I felt as if the gods were smiling when Elliot was sent off at QPR; knowing that meant Stevie would get his last opportunity for a game between the sticks and fittingly so.
There’s a plan afoot for the whole stadium to stand and applaud in the 37th minute to coincide with the shirt number on Stevie’s back. The match is now going to be live on Sky. So even if you’re watching it at home or in the pub, no matter where you are in the world, stand up and cheer for Stevie. I hope they make him club captain for the day. You can find out more about Stevie’s career on Wikipedia.
No matter what the result on Sunday I hope the team does a lap of the stadium to say “thank you” and the crowd gives it a good round of applause. It’s been a long and painful season. There will be a massive inquiry – but I feel that’s best done when the dust has settled a little so that management and players can reflect, take stock and figure out what to change and do differently for next season.
Before then, methinks we all need a rest as well. The team look tired emotionally and physically. The results overall have been bitterly disappointing. Most Geordies, I know, can tolerate losing if the team have played well and this season I can’t recall a game where Newcastle played well the whole 90 minutes (maybe the 3-0 victory over Bordeaux at home). Most of us are bitterly disappointed and many have rushed to make reactionary judgements. I include myself as well.
I don’t see any point in opining whether Pardew and his coaching staff should stay or go. I simply don’t have all the facts. I don’t know whether there really has been a split in the dressing room. I don’t know what the players feel about the coaching setup. I don’t know the details of conversations between Ashley and Pardew. I don’t know why certain key players have underperformed when we know they can play far better. I also won’t limit my judgement on a player on ‘current form’; that would be fickle.
Summary points of the season going, going but not gone
Despite the huge setback this season has been, ‘we’ have hopefully learned a great deal. It’s not all doom and gloom.
Newcastle, undefeated, collected 5 points from 9 in its last three away games. We have only been severely beaten once away from home (at Man City) since the Brighton FA Cup fiasco in January. And one could argue we deserved more points than we collected – the Wigan and Swansea games spring to mind.
These points were ground out by hard work, organised defending and the return of (and form, in part, by) key players. I have no doubt in my mind that the Newcastle players gave their very best in terms of commitment in these ‘sink or swim’ games. Furthermore, I hearken back to the last twenty minutes of the Fulham game at St James. Sheer willpower won the day. You could sense the determination. Cisse’s last gasp goal was truly deserved.
Despite two most embarrassing home defeats, the team, encouraged by fantastic support and all things considered, fought through any losses in morale, confidence and form, to climb to safety.
Focusing on the QPR game: it wasn’t entertaining. After a nervy start, a goal was gifted to each side. Fortunately Newcastle’s gift (not the deserved penalty) proved to be the winner. But it was a well earned gift. If you study the video and look at the ground Gutierrez made up to put QPR’s goalie, Green, under pressure. There was no way he would catch the ball, but his determination proved no lost cause; allowing Green’s soft clearance to be gently lobbed into the net by Gouffran – good technique btw.
Gutierrez, Gouffran, Simpson, Williamson, Anita and Perch may not be considered the cream of the crop but they didn’t let us down any more than our ‘star’ players in our most shambolic games. I personally criticised Gutierrez, Williamson and Simpson during the early part of the season. I apologize. I am damned pleased they were there when we needed them. These are all honest, hard working professionals (as is Ryan Taylor, wishing him a speedy recovery)who’ve given their best .
Let’s look at the ‘stars’. The brightest star in the final two games was Colocinni. When Colo plays he has this magisterial influence on whoever plays alongside him. Both Willo and Steve Taylor put in much better performances with Colo at the helm. As did Mbiwa, who looked cool and collected in the left back position.
Alas, my own ‘inside contact’ has told me that Colo definitely wants to be with his family which means he will leave Newcastle this summer. We’ll need a mature and upright leader to replace him.
The incoming French contingent burst on to the scene when they first arrived. Sissoko, in particular, played spectacularly for the first month or so. Their form acquiesced a bit and they came under criticism – unfairly I suggest.
Like all overseas’ leagues, Ligue 1 in France is way different to the Premier. Go back in time. It took Nobby Solano three quarters of a season to adjust to the pace of the Premiership. Colo needed a year to find his feet and the drop into the Championship seemed to accelerate the adjustment – as it did for Enrique.
It would be unfair to criticise ‘les Francais nouveaux’ on half a season alone. Sissoko is a superb player – a younger mix of YaYa Toure and Patrick Viera. We perhaps forget he’s only 23 years old. I feel strongly that Sissoko, Mbiwa and Haidara (not forgetting Santon) will all come good if not great, given their tender years. Gouffran and Debuchey are seasoned professionals. We have every right to expect all the newcomers to improve next season.
What about Krul, Tiote, Cabaye and Cisse – the remainder of the backbone of the side? All bar Cisse have suffered from injuries. I’ve written earlier that I suspect Cabaye and Tiote’s heads were turned by agents last summer. Both half-expected to double their wages and play in Champions League sides. When that didn’t happen (thank Ashley!), there were psychological repercussions. Cabaye in particular has already publicised his depression following France’s exit from 2012 which made him “fatigued”.
Tiote, at last, showed a return to form at West Ham. Cisse was stuck out on the wing for the first half of the season – so I don’t blame him for a drop in form. When fed he scores. If linespeople could keep up with him he’d have 6 more goals to his legitimate tally this season.
Krul is by far the best goalie we’ve had since Shay Given in his hay day and will hopefully return to his best after the summer’s rest – which all need desperately.
That leaves us with the star come nebula come star again, Hatem Ben Arfa. He started the season superbly. After another lengthy lay off and two false restarts, he eventually returned. Even at 70% he still makes a big difference to the side. Yes – he’s carrying a few extra pounds, yes – he’s currently half a yard slower but he still scares the living daylights out of defenders.
I’m told he’s a very religious man who spends a lot of time in prayer. I hope he sorts out whatever’s wrong with him, whether it’s quiet contemplation, surgery, rest or hard work – and returns in a black and white shirt next season; Mercury, the fleet footed trickster, the demi-god of showmanship.
Here comes the summer, what can we look forward to?
- Changes to the coaching staff – at the very least
- Colo will leave regrettably.
- The papers will fill their pages with truths, half truths and fantasies about incoming bids for the ‘stars’. I hope sincerely that Ashley sticks out for at least £25M for each of them. They all have 2-3 year contracts to honour. If they ask to leave then that’s another matter.
- We will sign a top striker and top central defender, maybe two of each. In these positions, this is the time to invest in better players than we already have. Demba Ba was not replaced and that cost us dearly.
- We’ll wave a fondish farewell to several players who have not ‘stepped up to the plate’ – young and not so young.
- We’ll continue to rely on Graham Carr to spot youngish players who will appreciate in value.
Closing opinion (despite my earlier comment)
I don’t know whether Alan Pardew can get us back to fifth – which, for me, is where our squad when fully fit could (and with a couple of players – should) be. He’s held his hands up and admitted to mistakes. He says he’s learned. Alex Ferguson did nothing for the first year or so after he joined ManU and came within one game allegedly of getting the sack.
We’ve had six managers in six years under Ashley. Chopping and changing has been needed but has never given us stability. Today we still have a very good squad of players to build on. I haven’t felt that for two years running in over a decade. Should Pardew get another shot? The only reason I’d say “no” is if the players wanted him out.
And plea to the players and staff:
Please treat the FA Cup and League Cup games with the same importance that the fans give them. We want silverware. We deserve silverware. If Wigan can win the FA Cup then so can we. We are as much Newcastle United as you are. We turn up in our thousands, in the cold, rain and snow, regardless of whether we’re near the top or bottom of the league.
Together you/we are the life-force of the Geordie nation. You have our total and committed support, if not love. Please win something for us!
Howay the Lads
Paul C Burr