If ever a game encapsulated the frustrations of following Newcastle United, it was the New Year’s Day trip to West Bromwich Albion.
Seemingly secure at 0-0 after a comfortable first-half, the Magpies stumbled, stuttered and eventually fell to a team that hadn’t won in their last nine Premier League fixtures.
This, it would seem, is the story of the Toon’s season so far—a succession of good results, such as their recent run of seven wins in nine games, punctured by infuriating lapses against teams below them.
Losses to Hull City, Sunderland, Swansea and now the Baggies have halted what would otherwise have been an all-out assault on the top four, with the Geordies now six points adrift of the Champions League places.
But remove these blunders from their calendar and Alan Pardew’s men have made great strides in England’s top-flight after flirting with relegation for much of last term.
An ability to clump together a string of positive results saw them rise as high as fifth at the end of November, and a top-half finish looks to be the least of their ambitions.
Individually, stock has risen and fallen on the pitch, with Yohan Cabaye, Cheick Tiote and Loic Remy all proving their worth on a regular basis.
The likes of Yoan Gouffran, Moussa Sissoko and Mike Williamson have also become integral cogs in the Newcastle machine, while Vurnon Anita can count himself unlucky not to have enjoyed more game time.
Mathieu Debuchy has improved dramatically despite his reckless red card at the Hawthorns, while Tim Krul’s record-breaking heroics at White Hart Lane—where he made 14 saves to keep Spurs at bay—will remain one of 2013’s enduring memories.
Remy aside, however, United’s strike force has failed to ignite. Papiss Cisse has suffered a season to forget so far, watching much of his team’s successes from the bench and registering just one league goal.
Shola Ameobi, who has been preferred ahead of the Senegalese striker in recent months, is yet to notch a single strike in 14 top-flight appearances, while Hatem Ben Arfa remains an enigma, thrilling and maddening in equal measure.
Pardew himself can hold his head high for the most part. His tactics were rightly lauded following the Toon’s first win at Manchester United in 41 years, as they were after victory over Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea a month earlier.
With some big fixtures on the horizon, such as home games with Manchester City and arch rivals Sunderland, United’s ability to maintain their current position will come under intense scrutiny.
But if Pardew can oversee another run such as the one that landed him the Manager of the Month award for November, his team’s aspirations could yet rise once more as the campaign wears on.