Chris Hughton, Kevin Nolan and Newcastle United's Roller Coaster Season
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The saying “life’s never boring on Tyneside,” has been repeated so often over the years that it’s become cliché.
Newcastle United’s fortunes have fluctuated like few other clubs since the Premier League’s inception. From the halcyon days of Kevin Keegan’s “Entertainers,” to Ruud Gullit’s ill-fated attempt at introducing “sexy football” to the Geordie faithful.
From top five finishes and Champion’s League runs under Sir Bobby Robson to the debacle that was the 2008-9 relegation season. Newcastle’s recent history is one of peaks and troughs, of stunning highs and devastating lows.
An opening day thrashing at Manchester United, a 6-0 demolition of Aston Villa, Hatem Ben Arfa’s potentially season-ending injury, a stunning trouncing of rivals Sunderland, the emergence (and subsequent sale) of a new local hero and the sacking of an admired and respected manager. Currently ninth in the Premier League, Newcastle’s season has seen it all.
Disappointment has often swirled behind the scenes at St. James’ Park this season. Chris Hughton had become a heroic figure among Newcastle fans before his December 6th sacking. He’d brought the team back into the Premier League at the first time of asking and re-established the Toon as a solid top-tier outfit. Owner Mike Ashley’s decision to relieve him of his duties makes as little sense today as it did then.
Similar is the departure of Andy Carroll. Newcastle may have pocketed a cool £35m from the Gateshead-born England cap’s sale to Liverpool, but this will not compensate for their loss. The Ashley era’s track record of transfer window austerity suggests that this sum is unlikely to be reinvested in the playing squad. Carroll—who’s notched 11 goals this season—will need to be replaced. Whether this actually happens, remains to be seen.
Such blows should’ve destroyed the Toon’s season, but the departures of Hughton and Carroll have barely swayed Newcastle. Alan Pardew hit the ground running with a 3-1 victory over Liverpool in his first game in charge and the team have maintained a credible record ever since. The Magpies now sit on 35 points and are closer to Europa League qualification than relegation.
Pardew’s impact is difficult to gauge. Performances have been as good as could be expected (a dismal 1-0 defeat at Fulham aside) and the club’s league position has barely fluctuated since Hughton’s dismissal. Tactically, the former West Ham and Reading boss has changed very little.
Pardew should be given credit for maintaining respectable results, but Chris Hughton forged the system they play and the tremendous team spirit they enjoy. Pardew has done little wrong in this department, but, given that Newcastle’s form has remained consistent, it is almost impossible to tell if recent success have more to do with Chris Hughton’s system than Alan Pardew’s intervention. Some fans will no doubt dislike his lack of tact and media-handling skills, but it’ll likely be the end of the season before the Pardew effect can truly be judged.
Much of the credit for Newcastle’s success this season must also go to the players. New signing Cheick Tiote has been one of the league’s standout performers. Signed from FC Twente in the Summer, Tiote’s grit and tenacity, paired with his comfort on the ball and excellent range of passing, have shored-up Newcastle’s midfield. The Toon have not possessed a holding player of such quality since Dietmar Hamann and Tiote will no doubt be a man in-demand when the window opens.
Several players are enjoying career renaissances. Joey Barton is playing the best football of the career as a wide midfielder and there have even been whispers of an England recall for the controversial Scouser.
Leon Best has stood up after a dismal start to his Newcastle career and now has five Premier League goals in just six starts. Even Fabricio Coloccini, frequently derided for his frailties during his first season in England, has turned himself around and formed a solid ball-winner/destroyer partnership with fellow defender Mike Williamson.
Almost all of the Toon’s players have performed admirably, but none of them epitomise the club’s Premier League revival quite like Kevin Nolan.
An unpopular signing during Newcastle’s relegation season and often slated for his lethargy and sluggishness, the grim realisation of relegation has seemingly transformed the former Bolton man.
Playing alongside Tiote has allowed Nolan to play a more adventurous role in midfield and his uncanny knack of ghosting into the penalty area at just the right time has helped him score 10 goals this season. His lack of natural fitness still holds him back, but the Newcastle captain has had little trouble bringing his excellent Championship form into the Premiership.
A chest-thumping, badge-kissing character with the passion and vigour of 10 men, Nolan is the perfect embodiment of Newcastle United’s season. His leadership has played a big part in the gradual restoration of the Toon’s team spirit. Even the appointment of club legend Alan Shearer failed the raise the spirits of a demoralised Newcastle team in 2009. Mercenaries like Michael Owen and Nicky Butt were showing up for their paycheques alone.
Now there are no such passengers. Watch any Newcastle game and you will see 11 men giving nothing less than 100 percent. They graft, they battle and they work for one another—it’s hard to believe that many of these players were on the squad that took the Toon down in the first place.
Hatem Ben Arfa aside, Newcastle United are not a team blessed with outstanding technicians. Their success this season has been built on the foundations laid by Chris Hughton and it is because of their excellent team spirit that they have been able to overcome their misfortunes. Alan Pardew’s contribution should not be undermined, but it will be difficult to assess his true impact until later in the year.
What lies ahead is uncertain. Mike Ashley may just be tempted to cash-in on the likes of Jose Enrique after receiving £35m for Carroll, and they may still taste relegation this season. On the pitch, the team are enjoying their steadiest spell in years, but off of it—well, who knows what Mike Ashley will do next?
“Life’s never boring on Tyneside.” The old adage has never rung truer.
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