It’s been another eventful season on Tyneside.
Results have ranged from the sublime (a 5-1 Tyne & Wear derby victory over Sunderland), to the ridiculous (losing 3-1 to lowly Stevenage in the FA Cup), to the sublime and ridiculous (February’s 4-4 comeback draw against Arsenal). Newcastle fans have had plenty of reasons to cheer this season, and you’d be hard pressed to find any serious complaints about their all-round performances.
Things haven’t been so smooth behind the scenes, but Newcastle have done well to take the departures of Chris Hughton and Andy Carroll in their stride. Goals may be harder to come by without Carroll, but results have hardly waned since Hughton departed and the St. James’ Park side are still 10th in the league.
Such continued success has stirred whispers of something unthinkable at the start of the season. Manager Alan Pardew has recently spoken positively of his side’s chances of European qualification, and with good reason. Though just five points from the relegation zone, Newcastle are only four from a Europa League place.
While qualification is almost certainly too lofty a goal for Newcastle this year, it must be seen as a realistic goal for the next couple of seasons. Solid performances in their nine remaining games will provide the Magpies with an excellent platform to build on, but ensuring a European return will be far from easy.
Newcastle haven’t competed in Europe since the 2006-7, but there are a few things Ashley, Pardew and Co. can do to get back among the elite. Here they are.
One downside of being a newly promoted side enjoying success in the Premier League is the increased interest in your prized assets. Wealthier clubs hover like vultures ready to tempt your star performers away from you with the promise of a higher wage and a bigger stage.
Newcastle discovered this the hard way with Andy Carroll’s £35m transfer to Liverpool in January, and there’ll surely be no shortage of potential suitors for their other key players when the summer window opens. Standout holding midfielder Cheick Tiote shouldn’t be going anywhere after recently signing a new six-and-a-half year deal, but the Magpies may face an uphill battle to hang onto the likes of Jose Enrique and Joey Barton.
Enrique has developed into one of the league’s finest attacking left-backs and his reluctance to sign a new contract “until Newcastle are safe” will hardly reassure the North-East club. Liverpool may see the talented Spaniard as the solution to their long-standing left-back problems, and it’s hard to imagine Enrique staying if such a bid is made.
Barton is another player who’s future has been questioned after stalling contract talks. The former Man City badboy has signalled his intent to remain with Newcastle until the end of his career, but may need to move on if new terms can’t be agreed upon.
Newcastle have soldiered-on without Carroll, but performances would slump badly if the squad is cherry-picked. Barton and Enrique have played a big part in Newcastle's form this season, captain Kevin Nolan has been in excellent form, and Danny Simpson has improved leaps and bounds. These players (and possibly more) may be the subject of bids this summer, but Newcastle must retain them.
It’s hard to imagine Newcastle succeeding without these players, and replacing them would cost millions. Stability is an essential component of a successful team, and that’s what makes extended contracts for the likes of Jose Enrique the most important signings Newcastle can make this summer.
£35m may not be as valuable in today’s market as it was a decade ago, but it’s more than enough to revitalise Newcastle’s squad this summer. The current group of players have probably taken Newcastle as far as they can, but the Magpies must be careful. Relegation in 2008-9 was the result of many factors, and spending too liberally on the wrong individuals was definitely one of them.
The first XI is solid but lacking in pace and ingenuity. Hatem Ben Arfa’s return will help immensely, but a pedestrian frontline and a plodding group of centre-backs will still need attention. The squad also lacks depth. Newcastle have coped with Andy Carroll’s departure well, but they’ve struggled badly when Tiote and Barton have been absent.
Last season the Newcastle board drew up a budget that, if strictly adhered to, should see the club break even within five years. The last few years of the Ashley Era have been characterised by financial sensibility, and it’d hardly be a shock if Ashley and Derek Llambias decided against investing in the playing squad.
You can hardly blame the board for austerity in an era of financial uncertainty, but there’s no way they could have budgeted for such a huge windfall. Selling Carroll to Liverpool has presented Newcastle with the chance to improve areas of their squad that may have been neglected otherwise. It’d be foolish of Ashley and Llambias to abandon their budget, but it’d be even more foolish to let this opportunity slide.
Leon Best, Shola Ameobi, Peter Lovenkrands, Nile Ranger.
Not exactly a list of names to strike fear into opposition hearts, is it?
In fairness, Leon Best has grabbed his opportunity with both hands. Transfer-listed in autumn and goalless since signing from Coventry in January 2010, few gave Best a chance when he was named in the XI to face West Ham on January 5th. Best blew 12 months of criticism away with a well-taken hat-trick.
With six goals to his name since the turn of the year, Best has gone from an apparent no-hoper to an effective goal-sniffer. He's earned his starting place, although few will see him as a long-term answer.
Shola Ameobi is the ultimate confidence player. Strong, sturdy and a cool finisher when the mood takes him, Ameobi's incompetent, error-prone side shows up too often for him to ever be anything more than a squad player. Lovenkrands' heart is commendable, but age is robbing him of his once-terrifying pace and he offers little in the way of link-up play. Ranger, meanwhile, is still too raw and unpolished to be relied on at this level.
Newcastle haven't exactly suffered a goal-drought since Carroll left, but they attack limply with one of the weakest group of strikers in the league. They have capable finishers, players who'll take the chances they're given, but lack the aerial prowess or pace to shoot them up the league.
The bulk of Liverpool's £35m must be spent on at least one new striker. If Pardew, as he's suggested lately, intends on playing Hatem Ben Arfa behind a lone striker then the manager must look for a direct replacement for Andy Carroll: A strong, towering forward with the ability to win headers and hold-up the ball.
A pacey, athletic forward to complement the target man would completely transform Newcastle's attacking play, but a second striker is unlikely to be signed without someone else leaving.
A strong starting XI aside, Newcastle’s squad is full of holes. A poor disciplinary record and terrible luck with injuries has meant the Toon have often been without key players for weeks at a time, and results have suffered. Simply put, Newcastle lack players of sufficient quality to step-up when their starters are missing.
James Perch has been disastrous when he’s played for NUFC this season, yet the Magpies rely on him for cover when Danny Simpson and Jose Enrique (the squad’s only natural fullbacks) are out.
Alan Smith has plenty of experience and plays with blood and thunder, but injuries have made him a liability at this level. He has looked nothing more than pedestrian when filling in for Cheick Tiote this season.
Wayne Routledge never looked comfortable in the Premier League and was shipped out on loan to QPR in January. Danny Guthrie has looked frail in his fleeting appearances, and Nile Ranger still has a lot of work to do. Youngsters Shane Ferguson and Haris Vuckic have shown promise, but both could benefit from loan spells elsewhere.
Adding a few bodies to the squad would alleviate the pressure caused by injury and suspension. Having two or three reliable bench players to call on will help avoid downturns in form and help Newcastle maintain consistency throughout the long season.
Alan Pardew became the sixth permanent Newcastle manager of the Mike Ashley Era when he took the reins last December. Sam Allardyce, Kevin Keegan, Joe Kinnear, Alan Shearer and Chris Hughton have all held the position since Ashley’s takeover. Only one of them, Hughton, lasted longer than a year.
Mike Ashley’s inability to retain a manager is almost comical. Allardyce was a previous regime’s appointment and Kinnear left for health reasons—their departures were understandable. The others? Less so.
Keegan returned to Newcastle on a wave of hype in January 2008 but left before the year's end, claiming he was undermined by Ashley and Dennis Wise (Newcastle's Director of Football at the time). Shearer was never invited back for the contract talks he was promised after the 2008-9 season. Championship-winning Hughton was let go last December and replaced by Alan Pardew, a move that makes as little sense today is it did then.
A manager cannot be expected to accomplish his employer's goals unless he is given enough time to do so. Pardew is no different. Though an unpopular appointment, Pardew has hardly disgraced himself and Newcastle's results haven't been terrible since his arrival. His track record suggests that he's probably not the man who's going to lead Newcastle back to Europe, but how will we ever know if he isn't given a chance?
Ashley must have patience with his managers. He must give them the time and resources they need to succeed, then sit back and let them do their job without interruption. Pardew must be allowed to add to his squad this summer and build a team of his own. If form takes a dip, Ashley must stick by his man and give him a chance to turn it around. If it doesn't work then fine, replace him and move on.
This is by far the greatest obstacle to Newcastle's long-term success, and one that must be overcome before the Magpies can challenge for a Europa League place. Ashley's track record doesn't bode well for Pardew, but Newcastle's owner must abandon this trigger-happy approach if the Magpies are to return to former glories under his ownership. Hopefully, for the Toon Army's sake, he does the right thing.