It’s safe to say that one of the major factors in Newcastle’s relatively comfortable survival last season was the spirit in the side. A core of senior players held the team together at difficult times, and inspired the group as a whole to fight for every ball. Commitment, organisation and effort had as much to do with the team’s performance as inspiration and talent.
That core of players has largely gone however. Carroll, Nolan and Enrique have been sold, Harper has been sidelined and Smith remains there. Joey Barton has been marginalised and then welcomed back into the fold, for the time being at least. It remains to be seen if he stays beyond the end of the month and though he insists his commitment won’t waver, doubts about his long-term future at the club are bound to affect his standing with other squad members and his ability to influence them. Whether rumours of unrest in the camp are true or not, any internal strife caused by unhappiness over the summer transfers also has to affect team spirit.
The summer’s signings appear to be technically gifted, possibly more so than the players who have departed. The prospect of watching an attractive, passing side in the season ahead should they bed in well is a pleasant one. But tomorrow Newcastle travel the short trip to Sunderland for possibly the most fraught game of the season. The technical ability of those signings may well count for little amid the breakneck intensity of one of Britain’s most keenly contested derbies, unless they have the character to impose themselves on the game. To flourish tomorrow, something approaching last season’s team spirit will be required as a minimum, if Newcastle aren’t to be swept away by a Sunderland side with something to prove following their 5-1 defeat last October.
Worries about weaknesses in certain positions in the squad pale compared to the trouble in store if the new-look side cannot face down the hostility tomorrow and at least stand up to be counted. The performance and result tomorrow will lay down a marker for the rest of the season, one way or the other. A spirited showing can carry on and be something to build upon, one lacking it will be tested again and again through what could then prove a long and difficult nine months.