Even by Newcastle’s standards, the season gone has been one of unfathomable strangeness. Winning games you’d think we’d lose, losing games you’d hope to win, destroying sides you’d expect a difficult game from, and an unprompted managerial sacking, the whole season has been an object lesson in the unexpected.
Little cut a middle path between extremes. Fulham at home and Blackburn away were both damp squibs of games, neither team able to impose themselves on the opposition. In a different way, the 5-0 victory at home to West Ham was good and bad at the same time. Good in the sense of a crushing victory while lacking both first choice strikers, but bad in that it is supposed that it’s this game which persuaded Mike Ashley that Andy Carroll not only could be replaced but wasn’t even needed.
The highs were many. Our first home game following an opening day damage limitation exercise at Old Trafford was against Aston Villa. Villa had finished 6th the season before with a team packed full of youth, pace and talent, though they had lost their manager a few days before. Our fans hadn’t forgotten needless gloating at the confirmation of our relegation just over a year previously, so a mixture of apprehension and desire for payback was present at the kick off. Villa were swept aside 6-0 after a couple of early scares. We were back, and maybe the season wasn’t going to be so much of a struggle as we had thought. Our payback was watching the visitors disappearing towards the exits as yet another flew in. No witty banners on show after this one.
Sunderland came to St James’ trumpeting their supposedly all-important North-East top-dog status, and left with Lee Cattermole shedding tears of frustration along with a few fans. In between we’d administered to them their biggest beating on Tyneside since the late 50s courtesy of a hat-trick by our skipper and a fired-up performance from the very first minute. We expected little from our next match away at the Emirates after repeated chasings there over the years. The crossfield delivery from Barton and towering header from Carroll that was our signature pre-February did the trick again here. There was certainly some fortune involved in the subsequent shutout, but without our discipline and tactical setup we would never have held on. Both would serve us well for the rest of the season. Two results qualifying as a season highlight within a week.
Liverpool’s arrival at Gallowgate was preceded by the shock departure of Chris Hughton earlier that week. But whereas in our relegation season off-field turmoil was used as an excuse for yet another unacceptable performance, this season’s squad proved they were made of sterner stuff here. They were good value for a victory against an admittedly out-of-sorts Liverpool. Professional and committed with not just a little talent, maybe we shouldn’t feel the need to comment but those qualities have been in short supply round here in recent years. Pardew’s subs worked too, perhaps he wasn’t merely the stooge we took him for. Ranger’s willingness to pressurise their defenders gave us enough of an advantage to enable us to win the game. Even Alan Smith coming on for Nolan made a certain amount of sense to protect our lead late on. Say I’m living in the past if you like but any victory over Liverpool is unexpected enough to be proud of.
Strength of character quickly became a recurring theme for this squad. Once again, against Arsenal at home, previous line-ups would have shrugged their shoulders and folded. Less than a week earlier morale had suffered a heavy blow with the sale of Andy Carroll, closely followed by depressing defeat and injury to the newly indispensable Shola at Fulham. Then, outclassed by Arsenal in an opening 30 mins which left us 4-0 down, the game was drifting when Diaby reacted to a strong challenge from Barton and was sent off just after half time. Even then, it wasn’t until the last 25 minutes that we pulled one back, courtesy of a Barton penalty. Is it hindsight that gave the unlikely 4-4 result a peculiar inevitability? Certainly I remember it seeming that way very early in the comeback, both crowd and team believing in the possibility at the very least as Arsenal wobbled. Try and diminish the achievement by mentioning the two penalties, the sending off and their disallowed goal and you would fail to do so. For all that these decisions were undeniably in our favour, this wasn’t a case of a referee gifting us a point. In the end it was Arsenal that folded, not us. Without our desire and their fragility this couldn’t have happened and who knows how far our slide might have continued? The Diaby sending off can be said to be the moment our season changed.
Lows were just as thick on the ground. Just after the August transfer window closed we faced Blackpool at home. This was a Blackpool we had dismissed with ease the April before on our glide to promotion, surely little had changed since then? Well, Blackpool’s ambition, quality of passing and movement up front were enough to give us plenty of problems. A foolish challenge gave them a penalty right on half-time which was dispatched by Adam. As we chased the game we managed to pepper their goal at times only to meet a keeper in top form in Matt Gilks. A late breakaway goal doubled their lead, not an entirely undeserved one either. There’s no shame in losing to a side as switched on as Blackpool were that day. Be that as it may, we spurned enough chances to win the game to make this very definitely a missed opportunity.
A couple of weeks later, the theme under Hughton of losing at home to sides we’d hope to finish above developed further. Stoke in contrast to Blackpool were woeful, offering little in coherent play during a first half in which Newcastle eventually took the lead but failed to take advantage in a way which would have put the game out of the vistors’ reach. As time ticked on, Stoke realised that they had nothing to fear and began to hurl the ball into our box at every opportunity. Again there was an inevitability to our collapse, James Perch eventually conceding an own goal and the 3 points after Kenwyne Jones’ equaliser. More depressing by far than the defeat by Blackpool, our own lacklustre showing was barely improved upon by a one-dimensional Stoke. Somehow you don’t mind losing so much when the team you’re playing play well, but fair play to them, we couldn’t handle it. The return fixture at the Britannia Stadium was a comprehensive 4-0 defeat as the same faults from the first game were compounded by another in a series of incompetent performances from Sol Campbell. It’s sad to see a once-great player tarnishing his memory by playing on too long, but it’s even worse to be the one paying his wages as he does it. Though you could understand the idea of playing three centre-halves in this one, Pardew’s tactical plan completely failed. The theme continued with a defeat at home to Blackburn, then still managed by Sam Allardyce. The pain is all in that sentence. Imagine his fat face grinning at you forever.
These days you expect little from a trip to Man City. But even the disappointment towards a refereeing performance which awarded them a non-existent penalty and refused us a certainty in return was overshadowed by the loss of Hatem Ben Arfa for the season thanks to Nigel De Jong. MotD2, who seemed to spend most weekends viewing footage of Joey Barton looking for something to disapprove of, dismissed in a sentence the possibility of a red card. Let me enlighten them here. FIFA’s rule book says nothing about two-footed challenges, nor leaving the ground to make a tackle, both of which are definite reds in the mind of pundits. What the rules do say is that making a tackle with excessive force is what transforms it into a sending off. Even a pack of lazy ignorant sofa-dwelling blatherers can’t argue that didn’t happen.
There were only two real humiliations suffered, the 5-1 defeat at Bolton and the cup exit at Stevenage. Surely beating us doesn’t even count as giant-killing any more? Everyone’s had their turn by now it seems. Both rare examples of the team lying down and accepting their fate without even much of a whimper.
But the major disappointments happened nowhere near a stadium. Chris Hughton’s sacking was both unjustified and a shock. The theory that we would never have kicked on under him is unfair and unsubstantiated. We will never know what would have happened. What is beyond question is that he achieved the targets set for him, and was then sacked anyway. Nothing else has brought home so powerfully how much we are at the mercy of the whims of an ill-informed impetuous autocrat. Pardew then took over, was obviously promised that Andy Carroll wouldn’t leave, and communicated that to the world. When the transfer happened mere weeks later he’d been made to look a fool, a patsy without a say. No replacement arrived, and another season’s hope had its throat cut. Time may yet show these two decisions to be masterstrokes but they were hugely deflating. People have referred to the season as a rollercoaster ride but more accurately it’s been on a waltzer. Less up and down than in a spin and never quite sure where we were.