Alan Pardew’s team selection for the League Cup tie against Nottingham Forest was widely considered a gamble. All but 2 of the previous Saturday’s starters were rested and though 3 or 4 of those that came in could consider themselves in genuine first-team contention, that’s still half a team that could not. It would be a huge success for Pardew to lead Newcastle on a good cup run. Even reaching the semi-final would improve his standing immensely. Actually winning it would cement growing respect for him and give him a free ride on Tyneside virtually indefinitely. So this wasn’t some lacklustre selection, half-hoping for defeat. Pardew wanted to win in this, the competition giving the best puncher’s chance of success, but he also wanted a fresh side on Saturday against Blackburn to maintain the good start in the league. It very nearly didn’t come off, having been ahead 3 times already and then been pegged back each time, it took a late goal as extra time came to a close to finally win the game.
The scoreline and the way it was achieved last night raised the spectre of the Entertainers tag. Attacking potency married to porous defence is the way Newcastle played in the mid-90s in popular memory though a cursory glance at league tables of the time shows that Newcastle topped the goals for column only once in that period, similarly also having one of the top 5 or 6 defences throughout. Still, prepare for reports of thrill-seeking purists among Newcastle fans regretting only that last night’s result wasn’t the high-scoring defeat which folklore insists they prefer. To fit the preposterous stereotype we should all be hoping that before the low-scoring points gathering inflicted on us by Pardew so far actually comes close to winning something we can tweak our tactics so we lose some high-scoring games instead. If “We’d rather lose 4-3 than win 1-0” was ever said by any Magpie it will have been as a particularly brainless response to the equally witless supposed banter of “Ha ha – you lost again!”
It’s early days for the season of course, and it would be very easy for early promise to wither and die in the face of adversity. The signs are that there is some new talent and technique in the squad, along with much-needed pace and athleticism. As happy a memory as the Keegan years were, it’s good to see a well-drilled team basing whatever success they achieve on solidity and being difficult to beat. It’s easy to mock but an effective and desirable string to any team’s bow. Maybe as new players gel the expansiveness will come.
Some might say that defeating a side in the bottom 3 of the Championship is to be expected, not celebrated. It says something about how far Newcastle have come since March 2010, when they were pushed to the limits by Forest for a home victory which pretty much decided promotion, that they were able to field a second string against them this time and still control and win the game. Though defensive frailty meant the result was never as comfortable as it might have been, and Forest are having a tough time under new manager Steve McLaren, the divergence of the two clubs is cause for celebration from Newcastle’s point of view.
Perhaps the closeness of the victory against Forest also signifies the greater success. Had he chosen a stronger side and won the game more easily, the suspicion would have been that others could have been rested for the coming Premier League game. The very knife-edge nature of the victory means that Pardew balanced his priorities as well as he possibly could.