Aside from the arrival of Manchester City on the scene, the top end of the Premiership table looks just like any other season. United and Chelsea are there, chased by Arsenal, Liverpool and Tottenham. Except 3rd place. 3rd place is occupied by Newcastle United. Yes, Newcastle United. The much maligned Toon Army are hitting heady heights not seen since the days of Bobby Robson and yet chairman Mike Ashley has come in for more criticism than an episode of Top Gear. His failure to sell the club resulted in widespread dismay back in 2009, dismay that rapidly turned to anger when he sacked Chris Hughton in December 2010 despite his sterling efforts in guiding the club back into the top flight after the relegation that had threatened to engulf the club in permanent crisis. Such anger then intensified dramatically thanks to his decision to appoint Alan Pardew on a 5 and ½ year contract, amidst rumours of a close personal friendship. Indeed, Sky Sports reported that of 40,000 fans taking part in a poll on who should become the next manager, Pardew only received the backing of 5.5% of voters. Such figures should be taken with a pinch of salt however, bear in mind these are the same fans that doubted Hughton’s ability to guide the club to promotion, take Frank Gilmore, the former chairman of the Independent Newcastle United Supporters’ Association, who described Hughton’s appointment as “the worst decision Mike Ashley’s ever made…Chris Hughton’s a lovely man but he’s no football manager.”
So has lightning struck twice? Are those oh-so-loyal Geordies wrong to consistently slate the man who has become a figure of hate at St James’ Park? Although it is early to tell, early evidence suggests this could be the case. Whilst criticisms of the club’s summer transfer policy can be easily justified, anyone who loses players of the quality of Barton, Nolan or Jose Enrique deserves questioning; this only serves to strengthen the argument on what a good job Pardew is doing. His astute replacements for such talent needs to be praised, indeed Yohan Cabaye looks an absolute snip at £4million and his partnership with Cheik Tiote is rivalling some of the Premiership’s top midfields. Demba Ba is now proving his worth after a slow start, bagging 8 goals so far, a figure that potentially makes him the best free transfer of the summer. He is making the £35million taken for Andy Carroll look better and better business by the day. Though Carroll is doing a fair job of that himself. Davide Santon, although currently out injured, could well be a hit in the future while the punt taken on Gabriel Obertan is worth the risk at just £3million. Pardew also needs complimenting on the decision to install Tim Krul as his Number 1, even allowing veteran substitute Steve Harper out on loan to Brighton given the top form of the Dutchman. He has been backed up by the boys in front of him, Coloccini is looking more like the Argentinian international he once was, aptly supported by Steven Taylor, himself finally living up to the hype that has proved such a burden for the local lad. Players like Shola Ameobi and Ryan Taylor are no headline grabbers, but do a worthy job for their side and Jonas Gutierrez provides the touch of class expected from a man nicknamed ‘Spiderman.’
So what of their form? Newcastle remain unbeaten, having won 3 and drawn 2 both at home and away. This will please supporters as while St James’ Park is expected to be a fortress given the wall of noise created by 52,000 people, the Toon Army often struggle on the road. Admittedly results have come against mediocre opposition, facing just Tottenham and Arsenal out of the so-called big boys, but as the cliché goes, you can only beat what is put out in front of you. A testing set of fixtures approaches, where they face Everton, City, United and Chelsea in their next four matches, a spell that is sure to test their credentials of a European finish. Is it sustainable? Well, only time can tell. If injuries strike key areas of their squad, testing times could be ahead, but whilst the team remains united, something that looks more likely given the departure of certain larger egos amongst the playing staff, there is a chance Newcastle can keep up the pressure on the Top 4. St James’ Park is never an easy place to travel too as the passionate Geordie support always provides the proverbial 12th man. A solid January transfer window, with a few clever additions similar to those made in the summer and the Toon Army can possibly begin to dream of Europe again, or even better, the Keegan and Shearer days of challenging for major honours. Or it will all come crashing down, Ashley will sack Pardew and appoint a double team of Gareth Southgate and Steve McLaren on 25 year contracts and Newcastle will slide back towards the Championship. That’s the beauty for the Black and White supporters, who knows what will happen next.