Upon his arrival as Newcastle United’s manager at the end of 2010, Alan Pardew described the Magpies as “a massive club, one of the top five in the country”. His missive echoed the unbreakable belief among the team’s supporters that they are capable of reproducing their form of the mid-1990s, when, under Kevin Keegan, they battled with Manchester United for the Premier League title.
Pardew was no doubt aware that such a rallying call would resonate with a fan base which expects the best. For a team that participated in the latter stages of the UEFA Champions League as recently as 2003, that has a staunchly loyal following in a city obsessed with football, and a 52,000-seater stadium to house those fans, lofty ambitions are easily understood.
Finally winning the fans
But it would be fair to say that Pardew was not the most popular man on Tyneside back in January. Having replaced fans’ favourite Chris Hughton, who led the team back to the top flight following their relegation in 2009, the previous month, Pardew was then privy to the decision to sell the club’s star No9, local lad Andy Carroll, to Liverpool for a British record transfer fee of £35m.
As first impressions go, it was a difficult period for the former West Ham United manager, who faced a seemingly mountainous challenge to win over the Toon Army, as the Newcastle faithful is known. The fans were not only angered by the deadline day departure of Carroll, who had scored 11 league goals at that point, but frustrated by the failure to reinvest the enormous fee in strengthening a squad suddenly lacking options in attack.
Fast-forward eight months, however, and the Magpies have made an unbeaten start to their Premier League campaign and currently sit fourth in the table – back, at least temporarily, in Champions League contention – following a summer transfer window in which the club adopted a prudent policy of buying young players with potential. As the signings steadily arrived, that recruitment drive developed a distinctly French flavour.
With Hatem Ben Arfa back from injury and now a permanent squad member at St James’ Park after an initial loan move, a trio of Frenchmen joined the ex-Marseille playmaker during the close season: winger Sylvain Marveaux on a free transfer from Rennes, the talented Gabriel Obertan from Manchester United, and combative midfielder Yohan Cabaye from 2010/11 Ligue 1 champions Lille.
Pardew also moved to add a touch of quality to his selection with two astute purchases. Senegalese striker Demba Ba – so impressive in his first season in England during 2010/11, scoring seven goals despite West Ham United’s relegation – and highly-rated young fullback Davide Santon, previously of Inter Milan and once described by Jose Mourinho as a “phenomenon”, both completed switches to Newcastle.
It was not all plain sailing before the transfer window closed, though, as central midfielders Kevin Nolan and Joey Barton, both integral parts of the team which consolidated their Premier League position last season, departed for West Ham and Queens Park Rangers respectively, while Liverpool returned to the north-east again to pluck improving Spanish left-back Jose Enrique from the Magpies’ squad.
Nevertheless, the new-look Newcastle side appears to be better for the changes, with an ethic of teamwork and organisation a crucial factor in their success. Having often depended on individuals in the past, the goals of club legend Alan Shearer for example, United are now very much a team, which was borne out by gritty performances away from home against Wearside rivals Sunderland and top-ten contenders Aston Villa.
Cabaye, in particular, has made a significant early impression alongside Cheik Tiote in midfield, filling the hole left by Nolan and Barton to good effect, thereby securing a positive rapport with the fans very early in his career on Tyneside. Pardew told the club’s website recently: “He plays the game in a manner that, if you're a football fan, you will love him. And Newcastle fans are going to love this guy.”
Best among the goals
Perhaps the most pleasing element of Newcastle’s positive start has been the form of Republic of Ireland striker Leon Best, who has taken advantage of Carroll’s departure to bag three goals so far this season and earn himself a regular starting berth in a position which remains up for grabs. Pardew said: "Leon has great belief in himself. He gets a start, he gets a goal, and he keeps the shirt - it's as simple as that in my book.”
It is that simplistic approach which has paid off so handsomely for Pardew and his side so far this season. While the strength of the Premier League’s biggest sides presents a tough obstacle to the Magpies reaching the top five again, the Toon Army will certainly believe they can improve on their 12th-placed finish last year, and will dream that a touch of déjà vu could see them achieve even more.