Friday, April 09, 2010

How promotion was won and where it's got us

With the dust settling on our promotion and the only matter of interest now, over the course of the remaining five fixtures, being whether we can claim the title we richly deserve, it's time to take an opportunity to reflect on how our instant return to the top flight was achieved.

Around this time last year I managed to stop wringing my hands and gnashing my teeth just long enough to put together a lengthy "Where did it all go wrong?" piece. If a week's a long time in politics, then a year is a bloody long time in football. What a pleasure to now be in a position to bookend a season in the Championship with a "Where did it all go right?" piece...

1. Back of the net

To quote from the Garth Crooks school of punditry, goals win games. Last season we really struggled in attack, but this term - albeit aided by more obliging and generous opposition defences - we've scored for fun, particularly in the crucial run-in, hitting the back of the net 79 times to date. Big Lad started off like a player who'd finally found form (and his level), but when he was ruled out through injury Bigger Lad and Peter Lovenkrands stepped into the breach to forge a formidable free-scoring partnership.

What was perhaps most pleasing, though, was that the goal-getting responsibility wasn't shouldered solely by our forwards while others shirked their duties. Kevin Nolan made amends for last season by notching numerous vital strikes, particularly in the autumn, while fellow midfielder Danny Guthrie mucked in and we even got to see Spidermag's mask in celebration.

2. The case for the defence

Of course - as we learned to our cost during King Kev's first managerial reign on Tyneside - goals thumped in at the right end don't necessarily result in success if they're being leaked at an almost equal rate at the wrong end. We had become depressingly familiar with the sight of Shay Given being used for target practice, and a defence about as watertight as ASBO's were he to be up on a charge of being a thoroughly decent and pleasant human being.

Again, we have to concede that this season's record of 20 clean sheets for Steve Harper and just 31 goals conceded is at least partly due to our being faced with more profligate strikeforces than in the Premier League, something that became apparent very early on - but equally the organisation, control and endeavour of our back four shouldn't be downplayed.

3. Class acts

Not only have the players shown consistently good form (rather than the sporadic peaks of quality followed by long troughs of awfulness that we're used to), but genuine class has shone through. Few of us would have shed any tears had Nolan been one of those to depart last summer, barely six months after arriving from Bolton, but he's proven himself in fine fashion, being named as the Championship's top performer.

Runner-up Graham Dorrans aside, you'd be hard pushed to think of another contender from beyond the confines of St James' Park - but within it Fabricio Coloccini, Jose Enrique, Spidermag, Alan Smith and Bigger Lad could I think all lay reasonable claim to the accolade themselves. When our big names have been called upon to perform, they've done so admirably.

4. Football focus

For the most part, there's been a very refreshing sense of cohesion about the squad, with everyone pulling together single-mindedly towards a common goal, namely promotion at the first attempt. Of course, unwelcome and potentially disruptive allegations of internecine fisticuffs have surfaced in recent weeks, but even these failed to distract our attention from completing the all-important task at hand. For once, we've been occupying more column inches at the back of newspapers than at the front.

5. The quiet man

Alan Smith may have traced the fact that the squad has shown such focus back to the player-convened crisis meeting which took place in the wake of the pre-season humiliation at Leyton Orient - but the credit has, I think, to rest just as much with the man at the helm.

Chris Hughton began the season as no one's first choice of manager, but set about conducting himself with astonishing dignity and quiet assurance in unsettling and barely tolerable working conditions. Taking the remnants of our Premier League squad, those who hadn't been cherry-picked by top-flight clubs at home and abroad, he proved to be an alchemist, somehow contriving to forge a side from some pretty base metals that hit the ground running and never really looked back. After our being led by no fewer than four different managers in the disastrous relegation season, Hughton's well-deserved permanent appointment in October brought much-needed stability to the club. For someone, at least, a draught from the poisoned chalice doesn't seem to have been fatal.

6. Right to buy (and sell)

Judicious transfer dealings: like a miserly defence and a low media profile, not something we're exactly renowned for. So it's with pleasure that, despite initial misgivings, I can conclude we were right to ship out the players we did last summer, recouping some cash and slashing the wage bill to more manageable levels. And it's with even greater pleasure that I can reiterate my assessment of our January acquisitions (both permanent and temporary) as astute and timely, evidence of a pragmatic recognition that reinforcements and refreshments were needed.

Hughton and his scouting staff should be commended for identifying and securing the likes of Danny Simpson, Mike Williamson, Leon Best and particularly Wayne Routledge, while (very) grudging credit is also due to Jabba for putting his fat fingers in his pocket to bankroll the purchases.

7. Application, application, application

Perhaps above everything else, though, the fact that our season has ended in smiles and success is down to the application and attitude of the players.

In August, contrary to what many opposition fans would have you believe, we supporters were by and large under no illusions, well aware that we were kicking off in the Championship on merit rather than anything else. Expectations were relatively low, predictions largely pessimistic, the prognosis gloomy. It was widely anticipated - by ourselves as well as others - that the egos of our Big Time Charlies and Fancy Dans might prove depressingly undeflated by relegation, and that arrogance might be our downfall.

So the ensuing and manifest commitment of the players has been something of a revelation. Rather than affecting a haughty superiority, they've treated the Championship with due maturity, seriousness and respect, determinedly meeting (and beating) opponents on their own terms. If scrapping and scraping three points was the order of the day, they rolled up their sleeves and got stuck into it. As Sheffield Utd manager Kevin Blackwell put it in his post-match comments on Monday night: "If you’ve not got balls then you won’t get out of this division. Newcastle have shown they’ve got balls. They deserve to be in the Premier League and it’s a terrific achievement".

Given how dominant and ruthlessly efficient we've been in most matches, complacency has been in surprisingly short supply, tripping us up on only a couple of occasions. Our stay in the Championship has turned out to be brief, but that's precisely because we didn't approach the season arrogantly assuming that that would be the case.


During the vital win over Forest, the TV commentator suggested - with typical exaggeration - that we were "finally awakening from the nightmare". I beg to differ. The nightmare was last season - this season has been a dream, for all the reasons above and more. For the first time in years, Saturdays (or whenever Sky have rescheduled our game for) have actually been something to look forward to.

And of course, now that we've looked back, looking forward is what we're duty-bound to begin doing. Dwell too long on this term's triumph and we'll soon find ourselves in peril - the planning for next season has to start now. Hughton may already have set about dampening expectations, but they really don't need to be around these parts. Those heady days of an Andy Cole-inspired Entertainers taking the top flight by storm are a distant memory. We already fully appreciate that achievement will translate simply as survival - anything else would be a bonus.

With the squad of players we have and the style of football we've played this campaign, we'd be lucky to scrape the requisite points to avoid an immediate return to the second tier. More judicious transfer activity is imperative (as well as a reasonable budget) if we're not to awake from the dream and be plunged headlong back into another nightmare.


Anonymous lameduck said...

Great article and sums it all up
well done

9:00 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Exellent article!!

Couldn't have said it better myself!

Howay the lads, and bring on the next season :)

9:18 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great article that summarises last season faultlessly.

I disagree with the last paragraph, though. I think the current squad have enough to handle the bottom 6 or so clubs in the Prem and maybe more, if they approach the game with the same 'application' that they've shown this season. My concern is on the tactical side. I fully appreciate what CH has done this year, but rolling up your sleaves and 'getting stuck in' won't do it at Prem level. A good degree of gile will be needed that I've seen lacking this year. It's been sheer bloody determination and physical presence that's rung out the points, with weak gameplans at some times.

Anyway, well played marra. Great read and capping a fine season. Here's to the next B&W decade!

Ha'way the lads!

9:48 am  
Blogger Unknown said...

This was a great article. I'll be passing this along to a co-worker (a West Ham Supporter) if they get sent down this year.

Also, is Chris Hughton locked in for a couple of years? I seem to recall him only getting a contract to the end of the year... but I can't find that anywhere.

3:13 pm  
Blogger Ben said...

Thanks folks.

As regards the final para, I'd say our squad is probably just about on a par with those of the sides in the bottom three. Worth adding, I think, that this season we've won quite a few points on momentum and confidence - which will be harder to build up in the top flight.

I agree with commenter #3, though, that our tactics and gameplan may need to change for the Premier League - guile is essential. But there's a counter-argument that would point to Birmingham and Stoke, who have both done well without compromising the tried-and-tested Championship-suited style that got them promoted, whereas attractive teams can often be picked off easily by the big boys (see West Brom last season). It's a difficult balancing act, to be sure.

11:43 am  
Blogger Michael R said...

Great stuff Ben, as always.

I'm still pinching myself with how this season has unfolded. My expectations were that we would implode as usual but it has turned out to be the most enjoyable season to watch in a long time.

I hope we can continue with this attitude and teamwork next season with CH at the helm.

Howay the Lads!

2:10 pm  

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