Tuesday, May 29, 2012

View from the Home End: end of season reflections

(Image courtesy of richbunce)

This time last year, I reviewed our 2010-11 campaign and pronounced myself relatively content with how things had unfolded. While our season tailed off following Rocky’s departure, a twelfth-placed finish (even if it could have been so much better, but for a final-day collapse against WBA) marked a good return to the Premier League.

So what to make of this season, where we’ve managed to climb seven places to fifth despite the loss of some of last year’s star men? Obviously, like pretty much every single Toon fan, I’ve been delighted with the way this year has panned out, with the joy of seeing us play some great football, score some truly spectacular goals and win regularly added to the fact we’ve looked a happy and contented ship off the park.

While we may have shipped out some of last season’s star performers, with Nolan, ASBO and Jose Enrique all departing before August was finished, the reality is that in signing Dreamboat, Demba Ba and Davide Santon we did more than enough to replace the departees before they were missed, and when Papiss Cisse was added to the mix in January we had the icing to a very appetising cake. While the new boys all did well, with Dreamboat, Ba and Cisse all bedding in quickly and effectively (and Santon enjoying an encouraging first season if at times finding himself caught out by opponents), the other really pleasing development this year has been the performance of some of the fringe players.

Last year, Ben suggested that he wouldn’t be upset if Perchinho and Raylor both moved on to pastures new, but as the season unfolded first Raylor (as Jose Enrique’s replacement) and latterly Perchinho (as a versatile full-back, centre-half and central midfielder) have both shown that they weren’t out of the depth. Though we’ve been critical of Perchinho in particular, credit where it's due to a player who has clearly worked very hard on the training ground to the point where seeing his name on the team sheet became reassuring rather than alarming. Special mention also to Danny Guthrie, who had a fitful season in and out of the side, and looks destined for the exit door, but whose performances this year were always excellent – outshining his more feted midfield companions on occasion.

Of the signings made last summer, only Obertan Kenobi and Sylvain Marveaux have really failed to shine, the former despite plenty of chances to do so and the latter due to an injury which kept him out for the vast majority of the season. However, though they may not have excelled, one player whose black and white career has taken off this season is HBA who went from being a slightly erratic and defensively suspect winger to one of the most exciting attacking players I’ve witnessed, forming part of a dynamic front three with Ba and Cisse as the season reached its conclusion. Not only did he score two spectacular solo goals, against Blackburn and Bolton, but his all-round play and work rate has also improved and he deservedly joined Dreamboat in the French squad for Euro 2012.

Spidermag too has shown his value to the team, featuring in more games than any other player, either as a winger, a full-back or in a more withdrawn holding midfield role – showing composure and hardwork in equal measure, and along with his mate and captain, Sideshow Bob, the two have both provided strong leadership on and off the pitch (the latter’s performances deservedly seeing him picked in the PFA Premier League team of the season).

Twelve months ago, we speculated that the choice for the Silver Fox was which of our young keepers would go on loan and which would be Steve Harper’s understudy.  With Fraser Forster enduring a fairly torrid pre-season match, Tim Krul well and truly won that battle, but also succeeded in displacing Harper as our first-choice keeper with aplomb, with Harps forced out on loan himself in a bid to keep his hand in. The only worry in this is that, with Harper surely on his way out, second-choice 'keeper Rob Eliott has a lot to do to convince anyone that he’s capable of filling Krul’s gloves should his services be required.

Off the pitch, Jabba and Llambiarse did their best to unsettle things with their crass rebranding of St James’ Park (prompting a fan-led mock funeral). However, that aside, they backed their manager well in the transfer market and the accounts suggest we’re well placed to satisfy the financial fair play requirements when they take effect.

The only downer this season is the failure of our youngsters (with the obvious exception of Krul) to come through. While Little Big lad showed early promise before injury took it toll, the Lone Ranger consistently proved himself to be intent on a path of career destruction and the likes of Tamas Kadar and Phil Airey drifted out of the picture altogether.

For now though, as we bask in a sense of a season well done, the perennial question remains; namely how many of this seasons star performers will still be with us at the end of August? While the Europa League may prove an attractive proposition for some, it also carries with it the headaches of regular Thursday/Sunday matches (something the Silver Fox is acutely aware of) and if we’re to enjoy success we’ll doubtless need to add greater depth to the playing squad. However, that’s a discussion for another day.

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