Thursday, May 23, 2013

View From The Home End: end of season reflections

Every year on Black & White & Read All Over, prior to the big kick-off, we assess our rivals before then assessing Newcastle's prospects and predicting how we'll fare. And every year we discover we're almost spot on about our opponents over the forthcoming campaign - but, for whatever reason, are almost always hopelessly wide of the mark when it comes to our own standing.

Back in August, off the back of a tremendous season which had concluded in a wholly unexpected fifth-place finish, Paul had us to end up in seventh this time around. While I might have erred slightly more on the side of caution, perhaps influenced by the Silver Fox's pre-season attempts to not so much dampen as pour cold water on any excited optimism, I'd still have thought that finishing outside the top half would be unthinkable. And yet, as is so often the way with Newcastle, the unthinkable duly became reality and we ended up limping home in 16th. If there's any consolation, it's that our league performance has utterly confounded the pundits on both occasions too.

If 2011/2 was a case of where did everything go right, then 2012/3 was most definitely the exact opposite, a perfect storm that came perilously close to leaving the good ship Newcastle Utd once again marooned in the Championship. Time to pick over the bones of a campaign we're only too glad to see the back of.

Just what the doctor didn't order

Cast your mind back to August. Raylor and Haris Vuckic both started the season in reasonable form, scoring in the away and home legs respectively of the Europa League qualifying tie against Greek outfit Atromitos that secured our passage into the group stage. By early October, though, both had been ruled out through injury for the whole campaign (Raylor since breaking down again during his rehabilitation and facing another year out) and the pattern had been set for the season.

No one was spared a place on the casualty list, which at times must have been almost as long as the list of available players from which the Silver Fox could choose. No sooner would one much-missed first-team regular return to action than two others would pick up knocks or strains. The club's medical team must have been working as furiously as Taggart's jaw masticating gum in the 95th minute with the score at 0-1. It wouldn't come as much of a surprise to learn that we'd been cursed by an old crone in a Mackem shirt.

Form is indeed temporary

Time and again over the course of the campaign we found ourselves clinging to the faint hope that the return to fitness of one player or another would be the essential catalyst we needed to raise our game, accelerate away from trouble and start roughly resembling the side that swept away so much before it last season. It never happened. The desperately poor form of the team collectively was matched by the desperately poor form of our key men individually, only thrown into relief by the consistently high levels to which everyone performed last time around.

HBA, who had dazzled defences on a regular basis as we cruised to fifth place, all too often failed to supply the creative spark we needed from him - an extraordinary early thunderbolt to salvage a point at home to Villa aside. Papiss Cisse, a revelation in the second half of the previous season, may have improved as the campaign wore on, notching last-minute winners at home to West Brom, Stoke and Fulham that gained us the precious points that ultimately preserved our Premier League status - but he was also a continual source of frustration with his failure to score unless presented with numerous opportunities, his inability to comprehend the offside rule (even if he had five legitimate goals ruled out by an incorrect flag) and his temper tantrum at being substituted against QPR.

Most alarming, though, was the form of the two midfielders on which last season's success was founded. Dreamboat had his moments - scoring at Anfield for the second year in a row, for instance, and supplying some delightful assists for Demba Ba - but his overall contribution to games was poor and he frequently cut a dejected, sullen figure, hardly earmarking himself for captaincy in the future. Whether just fatigued or actually depressed (as he claimed) by the experience of Euro 2012, we can only hope that the hangover has fully cleared by the time we kick off again.

Worse still, though, was Mr T. Formerly an athletic and usefully aggressive enforcer protecting the back four for whom a £20m price tag seemed realistic, he suddenly looked like he'd been forcefed drugged milk, shambling around giving away possession cheaply and collecting yellow cards like they were going out of fashion. When the calamity magnet wasn't costing us maximum points by getting himself sent off at the Dark Place, he was falling foul of the boys in blue on a charge of motoring fraud. I never thought I'd say it, but it was almost a relief to be rid of him for the duration of the African Cup of Nations.

So, with our backbone so out of sorts, did the fringe players step up? The answer was a resounding no. Obertan Kenobi offered a couple of Europa League cameos, Perchinho and Mike Williamson reverted to form as Championship-standard try-hards, Little Big Lad flattered to deceive before getting packed off to Smogside on loan, and Dan Gosling and Romain Amalfitano were nowhere to be seen.

Only a small handful of players could actually be considered to have impressed - Rob Elliot, perhaps, deputising for Tim Krul ahead of the now departed Steve Harper; Sideshow Bob, when clear of injury and with his wantaway wobble behind him; Sylvain Marveaux, who offered a reasonable approximation of HBA's craft and creativity in his compatriot's absence.

Thursdays, bloody Thursdays

The consensus (among neutrals, at least) seems to be that our European involvement was largely to blame for our misfortunes, but I remain unconvinced. After all, Thursday nights gave us regular respite from the travails of the league and the opportunity to blood fringe players, as well as the additional confidence that an impressive run of clean sheets brings. That said, while few of our injuries could be traced directly to Europa League games, there seems little doubt that the extra fixtures did stretch and fatigue an already thin squad.

To buy or not to buy, that was the question

Speaking in August about the lack of summer signings, the Silver Fox claimed that patience was a virtue and that he wasn't interested in panic buys: "I'm relaxed as these guys did a great job last year and I'd have no problem picking from the group we have now". As it turned out, of course, he was deprived of that luxury by the injury curse, and made to look even more complacent by failing to account for key individuals' loss of form and the fact that all of our rivals and indeed those in mid-table took the opportunity to strengthen significantly. Fixated on the mantra "What we have, we hold", Ba in particular, we neglected acquisitions, adding only Vurnon Anita to the first-team squad.

By December the club hierarchy were openly admitting the error of their ways, and by the end of January had taken decisive action to right wrongs. No fewer than five players were brought in from across the channel, and when the team was duly inspired into recording back-to-back victories against Villa and Chelsea there was feverish, excited talk of a French Revolution.

That impetus didn't last, though, and I think it's fair to say that all five Frenchmen still have something to prove. Moussa Sissoko was the toast of Tyneside and hailed as an absolute bargain when his surging, tireless runs propelled us to the victory over Chelsea, but he faded thereafter, becoming increasingly jaded and peripheral. Mathieu Debuchy has thus far done little to suggest he's the marked improvement on the departing Danny Simpson that we were led to believe, and has an impetuous streak that earned him a stupid red card against Liverpool. MYM has looked wonderfully assured at times but is always liable to make a costly mistake - remind you of anyone else from our recent past? Massadio Haidara made a decent enough impression on his initial European outings, earned sympathy following the assault by Callum McManaman in that now infamous defeat at Wigan and then turned in a horrendous display against Liverpool that saw him omitted for the final few matches. Of the five, it's the unheralded Goofy who's had the greatest impact, scoring a vital goal at the Hawthorns and an even more vital winner at Loftus Road that ensured we escaped the drop.

Even still, he could hardly hope to fill the sizeable boots of the player unwisely selected to be Mr January in our 2013 club calendar, who was sold to Chelsea when the year was still just a few days old. Realistically, we were powerless to prevent Ba's departure for Stamford Bridge, but it did almost prove fatally costly, which it needn't have done had we used the rest of the month to source and buy a suitable replacement.

Managing to make a meal of things

As our flirtation with relegation wore on, threatening to become a full-blown affair, many fans' fingers started to point accusatorily in one direction. We've been very restrained on this site in not unduly criticising the man in the hot seat, for the simple reason that, as I've been arguing, the factors behind our failings have been legion. Just as the Silver Fox didn't deserve all the credit for our success last season, neither should he be held solely accountable for what's gone wrong this term.

That said, the Silver Fox certainly doesn't look quite so crafty now as he did twelve months ago, or even in September, when Jabba handed him and his staff eight-year deals. Perhaps he's not the magical man-manager we thought he was after all, able to wring the very best out of his players - indeed, at times he didn't seem to know how to make use of what limited resources he did have at his disposal, shoving square pegs into round holes and hoping it might work out. Add to that his apparent abandonment of aesthetically pleasing football, his bemusing persistence with underperforming players (Spidermag and Mr T in particular) and some increasingly puzzling substitutions, and it's little wonder that many fans are calling for the head of a man who kicked off the campaign by shoving an assistant referee and who ended it by banning a newspaper from the club. We're not joining that chorus just yet, but would say that he has a lot of work to do to rebuild public trust.

Home and away

Of all the statistics you could bring into play, one of the most revealing is that we won only two games away from home all season - the first coming at the tail end of January at fellow strugglers Villa, and the second in our final trip on the road against already relegated QPR. But for exceedingly narrow escapes at Everton and Reading in September - when we profited from two disallowed goals and Ba's hand of God respectively - our away record would make for even worse reading.

All that wouldn't have mattered so much had our home form been decent - but sadly it wasn't.
There were lacklustre defeats to West Ham and Swansea on consecutive Saturdays in November, and in January a helping hand offered to Reading, prior to their visit to St James' Park the only other team in the division not to have won on their travels. Even when we looked to have put things right with four consecutive victories on home turf, we then contrived to lose 3-0 to the Mackems (the impact of which was, thankfully, mitigated personally by a new arrival) and, even more appallingly, 6-0 to Liverpool. Factor in Sunday's 1-0 defeat to Arsenal and we lost our last three home games by scoring none and conceding ten...

* * * * *

Of course, it wouldn't have been Newcastle Utd if the season hadn't been regularly punctuated with tales of tragedy, misfortune, idiocy and farce. 2012/3 had the lot: exits from both the FA Cup and the League Cup at the very first hurdle; former players Kevin Nolan and Damien Duff both proving architects of our downfall; withering, belittling scorn courtesy of a knight of the realm; news of an ethically questionable shirt sponsorship deal; the latest installments in the ongoing adventures of the Lone Ranger - a guilty verdict, a ticking-off for training tardiness, release (at last), another arrest; fans behaving equally as badly before the ill-fated Wigan clash and after the derby disaster; an I'm A Celebrity ... Get Me Out Of Here! theme day and a One Direction visit down at the training ground; club-branded onesies and fancy dress...

There were a few highs, admittedly: the consecutive wins over Villa and Chelsea that, together with the influx of fresh faces, suggested that a corner had been turned; those dramatic late victories against Stoke and Fulham secured by Cisse; the later stages of our European campaign, particularly the home win over Anzhi Makhachkala and the gargantuan second-half effort against Benfica in the quarter-final.

But those highs were far outweighed by the lows: losing at home to Reading; soul-crushing defeats at Old Trafford and the Emirates four days apart over the festive period, all the more galling for the fact that we genuinely played well; Wigan away; the cataclysmic home losses to 5under1and and Liverpool. Even the victory over QPR that ensured our safety was a joyless affair, the final whistle greeted with a sense of exhausted relief rather than a fist punch in the air.

So how to assess the last two campaigns together, then? Have they both been freakish, just in very different ways? Are we actually a solid mid-table team in very good disguise? Perhaps next season will give us some kind of clue. There's clearly much to be done before then, though - but I'll leave it to Paul to outline a vision of what might (or needs to) happen over the summer.

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