ON Wednesday night, on a bitterly chilly evening at Whitley Park, a 15-year-old schoolboy goalkeeper made a stunning debut for Newcastle United’s reserve team.
You may not heard of Paul Woolston, but by the end of a night when the Magpies had denied a talented Manchester United team, Alan Pardew certainly had.
“He was superb, we all enjoyed watching him,” chirped an upbeat Newcastle boss about a debut to remember.
Twenty-four hours previously, Paul Dummett had endured a difficult evening against an Everton team that could be about to turn the race for the top four into a genuine contest.
Here is Newcastle United’s dilemma writ large at the moment: there is a measure of optimism within the four walls of St James’ Park about the future, but too often this season the reality has been a pounding wake-up call.
Dummett will ride again. He’s a talented left-back with a good head on his shoulders: he can improve, even if some of the criticism of his performance on Tuesday was justified. But his progress mirrors Newcastle’s this season – bits to work with but ultimately, not yet the finished article. Doubts have yet to be dispelled. Tomorrow, Newcastle face Southampton in what cynics have branded the ‘battle for eighth place’. It is difficult to muster too much enthusiasm for such a mid-table placing but, as you would expect, Pardew is exercised by it.
“It’s a battle that I think both sides are looking at when you are around about each other, you want to prove that you are better,” he said.
“I was there at Tottenham and Southampton were terrific and really should have got something out of the game. I know they are looking forward to the game as well.
“We are above them at the minute. We have had a season where we have lost a big player halfway through and we have had nowhere near the funding that Southampton have got, so in some ways, you could argue we have been batting against the tide here a little bit.”
Surveying the wreckage of Tuesday, Pardew came up with a crumb of comfort ahead of a clash with a mobile Saints side. United have been better away from home, he concluded.
He said: “Against the top teams, when we’ve had home games against them and the emphasis has been on us, we’ve found it difficult. But away from home against the top teams we’ve been better, when the emphasis is on the other side, and we can break quickly. That suits us a little bit, so in a way this game – and you’re quite right to say their attacking line-up is very strong – might suit us better.
“But I do feel that we’re playing okay in two thirds on the pitch. We just need to get the last third, the most important third where you win games by scoring goals. We need to improve that.”
Pardew was accused of lacking ambition when he said that Newcastle couldn’t compete with Southampton but there was a new gold standard set yesterday. The question was put to Pardew about whether Everton might be the team to aspire to next season.
He admitted: “They have certainly got themselves in a great position to challenge for a Champions League place. They have a very, very experienced team.
“They have two loan players that outside of Loic (Remy) are the best. They have made a big difference to them. I do feel that is something we need to aim for next year, to finish above Everton. That would be a realistic target for us, but we are not going to do that this year for sure.” The Newcastle manager feels that questions over motivation should be shelved. Insisting there is plenty to play for, he said: “We’ve had that question mark ever since we’ve got 36 points. Were we going to just see the season out, but it’s just not the way I am or something that I would let happen to this team.
“We’ve got some tough games. Everton at home is a tough, tough gem for anybody. Then Southampton away, Manchester United at home, then Stoke away, who have picked up. They’re not easy games where we can think we’ll just turn up and win, we’ve got to fight to the very, very end.”
Pardew will return to the stadium tomorrow, even if his presence on the touchline is not assured. He is looking forward to being able to influence match-day again.
He said: “In terms of my own standing in the game, I need to make sure that with the experience I have got, I use it in the right manner.
“I’ll be focusing on that and making sure that the team’s winning mentality doesn’t drop off and that we are structurally all right for what is a difficult game. Southampton have had a fantastic season but we’re still above them and we want to stay there. I’m pleased because it gives me access to the dressing room, which I like to operate in and I like to think I have some influence in. I’m looking forward to being back in a changing room that I know well.”
Pardew wants to bring some positivity back to Newcastle, and wants that to extend to the Academy, which achieved Category One status this week. Going back to the original point, he is certain that Newcastle are taking steps in the right direction on that front.
He said: “I have been at two clubs renowned for their talent coming through, West Ham and Southampton, who are getting a lot of attention at the moment.
“We are now, in my third year here, the best we have been in the academy. We have got Grade A status here and have signed four or five of our team.”