SOMEWHERE along the line this summer, the Newcastle United mission statement for this season changed.
Back in May, with his ears still ringing from the sound of popping champagne corks that followed his coronation as LMA manager of the year, Alan Pardew set out a vision intended to depress black and white expectations.
He told a London newspaper that a fifth-place finish in a campaign burdened with European football was “impossible”. Top eight and an “attack” on one of the cups was the height of United’s Great Expectations for the season to follow, the United manager argued.
Yet on Thursday afternoon, with the start of the season a tantalising 48 hours away, there was no getting away from the fact that Pardew’s outlook had noticeably brightened. The United manager spoke of “pushing” the Champions League elite – of getting closer to them and looking realistically at the top four.
The reason for the upturn? Part of it is sat in front of us in a small changing room at United’s Benton training base, perspiration dripping from every pore of his hulking frame after a particularly hard training session.
The presence of Cheick Tioté in the Newcastle United squad for the second successive summer is enough to fill anyone with confidence – especially when credible sources were speculating that Manchester United had taken a shine to the Magpies’ Ivorian midfield general.
You suspect that Pardew is talking of Tioté and his ilk when he admits that Newcastle are “vulnerable” to a move from one of the Champions League elite, yet the player himself is impressively unmoved by all that talk.
Instead he talks with confidence of a big season for the club and an even more pivotal one personally. He even raises the possibility of adding goals to his game this year, saying that he has set himself a pre-season target of three this season.
A rare smile interrupts the look of steely determination when he is asked to clarify his future for the second time during our chat. It is an understandable query considering that United have just signed an international midfielder but Tioté appears unconcerned. He is used to the question and greets it like an opposition midfielder trying to encroach on his part of the pitch – dispatching it with little ceremony.
“I’m playing here at Newcastle and I’m happy to be here and looking forward to the new season. It’s exciting for me,” he said.
“I’m just focused on the game. You never know. I’m still a Newcastle player and everyone is working towards the game on Saturday. I am looking forward to it. For me I’m happy if I’m playing.
“This season will be bigger than last season. We did great last season and everyone is waiting to see how we will do now ... It will be hard but we are all ready for this season for the game on Saturday.
“The team spirit here is great, it was last season, like it was against Arsenal in the first game and then again against Sunderland. That’s what helped us have such a good season and we still have that spirit going in to this season.”
The continuing presence of United’s blue chip performers like Tioté, Papiss Cissé, Demba Ba, Yohan Cabaye, Fabricio Coloccini and Tim Krul is part of the reason why Newcastle’s slight reticence to strengthen has not unduly worried most supporters.
The pace of change in the Premier League is relentless but for once, the majority of the division’s top clubs are more concerned with departures than arrivals. Manchester City’s munificence has been limited to signing Jack Rodwell while Arsenal have lost Robin van Persie and today’s opponents Tottenham are braced for the imminent departure of playmaker Luka Modric.
Granted, Chelsea have spent the thick end of £70million on bringing in attacking players and Manchester United have flexed their muscles by nicking van Persie from the Gunners but Newcastle managing to retain the core of last season’s surprise package is certainly cause for celebration. “For the squad it is good and it is good for the manager,” said Tioté. “It’s a team thing and we are not Arsenal, Man United or Chelsea. We are Newcastle, so if we can keep our best players then it will be good for this club.
“Had we lost two or three key players then it would be difficult to do the same as last season. It’s good for the Newcastle family going forward. Yes we have lost some players, but we have brought in players like Anita, which is good for the squad. Anita is a good footballer, he will be good for the team.”
All of which leaves Tioté, who has looked like a man possessed at times during the close season friendly programme, optimistic for Newcastle ahead of the new season.
He stops short of saying that United are direct rivals with Tottenham to challenge the top four but has no problem in accepting that this is a gigantic season for Newcastle.
“This season will be bigger than last season,” he says.
“We did great last season and everyone is waiting to see how we will do. It will be hard but we are all ready for this season for the game on Saturday.
“You never know in football. When the season started last year I would have never said Bolton would go down but that’s football. You have to try to win every game and then we will see. We will see how the season goes and who are our rivals.”