ONCE upon a time, when he was still a Liverpool player hoping to unseat Steven Gerrard in the Anfield engine room, Danny Guthrie was asked by a football magazine what superpower he would most like to have.
“Invisibility,” he replied – an answer that he had probably had cause to regret after three years spent largely off the black and white radar. Fortunately for the forgotten man of St James’ Park his recent re-emergence to play a part in Newcastle United’s record-breaking run has been remarkable.
Bold at Blackburn and solid at Stoke, he delivered a midfield masterclass in trying circumstances against Everton. His clipped, crisp delivery has always been evident on his rare starts but here was a different side to Guthrie’s game – an ability to shape a contest, to drive the team on and to grasp a match by the scruff of its neck.
It was the performance Alan Pardew had been waiting for. Guthrie’s passing range and economy with the ball has always been cherished by the current manager but on the biggest stage and when the chips are down, the Shrewsbury-born schemer was something of an unknown quantity.
Some at St James’ Park doubted his ability to win a midfield battle – there was even hushed talk about whether a new signing might be required to plug the gap left by Cheick Tiote when he heads off the African Nations Cup.
Those doubts have been silenced now, but you won’t find Guthrie shouting from the rooftops about it. Quiet understatement remains his stock-in-trade, and true to form he was not one for self-publicity when the Journal quizzed him yesterday.
Appearing on behalf of the Newcastle United Foundation at the opening of a new all-weather pitch at Jesmond’s Church High Girls School, Guthrie admitted he had to alter his game to replace the Ivorian enforcer.
“It wasn’t easy coming in to replace Checik Tioté because we’re totally different players,” he told the Journal.
“We knew I was not going to be a direct replacement for him, but I had to adapt my game a little bit. Playing with Yohan, who plays a bit more forward than Cheick, I’ve had to sit a bit deeper than I’m used to.
“I don’t think there’s any great secret to being able to come into a winning team. It’s partly due to the training but I also think when a player comes in who’s not been playing you’ve got to be mentally right. I’ve not been playing and it’s been tough, so when I got my chance I was determined to take it.
“Touch wood, we’ve been lucky with injuries and suspensions so it’s been a very settled side.”
Guthrie’s impressive return is part of an encouraging trend at St James’ Park.
Once upon a time, Newcastle’s strength-in-depth was something of a sore spot. Star names were part and parcel of the starting XI but fringe men were neglected, often choosing to go elsewhere rather than biding their time and backing themselves to take a chance when it arrived.
The list of those discarded by previous regimes makes for occasionally uncomfortable reading. Steve Guppy was a lightly-regarded winger who went on to play for England; Darren Huckerby scored goals for fun after feeling he would never unseat sexier names at St James’ Park.
The lamented Aaron Hughes is a prime example. He made 200 appearances but United foolishly went chasing “marquee” names like the woeful Jean-Alain Boumsong and he eventually departed.
What Pardew would do for a consistent performer like Hughes now, who would certainly not be considered expendable by a management team that is careful not to alienate any in the first team squad.
Again, a manager who leaves no stone uncovered should be applauded for the way he has been able to massage the ego of a player disappointed not to be given more chances.
Instead there have been quiet chats, little pep talks and an assurance to Guthrie that if his performances live up to his potential a run in the team will follow.
If Guthrie (pictured far right) doubted him, he need only look at the team-sheet every Saturday. Ryan Taylor was one player summoned from the reserves to plug a gap for a few weeks and is now one of the first names in Pardew’s XI. The boss stayed true to a promise to pick on form not favour.
Even on Saturday afternoon, he was careful to take time out to praise one of his unsung heroes. Saying Guthrie was a “fantastic player with the misfortune to be in behind two players who can walk into a Premier League team” was just matching public utterances with what was being said behind closed doors.
Guthrie takes up the tale. “He’s great with you, the manager,” he said. “He will speak to you and tell you where you are and what he expects. It’s still tough not being involved. It’s easy to go away and sulk, but you have to be ready because you can always be chucked in at the last minute.”
It wasn’t quite last minute on Saturday – United having been aware of the severity of Tiote’s injury for several days. But his arrival as a player of considerable pedigree couldn’t have come a moment too soon for Pardew’s soaring Magpies.
Page 3 - Twelve months is a long time in football - Where the side were this time last year >>
Twelve months is a long time in football - Where the side were this time last year
THE 14 players who helped push Newcastle United into second spot on Saturday included plenty with a major point to prove. Here we run down how far most of them have come in the past 12 months.
Then: Enjoying his longest run in the first team, but still understudy to injured Steve Harper.
Now: Firmly established as number one, Alan Pardew feels his in-form ‘keeper will be worth ten points this year.
Then: Had only just returned from a serious knee injury, consigning James Perch to the bench. But doubts about top-flight calibre remained.
Now: One of only two ever-presents in the Newcastle team – although that contract hasn’t been signed yet.
Then: Answering doubts about his suitability to the Premier League with some fine displays.
Now: Captain, leader and arguably the squad’s most accomplished player. Key to everything at present.
Then: Transfer-listed and unable to shift Mike Williamson from the starting XI. Serious doubts about his United future.
Now: Enjoying his best spell at St James’, playing the sort of football that has his boss thrusting him forward for an England call-up.
Then: Three Carling Cup appearances, the last a 4-0 drubbing by Arsenal. Fringe man.
Now: United’s man of the moment. Has made the left-back slot his own, slayed Sunderland and scored a scorcher on Saturday too.
Then: Rennes flier was facing a year on the sidelines with a serious groin injury.
Now: Still finding his feet, but has serious potential.
Then: Two appearances – one in the Carling Cup – illustrated how far he’d fallen in Chris Hughton’s plans.
Now: Grasped his chance with both hands. Simply superb against Everton.
Then: Lille playmaker was on his way to leading his club to the Ligue 1 title.
Now: The new darling of the Gallowgate, he’s made a solid start to life in England. There is more to come though.
Then: Mr Consistency was a United ever-present even 12 months ago.
Now: A new contract to go with a string of fine performances.
Then: Still searching for his first Newcastle goal, you would have had long odds on his St James’ career extending past the January window.
Now: A Republic of Ireland recall, he is part of United’s first-choice strikers and an established Premier League player.
Then: Five goals in five games for Hoffenheim, he was hot property in Germany – despite knee injury worries.
Now: Only Robin Van Persie and Wayne Rooney have scored more. Terrific start to his United career.
AND THE SUBS.....
Then: Shola’s brother and – outside the Academy – not a lot else.
Now: England under-21 call-up and a genuine impact player at Premier League level.
HATEM BEN ARFA
Then: Starting the long road back after a sickening injury suffered at Manchester City.
Now: Bristling for a start, he was singled out for praise by Pardew after Everton win.
Then: Still on his way back from a serious injury that had ruled him out for almost two years.
Now: Didn’t let anyone down on his long-awaited return. But still with work to do to get back in the side.