WHISPER it quietly but Newcastle United – backed to go down by one of their own players during a catastrophic close season – are on track to make the Champions League.
Incredible though that might sound, it is backed up by The Journal’s research that shows no top-four finisher since 2005 has been so handily placed as Newcastle United are right now.
Indeed, not since David Moyes’ Everton side broke into the elite six years ago had any fourth placed finisher smashed the 20-point barrier at this stage of the season – and even then they were sitting pretty on 22 points, level with United’s current tally.
This, more than anything, should signal a realignment of black-and-white aspirations for the campaign after a simply stunning start to the Premier League season.
For, while Alan Pardew quite rightly strains to keep collective feet on the ground in public, behind closed doors he must be sensing that this their terrific 10-game unbeaten run has handed United a once-in-a-decade chance to return the club to Continental competition.
Don’t think it is not being mentioned by a manager noted for his meticulous planning. In Pardew’s office at the club’s Benton training base there is a white board with each fixture inked on it in thick black marker pen.
Just as Pardew did at West Ham, each winnable game is noted and colour coded and strict targets are set by a coaching team, who have impressed even the senior campaigners at St James’ Park with their attention to detail.
Before the season started, the United boss met with Mike Ashley in London and was told a top-10 finish was the minimum requirement given the summer recruitment that was planned.
Changes were afoot, for sure, but a quiet revolution that was to claim the scalps of Joey Barton and Kevin Nolan was to alter the DNA of the football club. Pardew, a naturally confident character, remained convinced a top-half finish was attainable despite a summer of discontent, but it was still a leap into the unknown for a mostly young team with little experience at the thick end of Premier League battle.
Given those considerations it is safe to say even the most optimistic pre-season planning wouldn’t have pegged them at 22 points at this stage, and a conscious decision has been taken not to be drawn on talk of Europe.
Every player is sticking to that edict so far, with queries about tilting for the Europa League or even – heaven forbid – the Champions League brushed away. The only stated aim so far this season is to rack up the 18 points required to sustain Premier League football on Tyneside.
But this is a fiercely ambitious management team firing a young side that is yet to taste failure, and in the privacy of the dressing room there is a burgeoning belief that they can be the Premier League’s surprise package this season.
Of course, there remain doubters and legitimate questions that are yet to be answered. Snipers might point to United’s opposition as mitigation and it is a point that deserves closer scrutiny.
Granted, Newcastle’s six wins so far this season have all come against opposition bouncing about in the bottom half of the Premier League table.
Manchester’s twin terrors await in a fearsome North West double header later this month, while Chelsea, inconsistent but still potent on their day, will provide the sternest St James’ Park test so far this season in early December.
Dig a bit deeper, though, and there are reasons why United cannot be written off as flat-track bullies. Monday night’s evisceration of Stoke City, for a start, when United thoroughly worked over a Stoke City side simply not used to being roughed up like that on their own turf.
The 3-1 win revealed the character of the team Pardew has moulded, and anyone writing off Stoke as a flaccid imitation of the side that bested United last year might care to inform Manchester United and Chelsea. After all, neither of those title challengers were able to claim three points in the Potteries.
Similarly, consider the fact that Newcastle are the only side not to succumb to Spurs in the last seven matches.
That 2-2 draw at St James’ Park, snatched by Shola Ameobi’s superlative late strike last month, was the result of another fine collective effort.
So far, United have coped well with the injuries that have arrived at their door.
But the squad is much smaller than any that has qualified for Europe over the past five years, and further depletion of their ranks could be seriously damaging.
Cover is desperately required at centre-back in January for, while James Perch was a willing competitor at the Britannia on Monday, there still remain doubts about his ability to cope at the highest level. Still, United’s able deputies have stepped up to the mark when asked this season. Emergency left-back Ryan Taylor has gone from liability to Mr Dependable in a 10-game spell where he’s hardly put a boot wrong, while Danny Guthrie ensured the loss of Cheick Tioté was not too keenly felt on Monday.
It is inevitable that United’s smooth season will encounter turbulence at some stage but, even if form slips, there is no doubting the foundations have been laid for a crack at the top five. Pardew will be warmed by the fact history is on his side in the battle for Europe.
Tales of the tape at ten-game mark
INCREDIBLY, Newcastle’s flying start is better than ANY team that have finished fourth in the last six seasons.
Everton had also racked up 22 points at the ten-game mark in 2004-05 and eventually finished fourth – qualifying for the Champions League in the process.
Here are the ten-game tallies of teams that qualified for Europe automatically through league placings over the last five years:
4th – Arsenal 18pts (Finishing total – 68, Champions League)
5th – Tottenham 12pts (Finishing total – 60, UEFA Cup)
4th – Liverpool 20pts (Finishing total – 76, Champions League)
5th – Everton 13pts (Finishing total – 65, UEFA Cup)
4th – Arsenal 20pts (Finishing total – 72, Champions League)
5th – Everton 12pts (Finishing total – 63, UEFA Cup)
4th – Tottenham 19pts (Finishing total – 70, Champions League)
5th – Manchester City 19pts (Finishing total – 67, Europa League)
4th – Arsenal 20pts (Finishing total – 68, Champions League)
5th – Tottenham 15pts (Finishing total – 62, Europa League)
l Note of caution, in the 2008-09 season Hull City had 20 points after their first 10 games. They eventually finished 17th, maintaining their Premier League status on the last day.