February 1 was supposed to be the end of Newcastle United’s season.
In a congested Premier League table they appear the only team with nothing to play for – safe from relegation but adrift of the European places. Southampton are at least in the FA Cup.
A dismal transfer window suggested the Magpies have neither the ambition nor the resources to make up the seven points to sixth and, probably, the Europa League qualification they are lukewarm towards.
Alan Pardew is having none of it.
He has no choice. After all that has gone on around St James’ Park these past few weeks, waving the white flag would be tantamount to writing his resignation letter as Newcastle manager. Positivity is in desperately short supply and it is his job to set the ball rolling.
Taking on a full-strength Chelsea – on a high after restating their title credentials with the first victory at Manchester City by an English club this season – at Stamford Bridge without Loic Remy, Yoan Gouffran, Fabricio Coloccini, Cheick Tiote and the departed Yohan Cabaye will be a tall order, but Newcastle have defied the odds before this season.
Seven days after saying his team were where they should be on a pounds-for-points basis, Pardew is unwilling to settle for eighth.
“Well I’m not,” he insists. “The most important thing is I drive the team towards the best finish we can.
“The highest I have finished in the Premier League as manager is fifth, the highest as a player is third and if I don’t strive to improve on that, what is the point? So that is my goal.
”In the short-term, I have had to lift up this team and that has been a tough job. Really and truly, the important thing for me is Chelsea, it does need to be as simple as that when you are in the position we are in, losing to our rivals like we did.
“I do not know how many points we are behind (Manchester) United (three) but they still have thoughts on Europe so why shouldn’t we?”
Tyneside has been a pretty low place in 2014.
A feeble FA Cup exit at home to Cardiff City set the tone. The sale of Yohan Cabaye was half-expected, the departure of Joe Kinnear celebrated, but there was a cynical air of resignation about both.
The nay-sayers who predicted Cabaye would not be replaced in January were right, while critics of the regime viewed Kinnear as a puppet whose removal did not address the real problems.
A derby victory over Sunderland would have lifted the mood, defeat darkened it, but to be on the wrong end of such a comprehensive 3-0 reverse was soul-destroying.
The negative view is that, despite the league-table disparity, Sunderland are on the way up, Newcastle heading in the opposite direction.
The more positive perspective looks in isolation at the Magpies’ comfortable eighth position after a better-than-expected first half of the season. While Sunderland have a Wembley final to look forward to, the League Cup is still a long way off and the relegation zone alarmingly close.
No prizes for guessing which standpoint Pardew takes.
“I would rather be in our position than fighting for survival because that really is something we do not want to do, particularly this year,” he says bullishly.
“We have to try to push as hard as we can to get in that top part of the league because that would feed into next year. we have a big summer ahead. I have lots to look at and I will. The injuries sustained this week and suspensions mean I will get the chance to look at one or two in a tough environment.
“It is not fighting for their futures, it is fighting for the best team for Newcastle and giving our fans something to lean on for the rest of the season and seasons to come.
“Every Premier League game holds its own individual quality and we have to take that professionalism into every game.
“It would have been a very different conversation if we had the result last week and were third-bottom, but we are eighth and need to take that confidence into Chelsea.”
That is the case for the defence, but those who ran on to the field during Saturday’s game and those who demanded owner Mike Ashley “get out of our club” from the terraces are not buying it.
”I see no problem with it,” Pardew says of their responses. “It’s the reaction you would expect. Our fans are so passionate about their team they do not ever want to lose at home, particularly to their rivals.
“The media has to reflect that in its own way but that does not mean to say we cannot feed off that, can’t use that to fire us to performances from and that is what we are going to do.
“If you get punched on the nose in a boxing ring, you don’t just walk back to your corner and say, ‘That’s it’ and walk away.
“I will never hide from the fans, even that fan who ran on to the pitch towards me (last week).
“It is a job where you have to be purposeful in what you are doing and you have to stay strong.”
As much as patience, Pardew needs faith.
“If you go back to the (January) window before that (in 2013), we bought in five players, which no one thought we would do,” he points out. “So it is not that far back to see when we invested and we invested well.
“Our (transfer) record is as good as anyone in terms of the finance we have available.
“Mike has made it pretty clear the club has to wipe its nose, as (Reading chairman) John Madjeski used to say, and work within the boundaries of the money we have.
“There is money available this summer and I am sure we will use it.
“Discussions are for later on. This week, we had to recover emotionally.
“I know our fans were emotional but our staff and players were too.
“Monday for example, I had no problem giving them the day off because I knew if they came in we would have got nothing out of it. It would have been the wrong emotion to do a training session.
“Yesterday we worked really hard, which is exactly how it should be.”