JUST as we were starting to enjoy our belated sporting summer, along comes a cold, harsh blast of reality.
The sunshine and rising temperatures that have been conspicuous by their absence this summer finally arrived in August, but there was nothing sunny about the disposition of either Alan Pardew or Martin O’Neill this weekend.
With below-par performances and troubling results against second tier opposition, Newcastle and Sunderland have been handed a reality check less than seven days before the start of the season.
It is customary to repeat the mantra that nothing is settled in pre-season at this point and equally, it is worth remembering that Newcastle’s tumultuous summer did little to stop them from posting their best finish for a decade last term.
But still, neither team can be satisfied with summer recruitment efforts that have fallen below the required standard.
Newcastle required two to three players that could challenge the first team to move forward and have delivered none so far. Sunderland needed an injection of energy and wit and have only managed to recruit an experienced defender signed to provide competition for an already over-crowded centre-back slot.
It seems unfair on both managers that they are expected to start the season with the same squads that they ended the last campaign with.
Pardew’s efforts were so remarkable that he walked away with the Manager of the Year trophy but the attitude of the board is clearly that he is expected to perform heroics once again this season.
Given his reluctance to find the extra £1million or so that would have landed United’s top summer target Mathieu Debuchy, Mike Ashley doesn’t appear prepared to push the boat out to any significant degree this summer.
Vurnon Anita might provide some senior support, but the really big signing – the one that would underscore the club’s commitment to make annual challenges for the top four – is still to come. Instead, team manager Pardew will have to generate improvements from within once more.
At least he knows that his team are capable of top-four form. Wearside counterpart O’Neill witnessed worrying signs that Sunderland lacked a cutting edge in the dog days of last season, but number one target Steven Fletcher remains tantalisingly out of his grasp.
Wolves’ over-inflated valuation of the striker is a problem, but the Black Cats should have identified a contingency plan in case their move for Fletcher fell through. As it is, they are left jockeying for position with days to go until they travel to Arsenal. The Black Cats needed an injection of creativity somewhere but have failed to find the ‘X Factor’ that they were missing last season.
Their determination to do business in private might be laudable, but it also makes it look like they are oblivious to the deficiencies in the squad – something that, knowing the perceptiveness of O’Neill, is surely not the case. That we are even having these debates illustrates that football is ready to take centre stage once more.
After the unremitting positivity of the last fortnight, some would argue that football and its controversies are something of an unwelcome guest after the storm-free nature of our Olympic party. They might have a point, for football has been guilty of taking liberties with its position as Britain’s national game of late. The game’s nasty habits have been indulged and even encouraged.
The Luis Suarez saga last season was an ugly scar on the national game that revealed none of its protagonists in a very good light. Ditto the unedifying clash between John Terry and Anton Ferdinand, which revealed a poisonous side to the beautiful game. We have become so used to managers, players and supporters excusing bad behaviour that the Olympic spirit of generosity and celebration became a happy diversion from the cynical and self-interested national sport.
The London Games were really remarkable because the spectators and the public were thrust to the centre of the whole experience from day one. With its references to the Jarrow marchers and the Suffragettes, the Opening Ceremony unfolded like a love letter to the British public and the theme continued until the end of the Games.
From the volunteers to the paying public, it felt like London really wanted us there to share in this festival of sport and we embraced the Games because of it.
Too often, football treats its public like an inconvenience. From barmy plans to stage a 39th game thousands of miles away from the core support, to the ridiculous ticket prices and the players who embarrass themselves with their lack of loyalty, fans have grown more cynical by the season. Let us hope that post-Olympics euphoria ensures that corrosive trend is halted.
For all its faults, football retains the capacity to thrill and inspire in equal measure and no one who bore witness to Newcastle’s charge into Europe or the thrilling first throes of Martin O’Neill’s Sunderland revolution could argue that they didn’t get their money’s worth from last season.
It also retains the ability to change lives on a daily basis – and does so with its community programmes and charitable foundations that hang on football’s coat-tails to spread good across the globe.
Let us not forget that the well-paid superstars are human characters too, as evidenced by the role that the likes of Jack Wilshere and Wayne Rooney have played in helping young fans stricken by terrible diseases recently.
By next Monday we will be engrossed in it again, but football needs to heed the Olympic lessons. After all, it is a great game – it just needs to rediscover some perspective.