NEWCASTLE United will be playing in the Premier League again next year – but it was far too close for comfort for everyone concerned.
A major inquest into the season is planned for the summer, with boss Alan Pardew anticipating “uncomfortable discussions” for everyone. After a season spent flirting with the relegation places that almost goes without saying.
Certain issues, though, have risen to the top of the agenda in recent weeks. Here they are:
As the man himself admitted last week, the burning issue of the summer is whether Alan Pardew gets the green light to continue.
The cyber verdict has been delivered and it is not good news for the Newcastle boss.
However, in the stands (home and away) it does not feel as polarised or as definite. Pardew is down but far from out.
There are difficult questions to answer because the team has under-achieved.
He will be held accountable for the lack of set-piece threat, the failure of half of the signings to make a big enough impact, the lack of a run in either domestic cup and the way the team has capitulated in certain games (Arsenal away, Liverpool and Sunderland at home and Manchester City away being the offending matches).
You wonder whether Mike Ashley might also ask him to justify one or two statements in the Press recently too, including the one about the owner also underachieving this year.
However, for all that, the noises coming from club sources are that Pardew will be given the start of next season to prove he can address these underlying issues.
His is a sharp football brain and he knows there have been issues which have ruined this season – many of which he will argue are beyond his control.
There may also be changes in the coaching staff and training routines, while a thorough review of the injuries (how they happened and how they will be treated) is also expected.
Every Newcastle player can expect to encounter a different environment with ramped-up expectations of them next season.
Pardew will be told to shoot for the top six next season and a similar struggle will likely cost him his job.
Will this be enough for certain fans? Maybe not.
For them Pardew has reached the end of the road. Barring a change of heart in the coming days, Ashley does not appear to share that view.
He will emphasise the need for improvement and progress next season, but if the pressure is on the manager at the start of next season he will at least get the summer to try to put things right.
In between the jokey, off-the-cuff remarks about losing to Arsenal, Pardew raised another issue which has been buried since January: the kids.
The season began with Pardew pledging to give chances to a crop of young players snapping at the heels of his first team and was true to his word.
Sammy Ameobi, James Tavernier, Shane Ferguson, Haris Vuckic, Mehdi Abeid and Gael Bigirimana all had opportunities but few made a lasting impression on the season.
So what now? Ferguson was a success at Birmingham, Ameobi delivered a mixed bag in difficult circumstances at flat-lining Boro.
Both are supping in the last-chance saloon if they are ever to become part of a first-team squad at United.
Pardew will go into bat for the young players this summer against a backdrop of scepticism from others. He will argue for them to be given another chance – but they are a year older and no longer afforded quite the same patience as they were 12 months ago.
If some others get their way, they could yet be sold to burnish United’s transfer budget.
Away from that, Newcastle need to clear up the Academy situation.
Assurances from the club they will get Category One status have been forthcoming, but the situation remains shrouded in mystery. The club need to get that side of the organisation back on track next year.
THE RECRUITMENT STRATEGY
United’s greatest strength in recent years has been their ability – through super spotter Graham Carr – to source talent at knock-down prices.
They have played the game perfectly in France and have upped efforts in Holland and Belgium too. However, the question needs to be asked – do they need to add more Premier League experience and know-how?
United have opted out of the domestic market because they do not like negotiating – and they hate paying over the odds. Carr’s contacts in England are just as good as they are abroad, but they have yet to tap into them or Pardew’s because of an assumption Premier League experience will be impossible to source.
That probably has to change this summer. Andy Carroll is the first name in the frame, but Andreas Weimann of Aston Villa is another on the radar. A defender with English experience would also help.
STYLE OF PLAY
United have not fixed on a formation or a style all season.
The Europa League has a lot to answer for here, persuading Pardew to change the team twice in a week in the early stages of the season.
Latterly, the manager went in search of salvation through different systems and lost the philosophy and sense of purpose they had last season.
He wants two things: United to control the ball better and to attack properly.
They did that in 2011/12 but rarely did it this season, when they topped the chart for number of long balls attempted over the campaign.
United need more consistency of purpose and personnel next year. Hopefully, more time on the training ground will give them that.
There is no doubt Fabricio Coloccini’s future is the most important on-field issue this summer.
No-one had ever doubted his importance to the Magpies’ cause but it was re-emphasised by events of the last fortnight when his return stopped the rot.
They would not have struggled as they did if his mind and body had been healthy this season.
They won nine of the 28 games he played in – and just five of the 25 he missed.
He added authority and assurance to the back four and his presence sent the performances of his partners soaring in recent weeks.
United admit his future remains up in the air.
We have respected his privacy so it is unclear whether the personal problems which besieged him earlier in the season are still pressing enough for him to push through a transfer.
Newcastle need to sit down with him for frank discussions as soon as possible – maybe even this week.
An honest appraisal on both sides is required, and if there is any chance of him staying then that must be pursued rigorously.
If they can’t persuade him to do it, a replacement needs to be sourced quickly. Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa will improve this year but Coloccini’s replacement will need to be ready to go from the kick-off. It wouldn’t come cheap – hence the importance of trying to persuade him to stay.
THE CLUB’S DIRECTION
This has been a damaging year for the Mike Ashley blueprint – a philosophy designed to extract value and quality from the transfer market while also wringing the best from every member of staff.
If the assumption was they had cracked it with a fifth-place finish in 2011-12, this season has proved that not to be the case.
With injuries and suspensions, suddenly the approach which won universal praise a year ago looks insufficient in its current model.
So Ashley needs to find version 1.2 of his football business philosophy.
This is a decision bigger than the manager – who has always been relatively interchangable in the Ashley approach.
Instead it is about being more flexible, more proactive and perhaps a shade more ambitious.
In the era of the new TV deal, perhaps Newcastle need to speculate to accumulate this summer.
The direction Ashley set out at the start of the season was based on stability, step-by-step progress and improvements from within.
It has become apparent over the course of this season an external jolt may be needed: most likely a big-name signing.