Newcastle United are on the brink of something special but Manchester City await in a mouthwatering St James’ Park clash. Chief sports writer Mark Douglas looks forward to a game for the ages.
ROUGHLY 12 months ago, the men who wield ultimate power at Newcastle United met in the plush dining room of a four-star Quayside hotel.
After months and months of covering the hard yards and the doing the lonely leg work, several different team line-ups – each configured in a different formation – were presented for perusal.
They were made up of a combination of players that United intended to retain through the summer and those who had survived the extensive whittling-down process led by chief scout Graham Carr.
It was the stuff of fantasy football made real, enough to whet black and white appetites for the entire close season.
One was a 4-3-3 that featured Blaise Matuidi, now at Paris Saint-Germain and a full France international. Another – configured in a more orthodox 4-4-2 – featured France striker Kevin Gameiro playing alongside a player you might now have heard of, Papiss Cisse.
In one there was Raphael Varane, who subsequently landed at Real Madrid, playing alongside Fabricio Coloccini or Steven Taylor.
It is a safe bet that none of those teams would have included Mike Williamson or James Perch – or perhaps even Jonas Gutierrez, another who has impressed with his consistency this season.
But as the Magpies prepare to face Manchester City with one of the richest prizes in football lying in wait, those players are the ones that endure – and the ones that have played such a huge part in sustaining Newcastle’s assault on the top four.
They have been helped, of course, by the stars that United did manage to land like Yohan Cabaye, Demba Ba and Davide Santon. This is a team success, however, with Alan Pardew at the head of it and the rest of his coaching brains trust closely behind in terms of credit.
It is their excellence on the training ground that has managed to eke out improvements in the likes of Perch, Williamson and Gutierrez – while also allowing the brilliant players that Carr and Pardew identified to make their mark.
“Forget about individuals,” Pardew said yesterday. And tomorrow lunchtime, it won’t be about United looking to one man or relying solely on the sublime finishing ability of Cisse.
It will be about Tyneside uniting behind a crop of players who have made them feel proud to support the city’s often maligned football club. And about the belief that those players and Pardew have given them.
“I didn’t think we’d be in this position at the start of season,” Pardew admitted yesterday.
“But I felt during the season we could keep it together. I questioned that at times but the stats were always pretty good which suggested we might (keep it together), but we still had to do it.
“We’ve still won seven of last eight games which is incredible really and we go into this game in great form.”
United are playing above their pre-season expectations but Pardew does not want to undersell them. They are a proper top-five team, having earned the right to tilt for the top four on merit.
“In terms of over-achieving, it’s a difficult phrase that,” he said.
“What you try to do is that you try to excel and my staff have been absolutely brilliant in the background. They don’t get enough credit really, and the players have been absolutely magnificent.
“It’s all set up with two games to go. One thing I know is that we’ve got a twelfth man in that stadium and we’ll be leaning on our fans to make it as difficult for them as possible to play their best football.”
There has been a steep improvement from United since the turn of the year, in which they have exhibited title-winning form.
They have secured 35 points in 2012 – just three short of the two Manchester clubs, who have taken 38 points each. Before the turn of the year United had done well, but they had consistently come unstuck when faces with one of the traditional heavyweights.
Manchester City, Chelsea and Liverpool all dealt them significant blows before a New Year renaissance that saw Newcastle discover form against the big guns. They will take on City with no fear.
“I look at it closely and we have taken points off Liverpool, Spurs, Arsenal, Man Utd and Man City are the only ones we have not,” he said.
“Now, if you look at that, you would have to say, maybe they can, looking at that record. We haven’t yet. So on Sunday it is there for us to take points off all the top teams and that would be a great feat for this team. And I think we can do it.”
Then there is Cisse, the player who seems to bend football’s conventions.
Pardew has been delighted with his goalscoring contribution – even if he continues to prefer Hatem Ben Arfa’s brilliant goal against Bolton to Cisse’s sumptuous banana volley at Chelsea. It is his all-round play that has really impressed though.
“When we looked at the tape of him he wanted to score goals. There was nothing else you could see,” Pardew said.
“But where he has improved I think is his link-up play and his intelligence for where he should be on the pitch. He is a really good player, no doubt about it.
“I thought maybe we were buying just a goalscorer who might have been a bit selfish, but we have improved that side.
“I have not found that. He has a really good work ethic.”
And then Pardew returns to that team ethic and the unity that seems to have fired the club.
He said: “We have something in place at the training ground which is good. They all support each other and help each other – and Demba has been a big part of it.”