BY Christmas, we will know whether Newcastle United’s breakthrough season was laying the foundations for something more lasting or simply a case of the club banging its head against the glass ceiling.
It will be a critical six months in the life of the football club. United’s progress was thrilling and convincing last season, but if they aspire to re-join the teams that regularly compete in the top six, they must make it the norm rather than the exception.
It sounds harsh, but that is the unforgiving nature of the Premier League. The competition is littered with examples like Ipswich Town and Stoke City, who excelled one season but struggled to cope with the added burden of expectation and European football the following year.
United – despite the dampening of expectations that has already begun – want to belong in the upper echelon of the Premier League and that means churning out another season of substance.
Tottenham Hotspur beguiled with their brilliant football and made a Wembley final, but have ended up parting with their manager after finishing fourth. Arsenal were third but Arsene Wenger faced familiar cat-calls throughout their campaign. Everton didn’t even make a song and dance about their season but ended, once again, in seventh and with a Wembley semi-final under their belts.
This is the standard to which the ambitious Alan Pardew aspires – and the first six months of this season will tell us a much about how far along that path they are.
Before then, the first six weeks will be equally important. Pardew has spoken before about the complacency that he noted at West Ham after his team had reached the FA Cup final, and nipping that in the bud is important.
Last summer, the board did it for him by selling Kevin Nolan in the close season. If the club captain could go, anyone could be sacrificed in the pursuit of better football and the message was understood by the squad.
That was allied to a tightening up of training ground regulations and it seemed to do the trick of letting the players know that there was a renewed purpose and direction in Pardew’s debut season.
It will be difficult to replicate the same trick this summer, but the manager has already made his delegations to Mike Ashley about subtle alterations at their Benton base.
United have introduced the art of cryogenics to help players repair battered limbs and it is understood that the club’s fringe players will be given a not-so-gentle reminder that they are expected to step up a gear this year.
Sammy Ameobi, Haris Vuckic and Mehdi Abeid bubbled away last season, but did not post enough performances of substance to suggest that they are ready to shoulder the burden of first-team football. This year is crucial.
Pardew has the dilemma of preparing a team to fight on four fronts this season and will not allow the likes of Fabricio Coloccini and Jonas Gutierrez to push close to the ever-present mark this year for fear of burning out.
Managing the balance will be key and United’s team of video analysts will be leant on to provide data from their beefed up GPS training devices to let the coaching staff know whether three games in eight days – as the club will face at times during the Europa League campaign – will be too much.
Much will be down to Pardew, who has taken in the Monaco GP and Wimbledon during his summer break. He has the force of personality and the experience to preach the right message to supporters while keeping his players on their toes.
But a weight can be taken from him if Derek Llambias can manage to pull off an exquisite quadruple deal for Vurnon Anita, Mathieu Debuchy, Luuk de Jong and defender Douglas.
As of last night, it didn’t look particularly hopeful as United continued to haggle over prices. That is disappointing after United’s key power brokers met as far back as June 5 to assess their summer priority targets.
One senior source told The Journal that the club now have six players who would walk into most top six clubs. Adding two of those four would take it up to eight and, by that arithmetic, give them the look of a side that could challenge for Europe every year.
But if they fail to do business early, it muddies the waters. United’s Plan B in the transfer market is not particularly developed and there is the added complication of possibly losing Demba Ba and Cheick Tiote somewhere down the line – although no enquiries have been received by Newcastle thus far.
For Pardew, those worries are for another day. He will regard the old athlete’s maxim about “controlling the controllables” as his mantra and look to again assert his authority on the training ground. It’s been a fun summer but the hard work starts here.