A PLACE among the Premier League’s elite is up for grabs provided Newcastle United’s owners seize the moment next month, according to Jeff Stelling.
He admits he is bloated on humble pie after the Magpies’ surprise start to the campaign, and thinks the key to maintaining their lofty standing will be supporting manager Alan Pardew in the transfer market.
That does not just mean reinforcing a thin squad, but keeping the players who have taken the team to such dizzy heights.
In particular he sees midfield enforcer Cheick Tioté as “priceless”, and with memories still fresh of Andy Carroll’s £35m deadline-day sale to Liverpool, Stelling realises it is vital history does not repeat itself at St James’ Park.
“The surprise package of the Premier League? Not half!” he says.
“It’s fantastic for Newcastle and all the cynics – and I was definitely one – have been made to eat our words. I’m over-flowing with humble pie.
“There’s a number of reasons for it. The first thing is for the early part of the season they had that rock-solid back five.
“Tim Krul has been magnificent, and Steven Taylor was fantastic until he got injured.
“They just look to have such a well-drilled side defensively, and that gave them a platform to build on. They had to do without Cheick Tioté for a while and they coped quite well.
“At the other end of the field they’ve got Demba Ba, and Leon Best initially did really well too. The other thing for Newcastle is their work ethic. Everybody works their socks off, no one more so than Jonás Gutiérrez.”
If Newcastle’s form has made Stelling feel a little sheepish at times, he can rest assured he is in good company.
Free transfer signing Demba Ba has made mugs of plenty of Premier League managers who turned their noses up at a striker who has already scored 14 goals this season.
“Demba Ba had a great goalscoring record at Hoffenheim and at West Ham, and since he came to England his record for staying injury-free has been very good too.
“A lot of managers have been made to look a bit foolish after deciding not to sign him because of his knee problems.” While Ba has grabbed the glory, it is Tioté who Stelling believes the vultures will be circling in January.
The list of clubs linked with the Ivory Coast midfielder is like a Who’s Who of England’s top clubs.
Stelling, who fronts Sky’s live Champions League coverage, thinks one in particular would be well advised to test the resolve of Newcastle owner Mike Ashley.
“It’s important Newcastle keep hold of their best players – Tioté in particular because there are some big boys looking for a midfield player,” he says.
“He looks like he’s been absolutely fantastic this season. A lot of credit must go to the scouting staff at Newcastle, not just for him but a couple of the other boys who have come in too.
“Those of us living down in the south have raised our eyebrows at how well a few of them have done.
“Tioté is a classic example of a brilliant piece of buying.
“Newcastle fans won’t thank me for saying this, but I look at Man United and their need for a midfield player who can put his foot in and Tiote would be ideal.
“I can see him being a Roy Keane-type figure for them.
“But then Sir Alex Ferguson’s not going to buy, so that should be a relief for Newcastle fans!
“From Newcastle’s point of view he’s priceless.”
Keep him, and add a couple of bodies, and Stelling thinks the Magpies could even have a chance of squeezing into the European places at the end of the season. If the teams above lift the cups, a sixth or seventh-placed finish could be enough to book a Europa League spot.
“The big question mark is over the depth of Newcastle’s squad,” Stelling concedes.
“Alan Pardew will know it’s not deep enough to finish in the top four, but at the start of the season, which Newcastle fan would have thought they could finish in the top four?
“If they finish seventh, eighth or ninth this season, that’s a bloody good job.
“Everybody remembers the transfer window last season and particularly Andy Carroll.
“I just hope the owner and the board resist the temptation because there’s a top six, seven or eight finish within their grasp.”
:: Jeff Stelling was speaking on behalf of Soccer Saturday Super 6, the free-to-enter online predictor game with a weekly jackpot of £100,000. Go to www.skysports.com/super6 for more details.