So, when will Newcastle United supporters start believing in this team?
If that sounds provocative, it is not meant that way. But even though United have banked four straight wins, sit just four points off second and have rediscovered the identity that went missing in those fallow months, it feels like they still have some convincing to do.
In a superior blog post published on the Leazes Terrace site yesterday, Chrissy Smith accurately summed up the mood among fans: “The caution among supporters is palpable”.
That much seems true. Alan Pardew has rushed to pour cold water on talk of pushing for the Champions League but in truth he needn’t have bothered for there is a realism about the expectations surrounding this team. It is almost to be expected that at some point before Christmas, someone might point out that Newcastle are close to the magic survival mark of 40 points.
But is this dampened expectation actually masking a Newcastle that are on the verge of achieving something substantial? The United team that edged out West Brom on Saturday contained ten full internationals and virtually of all of them have a shot at playing in the World Cup finals in the summer.
They are backed up by Hatem Ben Arfa, Vurnon Anita and Papiss Cisse on the bench, enabling Pardew to bend and shape games if his Plan A is not coming off. Is that reality significantly weaker than, say, Liverpool whose manager Brendan Rodgers has talked of needing to add players in the January transfer window?
Perhaps we will learn more about this team during a December that poses some interesting questions that, if answered, might lance that protective layer of dulled expectation.
It begins tonight in Swansea, where United can earn a fifth straight victory in a game that might have felt fraught with danger last season. The Liberty Stadium is not as much of a fortress as it once was, though, and a United team that has married industry with invention might fancy their chances in South Wales. These days, Newcastle seem to have rediscovered a winning identity by doing things a bit simpler. Cheick Tiote is back to his ball-winning best and that frees up Moussa Sissoko to be more of an attacking force. There was a misconception that Sissoko was a defensive midfielder when he first joined Newcastle but he is an offensive, forward-thinking midfielder – not a number ten, as Pardew might have wanted him to be last season, or a holding player.
It is by finding simple solutions to these tactical problems that Pardew is prospering. Shola Ameobi’s rise to prominence is a clear example of bringing in a player to enable someone else to function more effectively, and the magnificent form of Loic Remy has coincided with Pardew freeing him of some of his defensive responsibilites.
Win against Swansea and it is Manchester United on Saturday. Weakened they may be, but few Newcastle fans will be expecting victory at Old Trafford.
There are reasons, too, to be cautious. Newcastle managed to retain the services of Fabricio Coloccini last January but it is evidently clear that all is not well with their skipper. He remains a huge presence in the United back four and a man of influence and authority. But if his performances remain positive enough to merit his continued inclusion in Newcastle’s team, it does not feel as if that is necessarily guaranteed in the long-term. An unwitting destabilisation of the club through their captain cannot be entirely discounted.
Whatever happens, though, there is a definite sense of a changing of the guard at Newcastle. The team look more convincing and the January strengthening has given this team a recognisable identity again.
Pardew struck upon an interesting notion on Monday afternoon, calling it his “third team” at Newcastle. He inherited one and has been handed the players to mould two more, with last season a “transition” campaign.
“I think this is my third team since I have been here. There was the team I inherited, the Andy Carroll, Kevin Nolan and Joey Barton team,” he explained.
“Then there was the team that finished fifth. Then last year we had the transition to this team.
“That’s what you’ve got to do, you have got to move forward and change the team.
“How many did Fergie have? Five, six, many more than that and Wenger is the same.
“There is a freshness about this team at the moment.”
What he didn’t say was this might very well be his best – we just don’t know yet.