NEWCASTLE'S season has been a triumph for grafters over the glamourpusses.
ALL supporters are fickle, and the receptions afforded Andy Carroll, Jose Enrique and Craig Bellamy at St James' Park at the weekend were a reminder that Newcastle United's are no exception.
The gloating as Enríque pulled on a grey goalkeeper’s shirt plenty of sizes too large for him to replace the sent-off Pepe Reina was unrelenting. The Spanish left-back escaped Tyneside in search of a “bigger” club after telling the world on Twitter that Newcastle would never again challenge in the top six without a drastic change of mindset.
As the Magpies were busy cementing their place there with a 2-0 win, the home fans were only too happy to point out that, unlike Liverpool, their team were in the top six. “You should have stayed at a big club,” they suggested.
But just as hell hath no fury like a football fan scorned, they are also willing to forgive and forget.
Eighteen months after being booed by his own supporters after a dismal display against Wigan Athletic, the Gallowgate broke off from baiting their old favourites to sing “We’ve got Perchinho” during a man-of-the-match performance by one of the many quiet heroes of Newcastle’s push for Europe.
While Liverpool’s squad was built with American dollars, the Magpies’ is packed with grafters like James Perch. It is too simplistic to portray Sunday’s game as the paupers v the princes, David v Goliath – Jon Flanagan, Jonjo Shelvey and Jay Spearing were all on the Reds’ team-sheet, and Papiss Cissé and Hatem Ben Arfa have the sort of glamour which would not put them out of place in some of the Newcastle teams of the Freddie Shepherd era.
But what is so heartening about Newcastle’s assault on the established order is that, while egos seem to rule the Chelsea dressing room and money is the root of all scheming at Anfield, their success has largely been based on honest professionalism.
Perch, Mike Williamson, Ryan Taylor, Leon Best and Danny Guthrie could never be cornerstones of a Liverpool or Chelsea side. Guthrie was on the Reds’ books as a youngster, lifelong fan Taylor grew up on their doorstep, but was allowed to join Tranmere Rovers.
As they showed at the weekend, even some of the more glamorous members of the team are prepared to dig in for victory. Top scorer Demba Ba has energetically taken on the role of makeshift left-winger in the last two victories, while the man who specialises there, Jonás Gutiérrez, is single-handedly ruining the reputation of pony-tailed foreign wide men. In the last three games – all won – he has played left-back, holding midfield, and left-back again. You will not find him throwing a tantrum like the one which followed Carroll down the tunnel after his substitution on his old stamping ground.
Perch can top Gutiérrez’s recent versatility – in midfield against Norwich City, starting at left-back versus West Bromwich Albion, before moving to the centre-back berth he filled versus Liverpool. He played well in all three positions.
Alan Pardew spent January furiously looking for a new centre-back after Steven Taylor ruptured his Achilles, ruling him out of the rest of the campaign. But Williamson is used to being under-estimated, and one suspects he is happier out of the limelight.
He has, though, more than held his own against the Premier League’s top strikers this season.
If Williamson and Perch took Sunday’s plaudits, they were Ryan Taylor’s in the early months. Injury has restricted his involvement in 2012, but it says much about his improvement that his absence is even noted. Signed midway through the relegation season of 2008-09, it is only recently he has made his presence felt.
A winner at Sunderland in August ensured his place in supporters’ affections, but he backed that up with the quality of his performances since, playing here, there and everywhere to equally good effect. Players like Taylor, Perch and Gutiérrez are essential to any squad.
Qualify for the Europa League and they will become even more integral. Pardew recently said he had no plans to increase the size of his squad if they reach one of club football’s most gruelling competitions. Reach the group stages and Newcastle will find themselves in a regular cycle of playing Thursday, Sunday between racking up the air miles.
The odd-job men of the squad will allow them to patch the sort of holes which ordinarily Fabricio Coloccini’s hamstring injury would have left exposed against Liverpool.
Great credit for taking such an unheralded bunch so far goes to Pardew. He did not sign Perch, Taylor, Best, Williamson, Guthrie or even Gutiérrez. Even those who arrived on his watch owe much to the scouting of Graham Carr. In the case of the first three names on that unglamorous list, he recognised potential his predecessor, Chris Hughton, had given up on.
Signing players is just a small part of the manager’s job. Moulding them into a genuine team is a much more important part of the job description. The rest is up to them. They have done their jobs brilliantly.