United must not let their standards slip

NEWCASTLE United have raised the bar in the promotion race by outclassing Cardiff City and Andy Carroll has shown precisely what he is capable of.

Andy Carroll

THE only problem with out-classing one of your promotion rivals with a scintillating display of attractive attacking football is the leap in expectations it brings with it.

The only problem with producing an awesome centre-forward performance is that people start to expect the same every week.

Newcastle were at their brilliant best against Cardiff, combining their usual resilience and hard work with a fresh sense of endeavour going forward.

They had pace and penetration down both flanks, zip in the centre of midfield and, in Andy Carroll, a young centre forward giving the most complete performance of his fledgling career.

There were so many positives on the night it feels churlish to dwell on anything negative but, as Newcastle have tended to argue all season after more workmanlike displays, three points are three points no matter how they come to be collected.

Having re-extended their lead to six points on Friday night, it had been cut back to three again by the time Nottingham Forest and West Bromwich Albion had secured narrow wins over Sheffield Wednesday and Plymouth Argyle respectively.

United have played a game less than their closest challengers at the top of the table – a game in hand which comes at Reading later this month – but they answered the challenge set them over the weekend and the pressure has been maintained.

All United did against Cardiff was boost their goal difference, thoroughly entertain their supporters and, in the process, destroy the confidence of one of the supposed promotion rivals which a performance which oozed Premier League class.

These are commendable achievements, but they are already consigned to the end-of-season DVD and not many of those will be sold if it does not also celebrate the Magpies return to the top flight.

That is often the harsh truth about success in sport.

Some say you are only as good as your last performance when in fact you are only as good as your next one.

“This group of lads deserves all the credit which goes with it, but it is something we need to maintain,” said Hughton, his attention already turned to the trip to Derby County tomorrow night and away form which has yielded just one win out of six games in all competitions.

“The run stretches back to October and started after a difficult patch.

“Their response to that was tremendous and their attitude since has to be praised, but every game will get tougher now.

“We are going into that stage of the season where everybody is pushing for their own agendas.

“The games will be tougher and we have to make sure we keep raising the bar.

“What we have done against Cardiff is set ourselves high standards – and we have to maintain them.

“We were really pleased with the performance, particularly as we had all of the new signings starting the game and a new-look back four.

“For example, I don’t think we could have been anymore delighted than we were, but there is also the disappointment of letting them score late on which took the gloss of things a little.

“Just a little, but 5-0 would have been fantastic for us.”

It is a message Hughton will continue to stress to the players in case any of them start to believe their own hype, and presumably it is a message the coaching staff intend to hammer home to Carroll.

The England under-21 international is one of the brightest prospects to have emerged from Newcastle’s Academy system in more than a decade, but he remains a work in progress.

He can either be a masterpiece or flawed; a botched job, something that started well before mistakes were made and the final picture was a frustrating letdown.

Against Cardiff, Carroll looked unplayable at times and he was desperately unlucky not to secure his first senior hat-trick for the club he grew up supporting as a boy.

The superlatives flew around St James’ Park in the immediate aftermath of that game, an heir apparent to Alan Shearer, Newcastle’s next number nine and a future England international, but they will all be forgotten by the time Newcastle arrive at Pride Park.

At 20, Carroll still has so much to learn as a player and a man and the challenge is keeping his mind focused on what people are trying to teach him.

“In some ways, he is an old-fashioned centre-forward who has a prowess in the air, but he is still developing his game and he has to continue to do that,” said Hughton, who has been protective of Carroll following an incident at a city centre nightclub before Christmas which saw him bailed by police last week during an investigation into an alleged assault.

“He has good football skills for a big man, but what he has to add to his game is goals and he was able to do that against Cardiff.

“He has shown what he can do when he is on his game. He has set himself a standard, shown what he capable of and we want that more often.”

The same applies to everyone else in the side, because if a 5-1 win over Cardiff proves to be the highlight of this season it will have gone wrong somewhere.

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