IT was this time last year that Newcastle United’s players held an emergency team meeting which helped launch the club on the long road to redemption and Premier League promotion.
Thrashed 6-1 by plucky League One minnows Leyton Orient, Newcastle’s shell-shocked stars knew it was time to sort the wheat from the chaff; to sort out those who were willing to stay at St James’ Park to try and repair the damage and those who were more concerned with running away from the mess.
It was a pivotal turning point in Newcastle’s season, it may even turn out to be a defining moment in the club’s history, as the unbreakable team spirit and unwavering collective will were forged in the fires of a sizzling, no-holds-barred inquisition.
We will never know whether that spirit would have grown without that 6-1 humiliation at Brisbane Road, although Newcastle fans will be relieved that this year’s pre-season preparations have got underway without any of the drama and malevolence of 12 months ago.
Newcastle were comfortably too good for Carlisle United on Saturday, despite a sloppy first-half performance which enabled this summer’s League One opponents to give them a few hairy moments at the back.
Gary Madine should have given them the lead when he was sent clear by Tom Taiwo’s through ball, but his lob beat Steve Harper only to land on the roof of the net, after Jose Enrique had been called upon to clear an Ian Harte header off the line with a little bit of help from the crossbar.
United were disjointed and sluggish in the first 45 minutes, but after both teams had made changes at the break, the two-division gap between the clubs was plain to see.
In fact, if competition for places is already hotting up at St James’ Park it will be those who played the second-half rather than the first who have drawn first blood, most notably Joey Barton and Danny Guthrie in the centre of midfield, and the excellent Wayne Routledge on the right wing.
There was also a first goal in a Newcastle shirt from Leon Best, who showed a clinical touch to round goalkeeper Adam Collin, two minutes after the restart, before Routledge set up Nile Ranger for the second with a powerful run and cross.
And Haris Vuckic gave an indication of his vast potential with a superbly taken shot on the turn to complete the scoring.
Of course, it is fitness rather than form that matters at this time of the year, but there were other things to contemplate at the weekend, with Alan Smith given the captain’s armband ahead of Kevin Nolan and Steve Harper, which would suggest he is the favourite to replace Nicky Butt as club skipper.
And it would seem as though Andy Carroll may well be wearing the famous number nine shirt next season, despite Newcastle’s continued pursuit of another centre-forward in the transfer market. Chris Hughton would not give any hints about the decision he has made regarding the vacant squad number, although significantly he has reached a verdict.
United’s manager argued he had to tell the players first, rather than the supporters via the media, but Carroll may well be on the verge of following in the footsteps of Alan Shearer, Andy Cole, Jackie Milburn and Malcolm Macdonald. “I have made a decision on the number nine shirt,” said Hughton, with a cautious pause.
“I’m not going to tell you what that decision is. I know in my own mind. I know the number nine shirt is an issue and that’s why I treat it with the respect it deserves.”
Shola Ameobi, who missed the trip to Brunton Park with a slight injury, is another possible candidate and, in theory, the shirt could be offered as a bargaining chip to attract a new signing, but Carroll is the front runner.
A shoulder injury to Steven Taylor will be assessed this morning and that was the only real cause for concern for Hughton over the weekend, who signalled his intention to maintain as much secrecy as possible in the transfer market. He added: “It has been a low key summer and I think that is a good thing. There was a statement that went out earlier in the summer and the reason for that was, this club in the past has spent a lot of money on big players coming in.
“That statement was about where this club is now and it’s the same with a lot of Premier League clubs.
“It’s only Man City who are buying big, there aren’t too many others. We’re cutting our cloth accordingly and so are a lot of other clubs.”
CARLISLE UNITED (4-4-2): Collin (Caig 71); Simek (Gibson 67), M’Voto (Wood 75), Harte, Murphy; Berrett, Thirlwell (Cregg 46), Bridge-Wilkinson (Hurst 46), Taiwo (Robson 46); Curran (Zoko 46), Madine (Price 46).
NEWCASTLE UNITED (4-4-2): Harper (Krul 46); Tavernier (R Taylor 46), Coloccini (S Taylor 46) (Henderson 81), Williamson (Perch 46), Enrique (Ferguson 46); Inman (Routledge 46), Smith (Barton 46), Nolan (Guthrie 46), LuaLua (Vuckic 46) ; Carroll (Best 46), Løvenkrands (Ranger 46). Sub (not used): McLaughlin.