High in the deserted Milburn Stand on Saturday afternoon, a couple of hours before kick-off against Fulham, a radio broadcaster posed the question: “Where, in the context of Newcastle United crises, does this one stand?”
It was an educated query but it rather missed the point. Newcastle United’s current travails don’t constitute a crisis under Mike Ashley, they are just a wearying fact of life - another set of flawed decisions to be hurdled in the name of black-and-white progress.
And to be fair, by full-time on Saturday, St James’ Park didn’t exactly feel crisis-torn. A useful-looking home side had played well, they’d secured a deserved victory and for the first time since last Spring it felt like the players were beginning to click in a well-drilled system that looked full of menace.
Yet this is a club where dsyfunction is now used as a term of endearment. It was the way Pardew praised match-winning maestro Hatem Ben Arfa and it might equally be applied to their efforts in the transfer market, which will reach their tortured conclusion at 11pm tonight.
Given the summer that has just unfolded anything is possible in the next few hours. The only thing that we can state with reasonable confidence is that, given how late it has been left, the appointment of Joe Kinnear was some way short of a tactical master-stroke.
United have needed a winger and a striker all summer – and would probably have benefited from the proposed signing of centre-back Douglas, which was nixed by Kinnear in the days following his appointment. Given the TV riches absorbed by the Premier League this summer, it didn’t feel like an outrageous shopping list.
Instead United are hoping to pull off last-minute deals while also submitting themselves to uncertainty over Arsenal’s intentions surrounding Yohan Cabaye. No wonder Pardew chooses his words carefully. “I will be spending Monday on my guard. I guess that’s the best way to put it on,” Pardew said after over-seeing this 1-0 defeat of Fulham. “I think it’s fair to say that if we can keep hold of Yohan and add someone else it will have been a fairly successful window for us.
“But there’s still a lot of time and we’ve experienced that last-day thing before with that whole Andy Carroll bid. That left us really short.”
Whatever happens, United have regained some lost momentum with performances of power and resolve in the last few days.
Saturday was significantly better than any performance since Benfica were beaten back in April – and not just because they secured a critical three points. The team looked more fluent going forward, the system looked more honed and the players looked motivated and in fine nick.
At the forefront of it all was Ben Arfa: maddening, mercurial but ultimately a match-winner. He is the difference and we all know it, but only if he recognises that he can’t win the game on his own – as he tried to at times in the first half. Pardew concurred. “I thought he made some poor decisions actually,” he said.
“At half-time I said to him, ‘You need to seriously think about what you’re doing here today because you’re slowing us down and making poor decisions with the ball’.
“To be fair to him, in the second half I thought he stayed out on the right hand side which I asked him to do and be a little bit more responsible in terms of his positional play. That worked for him and for us.”
Ben Arfa’s brilliance was the headline act but there was so much more balance about Newcastle on Saturday – especially in midfield. A major charge laid at Pardew’s door last season was that his team went long and aimless too often. This year they have played the fewest long balls of any team in the division – a mere 49.
Against Fulham, they benefited from the precision and poise of Vurnon Anita. He will never be a headline act at St James’ Park but he delivered a performance that enabled others on Saturday, moving the ball about accurately and tidying up in front of a revived Moussa Sissoko.
It is about time Anita got a run of games and you wonder what the effect will be on Cheick Tiote if he continues to perform so admirably. Surely Pardew cannot hand him an immediate recall.
Newcastle made plenty of chances, but the spark of creative frisson they needed came when Loic Remy and Cabaye came on. Remy – a “thoroughbred” according to Pardew – entered the fray to a standing ovation while Cabaye was jeered on by some. In truth, both added something crucial. Remy’s pace and power is going to be a major asset, while Cabaye got on with his work despite the understandable frustration at his stance since Arsenal’s offer. Only four minutes were left on the clock when Ben Arfa cut in from the outside and curled a sumptuous winner past Stockdale. This was a big win.
United need more of these joyous moments. The slow atrophy of the club under Mike Ashley has been advanced during a summer of discontent and there was signs of that manifesting on the terraces on Saturday.
For a start, a crowd of 46,402 was the lowest at St James’ Park for a Premier League game since December 3. It is also worth noting that this was the smallest gate for a Saturday 3pm kick-off since September 24, 2011.
More than that though, the atmosphere felt strangely muted. Which brings us back to the broadcaster’s original question, really.
Summing it up, this is not a crisis. Newcastle do feel anything like the doomed mess that wound up relegated in 2009. Given everything that has happened this summer, that has to be viewed as an achievement of sorts.