Perhaps Mike Ashley has never truly got over it. Two years ago, with Newcastle United perched prettily in the Premier League table, the club’s owner was persuaded to lavish the best part of £9m on Papiss Cisse to push the Magpies into the Champions League.
They came up (just) short and the word from the boardroom was that Ashley was unamused.
For while fifth place was enough of an achievement to see Alan Pardew handed the League Manager’s Association’s prestigious boss of the year award, it landed Newcastle in the Europa League and presented Ashley with a whole load of financial headaches he could have done without. Ever since, the theory has been advanced that Ashley wants United to be successful enough to stay up without the budgetary pain of Continental competition.
That way, the logic goes, the club’s finances can virtually take care of themselves.
That retrograde thinking needs to be tossed out of the window this season. Whatever process United officials might be going through to try to depress expectation, there can be no denying that they are confronted with a once-in-a-generation opportunity to gatecrash the Champions League party once again.
A simple glance at the top flight table tells you that. Arsenal have asserted themselves at the top of the table but below them there are weaknesses and vulnerabilities in every club that is jostling for a top-four place, not least a surprisingly weak Manchester United.
Their implosion has been a remarkable twist in this Premier League season. To be ninth at this stage in the campaign equates them to Stoke City last season and Norwich the year before, and the ripple effect of their vulnerability has been keenly felt by the top flight’s middleweights. Suddenly, there is a belief that smuggling three points from the very best in the division is possible. Manchester City may look unstoppable at home but on their travels they have a soft underbelly that can be exposed, and has been by Sunderland and Cardiff City.
Chelsea, so reliable during Jose Mourinho’s first period in charge, were beaten by Stoke City on Saturday in the latest illustration of their lack of composure and authority. Their manager appears as unconvinced by them as the rest of us.
Newcastle sit seventh: a remarkable but deserved position that reflects the commanding nature of their recent performances. Granted, they may not have bewitched with attacking football but they bear the hallmarks of a team that can control games again this term. That is invaluable.
It is also the best reason why the club cannot afford to take the wrong turn at this particular crossroads. On several occasions under Ashley, Newcastle have arrived at a moment of opportunity and declined the chance to train on. Think two summers ago, when the Europa League scrambled brains and fried thinking at St James’ Park – resulting in a close season that saw just Vurnon Anita arrive on Tyneside. That was an opportunity missed, although the presence of a strong Manchester United side able to reassert themselves on the division meant that it was always going to be a harder to task to break into the established order.
This season, it appears there is no Premier League establishment. The top four is not the domain of the teams with Champions League pedigree and that will encourage the likes of Everton, Southampton, Tottenham and Liverpool – but it should also be the catalyst for renewed determination at St James’ Park.
They stand three points away from the top four and today Yohan Cabaye tells us that mid-January will be the first point at which they can talk realistically of reaching for the Champions League. The six league games the precede Cabaye’s reference point are comprised of Southampton on Saturday, a trip to Crystal Palace and a combination of Stoke, Arsenal and Manchester City at home. Do any of them strike fear into a Newcastle team that have struck upon a system, style and personality that seems to have put them at ease?
The French core of their team has settled into a nice rhythm and Cheick Tiote provides the beating heart of a midfield that marries invention and endeavour expertly. Most importantly they have a striker in Loic Remy who might be one of 2013’s best Premier League performers. Give or take a couple of deficiencies, this could be top four material.
Of course those warning against getting carried away might point to teams that had collected 26 points at similar stages in 2007 and 2008 respectively. Manchester City managed it in 2007 (in the days before the Abu Dhabi investment) and Hull were able to do it a year later. One finished ninth, the other 17th.
So a strong start is no guarantee of a grandstand finish to a campaign. But consider this a year when the hard and fast rules of Premier League football no longer apply, and hope that Ashley recognises the potentially transformative effect qualifying for the premier European competition might have.