Welcome back Newcastle United. Seriously. You were missed. Wrote a bit about the the Magies impending promotion back in March. Be sure to read that first, forcing me to take a different approach.
Out with the old, in with the Newcastle
Not to sounds like a total high-and-mighty, nose turned up, ivory tower-residing hypocrite ... but ... part of me wants to think that in the year 2010 we're passed trying to make comparisons between European soccer clubs and their American sports equivalents. Maybe.
Having said that, why is that whenever I think of Newcastle United and its so-called Toon Army my mind immediately drifts toward the Philadelphia Eagles? Both are clubs with large fans bases who love their teams to the death, possess slight inferiority complexes and minimal championship silverware in the team trophy case.
That might not be the best way to convey what I'm trying to get across ... plus I don't want to insult any Philly readers.
How about this: Whenever we tend to think or talk about the Philadelphia E-A-G-L-E-S sooner or later our minds tend to drift toward the team's rabid, colorful fans, you know the ones that once booed Santa Claus(*). The fans who went through a love-hate relationship with Donovan McNabb for over a decade until he was traded to the Redskins this year. The fans, who channel their inner Milwall/West Ham-style hatred for anyone wearing a Michael Strahan jersey than ventures toward the Linc.
(*) Apologies for the tiredest or tired cliches, by according to my friend, "the Rev", there was a reason. ... Didn't want to re-hash cheering an injured Michael Irvin, either. Bottom line, I respect the passion of Philly fans.
In a similar way, whenever anyone starts talking about Newcastle United, the presence of its loyal army of 60,000 fans who pack St. James Park every week eventually enters the conversation ... just like nearly any proceeding at the club.
Professional sports are a weird business, and lest we forget it's a business. As an owner/operator you need fans, they're the paying customers, the lifeblood of your bottom line(*). You don't want to be the Florida Marlins where nobody gives a rats fart about what happens on the field. If nobody cares about your club, what's the point? It's been proven by statistics that sports aren't exactly a ticket to riches, outside of a few rare exceptions -- think the New York Yankees -- you're going to lose money. Hell, Barcelona sells 30+ dates at the 90,000 seat Camp Nou, is a Top Five most popular club in the world and still can multi-million dollar debts.
(*) Unless you're Wigan Athletic and your season tickets cost about $450 bucks. Maybe we can pass a collection plate and "sponsor" some Latics fans this season. Who's in?
On the other hand, sometimes in the case of the Eagles or Newcastle an ultra-rapid fanbase almost tends to work against what a team wants to do. This isn't to blame the fans, Eagles' fans aren't at fault for Andy Reid having a better grasp over the McDonald's Dollar Menu than two-minute clock management.
All I'm saying is when you have diehard, passionate fans, the expectations of winning can sometimes be too much for a club to bear. Is it possible in the case of the Eagles and Magpies that the fans actually care too much? We say sports are sometimes a life or death experience, these two teams push it to the extreme.
And once you start operating to cater to the whims of fans, as opposed to having a clear direction on how to win, it becomes an issue.
Other than the chance for a massive photo op and the theoretical need for the "next Shearer" was there any reason why Newcastle United should have pinned its hopes on Michael Owen in 2005? Did the fans ultimately make the decision? No. Did they influence it, sure?
Is the Toon Army the reason the last major trophy won by the Magpies is the 1955 FA Cup? Of course not, but in the long run they might not actually be helping, especially all the constant bickering back-and-forth with owner Mike Ashley (*)
(*) If there is a more tiresome story than Geordies vs. Ashley, please feel free to let me know.
During the late stages of the dreadful 2008-09 campaign, when Shearer -- and his meticulously tailored suits -- futility tried to keep the Magpies out of the relegation trapdoor, the fans subtly turned on the team. Every match at St. James Park turned into a countdown until the mass exodus in the second half . No matter how you slice it, this doesn't reflect well onto the team on the field.
As I wrote about in March, the Magpies brief exile into the Championship was probably the best tonic for the club from a sporting perspective. It took away the pressure of succeeding in Premier League. It stopped the club from spending wantonly on misfit transfer targets. It simply allowed the team under manager Chris Hughton to focus on the team.
In short, the club was able to get its (footballing) house in order.
Now, with a return to the bright lights of the Premier League will the unrealistic expectations follow?
Will fans now think after the club achieved promotion -- in early April -- with 10o+ points in the bank, barely breaking a sweat that they're ready to compete with the big boys?
Put it this way, as currently constructed the Magpies should, stress should, be good enough to have enough points in the bank by early April that they're not in a life-and-death struggle once again. At the same time, pushing for Europe might be a little too much to ask.
If a team like Reading, which won the Championship in 2006 with 100+ points, could do what it did in its first season, a safe mid-table place for Newcastle isn't out of the question. This team, remember, does have proven Premier League quality in Kevin Nolan in the center of the park. His pairing with Alan Smith -- who at this rate will end his career as a defender, if not a keeper -- was the bedrock of the Newcastle squad.
Yeah, there is still some stink from the 2008-09 team lingering. Fab Colocinni was a disaster, so much so that Hughton has brought in Sol Campbell for defensive cover. Shola Ameobi is still the kind of forward that teases with brilliance one week and disappears the next. The Magpies big in-season transfer last year -- Wayne Routledge -- seems to be the classic "tweener" type, good enough to dominate the Championship but flounder against the big boys.
Once again, question my sanity, but maybe, just maybe, a sobered up Joey Barton gets his act together and gives Newcastle a true wild card. When he's not pulling his pants down on the pitch, or putting cigarettes out in people's eyes, Barton is actually a talented player, albeit a batshit crazy one.
Barton wouldn't be the first nut job to finally get his act together at an advanced age, in his case 27. Barton should know this is his last chance, maybe he'll want to prove everybody else wrong. Judging by how he's previous slayed other England internationals for cashing post-2006 with autobiographies.
However it pans out, let's hope he keeps the 'stache.
Less controversial, at least from a personality standpoint, was Newcastle taking advantage of Everton's inability to make a fair contract offer to Dan Gosling, who ought to be a fine squad player along with the likes of Danny Guthrie.
All-and-all, there's more than a couple current Premier League teams who'd willingly swap midfields with what Newcastle has to offer.
It's defensively and up top where the team's fate will be decided.
The defense took a hit, losing ex-Manchester United trainee Danny Simpson for a long time. Steven Taylor is also looking to recover from a January knee injury, too. Taylor's also recently broken his jaw.
Up top, it's not exactly murderers' row, yet there is reason for hope wearing the famed No. 9 shirt -- Andy Carroll.
The 6-foot-3, locally-born, hurly burly, high incident 21-year-old forward could be the type of temperamental talent to propel Newcastle to great things, or he could be the classic football tease. We just don't know.
Oh right, he's the reason Taylor broke his jaw.
In short, I'm anxiously awaiting the Carroll era, especially if he's still rocking the samurai-style long hair.
Hopefull he isn't taken down by the burden of expectations of trying to be the next Shearer. It's already happening. Take a look:
However all this pans out, there's never a dull moment on Tyneside.
The Toon Army simply won't allow it.
Bottom line -- Never underestimate a team that know how to play together and get results. Getting results in soccer certainly boils down to talent, yet there are countless examples of teams that have devised systems that work and punched above their weight. Newcastle, though they were a big fish in a little sea in the Championship, were impressive and found ways to get results. With minimal changes to integrate into the squad, they should be able to hit the ground running. However it breaks the team should be mentally tougher.
Who knows, maybe Barton puts his demons behind him and plays like ex-Geordie ace Paul Gascoigne while Carroll matures into another unstoppable scorer like Shearer. For all the doom-and-gloom that surrounded the club on its relegation, the future looks oddly bright.
T.O.P. EPL Fantasy
Standard League code: 409759-102569
Head-to-Head (limit to first 30): 409759-184681
(Same team can play in both leagues)
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