Jim White

Newcastle revel in bizarre renaissance

Jim White

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I was talking to a Newcastle United supporter yesterday. The interesting thing was — like every other Newcastle fan I have ever met — he did not conform remotely to type.

Just as all Manchester United fans are said to hail from Godalming and all Leeds followers are dismissed as Neanderthals, the received wisdom about the Geordie faithful is that they have ludicrously ambitious expectations. They are — so the widespread notions go — convinced their club should be winning every trophy in sight and are thus in a constant condition of agitation when they don't.

The weeping Geordie is almost as big a cliché as the weeping Manchester City fan.

As it happens, in keeping with most of those who flock fortnightly to the cathedral of football formerly known as St James' Park, this chap had little in the way of expectation. He just seemed very pleased, if not a little astonished, at how well this season is panning out.

"Like a lot of my mates I had no time for Pardew when he was appointed, just thought he was another waste of time," he said. "But he's proved me wrong. Now there's a real chance we might even get to Europe. Though knowing us we'll probably bugger it up at the last."

Even get to Europe? Don't you Newcastle fans, I said to him, think you should be doing a lot more than that?

"Why? We've not won anything domestically for 60 years. What on earth makes you think we think we should be winning things? Do you know a single Geordie who wakes up in the morning and thinks today's the day we're going to win something? Because I don't."

The truth is, realism long ago became the lot of the Newcastle fan. Which is why this season has been such fun. A good team, a good manager, good prospects: what a contrast to the views most of the fans had last August, when all they could see ahead was another year of turmoil and dismay.

Because what has surprised most of all is that the current renaissance has taken place under the watch of the current owner Mike Ashley. If there are any assumptions made around St James' Park they have generally been that if there is anything good going on at the club, Ashley will foul it up.

While accepting that as a billionaire he must have some business nous about him, few of those in the stands could see any logic in the manner in which he runs the club. Every policy seems irrational, based on the jerk of the knee and the short-term, every business decision suited more to his own personal agenda than the long-term health of the club. The name change to the Sports Direct Arena an example of his crass failure to understand what he has in his hands.

And yet, bizarrely, Ashley is currently presiding over the most progressive management regime in the Premier League. One which points the way to turning a business mired by debt and spiralling costs into one which makes sustainable profit.

Much is made of the model apparently adopted at Anfield. The Sabermetrics stuff about finding value in the transfer market that others might have missed is said to have been imported to Liverpool from baseball by the American owners of the club. Though you have to wonder what Billy Beane, the presiding genius of the theory, would make of an institution forking out north of £100 million on such duds as Jordan Henderson, Andy Carroll and Charlie Adam. More Moneyballs-up than Moneyball.

At Newcastle, however, without any fuss or declaration, Sabermetrics is being giving living definition. Tim Krul, Cheick Tiote, Yohan Cabaye, Demba Ba and Papiss Cisse: everyone has seen their value rise exponentially this season.

The source of such investment gems is pretty obvious. Most Geordies credit the scout Graham Carr for finding them over in the French leagues. According to Joe Cole, the one Englishman currently playing in France, he has seen Alan Pardew at matches at least half a dozen times this season, checking out targets identified by his highly knowledgeable colleague.

And Cole reckons the seam of talent is by no means exhausted. At his own club, Lille — from which Cabaye was bought last summer — Cole thinks there are plenty with the ability and temperament to thrive in the Premier League. And he is not simply referring to Eden Hazard.

But buying well is only the start of it. Clearly Pardew has been able to mould his recruits into a potent mix, developing a team spirit that is second to none in the division. The upward mobility may have taken the regulars by surprise, but there is clearly method on the training ground.

What worries the fans is how long it will last. One thing that certainly characterises the Newcastle fan these days is a distrust of the boardroom. As my contact put it: "Ashley must take one look at the team doing well and see pound notes running around the pitch. The chances of all of Krul, Tiote, Cabaye, Ba and Cisse being here next season is absolutely minimal. I reckon he'll cash on on at least three of them. And that's whether we qualify for the Champions League or not."

Over-wrought expectations? For most fans, those were left hanging on the Tyne Bridge with that famously over-excited and over-optimistic banner commissioned in Kevin Keegan's time: "Newcastle United: Premier League champions 1996."

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