Newcastle United: Third season syndrome?
Given their past experiences at the top end of the Premier League table in the mid to late 1990s – times they really, really loved – it is easy to forget that Newcastle United are still a recently promoted club.
Relegation in the 2008/09 season meant a season in the Championship for the Geordies and their devoted followers, who were able to watch a team including the likes of Andy Carroll, Kevin Nolan and Joey Barton bounce straight back to the big time at the first time of asking under manager Chris Hughton.
Just a glance at those names above and a consideration of the varying degrees of success they’ve had since they held aloft the Championship trophy in 2010 will tell you that two-and-half years can be an awful long time in football, and as today’s vastly different Newcastle staff face up to the realisation that they are in another tough relegation battle they are unable to call upon the experiences of too many of those who were involved in the last one.
A reasonably solid first season back in the Premier League in 2010/11 – albeit one which didn’t prevent the removal of Hughton – was suddenly transformed into a rapid change of personnel as the likes of Carroll, Nolan, Barton and Jose Enrique departed and Demba Ba, Yohan Cabaye, Hatem Ben Arfa and Davide Santon arrived. It could have gone one of two ways, but it went upwards.
Aided by last January’s arrival of Papiss Cisse the Magpies flew to a thoroughly deserved fifth place in the table, impressing all onlookers and embarrassing a number of teams below them who had spent a lot more money in the quest for success.
Given the relative newness of the team and breath of fresh air brought by many of the personnel in some ways it was the equivalent of a new team to the division impressing in their maiden campaign; an approach which would place the current problems experienced by Alan Pardew and his side squarely in the dreaded ‘second season syndrome’ territory.
Fifteenth in the table and only two points above the relegation zone, Newcastle go into Saturday’s trip to Norwich off the back of nine defeats in their last 11 league games and a demoralising FA Cup loss at Brighton & Hove Albion last Saturday.
Pardew has problems, that much is self-evident, and with Ba deciding to swap the north-east of England for west London – ensuring that the Senegalese top scorer is just another name to come and go during Tyneside’s whirlwind two-and-a-half years – the onus will fall upon Cisse to start finding the net again to lift his side up the table.
Given that matches against fellow strugglers Aston Villa and Reading follow the Norwich game it is not too far-fetched to claim that January is the most important month for Newcastle in quite some time, especially as February brings a fixture against Ba’s Chelsea and a trip to Tottenham as well as the distraction of a two-legged Europa League tie against the Ukrainians Metalist Kharkiv.
European football appears to have come far too soon to a squad and a manager who have struggled to cope with the demands it brings, and these next few weeks before they head out onto the continent again offer a huge chance for Newcastle to pull away from those who – at the moment – appear more likely than them to remain near the foot of the table the longer the season goes on.
The Magpies dare not fail.
Their third season back in the big time has exhibited many of the characteristics of a team going through a second season of struggle after a first season of success, and with Pardew admitting that his team face a second period of the campaign in which they’ll be more concerned about the bottom places in the table than the ones at the top, the likes of Cabaye, Ben Arfa and Cisse simply can’t return to fitness and top form quick enough.
Time has a habit of flying just when you don’t want it to, after all.