Twelve months was all it took. From almost within grasping distance of the cloth Europe’s top table, to dangling over the pit of relegation; finger nails clawing desperately at the ground halting the descent in nick of time. Just how do you explain going from a 5th place finish to 16th in a single season? A mammoth 24pts difference in no more than twelve calendar months. Even by the unwanted historical standards of the Newcastle United rollercoaster, the ascent to descent process has been staggeringly dramatic – but as every ascent can be taken without question, every dramatic descent demands an answer. Unsurprisingly, it’s complicated…
As early as August last year it was becoming apparent that things weren’t running smoothly, but as vociferous attention was draw towards the stuttering lack of investment in the playing staff an equally troublesome problem in the way of squad fitness grew largely unnoticed. In an intentionally bullish season preview in mid-August, it was noted:
“…pre-season preparations for the squad itself have again been lacking finesse. Hastily arranged, then re-arranged fixtures altered destinations drastically – a long-haul to South Africa became neutral friendlies on European soil with a strange frequency. Add into the mix the extended holiday for those on European Championship or international duty and all of a sudden games were falling at inconvenient times to reintroduce players into the cycle. Some players, particularly Marveaux and Steven Taylor gathered valuable playing time – adversely key figures Cabaye and Ben Arfa received mere minutes and once again look unlikely to start the season fully fit.”
The problem was there to be seen, and an early season fixture pile-up involving Europa league qualifiers and a still open transfer window only served to distract eyes from that particular problem. The inability to add players capable of first team duty to the squad in the summer has been lambasted, righty, throughout the season – but through our woeful preparations a ‘paper thin’ squad simply became an ‘unfit, paper-thin squad’. Fail to prepare, prepare to fail…
With this ‘unfit, paper-thin’ squad embarking what ended up being 52 game season, in retrospect it’s little surprise the injuries came thick and fast. Of the 15 remaining players that travelled to Everton on the final game of the 2011/12 season, ten (2/3) suffered injuries during this season which kept them out for more than two consecutive games. Most, and examples come no better than Tiote, Cabaye and Ben Arfa, were plagued by injury and lack of fitness for large portions of the season, if not the entire season itself. Injuries are always to be expected – the case of the desperately unfortunate Ryan Taylor a timely reminder; however the correlation between poorly conditioned players and the extent of injuries is striking – even with the well documented demands of a Europa League campaign which regularly saw a raft of youngsters take to the field in the place of our league starters.
Heavy hope was place upon the youngsters at the fringes who held glowing individual reputations. The likes of Sammy Ameobi and Shane Ferguson had made positive cameos in the season(s) previous and were to have their big chance as the games piled up. However, the big chance turned out to be simply a big ask, as their predominant use in the cup competitions yielded a sour cocktail of nerves, positional indiscipline and flat lack of ability. Simply, it was too much, too soon – the defeats to Bordeaux and Brighton in the cups bringing heavy criticism from Pardew, which was mostly justified. However the expectation placed upon them by using so many youngsters in one go does beg the question of was much more really expected of them? Either way, the hope that the youth would shore up the squad’s lack of investment faded quickly and as injuries arrived to the senior players, the youth mostly entered the fray as nothing more than a name to fulfil the required squad quota.
Injuries were a popular gripe for reigning manager of year Alan Pardew, and at least until the influx of players in January there was sympathy for him. The cracks had spread further than he cared to admit though; a perplexing early season insistence on making a 442 formation work without the benefit of a single winger capable of providing service to the forward line (or a full team for that matter) saw play degenerate into the ugly and direct with the score-lines to match. The problem was the more Pardew persisted the more his eye was drawn away from the fundamentals of why it wasn’t working. His post-match (typically post-defeat) reasoning becoming increasingly desperate, bemoaning lack of fitness and lack of experience on an almost weekly basis in the first half of the season and European participation for almost the entire season, when viable plan A (let alone a plan B) didn’t exist. That is of course unless a viable plan A consists of firing the ball directly to the forwards from depths of 20,000 leagues under the sea…
As said, sympathies could have been offered for much of what he was having to work with, but in blunt truth NUFC were underperforming from the off and never rose above 10th position from as early as the start of October – 6 games into the season. Even when a drastic change of tact presented a Newcastle side playing the ball out from the back to comfortably beat 10 man Wigan (numerical advantage noted) the improvement in play was scrapped in favour of the kick and rush nonsense that had reaped so little reward earlier in the season. And as if the basics of play weren’t failing enough, the specifics in team selection and strategy both before and during games were frankly inexcusable – the personal pinnacle of which saw Shola Ameobi be selected, by choice, to face the carthorse that is Ian Harte in a Reading side that was as weak as any to visit St James’ Park in living memory.
But that was only the surface of the problem. On multiple occasions it appeared from a far that despite working with most of the players for well over a year, Pardew didn’t seem to understand them all quite as much as you’d expect. Natural poacher Papiss Cisse was shoved to right wing; attacker Sylvain Marveaux was deployed in a covering role against the buccaneering Leighton Baines; passing midfielder Vurnon Anita was simply played anywhere – and in one game changed positions no fewer than three time. Jonas Gutierrez and Chieck Tiote can never claim to have been in good form over a reasonable string of games this season and yet were picked without question – Vurnon Anita and Sylvian Marveaux hit form only to be benched or not involved at all.
The players themselves cannot hide either. Alan Pardew and his coaching team has rightly shouldered much of the blame, but at the times he did get the game plan right there was many where he was let down by the indiscipline and astonishing errors of his players. Cheick Tiote turned a stroll in the Stadium of Light into a flat draw; Davide Santon and Steven Taylor went hand-in-hand in personally costing a potential Europa League semi-final place at the real Stadium of Light in Lisbon. The thrashing at home to Liverpool may have had some manager input, but the surrender of the players that day stole the show at a level of effort that no professional should ever sink as low as. It could be argued that by that point even the players had just had enough of the season…
So, where did it all fall down? The simple answer is there isn’t one. Luck with injuries can be countered by the scandalous conditioning and equally scandalous lack of investment at the beginning of the season. The mid-season influx of players can go some way to arguing the squad ended the season strong enough, but how much could have seriously been expected from players that as yet haven’t even been in Newcastle upon Tyne for a full six months? Was too much hope misplaced upon progression of the youngsters or have we only served to terminally destroy the confidence of young lads who were used up in frantic desperation? As the season has drawn to a close, Alan Pardew has received a barrage of criticism – little of which he can claim to be unfair, but those he relies upon have ultimately let him down as much as the reverse is true.
As complex and intertwined the problems have been this season, the simplicity is; aesthetically, statistically and emotionally, it’s been ugly. Ultimately, fortune favoured us enough that a combination of last gasp goals and other team’s ineptitude combined to help us narrowly avoid relegation. And whether they are or not, lessons must be learned save for the next time we’re not fortunate… Good riddance to 2012/13.
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