It is often said that a true measure of any person is how they respond in the face of adversity. Some of us are candid enough to admit that they don’t handle pressure particularly well. As Alan Partridge once confessed “Anyone who knows me professionally will know that under pressure my work does suffer”; yet others seem to thrive on it. At Newcastle we perhaps discovered that about many of our players in the aftermath of relegation in 2009. At that point the rats/sinking ship analogy was given a sick note and signed off for 6 months due to exhaustion from overuse. Yet as much as the likes of Duff, Owen, Martins and Bassong showed their true character, we also got to see the true mettle of players like Nolan, Smith, Coloccini, Harper, Gutierrez and others. None of them had done a great deal to impress up to that point but the strength of their character as individuals played a huge part in our ability to come straight back up and deliver a decent first season back in the top flight.
There was something of a changing of the guard in that respect just under two years ago. The “big characters” were moved on or found themselves marginalised. The nature of the dressing room changed and in Coloccini we had a captain who led with calm authority. Not one for barking instructions or putting a rocket up the arse of an underperforming team-mate, Coloccini’s style as captain has been to lead by example. Yes, we were lucky to be relatively injury-free last season but the fact is in 29 of our 38 league games we either kept a clean sheet or conceded just 1 goal. That comes from having a well-organised defensive unit. It cannot be overstated just how important Coloccini was as part of that, both as a player and as a personality.
You can even trace that form through to this season. Far be it from me to speculate as to exactly what has gone on in Coloccini’s personal life but it’s hard not to look at the Liverpool away game in early November as some sort of turning point. Up to then, while we hadn’t been brilliant this season we’d looked fairly solid at the back barring the Man United home game – but I’m going to file that one away under “Shane Ferguson at left back”.
By the time Coloccini returned to the side things were starting to unravel horribly. Shipping 20 goals in 8 games, the defence looked to be a complete shambles, with our captain being one of the worst offenders. Stories emerged about problems in his personal life and we slowly had to come to terms with the compromise that we were going to lose him at the end of the season. Gradually, with his future at the club apparently resolved, Coloccini seemed to return to form and up until his injury against Southampton, the defence started to look a little bit sturdier once again.
However, that most recent absence seemed to coincide with the team beginning to fall apart at the seams. Stories of Pardew “losing the dressing room”, cliques, instability and general unrest. In the aftermath of farcical displays against Man City, Sunderland and Liverpool the silence from the players was deafening. Pardew increasingly a lone voice at the club, aside from the obligatory “We’re gonna win next weekend for the fans” soundbites every week from Shola and Taylor. It wasn’t just media silence, either. Anyone watching the Liverpool game, for example, could clearly see that it was no ordinary defeat – this was more than just a bad day at the office. Players were hiding, they weren’t talking to each other, heads were dropping and no one on the pitch was doing anything to lift their team-mates. It dawned on me after that particular game that we’d pretty much gone through an entire season without hearing from any of the club’s nominated captains. Coloccini retreated completely post-November. Meanwhile other than a few quotes about his own personal exhaustion/depression issues, Yohan Cabaye has basically maintained a very low profile at a time when the club appeared to be in freefall.
Coloccini’s back injury, coupled with the widely-held assumption that he’ll get his wish to return to Argentina this summer, offered Cabaye a window of opportunity – an audition, if you like – to prove himself as a captain. He seems the obvious choice in so many ways: regular first choice player, at the heart of the team, respected (seemingly) by our French (and non-French) contingent – lots of boxes ticked. Yet, and perhaps I’m being harsh, I feel that he’s failed his audition. Just as the team last season seemed to reflect the calm authority of its captain, the team this season has reflected both Coloccini’s chaotic state of mind in the winter and, more recently, the apparent tendency for Cabaye’s head to drop in the face of adversity. Things might be better next season, but that Alan Partridge quote does appear to apply to Wor Yohan to some extent.
Yet, looking around the squad, the alternatives don’t exactly jump out at you. The manic, constantly suspended/injured Tiote? The chaotic gung-ho Steven Taylor? The omnipresent Shola? The barely-speaks-a-word-of-English Sissoko or Cisse? Gutierrez would perhaps be a contender but he doesn’t appear to have either the motivational power of Nolan or the serene aura of Coloccini.
While much has been made of nationality in recent weeks, perhaps it’s character and personality where the real issue is. Effectively this then becomes the main focal point of our summer recruitment. If Coloccini is on his way, we need more “captains” playing for us each week. Otherwise a bad start to next season will prove extremely difficult to turn round.
Author: Paul McIntosh
Follow Paul on Twitter @mcintoshpaul
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