x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Newcastle the Premier League gatecrashers

Alan Pardew's unheralded side are by far the English top flight's of the year, says Richard Jolly.

Papiss Cisse, centre, has provided fresh attacking impetus to an already fine Newcastle United team since joining in February. Scott Heppell / AP Photo
Papiss Cisse, centre, has provided fresh attacking impetus to an already fine Newcastle United team since joining in February. Scott Heppell / AP Photo

As the campaign nears its conclusion, football's awards season begins. Various categories, whether official or unofficial, feature strong contenders from Newcastle United.

Demba Ba, the free-transfer arrival who delivered 16 goals, is surely the signing of the season, and Graham Carr, the talent-spotter supreme, is arguably the outstanding scout of the last two years.

While Mike Ashley, the owner, would never win a popularity contest - not least for renaming St James' Park "the Sports Direct Arena" - Newcastle United, that byword for overspending and underachievement, have become one of the best run clubs in the division.

None of which would be recognised without results on the pitch.

And while Swansea City's Brendan Rodgers is the rightful favourite for the League Managers' Association's award, Alan Pardew is mounting a strong challenge. Should Newcastle displace Arsenal or Tottenham Hotspur from a Uefa Champions League spot, he would be a deserving winner.

It would be the first time a genuine outsider has broken into the top four since Everton seven years ago. There are distinct similarities between their two seasons: like Everton in 2004/05, Newcastle made an unexpectedly fine start and, defying predictions of a descent down the division, just kept on going.

A relentlessly demanding David Moyes ensured Everton's standards did not drop; now Pardew's Newcastle, if anything, are appearing more potent as the campaign progresses.

Both managers forged a team ethic, bringing the best from unheralded players.

It is a shame that James Perch's involvement in Sunday's 2-0 win over Liverpool was tarnished by his histrionics when Pepe Reina was sent off.

Before then, the odd-job man had excelled as a stand-in centre back.

While the absence of the injured Fabricio Coloccini and Steven Taylor left Newcastle with a pairing of Perch and Mike Williamson that seemed better suited to the Championship, they kept a clean sheet, albeit with some fortune.

Perch is emblematic. There is also Ryan Taylor, the right-sided midfielder who flourished as a stand-in left-back after Jose Enrique's sale, and Danny Guthrie, the unsung understudy for Yohan Cabaye and Cheik Tiote in the centre of midfield, and Shola Ameobi, whose only goals have been vital late equalisers.

None is a great talent, but each has played his part. That is testament to the manager, turning potential weak links into valuable squad players.

Yet it is easier to impress alongside fine footballers and the single most significant factor in Newcastle's rise has been their transfer-market brilliance.

The combined cost of Cabaye, Tiote, Ba, Papiss Cisse and Hatem Ben Arfa is £23 million (Dh135.5m) or two-thirds of the amount Liverpool deposited in Newcastle's bank account for Andy Carroll alone.

It shows an extraordinary acumen, but while Carr has consistently supplied fine players, Pardew has moulded them into a team.

Arguably, indeed, they have had two teams this season. Initially reliant on Ba for goals, Newcastle started off by making themselves fiendishly hard to beat by showing positional discipline in a rigorously drilled 4-4-2 formation. Now the straitjacket has been removed. The prolific Cisse has provided a fresh injection of impetus since his January arrival, giving Newcastle a second fine finisher while Ba has unselfishly turned supplier for his fellow Senegalese.

Meanwhile, Pardew has found a way of accommodating the gifted Ben Arfa, whose defensive shortcomings mean he can struggle in a four-man midfield. They have been more open, trusting that they can outgun opponents.

With Newcastle playing superbly in last week's win over West Bromwich Albion and excelling against Liverpool, it is a strategy that has been justified, just as Pardew's pre-season promotion of the rookie Tim Krul ahead of the experienced goalkeeper Steve Harper has been a masterstroke.

It set the tone for a season of inspired decision-making. It is why Newcastle find themselves already effectively guaranteed a top-six finish and with a chance of a smashing the glass ceiling and breaking into the elite.

And if they do, they, not Swansea or either of the Manchester clubs, will be the team of the year.

Sunderland

It was the misfortune of the north-east rivals that their own exploits were overshadowed by the troubles of the teams they frustrated.

Just as Liverpool's sixth defeat in seven games was more eye-catching than any statistic surrounding Newcastle's fine form, Sunderland's 3-3 draw at the Etihad Stadium was the first time in 21 home league games that Manchester City did not win, prompting criticism of the title challengers.

It was, however, another sign of the revival Martin O'Neill has overseen and an admirable response to last Tuesday's FA Cup defeat to Everton.

If the Sunderland squad seems littered with beneficiaries of O'Neill's appointment, few have flourished quite like Nicklas Bendtner.

His goal in Manchester was his fourth in five league games and a reminder that, at this stage two years ago, he was making a habit of delivering vital goals in Arsenal's title bid.

Since then, his ego appeared greater than his achievements. But his potential is finally being realised and it will be instructive if O'Neill tries to turn the Dane's loan into a permanent move to the Stadium of Light in the summer.

It could suit the striker, Sunderland and Arsenal if he does.

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