Mark Ooi lays out Newcastle’s woeful past and how the team along with Steve McLaren can turn the fortunes of this once successful club around.
“Wolly with a brolly”, “Shteve McClaren” – The newly-appointed Newcastle United head coach has been called many (negative) things over the years. His career will likely be forever tainted by his time with England at international level, which culminated in the team’s failure to qualify for the 2008 Euros. However, his C.V. is one that many people would be proud to have, from working as Sir Alex Ferguson’s assistant at Manchester United – including during the Red Devils’ 1998/99 treble-winning season – to leading unfancied FC Twente to the Dutch title. McClaren had been handpicked by Ferguson in 1999 to replace Brian Kidd as his number two. As a manager in the English Premier League, McClaren had a successful 5-year spell at Middlesbrough, winning the League Cup in 2003/04 and reaching the 2005/06 UEFA Cup final.
Could Steve McClaren bring success to Newcastle United? As a coach, he has shown to possess the required ability. The main obstacle to success at Newcastle United over the years has been the unwillingness of the regime to invest with ambition. The meaning of “ambition” to the St James’ Park faithful is in stark contrast to the image that the media and fans of other clubs perpetuate. It is a myth that Newcastle fans expect the club to be competing for Champions League qualification, let alone the Premier League title.
The ambition and philosophy that the likes of Swansea City and Southampton have succeeded with is what Newcastle fans want. The Toon Army want the club to do their best to keep their best players in order to build gradually year upon year as well as to show ambition in every competition they are involved in. Newcastle’s domestic cup record since Mike Ashley bought the club in 2007 is shockingly bad. Since then, the club have failed to reach the quarter-finals in either domestic cup. Being beaten by lower division teams has been a frequent theme – for example, Peterborough, Stevenage and Brighton(twice). A banner unfurled by fans at a match last season sums it up rather succinctly – “We don’t demand a club that wins, we demand a club that tries!”
The last time Newcastle could be said to have had a successful season would be in 2011/12. With the likes of Yohan Cabaye, Demba Ba and Fabricio Coloccini, the team finished 5th in the league after a shock push for the top 4 positions. In the summer of 2012, Mike Ashley and the club hierarchy failed to build upon that success. Despite the club having qualified for the 2012/13 Europa League, the signings made that summer were not insufficient in both quality and quantity. The team inevitably were unable to cope with the added task of European competition and barely escaped relegation. Squad depth was lacking and the players were simply not up to standard. Of the 4 signings that were made, only Vurnon Anita could possibly be called a success, if one were to use that term loosely.
The best time to build and invest is from a position of success, a position of strength. Instead, Newcastle failed to build on that success and position of strength in 2012. The Ashley regime were complacent. It is only this summer that the club have finally shown some form of serious ambition. Last season, the fans had had enough. Their protests and boycotting of matches seem to have worked to a significant degree. At the time of writing, Newcastle have spent a considerably larger amount this summer – £48.5 million – than anyone would have expected. The pick of the lot would be Georginio Wijnaldum, a highly coveted Dutch international, who moved to Tyneside after captaining PSV Eindhoven to the Dutch title. Aleksandar Mitrović, Chancel Mbemba and Florian Thauvin are all additions which have improved the team. There is now a genuine competition for starting XI spots at St James’ Park.
In recent years, matches against Southampton have tended to end in defeat. In 2014 alone, Southampton triumphed 4-0 twice, in March and September. This season, with Southampton as their first opponents, the 2-2 draw at St James’ Park was a good barometer in showing the change the club and the players have undergone under McClaren. The players showed fighting spirit and a willingness to play the ball on the ground, with composure that has been missing for years.
Last weekend at Old Trafford, Mitrović had a good full debut. The fiery frontman was a constant presence up front and crashed a header off the crossbar from just behind the penalty spot. Most importantly, the team were resolute and played with a determination that should bode well for future success. The players fought for each other and placed everything on the line to ensure they left Manchester with at least a point to show for their efforts. On the ball, Ayoze Pérez and Gini Wijnaldum et al showed the confidence to run with the ball, go past opponents as well as take risks to make things happen in the final third.
With the likes of the woeful Mike Williamson and the hapless Yoan Gouffran no longer regular starters, Newcastle fans can breathe a much-needed sigh of relief. The Newcastle defence have shown signs of being defensively sound. The midfield are much more comfortable, composed and adept at playing the ball on the ground with a passing game. Aleksandar Mitrović should be a great signing and formidable focal point. The Serbian international had a proven goalscoring record at Anderlecht, including in the Champions League, and will be an upgrade on Papiss Cissé. The Senegal striker is an adept finisher when not given time to think, instead playing purely on instinct, but is simply not cut out for the role. With McClaren, there is now a clear game plan and tactical philosophy at Newcastle. The start to 2015/16 has been a refreshing change after the numerous disappointing and disjointed performances under Alan Pardew and John Carver.
The ambition that the club have shown in the transfer market this summer has been surprising yet it should mark merely the start of regular investments if there is to be any success on Tyneside in the coming years. Mike Ashley publically said in a pre-match interview on the final day of last season – “Now, my intention is to win something. I won’t be selling the club till I do. I am not going anywhere until we win something. From this day forward, we make our own luck.”
If Steve McClaren is to take Newcastle back in the right direction, it will take the whole club working together with the ambition of bringing the good times back to Tyneside. In a corner of the gym at Newcastle United’s Benton training ground, there is a sign that reads – “Mentality maintains momentum”. From Mike Ashley to the players to the fans, success will require a change of mentality. This is not a job for only one man. Newcastle have to be United.
Written by Mark Ooi
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