“Sometimes you just have to take one step back, before taking two steps forward.”
The last day of the EPL 2008-09 season was a dark day for English Football as one of the most passionate and well supported club in the country got relegated.
Tyne and Wear based Toons had endured, to say the least a turbulent season and paid the price for the upheavals with relegation from the top flight.
Gone were the days of Kevin Keegan’s “Entertainers”, a side displaying a brand of football full of attacking ideas, tremendous work-rate, great spirit and also had a solid back four. For the side that Keegan had led to three consecutive top three finishes (out of which two were runners-up finishes) in the 1990s, the EPL title had become a dream long gone.
The relegation brought the club and its problems into the spotlight, caused not only because of poor displays on the pitch but also due to the equally poor management off it.
The owner – Mike Ashley, who was initially at good terms with the fans, fell badly after some disputes and tried to unsuccessfully sell the club via the club’s website, inviting bidders to send applications to an e-mail address.
The club had also failed to replace it’s talismanic captain Alan Shearer and had made some costly moves too; particularly that of former Liverpool star Michael Owen who got unlucky with injuries and failed to live up to the expectations.
In addition to that, the managers’ compensation (around £14M) paid to the numerous managers who came and went through the revolving door at St. James Park didn’t do the club any good. But that shouldn’t come as a shock since the choices made at those times were bound to fail; as they either lacked experience (like Alan Shearer who was working as a pundit then) or were not supported by the board and given full backing over transfer dealings (Kevin Keegan’s second stint).
With the club in turmoil, many feared that Newcastle will sink further like many Premiership clubs (e.g. Leeds United) who have been relegated over the years with no return.
But the relegation acted as a slap in face for Newcastle that the club needed to solve their growing off-field problems and rise back from the ashes.
Mike Ashley withdrew the club from sale after being unable to find a suitable buyer and appointed former caretaker manager Chris Hughton as the new boss instead of fan favourite Alan Shearer.
Despite losing several star players like Michael Owen, Obafemi Martins and Damien Duff among others, the club retained the vast proportions of its squad and further additions only strengthened the team.
The club’s stint in the Championship also helped the squad to unite as a team and winning steaks against lesser opponents of second division helped boost the club’s morale. The team that had become accustomed to losing in the previous season started to reacquire the habit of winning once again.
With a change in the transfer policy, instead of signing superstars like Michael Owen, the club shifted their focus on signing young and talented players on cut-price deals, helping the club finances a great deal.
Newcastle United inspired by in-form captain Kevin Nolan and young striker Andy Carroll were able to finish as the division champions and gained automatic promotion back to the top flight.
With additions of defensive midfielder Cheick Tioté and French playmaker Hatem Ben Afra, the team managed to finish twelfth but that came with its own supply of controversy.
Manager Chris Hughton was sacked in December and replaced by Alan Pardew, a decision that was unpopular and criticized by both fans and many pundits alike. In addition to that, in-form striker Andy Carroll was sold to Liverpool under controversial circumstances and Ashley’s refusal to hand over the money to Pardew to sign a replacement for the departed hero didn’t go well with the fans.
The fans experienced another turbulent summer, as they saw the heart and soul of their team leaving for new challenges with Captain Kevin Nolan and Joey Barton moving to the capital and fullback Jose Enrique joining his former teammate Andy Carroll at Anfield.
The departing stars wasted little time in criticizing their former club and the fans were left questioning the manager’s authority who had assured them that none of the stars were to leave.
The club went through a “French Revolution” as the club signed Ben Afra on a permanent deal and along with him came his fellow Frenchmen Yohan Cabaye and Gabriel Obertan among others. Club also signed Demba Ba on a free transfer and young Italian fullback Davide Santon who arrived from Inter in a cut-price deal. With so little cash spent and no big star signed, not much was expected from the Toons.
But Alan Pardew and his team had some other plans as they finished fifth playing some thoughtful, attractive football with Demba Ba effectively replacing Andy Carroll, scoring 16 goals and winning an EPL player of the month award. Yohan Cabaye formed a Scholes-Keane style partnership with Tiote in the middle of the park, which played a crucial part in the team’s success.
The January arrival of Papiss Cisse helped the club in adding to their fire power and reduced the goal scoring burden on Ba. Cisse scored 13 goals in 14 appearances, playing a key role in club’s return to Europe after a five year absence.
The season also saw the emergence of Hatem Ben Afra who played a key role in the team’s success and was able to put his problems with injuries behind him.
With a competitive squad in place already strengthened with the arrival of midfielder Vurnon Anita and the in-house problems solved by Mike Ashley, the pressure will be on Alan Pardew to build on last season’s form and lead the club into Europe, again this season.
– by Pranav Agarwal
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