While the inbred of Wearside stewed upon Sunderland’s dreadful opening day performance, cautious optimism permeated the streets of Newcastle. After the horror-show decline that signalled the long, lingering death of the Alan Pardew era, Newcastle United seem to have awoken to a tougher, more conciliatory reality.
The fan base still split, with a vocal minority still outwardly disgusted by anything associated with the Mike Ashley regime, never the less the club has attempted to fix the roof. What it was that finally broke the spell of delusion under which the club has been labouring is up for debate; Ashley’s failure to leverage influence over Rangers, the bombscare relegation fight predicted by everybody but the club leadership, the influx of television cash injecting smaller clubs with purpose and ambition that threatened eclipse Newcastle’s meagre wheeler-dealing.
One by one, the ghosts of the terminal Pardew period appear to have been exorcised. The club is not fixed yet, but-crucially-there is now hope. John Carver is gone, left to lick his lips at home and spout nonsense to Journalists he’d been banned from talking to just months earlier. Mike Ashley broke his vow of silence before the do-or-die West Ham game and has largely backed his words with cash and-most importantly-new footballers. Good, proven international footballers, with pedigrees and acclamations as some of the best players in their respective leagues.
Walking through the streets up to the stadium, it was clear that the atmosphere had changed. Improved communication, and the appointment of the immeasurably more likeable Steve Mclaren (he’s saying the right things, for shure) have satiated the anxiety of the normal majority. Pre-season was typically calamitous, but as an Arsenal fan will tell you pre-season is rarely indicative of the real stuff.
Money spent, staff appointed and the olive branch of skeptical parley extended, Newcastle began their first game of the season well. The fans sat, shuffled and stood with a strange nervous energy. A mix of possibility and promise, served with a measure of anxiety. As the ball was passed out from the back from goal kicks straight to Mbemba, confusion began to battle it’s way into the emotional cocktail. Here a centre half-not Mike Williamson-playing with the ball at his feet without the look of quiet panic of a man emerging from an amphibious landing craft, moving comfortably with it. In midfield a mix of energy, composure and game intelligence, possession overwhelmingly in Newcastle’s favour, dictated by the chosen beat of Gini Wijnaldum. An early chance for Wijnaldum blocked, a few half chances created by Moussa Sissoko, who bombed on with vigour and purpose and showed little of the pea-hearted capitulation which sandwiched the positives of his second season in English football.
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Capitulation was the chief worry of the anxious in the stands, put to the test when Newcastle’s decent start came undone by poor defending and the power of Graziano Pelle. Instead Newcastle held it together, kept up their possession game and continued to flood the wings with pace and power. A short corner to Haidara led to a deflected cross which looped over the unimpressive Stekelenberg, into the path of Papiss Cisse. A shrug of the chest and Newcastle were back in business, before half time.
After the break Newcastle picked up where they left off, playing some of the best football the crowd have seen for years. Triangles around the full backs, moves forward with purpose. Newcastle broke with real pace and Southampton couldn’t cope. Cisse picked the ball up south of the halfway line and chipped a ball forwards. Obertan bursting through, then a sublime cross onto the head of Wijnaldum, who tracked the ball at such speed for 80 yards that his momentum and jump were enough to deflect Obertan’s cross into the far-side top corner from almost 18 yards. For years, good goals at SJP were scored in moments of individual, accidental brilliance. Wijnaldum’s debut goal was made all the better by the obvious synchronicity between the team, a promise of better times ahead.
Vurnon Anita, often bullied and maligned, was central to the possession football of Newcastle’s best spells, picking the ball up from the keeper and centre halves and keeping the play ticking over. In doing so he finally revealed his purpose in a Newcastle side, growing in confidence with every successful transition. The turning point of the game, around the 75th minute, came when Anita fell awkwardly on his back. On came Tiote, looking bulky and off-pace. The anxiety began to creep in once more, and after much probing Southampton found their equaliser from another good header by perennial Newcastle villain Shane Long.
In an attempt to shore things up and replace the tiring legs of Wijnaldum, McLaren turned to the now-fit Siem De Jong and Newcastle’s brand new Serbian headcase Aleksander Mitrovic. Whereas De Jong spent much of his time ambling off the ball doing much of nothing, Mitrovic followed the applause at his introduction with an immediate wincing assault on the Southampton left back, picking up a yellow card for his trouble. Mitrovic was starved of service but what little action he did see after was wrapped up in harrying and bullying, a solid frame of madness bumping into less solid beings.
Sadio Mane fluffed a few late chances but Newcastle emerged from the game with a result and confidence, applauded off the pitch by a grateful Toon Army who’d finally seen an entertaining game of football, contested by a Newcastle side that appeared to have a plan and the seeds of a footballing identity, topped off with promising new signings enjoying solid debuts.
This is the beauty of football and of supporting Newcastle in particular. When the mood changes for the better it’s hard not to get sucked up in the love, even while everyone tries to keep their optimism suppressed. I left smiling and others did too. We couldn’t help it.