It may surprise some people but, honestly, I don’t get to choose which games I commentate on. So, it was entirely at the whim of BBC producers that it was November before I got to see the side who, for a couple of hours on Saturday, reached the giddy heights of second place in the Premier League.
Until then, any judgment I made on Newcastle United leant on what I could glean from television which isn’t always a sound base to view from. ‘Highlights’, in particular, can be very misleading.
I went to St. James Park with an open mind. Was it time to treat Newcastle seriously? Could they end up in a place that would see them qualify for the Champions League? I’m afraid I left without having my doubts assuaged.
Oh yes, the facts speak loudly in favour of Alan Pardew’s team. Though Everton did score, Newcastle still have the best defensive record in the country having conceded only eight goals in eleven league games.
While teams like Arsenal, Chelsea and, yes, even Manchester City leak too many goals, Newcastle know the value of clean sheets.
And they haven’t lost in fourteen games which is their best run in the top flight for more than sixty years. That is testament to momentum and confidence. The manager speaks, rightly, of their hard work and their unity.
No opponent has the ball without being hustled by at least two or three wearing black and white stripped shirts.
I could see why Pardew promotes the case for Steven Taylor playing for England and why Fabricio Coloccini is suddenly being tracked by, supposedly, superior clubs. Yes, the defence looks sound.
But Jack Rodwell’s header just before half-time wholly changed the atmosphere: Everton — this is the Everton that have lost five of their last six league games — became energised; Newcastle, and their fans, nervous.
Pardew speculated afterwards about how far his team had come, about the importance of the Geordie fans in the light of Everton’s second half surge and about how unlikely it would have been for Newcastle to resist it had they been playing at Goodison Park. “Somewhere along the line, things will go against us.”
Injuries, perhaps? Cabeye has been massively influential in the centre of midfield alongside Tiote. Both are now injured, as are Obertan, Best, Marveaux and others.
While everyone is fit and functioning, it seems Newcastle could withstand the loss of key players who’ve left them during 2011: Barton, Carroll, Enrique and Nolan. NowI’m not so sure.
The international break (another one!) comes at a good time for Newcastle. They probably need a breather and certainly time for injuries to heal because, shortly, they’ll face an acid test of their ability to maintain a presence close to the top of the table.
In order, they play Manchester City away, Manchester United away and then Chelsea at home. Want a bet that they’ll lose all three?