Newcastle struggling with demands of last season's success
This time last year, Newcastle United were fifth in the Premier League, the position in which they would end the season. A six-game winning streak in the league had ended with a 4-0 defeat at Wigan Athletic but they bounced back in their next game to win away at Chelsea. They finally missed Champions League qualification by just four points.
Those two goals at Stamford Bridge were scored by Papiss Cissé, his 12th and 13th of a remarkable three months in the team. Alan Pardew was voted by his peers the League Managers' Association manager of the year. Their chief scout Graham Carr was the toast of his profession and the model of recruitment, personified by Cissé, just looked like it worked.
It was a remarkable achievement to finish ahead of the likes of Chelsea, who have a wage bill almost double the size of Newcastle's. Pardew's team were in with a shout of Champions League football on the very last day of the season but in the end they took what turned out to be the second of the two Europa League places after Chelsea's win in Munich.
Even more remarkable when you consider where Newcastle are now, only five points clear of safety, having played a game more than Aston Villa and Sunderland, who play tonight, and Wigan in 18th. It is not just the position in the league that makes you fear for Newcastle, it is the home form that has fallen off the edge of a cliff with a 3-0 defeat to Sunderland and Saturday's 6-0 tonking from Liverpool.
Last season, Cissé played his first game on 5 February when Newcastle had 39 points, an average of 1.69 points a game. In the remaining 15 games they took 26 points at an average of 1.75 a game and very nearly gatecrashed the elite. It was a remarkable effort. Perhaps you could start there, with Europa League qualification last season, when you begin plotting their recent demise.
Newcastle's success appeared to catch the club's ownership out. They had spent £9m on Cissé in January last year and come last summer there was not the will to invest again. The only significant signing was Vurnon Anita, a £6.7m acquisition from Ajax who has made just four league starts since the turn of the year. That was before you consider the effect of the Europa League on Newcastle's squad.
If ever there was a case for saying that Europe's secondary competition takes it out of clubs whose squads are unprepared, then Newcastle's record is a case in point.
Their yield in the 13 league games that have followed directly after Thursday night ties in European competition is 16 points from a possible 39. They did well to get as far as the quarter-finals but the problem with the Europa League is that unless you win it, the damn thing feels like a waste of time.
It does make you wonder what the club's owner Mike Ashley and chairman Derek Llambias made of Pardew's pursuit of the Europa League. In these days when there is such conservatism about the competition from English teams, with an honourable exception for Andre Villas-Boas, it is admirable that Newcastle's English manager gave it a go. Whether his squad were ready for it is another matter.
The trouble with the Premier League is that history tells us that simply holding your ground, settling for the status quo, as Newcastle effectively did last summer, is not an option. That's a pity. In a saner, less ruthless age, the team that Newcastle built last season might have been good for a few more years yet. But in the Premier League you are required to drive on remorselessly or risk falling back.
As he listed Newcastle's problems on these pages on Saturday, my colleague Martin Hardy reported the 70 injuries the club has suffered, like those to Hatem Ben Arfa and Fabricio Coloccini. Even Newcastle concede that cannot all be misfortune.
Having tried to get away with signing just Anita, and picking up a few others on the cheap, they attempted to rectify the problem in January with that £31m spree on five players, while selling Demba Ba to Chelsea for £7m.
Of course, Pardew, or Carr for that matter, have not become incompetents over the space of 12 months. Neither can be expected to get every signing or recommendation right – football is not like that. The feeling persists, however, that what caught Newcastle out more than anything last season was not their shortcomings but their success.
This is not a treatise for spending money as a cure for a club's problems. If it was all about the size of the wage bill, Newcastle would be eighth, neck and neck with Sunderland. Rather the modern Premier League weighs the relative strength of, among other things, 20 different budgets, 20 different business plans, 20 different recruitment strategies.
On that spectrum, Newcastle occupy a difficult position. They have a debt of around £108m and an owner trying to run the club conservatively. They are set up to be snapping around the heels of those clubs just outside the Champions League places – with ambitions slightly bigger than simply finishing in the top half – but with every place they rise, the challenges become that much greater.
Last season they out-performed their wage bill status by three places, this season they are currently under-performing by eight places. To put it bluntly, if they finish in the position they occupy now, it would be a more dramatic deviation from expectation than last season's success.
They could yet survive and thrive next season with the players they signed in January, who will have much greater experience of English football come next season. What this season has taught Newcastle is that exceeding targets is one thing, living with the demands that success brings is quite another.
Belfast Telegraph Digital