While the race for the title and the fourth place in the league table and the desperate scramble for the seventeenth spot ensue in the Premier League, one team secured a place in the first division for next season, in the mad mad world, a couple of nights ago. Newcastle earned promotion well before their kick off against Sheffield United, when Nottingham Forest failed to beat fellow play off chasers Cardiff city. The Geordies celebrated promotion in style, beating the Yorkshire club.
Around this time last season, Newcastle were in a mess. King Kev had walked out of the club. His replacement, the volatile Joe Kinnear, was let down by his health. In desperation, the club looked up to Alan Shearer to keep their premier league status intact. Relegation was confirmed on the final day, when Damien Duff’s own goal handed them a loss against Aston Villa. The off-field events didn’t help them either. Mike Ashley was hated by the club’s supporters, for his role in the resignation of the Messiah, and for his efforts to put of the club on sale. The club was, in fact, the joke of the nation.
Life in the Championship did not begin too well for the Toons. There was uncertainty hovering over the club’s ownership. Alan Shearer returned to his ‘Match of the Day’ duties, and Chris Houghton was again given the interim responsibilities. Leyton Orient beat them 6-1 in a pre season game. Amidst all these negativities, the club did not lose its core players, who despite drawing fat salaries for playing in a tier-2 division, were impressive on the field. Kevin Nolan, who failed to impress during the relegation struggle, hit top form, scoring a hat-trick against Ipswich Town. Gutierrez’s performances for the club earned him a call up to the South Africa bound Argentina squad. Andy Carroll, who broke into the first team from the reserves, is currently the top scorer for the club. His partnership with Peter Lovenkrand has worked wonders for the club, with the pair contributing to almost two-thirds of the goals in the last three months. The exodus of Owen, Viduka, Martins and Duff was long forgotten. Steve Harper, Alan Smith and Nicky Butt put on inspired performances during the course of the season.
The unassuming Chris Houghton is undoubtedly the hero in Newcastle’s tale of resurgence. He won over a dressing room that was split, brought harmony among the players, and orchestrated wonderful performances on the field. The supporters warmed up to his management, and he was able to work well with the eccentric Mike Ashley.
Life in the Premier League is not going to be easy. First and foremost, they need to rationalize the salaries of some of their players. The management has gone on record saying that the club will sign only players under twenty six years of age, and a salary cap will soon be in place. The next issue to be addressed is the ownership; Mike Ashley may again try to sell the club. The premier league status is sure to entice genuine buyers, unlike last season when a lot of consortiums mushroomed and made enquiries for the club. Also, whether Ashley or the new owner would make investments needed at the Premier League level remains to be seen. Appointing a world class manager is also a possibility, which needs to be carefully worked upon by the decision makers.
The last time Newcastle were promoted to first division, they took the Premier League by storm, finishing third in that season. They may not repeat the same heroics next season, but with a little investment and some stability in the club, they can ensure they do not go down again.
The performance of clubs like Newcastle, Nottingham Forest and Leeds United, all of which have a great history and wonderful support, makes it compelling to watch the beautiful game. It would benefit football fans the world over, if both Forest and Leeds emulate the Toons and feature in the top flight soon.