I think it’s fair to say not many of us left St James’ Park last Wednesday following our crushing League Cup exit at the hands of an under-strength Sheffield Wednesday with much of our early season positivity remaining inside of us. All of those complaints we have had for so long about Ashley’s Newcastle United were back out in the open as we variously railed against Graeme Carr’s fast fading reputation as a genius talent-spotter, Lee Charnley’s limitations in the deal-making sphere, McClaren’s patchy CV and what pitching the club to the unproven talents of the Dutch, Belgian and French leagues does to the collective culture and meaning of a sporting institution. There were stinging words of rebuke for several players who doubtless imagine SJP is a staging point on their inexorable rise to football stardom.
By 8pm on Saturday night the mood had improved. But only a little! Against the Champions, Chelsea we looked like we were playing with a unity of purpose. The players were quicker to the ball, we pressed harder and faster but crucially we seemed to play a different way. We played a standard 4-4-2 formation and with Mitrovich and Perez as a front two and Wijnaldum further up the pitch in what was an undeniably more attacking formation we were more convincing. Predictably, the media narrative was what Chelsea did wrong and how they didn’t win but we could all see with our own tired eyes what McClaren had done right.
For me the most important player on the pitch was Mitrovich. His presence completely transformed our game-plan. Our new centre-forward was brave, tough and intelligent. His ability to hold up play, challenge for headers and provide a physical challenge for the Blues backline provided the team with a focus it has not had in a long, long while. Having him on the pitch is going to be so important to us if this is what he can provide.
However, as much as there were great individual performances from Perez, Wijnaldum and Mbabu it was the comments from Chelsea’s celebrated coach which stopped us in our tracks:
“I think maybe one of the reasons why Newcastle over the years don’t get good positions (in the league) is because of this mentality. It’s because they choose some matches to sweat blood and in other matches they don’t. This is an attitude typical of a team which wins nothing.” – Jose Mourinho
Whether the Chelsea manager was performing one of his trade-mark media distraction techniques from a sub-standard Chelsea performance is one thing but let’s be honest, it’s something many of us have suspected from this team for some time. Our best three performances this season have been against Man Utd, Arsenal and Chelsea. Our worst have been against Swansea, West Ham, Watford and Sheffield Wednesday. Nit-pickers might claim we got our best result against Northampton Town and they would have a point but overall, Jose is right. It might be the explanation why we can beat Chelsea at SJP with every player at it but lose three times on the spin in Gallowgate to a Sunderland team as desperate as they have been in recent years.
Is this just a blip, an unexplainable coincidence or is it the inevitable consequence of a recruitment policy that appeals to individual player agendas and the relegation of United as a mere stepping stone for players who imagine they can move onto bigger and better things? Is it that surprising if we appeal to individuals’ own narrow agendas without setting out the ambition the club has for itself that we have players who only put the effort in when they want to catch the eye of a “big club”?
Obviously, there has also been a lot of discussion in recent months about leadership and the lack of it in the United ranks. Coloccini has been savaged for the perceived lack of direction he gives to those around him out on the pitch. In the Watford game he has been accused of straightforward cowardice in the face of the enemy. But there are others who do not step up to the plate when the going gets tough – namely, the perennially missing in action Moussa Sissoko but after the last few games I think you can add the name Siem De Jong as well. Sissoko and De Jong are senior professionals who should be showing the way but on Saturday the real courage came from Perez, Mitrovich and Mbabu. Frankly, they need to convince quite a number of the B&W congregation that they are all that. I’m prepared to accept De Jong may not be 100% match-fit as a result of his injuries and health problems but Sissoko and Coloccini just cannot be immune from criticism. It hurts me to question Colo because there have been occasions over the seven years he’s been at United when I’ve purred over the quality of his play.
What those players need to understand is that if they have any kind of ambitions to move onto bigger and better things as they see it then potential suitors will want to witness what they can do consistently. I think that’s how Cabaye, Ba, Remy and Debuchy got their big moves and it’s also likely to be the case why Dalglish had a rush of blood to the head and bought Andy Carroll for £35m.
For McClaren however, the honeymoon period of hope and best wishes is over. That League Cup exit was straight out the book marked Brighton x 2, Stevenage, Leicester et al and if they hadn’t said they were taking the Cups seriously you’d have been forgiven for believing the “let’s not try to win owt” strategy helpfully outlined by Lee Charnley was still very much in operation. For many, myself included, the doubts we had on his appointment are yet to be really challenged by anything we’ve seen out on the park really. There is still no recognisable pattern of play emerging and the longer we go without winning a game the louder those doubts will be voiced.
Personally, I believe he’s been let down by the so-called football board. How United can prefer to spend £12m on a so far extremely disappointing Thauvin as opposed to Charlie Austin only Lee Charnley’s spreadsheet can explain. Why we were not making moves for defenders and midfielders with some real PL experience is another matter but I think we’ll be having this discussion until Ashley sells up and does one.
This Saturday we travel to Man City. We haven’t beaten Man City in the league in God knows how long and I don’t think any sane or rational person is travelling there at the weekend with any real expectation of a win. Certainly after being unable to take any more last season and walking out at HT I am somewhat perplexed at myself making the journey again and whilst I won’t deny Manchester has its attractions for me other than the football, I do hope we give a better account of ourselves than we did last season. Its dull being this shit, this often.
Whatever happens I’ll be looking forward to another e-mail from Lee Charnley. Why Charnley can’t go on TV even United’s own lamentable effort or open himself up for interview with a decent journalist is a mystery but it’s a curious way to communicate with supporters. This is Newcastle United in 2015 I suppose.
Anyway, I think a lot of us are going to be scarred by that League Cup exit for quite some time and the spirited display on Saturday isn’t enough to make amends. Everyone at United, yet again is still in our debt.
Keep On, Keepin’ On …