McClaren’s side better than results suggest - so far
14 September ~ Newcastle and West Ham, who play each tonight at Upton Park, have some recent experiences in common. Fan disenchantment with both clubs’ direction prompted managerial changes in the summer. Newcastle appointed Steve McClaren, sacked by Derby after missing out on the play-offs on the final day of the season. West Ham gave the job to ex-player and favourite Slaven Bilic, and they've had an unexpected start winning away at Arsenal and Liverpool but losing at home to Bournemouth and Leicester.
Bilic, of course, was McClaren's nemesis at international level. Newcastle fans will hope McClaren doesn't look as powerless and out of ideas as he did on the night that Croatia prevented England from qualifying for Euro 2008, although such were the depths the club had previously sunk to that his chequered past has been ignored and he's been broadly welcomed. Magpies will be glad Kevin Nolan has left West Ham, thus preventing that particular ex-favourite from scoring an inevitable goal. On that note it does seem like an incredible streak of bad fortune that Andy Carroll looks likely to be fit for this of all games, having missed so many others.
Newcastle have made an underwhelming start, just the two points from four games, and go into this match in the bottom three. On the face of it there should be a certain amount of gloom, following on as this does from the Alan Pardew and John Carver-inspired horror show of 2014-15. However, an optimist might say that the unrepresentative early season nature of the league placings can best be shown by the realisation that champions Chelsea would drop into the relegation zone were Newcastle to achieve a win here.
Difficult opening fixtures have meant that positive performances have gone largely unrewarded. Tired legs allowed Southampton back into a game Newcastle should have won on the opening day after Georginio Wijnaldum's fine debut goal had given them the lead. A battling draw at Old Trafford could have been a win had Aleksandr Mitrovic’s first-half header against the bar been a shade lower. The same player’s brainless dismissal against Arsenal ended the match as a contest but Newcastle dug in well and showed a spirit and organisation lacking throughout last season. On the pitch the team don't look like one in the middle of a slump.
The summer's transfer dealings were also encouraging as a whole. Owner Mike Ashley rubber-stamped more spending than he has in any other transfer window, though gratitude has been tempered by the knowledge that the cash should have been spent years ago. Wijnaldum looks the pick of the bunch, though the squad still looks light up front in view of Papiss Cisse's injury record and expensive new boy Mitrovic's propensity for picking up suspensions.
Newcastle need a victory, and soon. If they can't get one tonight or at home to Watford on Saturday then all that early-season optimism might begin to evaporate very quickly. Mark Brophy