16 August ~ Newcastle's Premier League record is bookended, up to now, by two seasons which are polar opposites. One was an exuberant rush of exceeding expectation, finishing third in the first season after their previous promotion, the other a miserable underachieving slog in disarray ending with relegation to the Championship the season before last. The first was one of the most impressive returns to the top flight in the modern era, matched by Nottingham Forest the year after but not since then. The second was undermined by a lack of both fight and application, with off-field chaos a constant throughout.
In between were 14 seasons containing six top-six finishes, balanced by seven in the bottom half. Numerous changes in fortune took place during a period roughly comparable to that of the conveyor-belt of success enjoyed by tonight's opponents, Manchester United. Even so, relegation was the culmination of years of decline and no one can have been surprised.
The greatest change in fortune was that of arresting the slide last season and coming back at the first attempt. For all the consensus now that the squad was too good and the finances too superior for it not to happen, this time last year commentators were pessimistic. Chris Hughton and the squad banded together against the uncertainty surrounding the club, generated genuine team spirit and found a game plan to get them out of the Championship. That game plan was heavily reliant on a solid defensive 4-5-1 away from home and we should expect those tactics to continue this season, perhaps also at St James' Park on occasion.
Sceptics note that the squad consists mostly of those who took the club down, and major additions seem unlikely given Mike Ashley's policy of no capital outlay. However, the emergence of Andy Carroll, though unproven at this level, has revitalised the strikeforce and Joey Barton is fit and available for selection for the first time in what seems like years. The main difference, though, is in that spirit – no one is at the club reluctantly this time. Whether that will survive a difficult first few fixtures and the closing of the transfer window remains to be seen.
In this season's opening fixture at Old Trafford there are echoes of those bookending Newcastle seasons. The 1993-94 side settled their jitters after two defeats in the opening week with a first point in a close-fought 1-1 at the home of Alex Ferguson's reigning League champions, the goal scored by a top-flight novice, Andy Cole. Perhaps even more unexpectedly, the 2008-09 season opened with another fairly even 1-1 at the Theatre of Bad Dreams, two of only seven points dropped at home by Man Utd that season, to a side which had picked up only one point in away games to the three clubs eventually relegated the season before. Newcastle will hope again for the unexpected in this season's opener. Whether that is achieved or not, a finish closer to 2009's 18th than 1994's third is the likeliest outcome to it. Mark Brophy