Toon Stars Shone but Lesser Lights Real Success
Finishing fifth and a mere 5 points from third place meant that 2011/12 was a resounding success for Newcastle United. Much has been said about their star players, but the real reason for the Geordies’ astonishing campaign has been the consistency and performances of some of their smaller names throughout the season.
Obviously, without Demba Ba’s goals pre-January and then Papiss Cisse’s golden streak, Newcastle’s season could not have been the same. The mercurial talents of Hatem Ben Arfa came to the fore in the second half of the season, and Yohan Cabaye’s incisive passing and creativity was a highlight from day one. However, without the support and dogged work of some of the squad’s fringe players these Gallic strokes of genius would have been in vain.
Between them, Mike Williamson, Leon Best, Danny Simpson, Danny Guthrie, Ryan Taylor and James Perch started 121 league games, made 26 appearances from the bench, scored 7 goals and made 10 assists this season. Playing so frequently is an achievement in itself for a bunch of players signed from Portsmouth, Coventry, Manchester United’s reserves, Liverpool’s reserves, Wigan and Nottingham Forest respectively. Though most fees were undisclosed, they would have cost around £7m in total. Not overly bad for 6 established Premier League players.
Prior to this season, even the most optimistic of Newcastle fans would have labelled these players as adequate back-up at best. Honest pros, but limited. Now, as the Toon Army dust off their passports and prepare for the Europa League, these six players (and others like them to a lesser extent) should be given as much credit as Dreamboat Cabaye or the Deadly Dembas.
Ryan Taylor began the season as a right-footed square peg in the round hole of left-back. Newcastle had sold the popular and effective Jose Enrique and left it until the eve of Deadline Day to replace him with Italian Football Manager favourite Davide Santon. Reluctant to throw the new boy straight into lions’ den that is the Premier League, Pardew stuck with the former Wigan utility man, and he didn’t disappoint. Taylor popped up with a huge match-winning goal in the Wear-Tyne derby, and his performances allowed Santon to ease himself into English football gradually. By the end of the season, Santon had established himself as first-choice, though with Taylor breathing down his neck and able to play just about anywhere, the Italian will have to stay on his pink Nike-clad toes to keep his shirt.
Leon Best was signed in the January of Newcastle’s successful promotion season in 2009/10. He failed to score in the 5 months which followed, despite Newcastle continuing their good form and sealing the Championship title. However, he started 11/12 as the foil for Demba Ba, providing space and pulling defenders around to allow his Senegalese partner to flourish. Injury curtailed his season, but Best’s hard work, determination and refusal to throw in the towel when things weren’t going well have endeared him to the fans. He is brave, unphased by reputations and more than capable of giving most defenders a rough ride.
When Steven Taylor’s Achilles ruptured in December, fans feared the worst. Mike Williamson was considered a reasonably solid but slow back-up player, and most hoped that he could do a job until the transfer window opened and Newcastle could sign a January replacement. Four defeats in six games in December didn’t do much to help. As the season progressed though, Williamson grew in confidence, particularly when alongside the terrific Coloccini, and the Toon hierarchy decided against bringing anyone in. There were blips, such as a 5-0 defeat against Spurs and a 2-5 defeat at Fulham, but for a man playing only his second season in the top-flight, Big Mike had a solid campaign.
The two Dannys, Guthrie and Simpson, had played important roles in the promotion season but had differing fortunes since then. While Simpson had established himself as first-choice right-back, many fans believed him not up to scratch in the Premier League. Guthrie had struggled to win a regular starting spot, usually forced to settle for a role as a back-up player. This season however, Simpson was almost ever-present, with injury only ruling him out of the final three games, and talk of an England call-up appearing at one stage. Guthrie was asked to step in for Tiote and Cabaye at different times, requiring him to play two very different roles. He performed both astoundingly well, and many felt he was hard done by to lose his place when the two more fashionable players were available. It looks as though both Guthrie and Simpson will be leaving the club this summer as a result of contract issues, and one must hope that Newcastle aren’t making a mistake in letting these two solid performers go.
And onto Perchinho, as he is now known. James Perch has become something of a cult hero on Tyneside, which is testimony to his hard work and professionalism. Many had written him off given his awful start to life at St. James’ Park (as it was then). Booked in his first five games and setting a Premier League record, this blogger actually discussed his awfulness drunk with a Newcastle player in a club. I stand massively corrected (said the man in the orthapaedic shoes). He now represents everything positive about this Newcastle side – honest (unless you’re Pepe Reina), tough and ready to throw his body on the line. Countless times this season a Newcastle player has made a block in and around the penalty area, and usually Perch is in the mix. He has played full-back, centre-back and central midfield, and this year has impressed in all three roles.
Manager Alan Pardew and his staff must take enormous credit for squeezing the most out of his squad players, who have become key parts of a successful team. Newcastle will find it hard to hold on to some of their higher-profile players this summer, but without the likes of this unglamourous half-dozen, Cisse, Ben Arfa, Cabaye and company wouldn’t be able to strut their stuff at the business-end of the Premier League.