No matter what happens from here on in, this has been an absolutely fantastic season.
I was confident that we would make progress in 2011/12. I optimistically forecast a 7th placed finish for this season and most of you agreed, yet here we are with only four games remaining in with a real chance of making the Champions League qualifiers. That would be beyond even our most optimistic supporters wildest dreams.
As close as we are, it will still be very difficult. We have the most difficult run in with 3 of the top 7 to play against (2 of them away from home) and tomorrows battle with relegation threatened Wigan who have gained some superb victories of late. Not to mention the fact that a 4th placed finish would not be enough if Chelsea beat Bayern in the Champions League final!
We can do it. We have the momentum and the lads are playing with a freedom that is surprising considering what is on the line for the football club.
How have we risen from relegation to top 4 candidates in only a few short years? I take a look at some of the factors behind our progress:
(In no particular order of importance)
Finally, a plan
It looks like Ashley and Llambias have found a settled plan. Hopefully the days of five-managers-in-a-season are behind us. Not only the managers, the temporary MD's, Directors of Football (or whatever Wise was) and random over priced, over paid signing appear to be a thing of the past. These things (seem to) have been replaced by some stability. Alan Pardew has been in place now for over a year. Llambias for several. We even managed to see our way through a transfer window without any high profile player sales, instead strengthening the squad with the outrageously good Cisse. Qualifying for the Champions League might also mean that we don't have to sell and we could see some long term stability on the field of play too.
A massive part of the 'plan' has been driven forward by our Chief Scout, Graham Carr. His recommendations (Tiote, Cisse, Cabaye and co) have improved on what were very good outgoing players, sometimes at a fraction of the price. Cisse > Carroll, Cabaye > Nolan, Tiote > Barton. Our 'Moneyball' approach is sure to be replicated. Liverpool now look to be linking themselves with any player that we seem to be running the rule over and Ellis Short has suggested that sunderland will follow suit (though presumably with O'Neill at the helm they'll only consider the giant, basic ones)
Pardiola has exceeded all of our expectations. Some of the media and fans from other clubs love to point out that a lot of Newcastle fans were opposed to his appointment, but if they saw what he was capable of at that point, then they were amongst a very small minority.
Pardew carried on the fantastic team spirit implemented by Chris Hughton, despite regular turmoil and upheaval.
He regular reviews and alters our approach to matches, often during a game. We have seen a lot of the long ball. We've also seen a lot of stunning football - loads of it vs Stoke last week. His players have scored some of our most memorable goals in recent times.
He has handled players fantastically well. Thousands of the St James' Park faithful called for the inclusion of Ben Arfa earlier in the season. Pardew largely resisted, held him back and the results since he threw him in have been phenomenal. HBA is one of the main reasons we are making this late drive for the top four and therefore Pardew's handling of him seems to have been absolutely perfect.
Pardew has also introduced a new balance into the team assisted by players playing in new positions to them and excelling - Perchinho, a revelation as a holding midfielder, Ryan Taylor as an early season very solid left back, Jonas as a supplementary attacking full back away at Stoke and so on.
I was also very interested to hear Matt Holland talking on national radio about his experience playing for Pardew. Holland was full of praise for Pardew's psychological approach to the game. When Pardiola arrived at Charlton he called Holland into his office. When Holland arrived, Pardew handed him a note that stated 'NO FEAR'. Holland questioned Pardew on what the hell was going on and Pardew told him that after watching a lot of Matt on videos and at games, he thought that he could be braver at times - more cutting passes and risky football. Holland left that meeting sceptical but then on the following match day all of a sudden found himself trying this killer balls - with some success. He thinks, for this reason, Pardew improved him as a player.
You can see it in the way they approached the Stoke game, the lads are LOVING this. In a potentially tricky game under pressure with a top 4 place a possibility, they went out and stroked the ball about as if they didn't have a care in the world. But then we started that game with nine full International players - they are very, very good footballers. Many of them have been showing us their A game for almost all of the season and even the weaker players have proven their worth more often than not. They seem to love playing with each other too and that bond is often evident.
The Home Support
Big crowds throughout the season (average 49,799) have supported the team well. There has been another thing too - Phil Brown (I know, I know) said after the Bolton game that something had happened that day which surprised him. We needed to win and 70+ minutes in we weren't playing particularly well. If anything Bolton looked the most likely to score. In this situation in years gone by, the crowd would have become nervy and jumped on the back of players for the smallest of errors. Although the atmosphere was not electric in that game, the crowd did not turn. We were patient and we were rewarded with 3 points and 2 goals, one of which was an all time St James' Park great.
We could be on the cusp of something great. Even if we don't achieve the CL, we are already assured of European football. In terms of profile, revenue and keeping players (Jose Enrique, we're in the top 4) this is vital. If we finish in the top 4 we probably would not be forced into sales of our top players and might even see one or two positions strengthened. If it is the Europa, we still need a player or two.
Whatever happens, this has been one of the most enjoyable and surprising seasons of my lifetime as a Newcastle United supporter.
Thank you lads.