This article is guest-written by Ollie Orton, a Newcastle United supporter.
At the start of the 2011/12 season, many Newcastle fans believed that this would be a season of struggle. Players that had served the club so well in their hour of need in the doldrums of the Championship suddenly upped and left; Jose Enrique to Liverpool, Kevin Nolan to West Ham and Joey Barton to QPR. To compound the problem, the signings made by the club appeared to be mediocre and lacking ambition; Yohan Cabaye for £4.3 Million epitomised this feeling. In Alan Pardew, the Newcastle hierarchy seemed to be predicting downfall by hiring a manager whose only real success came at (then) League One Southampton. When he signed in January 2011, only 5% of fans backed him to succeed. How things change.
At the outset, predictions for Newcastle ranged from between 12th to 15th place. Although relegation was never a distinct possibility, high expectation was never in abundance. The first game of the Premier League season did little to alleviate these fears of mid-table mediocrity, with Newcastle drawing 0-0 with Arsenal. Although not a bad result, fears were raised regarding the lack of a true out and out striker with pedigree. Demba Ba had been signed on a free transfer, but he was unproven and ultimately a gamble. This striking crisis almost led the club to new lows; on the final day of the transfer window, talks were being organised with veteran Shefki Kuqi, supposedly the man to bring European football to St James Park. These were hastily vetoed when the extent of supporter dissatisfaction reached Derek Llambias, Managing Director of Newcastle. The next game did give hope to many, a 1-0 victory away at Sunderland. Although the goal came from a defender, the strike force of Best and Ba appeared to be gelling, and Best particularly seemed to be living up to his youthful promise, scoring 3 goals in three games. Ba then took over, scoring 8 goals in 6 games. The unbeaten run stretched into November, when Newcastle finally succumbed to eventual champions Manchester City. However, such a run was both unexpected and enjoyable, and to see Newcastle sitting in the top 5 was a novelty that would never wear off.
Coming into Christmas, Newcastle appeared to turn on the cruise control, slipping into a stage of complacency. This was eradicated after defeats to Norwich, Liverpool and West Brom, and Pardew vowed to strengthen in January. With Chief Scout Graham Carr as his right hand man, Pardew scoured France and Germany looking for young talent that was undervalued in the market. By this stage in the season, players such as Cabaye and Ba had already shown their immense class, and also gave credit to the system employed by Pardew and Carr. In a surprisingly slow January market, they plucked the relatively unknown Papiss ‘Demba’ Cisse from Germany, for an enormous £10 Million. Initially, scepticism was rife, because Newcastle have a history of buying expensive flops (Xisco for £12 million-1 goal being the result) and it appeared that it was a buy initiated out of the failure to secure long-courted Melvut Erding. Immediately it became clear that Cisse was of the pedigree that Newcastle was looking for, with him scoring a rasping pile driver against Aston Villa to secure 3 points.
Through March, the trio of Ba, Cisse and Ben Arfa began to tear apart Premier League defences and also bring the crowds back to St James Park, with attendances rising to 52,000 on a regular basis. Players such as Tim Krul, Danny Simpson and Fabricio Collocini were all receving plaudits for their consistently high standards of play, and the momentum seemed to be driving them towards the Champions League places. Despite a 4-0 loss against Wigan, and missing out on qualification for the Champions League, the finish to the season which saw Newcastle claim 5th place was extremely impressive and, based on evidence from the whole season, totally deserved. Credit for this achievement must go to Pardew, Carr and the players who managed to succeed when even the most optimistic Newcastle fan was not expecting much. The work does not stop here though; Newcastle must not only hold onto their best players but reinvigorate the squad. This season has thrown down a marker for the future, and although it will be difficult to replicate, the squad is certainly capable of achieving something great. Europe, here we come!