4.50pm on Saturday 19th January: the precise time a number of Newcastle United fans realised that they were in a very dangerous relegation scrap. An hour earlier the Magpies held a precarious lead at home to Reading, and despite having had a number of chances to add to their solitary goal, they went in to the interval with the slimmest of advantages.
What was to unfold over the following hour was a throwback to the relegation season of 2009 with baffling substitutions, a nervous crowd and even more nervous defenders. Adam Le Fondre netted twice in six minutes and the Toon were on the wrong end of their sixth home defeat of the season, sitting 16th in the table and very much looking over their shoulders.
It had been apparent for a number of weeks, if not months, that the gamble of relying on a thin squad had backfired, with the likes of Yohan Cabaye, Steven Taylor and Hatem Ben Arfa missing through injury whilst Cheick Tioté and Jonás Gutiérrez struggled to regain the form of previous campaigns.
With 12 days remaining before the Sky-Sports-News-Transfer-Window slammed shut, United had lost top scorer Demba Ba, recruited long time target Mathieu Debuchy from Lille and had missed out on Loïc Rémy who was tempted by the bright lights of London and Tony Fernandes’ xbox 360. The mood on Tyneside was downbeat, with a run of tricky games ahead and the Black and Whites in no kind of form whatsoever.
Fast forward three weeks and an online survey in the Newcastle Evening Chronicle shows 69.3% of participants fancy Newcastle to win away at Tottenham, a game they lost 5-0 last season. While online surveys are a hardly the most reliable indicator of popular opinion, the feeling on Tyneside is vastly different from when the players trudged from the pitch after losing at home to Reading.
Following that loss, Newcastle didn’t have a game for ten days due to their customary FA Cup exit at Brighton, and by the time they lined up at Villa Park to face Paul Lambert’s team they had bolstered their ranks with four new faces, all signed from their cross channel hypermarket AKA Ligue 1.
Even the most optimistic Toon fan wouldn’t have dreamed of signing three senior players in a week, but when Pardew and Ashley followed up the capture of Debuchy with French internationals Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa and Moussa Sissoko as well as Bordeaux forward Yoan Gouffran, the excitement levels began to rise. Yanga-Mbiwa was linked with a move to Arsenal and AC Milan, and wary of the Rémy saga, the fans adopted a motto of ‘wait until he is holding the shirt’.
Thankfully, Yanga-Mbiwa was soon lofting the famous black and white colours with his name and number 13 on it, a nod to the 13th arrondissement in Paris where he grew up. Gouffran signed the following day, then the day after that Sissoko arrived from Toulouse, with the Magpies reportedly paying £1.8m to bring forward the deal from the end of the season following a pre-contract agreement for the muscular midfield man.
Not content with those three signings, Massadio Haïdara, a left-back from Nancy, arrived on the fourth day of transfer activity at St James’ Park. Eventually all the deals were confirmed by United, with photos of the players holding the shirt to boot.
Sissoko and Gouffran lined up against Villa and both excelled in a dominant first half display from the Toon, and despite a spirited fight back from the Villains, Newcastle held on for their first away win of the season. This was followed by a home game against Chelsea, with United naming the same line up, with Yanga-Mbiwa again having to settle for a place on the bench.
The Magpies started well, and although Chelsea stung the home side with two wonder goals, the Toon fought back, the charge led by Moussa Sissoko, covering acres on the pitch and scoring two goals, with his last minute winner taking the roof off St James’ Park.
Fans left the ground singing and chatting about the game, smiles on faces not seen for many months on Barrack Road. Six points from two games, the new players settling in and players coming back from injury have lead to the return of the feel good factor on Tyneside, going some way to suggest why 69.3% of fans think they can grab a win at White Hart Lane.
Alan Pardew likes to stick with a winning team, so expect United to line up as they have done against Villa and Spurs, although Cheick Tioté may replace James Perch in the anchoring role following his return from the African Cup of Nations.
What’s certain is that the Newcastle of two weeks ago would lose at White Hart Lane. Whether this Newcastle will is another matter. What a difference a fortnight can make...