It was about this time last season, with the rumblings of Yohan Cabaye's departure becoming steadily harder to ignore, that the Vurnon Anita Appreciation Society made its debut on Twitter.
It sounds daft now (I also seem to have uh... misplaced my official membership card and signed letter), but at the time he seemed like the perfect replacement for our talisman-in-chief. Here we were, about to lose a man whose range of passing, positional astuteness, attacking drive and defensive solidity had made him indispensable, all the while another player with these alleged attributes was playing head tennis with him in training. Straight forward, one hoped.
In hindsight though it wasn't so much Anita's potential that marked him out for this, so much as it was the failure of the other candidates to impress that season. Hatem Ben Arfa, shunted out the team and gaining inches on his waistline every time he appeared, was always more of a mercurial luxury than a solid foundation, while Cheick Tiote had apparently lost whatever hunger and power he'd arrived at the club with two seasons previous – like he'd woken up the morning after a full moon, missing his fur and his claws, completely naked in the neighbour’s hedge.
The only other heir to the throne was Moussa Sissoko, who despite arriving under the billing of “Patrick Viera meets Yaya Toure” had looked so pitifully out of his depth as the number 10 in Pardew's desperate 4-2-3-1 of early 2013. A lack of touch and a tendency to run very quickly into dead ends being his only real characteristics of note. Indeed, toward the end of Cabaye's time at Newcastle, Sissoko was being increasingly and awkwardly used as a wide player, as Pardew sought to recreate his utter destruction of Ashley Cole down the right flank – at the time his only memorable contribution.
So with no replacement earmarked for the inevitable, it was to the feet of Vurnon Anita that the passing, scoring and tackling burden would fall from January until the end of the season.
Well, his passing stats were good but he didn't register a single assist, he managed a tap in when we were 3-1 up at Hull, and after getting barged off the ball every week contrived to give a penalty away in the derby. Appreciation society or not, he was a disaster.
The summer acquisitions of Remy Cabella and Siem De Jong looked designed to remedy this, but due to form and fitness neither of them have had much of an impact so far. Yet Newcastle find themselves sniffing around the top 4 in the league and, tonight, in the quarter finals of a cup competition, so what's changed?
Well, lots of things. Fabricio Coloccini's rediscovered himself, exciting young players like Perez and Aarons have emerged, and the squad's found an impressive level of depth when injuries have pushed it to breaking point. But the contribution, and indeed improvement, of Moussa Sissoko quite neatly sums up Newcastle's success as a rapid counter-attacking side in the last few months.
Anita's failure perhaps provided a valuable lesson for Newcastle about replacing Yohan Cabaye – namely that they couldn't. Instead the entire approach of the side has been altered from one that kept the ball well and broke teams down with incisive passing (no, honestly, we really did do that from August until the end of December last year), to one that looks to sit deep, press hard, and then break at pace. Sissoko isn't a number 10, and he isn't a winger, but with the ball at his feet and space to run into, there are few players better suited in this league.
You see, where Cabaye's statistic of creating over 3 chances a game was exceptional, so too is Sissoko's for completing that many dribbles. Where last season he'd run head first into two or three defenders, or shake them free to find himself by the corner flag, playing him centrally in a team that sits deeper means he now runs past (sometimes through) his markers to find himself bearing down on goal with teammates flanking either side. The second goal against Chelsea and his own effort against QPR are arguably the best examples of this, but there's been evidence of it almost all season.
The man's like a gritter. Big, noisy and not concerned with weaving between traffic, he simply steamrollers ahead of everything spraying clear a path for more nimble units to move up the road. It's fascinating to watch teams play their way gradually up the park, but there's been something wonderfully visceral about seeing Moussa Sissoko grab the ball, the game, and his teammates by collar and haul all three of them 30 yards up the pitch.
There's a scene near the end of Avengers Assemble where, with things looking their most hopeless, Bruce Banner rolls up on his little motorbike. He explains to the rest of his comrades that despite all the fear, all the problems, and all the misdirected destruction, he can, after all, control the hulk when he really needs to. He tells them that the beast inside of him does have a brain and, with their biggest test about to come, that he can use it as a force for good. With Tottenham, Sunderland and Manchester United on the horizon for Newcastle, there are signs that Moussa Sissoko might just have done the same.