Newcastle back among the 'big boys'
Newcastle United has been referred to as one of England's "big" clubs for a while. That usually means a cabinet full of heavy trophies. But the Magpies haven't won anything substantial since the Fairs Cup in 1969.
Not exactly the Premier League or Champions League title, is it?
So why do "big" and Newcastle feature in the same sentence? Thank the Geordie faithful.
Through the lack of silverware, relegation, ownership struggles and all that that entails, they continue to support the team. When Newcastle dropped to the Championship -- and hosted the likes of Plymouth, Scunthorpe and Peterborough a mere two seasons ago instead of Manchester United, Liverpool and Manchester City -- it didn't make much difference. The average attendance topped 43,000.
It's hard to imagine any other soccer club in the world attracting as many fans in a second division, even if the capacity is there.
"When other teams win things, the fans get excited and they turn up in their thousands," Tommy Cassidy, who joined Newcastle a year after the European triumph and stayed until 1980, said in a phone interview. "Newcastle has won nothing and the fans still turn up in their thousands. The way they stick behind the team is magnificent."
Now they're getting their reward.
Trophies aren't won in November and relegation isn't avoided in the fall, but Newcastle and Manchester City have one thing in common: They're the only two unbeaten teams in the Premier League. Newcastle has spent considerably less money under controversial, beer-guzzling billionaire owner Mike Ashley, who is outwardly the opposite of City's prim, proper and richer billionaire backer, Sheikh Mansour.
The good times continued in Saturday's early kickoff, a 2-1 home win against Everton in front of more than 50,000 that moved Newcastle into second, if only for several hours, between the Manchester clubs.
"When things are going well, I don't think there's a better place to play your football," ESPN analyst and former keeper Shaka Hislop said over the phone.
He should know.
Hislop played for Newcastle in its glory years of the mid-1990s. Kevin Keegan was at the helm, and he had a simple philosophy: attack, attack and attack some more. Defending meant keeping the ball, not sitting back and parking the bus. And tactics? What tactics?
Hislop's teammates included mercurial French winger David Ginola, little magician Peter Beardsley and bulldozer Les Ferdinand. Faustino Asprilla, the skilled and temperamental Colombian, also joined the fun. "Champagne football" flowed as freely as the bubbly.
Unfortunately for Hislop & Co., a slight dip was all it took for Manchester United to leapfrog Newcastle and win the title in 1995-96, the season Keegan delivered his famous rant on live television as Newcastle's hopes faded. Newcastle finished second to United again the following season, but didn't come as close.
"We entertained, attacked, we were cavalier, reckless," Hislop said -- with fondness. "I know a lot of people made a lot of that season, about how we collapsed, but I think we played football the way people wanted to watch football. We didn't win the title, and we'll live to regret that for the rest of our lives, but for that season or two we captured everyone's imagination."
Current boss Alan Pardew isn't as bold. But while the fans might prefer more flash, no one is complaining about the substance.
Pardew is silencing his critics, and there were many when he replaced the axed -- harshly by Ashley -- Chris Hughton last December. Hughton was popular, and if he had to go, the fans wanted a high-profile manager. Newcastle has had a few, including Keegan, Bobby Robson, Ruud Gullit, Kenny Dalglish and Alan Shearer.
The modern-day Magpies possess one of the stingiest defenses in the division, breached just eight times. For that, Pardew deserves plenty of credit, since there are better back fours individually than Fabricio Coloccini, Steven Taylor, Danny Simpson and Ryan Taylor, who scored the superb second goal Saturday. Only the curly-haired Coloccini is a senior international. Pardew has them organized, and young Dutchman Tim Krul has had a pair of safe hands in goal.
Cheik Tiote, already a mini-legend in Newcastle for scoring the tying goal when Newcastle rallied from 4-0 down to draw Arsenal in February, protects the central defenders. He's often at the heart of the transition from defense to offense.
"Pardew has got his team now all pulling in the right direction," Hislop said. "For Newcastle to be unbeaten  games into the season, that takes some doing. I don't care who you are."
"I wasn't a fan when Pardew came along," Cassidy said. "I thought the club was going down the wrong road. I felt it was a business thing, not a football thing. But I've been proved completely wrong."
Pardew's job was supposed to get harder in 2011, given that striker Andy Carroll, left back Jose Enrique and midfielders Kevin Nolan and Joey Barton departed. They were four pivotal performers. But summer import Yohan Cabaye has provided creativity in the center of the pitch, Jonas Gutierrez mixes mazy runs with work rate, and Leon Best and newcomer Demba Ba have surprisingly done the job up front.
Ba, a hat-trick hero Monday at Stoke, has scored eight league goals, trailing only the much more expensive quartet of Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney, Sergio Aguero and Edin Dzeko heading into Saturday's later games.
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"[Ba] has been absolutely terrific," Pardew told reporters. "He doesn't miss a day's training. Don't think this is a one-off from him. His link-up play, his all-round ability and his finishing are excellent."
Tying it all together is a strong team chemistry.
"The team here work in a lot more close quarters than I am used to," highly rated Italian defender Davide Santon told The Chronicle. "Everyone looks out for each other and backs their teammates up."
Staying in the top four come May would surpass Everton's achievement of finishing fourth in 2005, but most pundits agree it probably won't happen; Newcastle faces stiffer tests in its next three outings, against City, United and Chelsea. A top-eight standing and a deep run in the FA Cup is a more realistic target.
And just imagine if Newcastle could win the Cup.
All of Pardew's detractors would disappear.
"The next person who manages Newcastle United to a trophy will be a god for the rest of his life," Cassidy said. "They'll be revered forever."
London-based Ravi Ubha covers soccer and tennis for ESPN.com. You can follow him on Twitter here.