Rooting for the Magpies
Why we should want Newcastle United to clinch that final Champions League spot
Received wisdom says that Newcastle United is a comedy club. Always has been, always will be. Its popular history is one of false messiahs and teary nervous breakdowns, from its laughable relegation to its self-styled status as a big club -- despite the sort of trophy cabinet that Nietzsche warned against looking into. The Magpies are football's most consistent basket case, there to be mocked, but in 2012, they're maintaining an astonishing challenge for Champions League football well into the business end of the season -- two points ahead of Chelsea and out of fourth only on goal difference -- and no one's laughing. Or so you'd think.
In truth, though, there's something amusingly off-the-cuff about Newcastle's renaissance. From recruiting their "playa-manager" during a night at the casino, to unearthing some of the best buys in the Premier League thanks to a scouting operation masterminded by comedian Alan Carr's dad, even Newcastle's successes have a glaze of madness. Despite being effectively a midtable club -- if you average out league positions since the EPL began -- Newcastle (as befits the shirt) isn't accustomed to gray areas. And so, after suffering the ultimate low, the club has enjoyed an entirely unpredicted and rapid rise to former heights.
Most curiously of all, a club whose ambitions have long been the butt of jokes and derision has now become likable. And as a result, it's locked in a battle with the worst Arsenal and Chelsea sides in years to usurp their place in Europe. We should all be hoping that it makes it.
Hatem Ben Arfa is a perfect embodiment of why -- a player who brings moments of irrational excitement, a wild card with an old-school combination of jaw-dropping goals and brainless mistakes. No Champions League team was prepared to tolerate his perceived lack of reliability, so Newcastle welcomed him to Tyneside to ply his casual style to a more appreciative audience.
Once upon a time, every team was in possession of such a talent as Ben Arfa -- Southampton had Matthew Le Tissier, West Ham had Paolo Di Canio and the previous generation of Newcastle fans got their kicks from David Ginola. Modern teams clearly still have their stars, but the flawed genius is a dying breed. When HBA raced clear to stroke Newcastle into the lead against Bolton, nobody cared about the awful defending; they were too busy basking in the glory of a player blessed with such rare qualities.
Now, with the French international having established himself as a key member of the best Newcastle side in years, it's clear that many of his teammates also defy description by the more sterile language of modern football.
Take Demba Ba. The Senegalese striker is an old-fashioned goal scorer; although he's a fine athlete, most of his goals are born of predatory instinct. It's difficult to define movement at the best of times, but when a player gets so many rebounds and headers in crowded areas, it becomes impossible. Ba is far too reliable a goal scorer for it to be luck -- since moving to England, he's scored 23 goals in 41 games for Newcastle and West Ham -- and his partnership with Papiss Cisse relies on a simple understanding and natural jelling. There's no rigid creator-finisher blueprint, just two very good strikers working well together.
Similarly, it's difficult to describe exactly what Ben Arfa actually brings to the team, but nobody would deny that he's thrilling to watch. Newcastle doesn't need analysis, only enjoyment. No one needs to know how the hot dogs are made.
This feeling also extends to the management. When "tactical masterminds" comes up as a category on "Jeopardy!" the answer "Alan Pardew" isn't going to bring home the cash, but then neither is "Harry Redknapp." Both men defy the cold, analytical ideal of the modern manager, relying on team spirit and good players playing their natural game in their natural positions -- two simple ideas that have fueled Newcastle's rise ever since its relegation. Although the fans railed against the ownership when the team dropped a level in 2009-10, fans' support for the players never wavered, and Pardew has been able to pick up where Chris Hughton left off, maximizing a likable squad of close-knit, spirited players.
Such a seemingly trivial difference can have enormous benefits -- it's the difference between Fabricio Coloccini looking like a total liability and one of the Premier League's better center backs, or between "Andy Carroll" and, well ... Andy Carroll.
In addition, of all the teams vying for third and fourth, Newcastle is the only one actually fulfilling its potential. By their respective standards, Arsenal has been shockingly inconsistent, Tottenham has collapsed since February, and Chelsea and Liverpool have been dire. That might well add up to being superior to Newcastle playing to the extreme of its capabilities, but it would be a tremendous shame for a side at the top of its game to be denied by a bigger club that simply went through the motions.
Whether Newcastle can, as Spurs has attempted, go on and take it to the next level is questionable. Despite the fears over Mike Ashley, there are reasons to suspect he would be willing to speculate -- when its competitors did nothing or reduced their squad size in January, Newcastle smelled glory and pushed through the signing of Cisse. Its reward has been a rejuvenation of form, that had seemed to be flagging, via his 10 goals in nine games. Similar investment could be in line for Newcastle should its break into the top four, and given its considerably large stadium and support base, it's better placed than almost anybody else to make the jump.
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Of course, such an achievement shouldn't be seen in financial terms. Like the vast majority of football clubs, Newcastle's history and nostalgia isn't about trophies but rather of a more subjective collection of past memories -- of great players, individual victories and specific moments of beauty.
Regardless of how unlikely the Magpies would be to even retain their placing, the opportunity for dreamy European nights at St. James' Park is too alluring, not just for Newcastle fans but for any neutral. The Magpies' continental adventures in the 1990s sum it up perfectly -- the 1997-98 campaign is remembered not for being a forgettable group-stage exit but rather for one of the most famous nights in the club's history -- a 3-2 victory over the Barcelona of unstoppable Rivaldo and mercurial Luis Figo, courtesy of a Tino Asprilla hat trick.
Any of the other contenders for the Champions League is likely to return within two years if it misses out, but for Newcastle, it's an opportunity that might never come again. For everybody else, getting in the top four is a stepping stone -- the beginning of something greater. It would be much nicer if it could go to a team that would treat it as something beautiful in itself.
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