July, 25 2009 is a day that has become infamous for newly promoted Newcastle United and its fans. July 25 was both the club’s lowest ebb for decades and the spark that ignited the push for an immediate return to the top flight.
That day saw Newcastle crash to a humiliating 6-1 defeat at the hands of Leyton Orient in a friendly at Brisbane Road, capping a miserable season in the Premier League which saw it relegated without little more than a whimper on the last day at Villa Park.
The Northeast club was for sale, without a manager and in disarray from top to bottom because no one knew who was going to be in charge in time for the start of the season.
This, coupled with the clear signs that a number of the first team squad did not want to stay at St James’ Park, led to a players’ meeting in the away dressing room immediately after the match with Leyton Orient where the unmotivated were told in no certain terms that they were not wanted at the club anymore.
The club’s No. 1 goalkeeper Steve Harper told FourFourTwo Magazine: “Obviously losing 6-1 was an awful result. But what came out of that were a few home truths, and we never looked back – it unified the squad.
“People began jumping on the bandwagon and writing us off. We’d been relegated, there were the well-documented circumstances off the pitch, there was that defeat … it was just open season and from that game, a siege mentality ensued.”
The bandwagon Harper is referring to was the idea that Newcastle were going to “do a Leeds.” They were going to suffer another relegation and then the financial trouble would really begin for the club.
And perhaps this would have been the case if players like Sebastian Bassong, Obafemi Martins, Mark Viduka, Habib Beye and Michael Owen had stayed at the club, players who seemed to be going through the motions, happy to pick up their massive wages while they sat on the sidelines nursing their latest injury.
But those players, and a few others, were shipped out one way or another and what was left was an admittedly less talented squad, but a squad willing to fight for the club.
Steered by the calming influence of Chris Hughton, a man as far removed from some of the more media obsessed former Newcastle bosses, this “group of lads” started well and never looked back in the Championship. The club thoroughly deserved to bounce back to the Premier League after one try.
If you were to ask anyone involved with the club it was the combination of Hughton and his No. 2 man , Colin Calderwood, that was the key to the club’s success in the second tier last season.
The former Tottenham men weren’t sure of their jobs until October last year, but they just kept things plugging along, waiting for either the new man to come in or for owner Mike Ashley to offer them their jobs on a full-time basis.
When the latter occurred, Newcastle celebrated by going on a seven-game winning streak, stretching from the Oct. 24 until Dec. 9, to open a gap on their nearest rivals, which they were never to relinquish.
It is a true testament to the former Tottenham player how the players have nothing but good things to say about him as a man and a boss.
For example Kevin Nolan, one of the more influential players in the dressing room at the moment, told the Times that “he is a great manager, a great fella. When Chris wants something he gets it.”
Nolan is one of a number of players who have managed to turn their form around in the Championship. The likes of Fabricio Collocini, Jonas Gutierrez and Alan Smith all became vital players for the club during their season in the second tier and they have all improved as a result.
Of course there are major question marks over whether these players are good enough to play in the Premier League; after all they were part of the side that went down, and many believe that they simply found their level last season against weaker opposition.
The players will argue that they were so dominant at times that perhaps they just had to relearn how to do the simple things right before taking on the world’s best.
The stats would suggest that this is the case as thrashings dished out to the likes of Cardiff, Ipswich and Barnsley show, but there is still a long way to go until this set of players have proven it belongs in the Premier League.
Already this summer Hughton has been preparing for a long, tough season by bringing in two players.
James Perch arrived from Nottingham Forest. Perch is unproven at the highest level, like many of his teammates, but eager to prove himself worthy of a spot in the top tier.
Everton starlet, Dan Gosling, arrived on a free transfer, one of the coups of the transfer window, to add pace to a battling but slow midfield. He cannot play until December, but he will be an asset when he is finally fit.
Looking at the squad as a whole, Hughton still has work to do though if Newcastle is to survive this season. The Magpies are desperately short of wingers, boasting only two first teamers in Gutierrez and Wayne Routledge. An injury to either one would severely hamper their chances of staying up.
Likewise in defense Newcastle is short of cover, particularly at full back. Another two or three players are needed there otherwise the inevitable injury troubles will take their toll at some point.
Hughton’s ability has also been called into question. He is unproven at the Premier League level, and this season will certainly be make or break for him as a manager. He will need time and patience from the Toon Army if he is to be a success. So the question is, can the Geordies actually give a manager the chance to succeed?
Only time will tell, but don’t be surprised if Hughton is job-hunting by Christmas.
The players and the board seem to have faith in the man in charge though, so perhaps he will be treated with the respect he deserves and given the chance to at least see the season out.
Speaking of the board, Ashley had become a figure of hate on Tyneside when he announced through chairman Derek Llambias that they were going to sell the stadium name to the highest bidder. Thankfully that venture seems to have been dropped which has helped fans develop a grudging indifference to his presence.
Most recognize that he bankrolled the club through last season, indeed without his money Newcastle would not have been able to keep its squad together. So the fans are thankful for that, but he is far from forgiven for some of his questionable and at times downright terrible decisions during the relegation season.
If he gives his manager money and time and this then translates into results on the pitch he will have gained back a lot of the respect he has lost during his time on Tyneside.
Newcastle seems like one of the favorite for relegation this season and this seems fair. It has not significantly strengthened a pretty thin squad yet; it has an inexperienced top flight manager and a lot of the players were at the club when it went down.
But the Magpies will be encouraged by the performances of Birmingham and Wolves last season and, quite rightly, think why not us as well? It will have to go some to do it but the attitude from top to bottom seems to be exactly what is needed.
Time will tell whether Hughton will be remembered as the man who turned around an ailing club’s fortunes, but one thing is for sure even at this early stage, this season will be a rollercoaster ride for him and everyone else involved with Newcastle United.
Cameron Dickinson is a contributing writer for The National Game. His column appears with written consent.