Newcastle United are on the brink of something special but Manchester City await in a mouthwatering St James’ Park clash. Chief sports writer Mark Douglas looks forward to a game for the ages.
ROUGHLY 12 months ago, the men who wield ultimate power at Newcastle United met in the plush dining room of a four-star Quayside hotel.
After months and months of covering the hard yards and the doing the lonely leg work, several different team line-ups – each configured in a different formation – were presented for perusal.
They were made up of a combination of players that United intended to retain through the summer and those who had survived the extensive whittling-down process led by chief scout Graham Carr.
It was the stuff of fantasy football made real, enough to whet black and white appetites for the entire close season.
One was a 4-3-3 that featured Blaise Matuidi, now at Paris Saint-Germain and a full France international. Another – configured in a more orthodox 4-4-2 – featured France striker Kevin Gameiro playing alongside a player you might now have heard of, Papiss Cisse.
In one there was Raphael Varane, who subsequently landed at Real Madrid, playing alongside Fabricio Coloccini or Steven Taylor.
It is a safe bet that none of those teams would have included Mike Williamson or James Perch – or perhaps even Jonas Gutierrez, another who has impressed with his consistency this season.
But as the Magpies prepare to face Manchester City with one of the richest prizes in football lying in wait, those players are the ones that endure – and the ones that have played such a huge part in sustaining Newcastle’s assault on the top four.
They have been helped, of course, by the stars that United did manage to land like Yohan Cabaye, Demba Ba and Davide Santon. This is a team success, however, with Alan Pardew at the head of it and the rest of his coaching brains trust closely behind in terms of credit.
It is their excellence on the training ground that has managed to eke out improvements in the likes of Perch, Williamson and Gutierrez – while also allowing the brilliant players that Carr and Pardew identified to make their mark.
“Forget about individuals,” Pardew said yesterday. And tomorrow lunchtime, it won’t be about United looking to one man or relying solely on the sublime finishing ability of Cisse.
It will be about Tyneside uniting behind a crop of players who have made them feel proud to support the city’s often maligned football club. And about the belief that those players and Pardew have given them.
“I didn’t think we’d be in this position at the start of season,” Pardew admitted yesterday.