Newcastle United rang in the New Year uncertain of what 2012 held for them but, writes Stuart Rayner, an unforgettable win over the reigning champions reinvigorated their push for Europe
NEWCASTLE United began 2012 with high hopes, but perhaps not high expectations.
Alan Pardew’s first full season as manager started brilliantly, a super-settled side establishing itself in the early-season top four. By the turn of the year, though, it looked as if they might be running out of steam.
Between Bonfire Night and New Year’s Eve their only win was over Bolton Wanderers, who were on their way to relegation. January did not look too promising either.
Demba Ba and Cheick Tioté were off to the African Cup of Nations, probably until mid-February.
January 4 was the last game the pair would be available for, but it looked a very difficult one to get anything out of. Newcastle had not beaten Manchester United for ten years and there had been some hammerings to boot.
In six weeks of 2008 alone the Magpies shipped 11 goals home and away to the Red Devils.
The visitors were locked in their annual title race and, as all English football fans know, Christmas is traditionally the time they step up their form.
Making it harder rather than easier was the fact Man United had lost their previous game, humiliated by Blackburn Rovers on Sir Alex Ferguson’s birthday. They rarely lose twice in succession.
Not only did that happen, they were comprehensively outplayed by a brilliant Newcastle. It was a great way for the Magpies to start 2012, and a sign of things to come.
Encouraged by Blackburn, Newcastle decided to go for it. They too adopted an unashamedly direct approach, and ran out 3-0 winners.
“The whole country felt that Blackburn had no chance of winning, but they did it,” argued Ba, the Premier League’s in-form striker, afterwards. “It was the same for us.
“We went on the pitch with the belief we could win, and we’re very happy with the result.”
Yohan Cabaye’s brilliant free-kick doubled the lead Ba had given them. Centre-back Phil Jones had been given a torrid night by the recalled Shola Ameobi, and rounded it off with a bizarre own goal.
It should really have been more, the Red Devils let off the hook when Howard Webb decided it was okay for Rio Ferdinand to bring Ba down from behind in the penalty area.
No wonder there was not a hint of a complaint about the result from Ferguson.
Any victory over the all-powerful clubs for whom the title race is a private affair is to be celebrated, but the fact Newcastle’s was so crushing made it all the more satisfying.
“We went a little bit more direct, and it paid dividends for us,” Pardew explained.
“We can change tactics, we have different strengths to the squad and we haven’t approached every game with the same gameplan.
“Whatever you say about tonight, we were brave. We didn’t let them rest on the ball. We were in their faces all night, and didn’t drop off in the second half. We got our rewards.”
The confidence Newcastle took from 90 minutes at St James’ Park served them well for the rest of the season. It allowed them to ride out the African Cup of Nations.
Twice they were badly beaten on the road – conceding five at Fulham and Tottenham Hotspur – but they had the reserves of belief built up that night to draw from.
Crucially, they cashed in on the feelgood factor by paying £7.5m to Freiburg for Ba’s international team-mate Papiss Cissé early in the transfer window, even though he too was in Africa. It was an inspired signing, hitting the ground running with 13 goals in his first 12 games.
They also got a bit of luck, Ba and Cissé coming back early from the African Cup after Senegal surprisingly failed to make it out of the group stage.
With Cissé prolific, Newcastle got back on a roll. Although a shock 4-0 defeat at Wigan Athletic ended a run of six straight wins, they quickly jumped back on the horse with a 2-0 win at Chelsea inspired by two goals from the new signing.
Suddenly talk of the Champions League was not so fanciful and although Newcastle fell short of that, a fifth-place finish was enough to take them back into Europe for the first time in five years.
That momentum dissipated in the summer as Newcastle failed to keep the ball rolling with another big name signing (four came in, but only Vurnon Anita for significant money), and with more going out than arriving, the added demands of Europe proved too much for a small squad which had ridden its luck the previous season.
The conundrum of Ba and Cissé has not been solved either. The former’s prolific form deserted him once his compatriot arrived and while he has picked it back up this term, Cissé has suffered.
There are, then, problems to be solved in January but at least the Magpies can tackle them from the position of being a club with European football on its CV. One unforgettable New Year night at St James’ played a huge part in that.