Why Steve McClaren SHOULD have taken Newcastle on a '˜jolly' to Dubai
Relegation-threatened Newcastle United, reeling from their embarrassing defeat at Chelsea, had an unwelcome break in the fixture list.
If a week’s a long time in politics, 18 days is a very, very long time in football.
And Steve McClaren’s beleaguered side could be even deeper in Premier League trouble by the time they take on Stoke City at the Britannia Stadium on Wednesday night.
They should be rested and refreshed at the very least after a break from the old routine.
The mood behind the scenes has certainly lightened since that abject afternoon at Stamford Bridge earlier this month.
But there is a heavy weight on the shoulders of McClaren and his players between the end of the season.
And are they ready to shoulder that burden?
Newcastle should be nothing if not well prepared at the Britannia Stadium, a ground which hasn’t been kind to the club over the years.
Before he took his players to La Manga, Spain, for a training camp and friendly against Lillestrom, head coach McClaren was at pains to point out it wasn’t a “jolly” in the media room deep in the bowels of Stamford Bridge’s imposing East Stand.
“I don’t know why people are saying it’s a warm weather trip – it could be pouring down where we’re going,” he said. “Nobody knows that.
“It’s a training camp, and it’s for work. I’m looking forward to that, with two sessions a day and plenty of organisation and fitness work. It’ll help us get ready for the last 12 games.”
Questions about the trip seemingly irritated McClaren, who may have been unaware of the excess baggage at the club from previous mid-season breaks
You see, there’s a bit of history with Newcastle and sunshine breaks.
And that history stretches back a decade and a half to the late, great Sir Bobby Robson’s difficult first full season as United manager.
The Chelsea game came almost 15 days to the day after Robson took his players to La Manga hours after a 2-0 defeat to Charlton Athletic.
The players didn’t have much to say as they trooped silently on to the team bus parked in a corner of The Valley.
However, Sir Bobby did their talking for them in the Press room.
“This is just about the angriest I’ve been since I came to the club,” he railed. “They go La Manga tonight. I don’t want to go to La Manga. What do I want to go there for?
“They think it’s about going and enjoying themselves for six days. They’ve got it wrong in their heads, haven’t they, for heaven’s sake?
“I haven’t made up my mind yet whether I’ll go. I’ll do so when I get to the airport.”
As it was, the team did fly to Spain that night.
Newcastle’s performance against Chelsea was arguably far worse than that against Charlton all those years ago.
McClaren, however, wasn’t nearly as strident in his criticism of United’s performance at Stamford Bridge, where his team was beaten 5-1.
Presumably McClaren had more to say in the privacy of the dressing room, but Robson, a passionate man, didn’t hide his disgust in public at a “pathetic” spell of play in which his team conceded both goals.
“We were pathetic during that period, pretty abysmal,” he went on. “My players have got to realise you’ve got to fight for the right to play. Reputations and names don’t mean a thing.
“What I’m concerned about is our boyish attitude.
“We should have had a terrific appetite to come here and play after not playing last weekend. Charlton have taken six points off us. Good luck to them. They deserve it.”
Things didn’t get much better for Sir Bobby’s Newcastle that season on their return from La Manga, though they comfortably finished in a mid-table position.
United, thanks to the inspirational Robson, prospered the following season after the summer arrival of Craig Bellamy.
Only time will tell if Newcastle’s second trip to the resort can improve the club’s fortunes on English soil.
It wasn’t a jolly, though those aren’t unusual for Premier League clubs, many of which head to Dubai for so-called “bonding” trips.
It worked for United under Souness, who took his players there in 11 years ago for a warm-weather break.
The players left for the Middle East with boos ringing in their ears after a disappointing home draw against Charlton, but returned emboldened and energised. They reached the quarter-finals of the UEFA Cup and semi-finals of the FA Cup.
Speaking after a 1-0 win over Tottenham Hotspur the following month, Souness said: “A bit of belief, confidence, togetherness – I think it’s very important we go back to Dubai.
“That helped the togetherness, without a shadow of a doubt.
“Two months ago, we wouldn’t have won that game, but there was a dogged determination about us individually and collectively not to be beaten, not to concede anything.”
But you can have too much of a good thing.
United’s season unravelled on their return from their second trip to Dubai – remember Lee Bowyer and Kieron Dyer’s altercation during a home defeat to Aston Villa?
Injuries were also a factor, particularly those suffered during the second-leg of the UEFA Cup quarter-final away to Sporting Lisbon.
But that first trip to Dubai did some good. It wasn’t about double sessions or drills. It was about engendering some togetherness.
McClaren is different to Souness. He likes to train, and train hard, but did his team really need double sessions in Spain?
There were few distractions in La Manga. The focus was firmly on the training pitch.
But if the players haven’t taken on board McClaren’s ideas and philosophy over the past seven months, what good will a few extra sessions have done?
That’s why I wouldn’t have had a problem with a less intensive team-bonding trip to Dubai, where Sam Allardyce took Sunderland last week.
Those qualities that Souness talked about – belief, confidence, togetherness – are what will get Newcastle through the next few months.
United haven’t looked like a team – on or off the pitch – this season.
And it might have taken a jolly to unite Newcastle ahead of the final 12 games of the season.