There’s a perception among pundits across the country that Newcastle United fans would prefer to lose 4-3 in an emotional rollercoaster of a game than win 1-0 in a dull encounter.
Perception or misconception?
Four-three has become a mythical scoreline associated with Newcastle ever since that fateful April night on Merseyside back in 1996. It was one of the turning points of a season in which Newcastle won so many admirers for their style of football under Kevin Keegan, but ultimately won nothing in terms of trophies.
Remarkably, it was 4-3 again at Anfield the following year, Liverpool again the victors thanks to a last-gasp winner. Keegan had been replaced by Kenny Dalglish as manager, but crazy scorelines and entertaining football, for the initial part of the Scot’s reign, remained.
A generation of United fans had grown up on the swashbuckling style Keegan had brought to the club in his four years in charge. Super-charged, attacking and full of pace, ‘The Entertainers’ were born in full view of the Sky Sports cameras as the Premier League took off.
Fans who have watched Newcastle for much longer than the 30 years I have, still say that they’ve never seen football like it. Full-backs bombing on are the norm nowadays, but 20 years ago that was how Keegan wanted his teams to play, never mind your centre-half chipping the best goalkeeper in the world, Peter Schmeichel, from 25 yards as Philippe Albert famously did.
The trouble was, the trophy cabinet remained empty. The best Newcastle side of a generation came up short. Two years in a row they were runners-up in the top flight, and for the following two years lost FA Cup Finals.
By that time, Dalglish had come and gone. Accused of ripping up Keegan’s team and style – the likes of David Ginola, Faustino Asprilla, John Beresford, Les Ferdinand and Peter Beardsley were all sold on his watch – his negative tactics saw fans turn against the Liverpool legend.
Ever since, the belief that the Toon Army want gung-ho football rather than steady and safe, even if it gets results, has been purported. It gained further credence in the post-Bobby Robson years, especially when Mike Ashley was persuaded to dispense with the services of Sam Allardyce.
Forget narrow victories based on a strong defence and a goal pinched on the counter-attack, it has to be scintillating, exciting, one-touch football and handsome victories by large margins otherwise the knives will be out for whoever is guiding them from the dugout. Doesn’t it?
The truth, as ever, is usually somewhere in between.
When they pay their hard-earned money, Newcastle fans want to be entertained. They don’t expect to win, nor to be challenging in the top four as is often claimed. But they do want to see a brand of football that will get them off their seats. Stylish, skilfull and creative players are adored.
But at the same time, Newcastle fans crave success, starved of domestic silverware for 60 years.
If Birmingham, Coventry, Swansea and Middlesbrough can all claim a cup, why not Newcastle?
Yes, Middlesbrough. 2004 League Cup victors under a certain Steve McClaren. The only manager to have won anything in their 139-year history. And yet while Keegan, Sir Bobby Robson and the likes are feted on Tyneside despite being unable to end Newcastle’s trophy drought, McClaren remains a figure who divides opinion on Teesside.
When he quit the club in 2006, having not only brought them their only silverware but also taken them to a European final, there were fans who rejoiced, tired of the style of football that he’d inflicted on their team.
Negative. Boring. Safe. Functional. Dull.
Five words often associated with McClaren’s during his five-year spell at the Riverside. Bold and attacking – two words demanded on Tyneside – don’t feature heavily.
McClaren’s early tactics at Newcastle appear clear. Strong defensive structure and pace on the flanks to hit teams on the counter-attack, a policy which worked superbly at Manchester United and which contributed to Georginio Wijnaldum’s goal against Southampton – the two games in which they kept 11 men on the field and in which they’ve garnered a point.
Just five games into his tenure, judgements can’t easily be made. What is clear, however, is the organisation and structure the 54-year-old has imposed on the team. They look far more solid defensively, as a goalless draw at old Trafford and a defeat to an own goal against Arsenal despite playing for 75 minutes with 10 men testify.
It’s difficult to evaluate the attacking capability under the new boss, however. It’s been a tough start with their four Premier League games coming against sides who finished in the top eight last season.
And in two of their fixtures, the Magpies have had a man sent off in the first half, negating their ability to get forward.
The stats don’t make great reading as a result. In four league games, Newcastle have managed a paltry six shots on target, and none in their last two games. In total, they’ve had just 21 efforts on goal (in comparison, their opponents have had 75).
None of which will faze McClaren too much; Boro infamously beat Man City without having a shot on target!
As the team develops and more work is done on the training ground – and with an improvement in discipline too – fans will expect those attacking figures to improve, however. One thing they shouldn’t expect is a radical change in the gameplan. It’s a tried and tested formula which has brought him a cup win and a league title during his career.
Just one of those while at Newcastle would be enough to ensure he could stand alongside The Entertainers in Tyneside folklore.
Would fans be happy with ‘dull’ football if that was the end result?