New season, new start?
Well, the faces, at least those of the players, were the same at Newcastle United’s training ground were the same.
But the the place, which was moribund in the latter months of last season as the club fought a grim battle against relegation, had a different feel.
There were clouds in the sky above Newcastle’s training centre in Benton.
But the session put on by Steve McClaren and his backroom team was bright and breezy.
The players looked energised and enthusiastic.
We’ve talked a lot about the next three windows being huge, massive, for us. Huge. Let’s make sure we get the right ones.Steve McClaren
It felt different. After a lengthy warm-up, the group was split into two, with the emphasis in one on attack, and the other on defence.
And the session ended with a short, full-scale game ahead of tonight’s pre-season opener against Gateshead.
The only new faces Newcastle fans will see at the International Stadium will be Karl Darlow and Jamaal Lascelles, who joined the club a year ago only to be loaned back to the Championship club.
McClaren knows the work done on the training field between now and United’s season opener against Southampton at St James’s Park on August 9 will only go so far.
The club needs more players, better players.
And the work being done by managing director Lee Charnley in the transfer market will be equally important.
It’s been 47 days since owner Mike Ashley pledged to “invest” in the squad in a surprise TV interview minutes before his team took to the field against West Ham United on the final day of the season.
That investment will run into tens of millions of pounds. So far, it has been a challenging summer for a club unused to bringing in players costing upwards of £10million.
McClaren also says the club also has one eye on the following two windows.
“I have come in and looked at the plan and looked at the calibre of players (the targets) and said ‘wow’,” he said.
“We have expressed our objectives and put it on the line and now we have to fulfil that.
“That’s what Mike Ashley has done and said ‘go on, fulfil it’. So we have to get the right ones to improve this group.
“We’ve talked a lot about the next three windows being huge, massive, for us.
“Let’s make sure we get the right ones.
“If we get them, then in a year’s time – after the third window – we should have a damn good team and squad on a different level to where we are now.
“That’s purely because we are looking at players above a certain bracket.” McClaren is keen to rebuild trust with a fanbase which has, over time, become deeply cynical about the club’s ambition, or lack of it.
Ashley signalled the end of Newcastle’s policy of concentrating solely on the Premier League before the final game of last season when he said he wouldn’t sell up before the club either won a cup or qualified for the Champions League.
To that end, McClaren is conscious that he needs up to five new players, at least two of them in the £10million-bracket. PSV Eindhoven midfielder Georginio Wijnaldum is close to joining the club, and McClaren is hopeful of a breakthrough before he crosses the Atlantic on Sunday with his squad for United’s three-game tour of the USA.
Asked how many players he needed, McClaren said:
“We’ve got a plan,” he said. “We have got one or two positions we need to fill desperately, so we might need to buy about four or five – that would be great – but if not, we’ll just have to wait.”
Asked if he would be happy with four or five players, the 54-year-old added: “Yes, I think everybody would. Everybody knows what the objectives are, and everybody knows that we have got good players here, but we need to improve on that.”
McClaren and his staff were quick to get the balls out this pre-season.
In previous years, fitness testing and running has dominated first few days, but McClaren and his assistant coaches – Ian Cathro and Paul Simpson – were keen for the players to start some early ball work.
And the emphasis has been on shape and possession. Asked if it had a different feel, McClaren said: “I don’t know. This is all we know. This is what we do.
“This is how we work.
“Other people work differently – it’s not not saying it’s better or worse or more effective. This is just the way that we work.
“We want the players to enjoy it, but we also want to give them a job to do, and that’s what we are working on for the next few weeks.”
So far, so good on the pitch.
If the club can also get it right off the field, Newcastle could yet be reborn in the USA.