I can’t be certain, but would hazard a guess that if at 5.45pm on Sunday 24th May 2009 you’d turned to me and cheerfully opined that relegation from the top flight should be welcomed as just the tonic my beloved Newcastle Utd needed, I’d have been inclined to disagree, possibly violently. Hindsight being a wonderful thing and all that, but you’d have been proven right. Far from being (as the mainstream media would have it) a nightmare in which we found ourselves ostracised from the “big time” and haunted by former glories (well, near-glories), this season has actually proven to be one of the most enjoyable in living memory.
On reflection, perhaps the best analogy for our year in the Championship would be to compare it to a spell at a health spa. Flabby, drained, demoralised and fractious, we took temporary time out from the stresses of the Premier League so as to be able to return in much better shape, both physically and mentally.
First of all, our enforced Championship diet meant that the fat of the squad – the result of years of excess and indulgence – was soon shed to leave us lighter and leaner. The departure of the underperforming overpaid also meant a general detoxification of the dressing room, albeit one which Joey Barton escaped – though even he has claimed to be living “a monk-like existence“. The result? An inner peace and harmony that was only threatened by the odd, rare, isolated incident. The “semblance of stability” that the BBC’s report on our Premier League death knell suggested we desperately needed has indeed materialised – though not at Alan Shearer’s hand but Chris Hughton’s, for which he deserves enormous credit. “This most dysfunctional of clubs“? Not any more.
And what of our brittle confidence? Well, it wasn’t all plain sailing and we suffered bloodied noses at Blackpool, Scunthorpe and Derby as well as being comprehensively outplayed both home and away by fellow retreat/spa guests West Brom. But the truth is that, contrary to our expectations, much of the season was a stroll against opponents who flattered our egos by regarding us as big fish to try to fry. Here were defences we could penetrate and score against freely; here were attacks we could rebuff without much trouble; here, to put it simply, was a division in which we could win games. Not only did the confidence come flooding back, but it actually started proving a crucial difference in tight encounters, arguably as important as individual sparks of brilliance and tactical nous in carrying us to victory.
So there you have it. Twelve months ago we were physically and psychologically broken. Now we’re scrubbed, exfoliated, fitter, healthier, more optimistic – and smugly and self-righteously extolling the virtues of a spell in the rehab clinic that is the Championship.
And now, as we begin to prepare for a return to the rigours of daily life in the Premier League, it seems we’re determined not to fall back into our old bad habits – if Sunday’s quite extraordinary public statement is anything to go by, at least. Public pontifications by the club hierarchy are apparently to be severely curbed, while we’re going to look after our internal constitution first and foremost, redoubling our efforts to scout for the best local talent and promoting from within rather than seeking to make expensive trophy signings to excite the cameras and messageboards.
The meaning of the phrase “no capital outlay” has been the subject of much debate (making a mockery of the statement as some kind of unequivocal clarification) and I remain to be convinced that keeping the wallet shut is in the long-term interests of the club if it results in another relegation, one from which we might well not bounce back so easily. But these are issues for discussion elsewhere; what’s significant in the context of this piece is that we seem anxious to show that lessons have been learned and that there’s a new-found appreciation of the value of asceticism in the corridors of power.
Anyway, back to the Championship. The fact that we’ve enjoyed ourselves so much begs a big question that seems to have gone unasked: was promotion actually something worth celebrating? Given that even a few weeks into next season we’re likely to have racked up a clutch of desperate defeats, confidence will be on the wane and dressing-room serenity will be under threat, would it not have been better all round if we’d thrown a few games at the end of the campaign to derail our promotion push and preserve our Championship status for another term, thereby prolonging the pleasure?
Unfortunately, no. The bottom line is that for a club of our stature and – more to the point – debts, our survival is dependent upon being in the Premier League. As Derek Llambias pointedly reminded us fans on more than one occasion (in outpourings of pompous verbal diarrhoea that the recent statement implies are thankfully now a thing of the past), this season has been bankrolled by Mike Ashley. Like most health spas, our stay in the Championship was costly and a longer spell would have been unsustainable.
But rest assured that come August, when we’re back to watching our team get torn apart at the seams and rubbing shoulders with the braying, know-nothing, Sky-fattened, prawn-sandwich-eating hordes, we’ll be remembering the Championship with fondness as the place where we rediscovered our mojo.