Today is the day. The off season is officially over, though for the supporters it won't really feel like it until game action starts up in a couple weeks. Still, the start of training is an important milestone, mostly because it means that we can all look forward to news that isn't transfer-related. So what should we expect from this month-plus of camp? I've identified six storylines to watch over the next few weeks:
1. How are the J-Boys getting along?
If, on May 23, you had told me that Joey Barton, Jonas Gutierrez, and Jose Enrique Sanchez were all going to report to training, I would have called you many things, and one of them would have been deluded. Yet here we are, and though not many expect all three to still be wearing black and white stripes when the calendar rolls from August to September, with each passing day the hope in my heart grows just a tiny bit. I may be setting myself up for a heartbreak, but in any case, it should be very interesting to monitor the attitudes of all the transfer-listed players and rumored departures.
2. Are the new players as advertised?
In just a couple of days, I fully expect that we'll be flooded with puff pieces from the beat reporters where some perennial bench player talks about how impressed he is with Sylvain Marveaux's work ethic and skill. It'll be nice to read, because we all want to believe that each of the new guys is riding in on a white horse to save the day. Just don't forget that these writers go out looking for these stories. How are these guys really going to fit in?
3. Are Hatem Ben Arfa and Dan Gosling really healthy?
HBA and Gosling have been on the shelf so long that I'll need to see them in action before I believe that they're truly in game shape. Judging by the conversation this summer, it seems that the Toon Army simply assumes that they'll both be ready for the preseason. Be ready for wide-spread panic if they're not.
4. Who will Alan Pardew name to his Starting XI?
Will Pardew change his formation to fit the personnel currently in camp? What are the major position battles going to be? Assuming a 4-4-2 (though such a formation would be foolish at this point, right?) and no more personnel changes until we hear otherwise, here's my best guess for who cracks Pardew's lineup:
Ferguson Williamson Coloccini Jose Enrique
Barton Ben Arfa Tiote Jonas
Bench: Harper/Krul, STaylor, Simpson, Marveaux, Cabaye, Gosling, Ameobi
It's definitely a deeper team, and I left out Ryan Taylor and a few others. Marveaux, Cabaye, and Gosling (if healthy) will certainly make their case for stepping on the field. We're in for a very competitive camp, and possibly some hurt feelings. Speaking of which...
5. Who will start in goal?
It's a debate that most Newcastle supporters have been having since the moment Steve Harper went down with a shoulder injury in September. Pardew hasn't really tipped his hand about whether he's going to go with the grizzled veteran or the young up-and-comer, though his actions during last season seemed to suggest that he's at least willing to support Harper as long as he performs. Steve is coming off of knee surgery, which could play into this, but egos will be the story du jour on most days, as there have been rumors that Krul will demand a transfer if he's not GK1 when camp breaks. Luckily, Fraser Forster is available as a capable backup if either one decides to head for greener pastures, which may give Pardew the confidence he needs to make an emotionless decision.
6. Who will be Newcastle's captain?
Pardew stated last week that he's in no hurry to name his captain and that he'll likely wait until the week before the Arsenal match, which is probably pretty good policy. For one thing, you don't want to flip flop back and forth on decisions like these, and waiting to make a sound decision is always preferable to rushing into a regrettable one. Plus, he now has the added bonus of holding the armband over players' heads to make them behave. Current squad members who have worn the captain's band for Newcastle include Joey Barton, Fabricio Coloccini, and Shola Ameobi (and of course Alan Smith, but who are we kidding?), but Cheik Tiote is rumored to be in the mix as well. The smart money is on Barton, but the official position of CHN is that Coloccini is the man for the job.
What are you watching for as the players begin training?