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Not A Paper Tiger: An End of Season's Eve Retrospective on Newcastle United's Fantastic Season

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On May 2, 2012, Newcastle United sat 5th in the table, and though they were already guaranteed European football, an important mid-week clash with 6th place Chelsea loomed on the horizon. Newcastle had just been embarrassed by an in-form Wigan Athletic club a couple of days prior by a score of 4-0 in a game in which they were outplayed, outmanaged, and even outhustled. Partisans and non-partisans alike were questioning the team's mettle. Here at CHN, Other Side of the Pillow noted in his match preview that the next (and last) three fixtures would be very difficult indeed. Chelsea sat 4th in the form table at the time, while Manchester City and Everton were 3rd and 2nd respectively. Newcastle were actually 1st, thanks to a 6-game winning streak that ended with the Latics debacle, but still the questions remained. Did this team actually have it in them to finish the job? Kevin McCauley put it this way in his preview article for SB Nation:

Is Newcastle a paper tiger, or were they just focusing on the Chelsea match too early?

It was certainly a fair question, one that I believe Newcastle answered definitively in a 2-0 victory that will forever be remembered as the game that produced Cisse's Miracle Goal. That stoppage time goal gift from heaven iced the game and solidified for supporters that Newcastle would not be content dribbling out the season in the corner by the flag and accepting what might be perceived as a back door into the Europa League. No, this team desired more, fought for more, earned more...and yet there are still doubters.

I don't blame anybody for not believing that this team's league standing is real. Plenty of teams rise to the top of the league, only to fall back down the ranks the very next year. Many people doubt that a team with such a weak goal differential can repeat that kind of success, whether that's season-to-season or week-to-week. A quick look at that and the game log will tell the story.

The Magpies squeaked out a lot of close victories and got blown out a few times as well. Newcastle simply aren't a team built to play from behind, but that's the rub - Newcastle weren't often behind. Their defensive mindset won the day for them on numerous occasions. This team was one of only 3 to give up 4 or more goals 4 times, and they will still in the top half in terms of goals allowed. Only the two Manchester teams recorded more clean sheets. They did this without Steven Taylor for well over half the year, and the rest of the time Fabricio Coloccini spent entire games covering his responsibilities as well as Ryan Taylor's next to him. It's an outstanding accomplishment that Newcastle have been able to prevent goals at the rate that they have (with a few notable exceptions).

That ability, combined with a knack for finding goals at precisely the right time, enabled Newcastle to put together their season that none of us believed could happen. Did you realize that they never slipped below 7th all season long? It's a fact that might be easy to forget, especially if Sky Sports is your main source of Premier League news. It wasn't too long ago that Sky would regularly replace their Top 6 graphic with one that only displayed the Top 5 during weeks that the Magpies sat in 6th place. A relatively soft early schedule certainly helped - remember when everybody said that Newcastle hadn't played anybody yet* as they kept waiting for the other shoe to drop? It hasn't dropped yet, and as of tomorrow, they will have played every other team twice, just like everybody else.

*I'll never cease to be amused that fans of a certain neighboring team incessantly spouted this line early on in the season, apparently forgetting that one of the "nobodys" Newcastle had had the good fortune of playing was in fact their own club.

Fifth place is the lowest the Toon can finish now, so the Sky party has officially been crashed at least one more time. It's a fun place to be, and I hope the players and everybody connected with the organization takes the time to celebrate once the final whistle blows on Sunday. It's the kind of feeling one could get used to. I'm the kind of fan that never wants to turn into one of those people that believes my team is entitled to a high finish, but then again, it also sounds like an awesome set of problems to have.

At the end of the day tomorrow, it will all be settled. The Premier League will have a champion, one more team will be on the way down, and Newcastle will know which European league they'll be competing in (unless they finish fourth, of course, in which case we'll sit back and root against Chelsea one more time). Whatever the outcome, whether it's 3rd, 4th, or 5th, remember that nobody, not even this #optimist, expected Newcastle to be here. What makes it so delicious is that they deserve this. That is why, on the eve of their triumph, I would like to salute Newcastle with a traditional song.

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