This weekend, I was asked to submit a short answer to the question "What makes your team worth caring about this Premier League season?" for a preview for the mother ship that I assume will be published very soon. Here's what I wrote:
Perhaps more than any other Premier League team, Newcastle United have no idea where they'll finish in 2014-15. After 5th and 16th place finishes in the previous two campaigns, they were 6th on Boxing Day last year, then were the worst team in the entire Football League by several measures to finish the season. Where they belong this year is anybody's guess. Alan Pardew has brought in seven players to refresh the squad, and Siem de Jong and Remy Cabella could be the bargains of the summer. Meanwhile, 18 year-old Rolando Aarons has been a force in every preseason match so far. There's reason for hope for Toon fans - but of course it could all go very south, very quickly. Newcastle is a bullet train that could go off the rails at any moment. Who doesn't want to watch that?
Again, the answer was meant to be short, so I couldn't mention everything I wanted to. Surely Newcastle fans are looking forward to seeing all of the new players in action in matches that matter, but from the neutral's perspective, I have to imagine that Newcastle's volatility is what makes them more interesting than anything else. Answering this question brought another to my mind: How in the world are we supposed to set expectations for this year?
Improvement would be nice, but what are we improving on? The second half of last season? It would be hard to be worse. A 10th place finish? Personally, I'd rather they finished 12th (or similar, whatever) with some consistency than what we saw in 2013-14. The first half of the season? That would be great. Is it realistic? I'm not convinced that de Jong, et al represent a significant improvement over Yohan Cabaye, when one considers position efficiency. (In other words, it's great if two players put together are better than Cabaye, but you can still only start 11 players at a time. Has the team improved enough all around the pitch? Probably not.)
Alan Pardew was rightly skewered by folks outside of Newcastle* when he broadcast his Champions League aspirations a week ago. Until any team proves that they can finish in the top four, it's simply not realistic to expect them to do so. Can they get close, though? With the huge gap that exists between the top 7 and the rest of the league, is Europa League qualification plausible?
*Newcastle fans who blasted the club for shooting too low last season when they gave employees incentives for finishing in the top ten have no right to be upset over these most recent comments.
I believe that not only is it plausible, but it must be this season's goal. They found the midpoint between the success of 2011-12, which was a bit fluky due to some insane individual performances, and the failure of 2012-13, which exposed their squad depth issues. That midpoint, which was the most uneven season imaginable, looks like simple mediocrity on the surface, but in reality reveals a consistency problem. The ups and downs of Newcastle's recent history were on full display on a micro level - Manager and Player of the Month in November, blaming the laws of science for a defeat in January.
Consistency is progress, and progress in a league where 12 points separates the bottom 9 teams should mean challenging for the top spots. Every year, we start by asking, "What has to happen for you to consider this season a success?" For me, I don't think I'll be satisfied unless they seriously challenge for a European spot.
Realistically, they have problems to address before they can get there. The back line is still razor thin, and a revamped midfield won't matter if Pardew decides to play hoofball. A bottom half finish or worse is still in play and wouldn't surprise me at all. However, the time for making excuses is in the past (we hope). If Newcastle fail to progress in 2014-15, it will be a failure.