The 2014-15 Premier League season was not particularly kind to Newcastle United. Following the script of the 2013-14 season, the club rode a Manager of the Month performance (I guess?) by Alan Pardew to a triumphant narrow escape from relegation. As we're not likely to see an announcement of any substance on "rebuilding" the club for 2015-16, we might as well look back at the season behind us, starting with the Goalkeeping position.
You know there is a fundamental problem when you look back at a season and say "man... we really missed Rob Elliot". This, however, is exactly what we are left to do with regard to the 2014-15 season. When Tim Krul went down with an ankle injury suffered in training in late November, it was up to the Repblic of Ireland international to step into the breach. In matches against West Ham and Burnley, Eliott conceded once per match which led to a loss and a draw respectively. His third match would prove disaster for the club as he went down late in the first half with a thigh injury which forced the club to turn to untested Jak Alnwick for the rest of the Chelsea match and the subsequent 5 matches.
Alnwick – which I learned from his time with the gloves is pronounced Annick (this may or may not be the best thing that came from this trying time in club history) – stepped into a very trying situation and turned in his best performance for the club in his first 45 minutes. Sure there were some glimpses of things that would ultimately lead to his ineffectiveness in the next 5 matches, but he was fearless and capable in the second half against Chelsea, conceding once as Newcastle defeated the eventual champions 2-1, thus ending a 23-match unbeaten streak by Jose Mourinho's men. (fun stat: Jak had as many saves v. Chelsea (5) as he did in the next five matches combined) It was all downhill from there as Alnwick would concede 13 goals in the next 5 matches (3 losses, 1 win and 1 draw). The win, of course, was the 3-2 win over Everton in Alan Pardew's Last Stand before bolting for the friendly confines of London.
Tim Krul has been Newcastle's undisputed number 1 since winning the job in open competition with Fraser Forster in the 2011-12 preseason in the US. Largely, the lack of direct competition had not seemed to have any direct influence on the Dutchman with a Geordie accent's form. Perhaps it was born of a certain hubris following his penalty exploits v. Costa Rica at the World Cup... perhaps not. Either way, it's hard to say that any longer. Granted the defense in front of him had challenges with injury and incompetence, but Krul's form outside of those considerations was miserable. Whether it was futile flapping at shots (Eljero Elia, Southampton 2 -1 Newcastle) or making half-assed dives at stoppable shots from 25 yards out (such as James McCarthy's very tame opener in Newcastle's 3-0 loss at Goodison Park), there were matches in which he was just flat terrible.
For the first time since that 2011-12 preseason, we are staring an honest goalkeeping competition in the face and Tim has nobody to blame but himself. Karl Darlow is the prime challenger following the buy-and-loan with Nottingham Forest but Freddie Woodman is getting closer and closer to that magical time when "the occasion won't be bigger than him".
Whichever name ends up taking the #1 into 2015-16, one thing is for certain. The overall level of play at the goalkeeper position has got to be higher than it was in 2014-15 or we are likely looking at a very, very long debut season for Steve McClaren. As we wait for news of summer signings we won't know exactly what other position battles we will be looking for when the Toon come to America again, but we do know that this is one... and a very important one at that.