At the end of our memorably bad 2014-15 season, Mike Ashley surprised Newcastle fans by making his first public statement in years. The key points were an intention to spend some cash now that the club was in a solid financial position and to win some silverware. Ashley's statement was met with guarded excitement. As we all know his wallet has been infamously tight. Words only mean so much without actions to support them.
The summer transfer window opened, and it took a while to complete any new signings. Finally, we promoted a quartet of Academy youngsters: right back Jamie Sterry, center back Macauley Gillesphey, midfielder Liam Smith, and striker Tom Heardman. This was exciting news for the Academy players, I'm sure, as well as for the club in 2-3 years, but it still wasn't going to right the sinking ship.
Then, slowly, more signings started happening. The backroom confirmed new staff in Paul Simpson, Ian Cathro, and Alessandro Schoenmaker. The internal changes were accompanied by a slew of names linked to the club, and our cautious optimism was finally rewarded when we brought on Georginio Wijnaldum (who scored an outstanding goal against Southampton, by the way), Aleksandar Mitrovic (who missed out on setting a new fastest yellow card record by a mere 7 seconds), and Chancel Mbemba (whose name we wish made the preseason pronunciation guide). Two attacking players and a 6-foot CB.
Newcastle dropped a total of £35.9 million, the fifth highest amount spent during this transfer window. The other top spenders actually ended up letting go of significant players as well, such as Benteke and Di Maria. This means that, all said and done, Newcastle actually topped Liverpool (the highest spender this summer) by nearly £10 million in net spend.
Meanwhile, the club appears to have been striving toward more transparency. Their new YouTube show, Magpies 24/7, could certainly use some editing, but it has also offered some behind the scenes looks at the training camp. We even got to see Williamson stop a slow roller with his left foot!
Steve McClaren's management abilities have been visible on the pitch. Whether it's forcing the players to join the No Cussing Club or simply reminding them that they don't have to hoof the ball from the back line every time, the squad we saw on Sunday looked far more competent. They made more short passes, and they passed with purpose and intelligence. Sunday's squad were a team that understood passing backwards can represent one step back to take two steps forward, and this change in attitude meant that they kept possession more effectively than we've seen from them in a long time.
But has Ashley's Newcastle completely changed? Not quite. Credit where credit is due, certainly, and if I had to put an arbitrary number on it, I'd say the transformation is about 90% complete. But there are some ugly remnants still hanging around.
Our defense remains troubled. We thought this year would be our aging captain's swansong, but Fabricio Coloccini just signed a contract extension. Although Steve McClaren may have been able to work wonders in the offseason, it's safe to assume that Mike Williamson will still continue to produce Champions League level performances. Mbemba looks solid one-on-one, but his late signing means that he hasn't had a chance to mesh with the back line's chemistry yet. Based on last year's performance, Daryl Janmaat is my prediction for Newcastle's Player of the Year, but if he gets injured (knock on wood), who can fill his shoes? We have no pure RBs, and the jury is still out on Massadio Haïdara's ability to play as a full back.
Touching on Colo again, the choice of picking a new, more inspiring captain was hamstrung. Janmaat, de Jong, and Colback were favorites to take up the armband, but any of these options risked upsetting the dressing room. Colocinni's leadership was visibly lacking when things got tough last year, and if we hit a rough patch this year, there's no guarantee our captain will be able to rally the players.
And in the most Newcastle-y PR move possible, Channel 4 was banned from a press conference because they wanted to ask a question about media bans.
NUFC have made a lot of progress, but they're not there yet. Of course, this isn't meant to be doom and gloom: that was the theme for last season. The team still might hit a point where we can proclaim the transformation is complete. Today's news that we might be exchanging Williamson for Brighton defender Lewis Dunk may just be the next step in the right direction...