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Perception of progress differs for North-East clubs
4:15pm Friday 8th August 2014 in Sport
NEWCASTLE UNITED spent the vast majority of last season in the top half of the table, yet by May, a sizeable section of their support was calling for Alan Pardew’s head.
Sunderland were in the bottom three for months, and only scrambled to safety in their penultimate fixture, but many supporters hail last season as the club’s best for decades. Middlesbrough went seven league games without scoring, only for the campaign to end with growing optimism about the progress being made under Aitor Karanka.
Sometimes, when it comes to North-East football, perception is more important than the facts and figures of how a club is performing on the field.
That is worth bearing in mind as we had into the new campaign because while results will clearly play a major role in determining how next season is regarded, the less tangible sense of a club’s progress will also continue to dictate the prevailing mood throughout the region.
Nowhere will that be more true than at Newcastle, where Mike Ashley’s sudden rediscovery of his By Scott Wilson chequebook might have quelled the dissent that was brewing at the end of last season, but where dissatisfaction at the current regime continues to run deep.
With Remy Cabella and Siem de Jong restoring the creativity that vanished when Yohan Cabaye moved to Paris St Germain, the Magpies should be a more exciting proposition this season.
The squad still looks short of a top-class striker despite the arrival of Emmanuel Riviere and Facundo Ferrerya, while another defender would be welcome even though Daryl Janmaat looks an astute replacement for Mathieu Debuchy.
Newcastle needed to spend this summer though – and they have. But will any of that matter if the only ambition is to finish in mid-table, avoiding both relegation and what is regarded as the ‘unwanted distraction’ of qualification for the Europa League, not to mention those pesky cups? And will a successful season simply mean another new team ripe for dismantling once the big boys come knocking at the door?
Sunderland’s first team was in even more dire need of improvement, but while Jack Rodwell became the club’s fourth addition this week, the story of the Black Cats’ summer has been a largely frustrating one.
The Fabio Borini saga has dragged on interminably, and even what should have been the routine addition of former loanees Santiago Vergini and Marcos Alonso has turned into a drama that has run and run.
All three of those players were at Sunderland last season of course, and the fear is that the Black Cats are spending more than £15m simply to stand still. Play as they did in the final month of the last campaign, and that might not be such a bad thing.
Reproduce their form from the previous eight months, however, and they could be in for another struggle.
The transfer window doesn’t close until the end of the month, so there is still time for further improvements, but with the chaos of the Paolo Di Canio era now a distant memory, the hope has to be that stability helps breed success.
Middlesbrough’s stability has always been one of their biggest assets, and after changing manager in the first half of last season, Steve Gibson has once again backed Aitor Karanka in the transfer market this summer.
Kike and Emilio Nsue are interesting additions to an attacking line-up that was found wanting last season, and there remains a strong chance of Patrick Bamford moving from Chelsea on loan.
Kenneth Omeruo’s return from Stamford Bridge is a key development, with the Nigerian centre-half having contributed to a defensive unit that developed into one of the best in the Championship last season.
Having laid some pretty solid defensive foundations, Karanka’s key challenge was always going to be improving things at the other end of the field, but the pre-season signs have been positive and while the Championship looks as competitive as ever, there is unlikely to be a runaway team. As a result, the play-offs should be a viable proposition.
Hartlepool United have added to their Middlesbrough links with the capture of Matthew Bates and Stuart Parnaby, although Jonathan Greening slipped through the net when he moved elsewhere.
Last season was something of a learning curve for new boss Colin Cooper, but things looked more settled this time around, even if a lack of attacking acquisitions has to be a concern.
Pools flirted with both the play-offs and relegation zone last season, before eventually finishing in 19th place, and it will be asking a lot for them to force their way into the top seven. A certain degree of improvement, though, should not be too much to demand.
Gateshead almost provided the North-East story of last season, only to fall at the final hurdle as they lost the Conference play-off final at Wembley to Cambridge United.
Gary Mills has kept the majority of his squad together, but will have to guard against a hangover from May’s exploits. If he can do that, and the Heed hit the ground running, another promotion push should be in the offing.
Further down the nonleague ladder, Darlington suffered play-off heartbreak of their own as they lost to Ramsbottom United. Martin Gray’s decision to re-sign Liam Hatch looks inspired, but with Salford City having splashed the cash following an investment from a group of former Manchester United players, claiming a promotion spot will be another huge challenge.
The same applies to Spennymoor Town, although the momentum generated from last season’s Northern League triumph should ensure Jason Ainsley’s side more than hold their own at Evo-Stik level.
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