With the possible exception of Liverpool, it is hard to think of any club whose supporters are patronised quite so crudely as those of Newcastle United. Somehow even the warmest admiration of their fidelity and passion tends to be subtly infected with ridicule. The foot soldier of the Toon Army is depicted as some kind of albino walrus, basking on the broken floes of his dreams, his pale, quivering girth and bosom exposed to the freezing northern winter. If he sees the world through a glass darkly, it is because there is still some brown ale in the bottom. And, above all, he wallows in some antediluvian memory of days when a poor family could heat their front room by sweeping up the fine layer of coal dust bequeathed weekly upon the Gallowgate terracing by miners sharing a ritual, fleeting release from the common doom that beckoned them beneath the ground.
The least the rest of us can do, then, is to tread softly over their present bemusement. It's not so much their giddy position in the table, which we are often told – in perhaps the most specious misrepresentation of all – they imagine to be their ancestral right. They know perfectly well that there is still a long way to go, and that they will shortly be playing Manchester City, Manchester United and Chelsea on consecutive Saturdays. They know one swallow doesn't make a summer. No, the real problem is what to make of the bloke who instead equates one swallow, notoriously, to roughly three-quarters of a pint.
Ever since Mike Ashley tried standing among the fans, inhaling pints of lager as though blowing a fanfare for the common man, his every move has been rebuked as no less misplaced. He became perhaps the most reviled owner in the British game, apparently modelling his approach to the club's assets on that once popularised in these parts by the Vikings. He managed to sell that giraffe in a china shop, Andy Carroll, for the same price Barcelona paid for David Villa, and seemed brazenly to trouser the proceeds. His betrayal of their heritage caused an agonised separation between fans and the institution that gave their life meaning. Their one abiding comfort was a palpably decent man to manage the team, in Chris Hughton. Sure enough, Ashley discarded him and brought in another Londoner to join his mistrusted coterie of interlopers.
Now, all of a sudden, there appears to be a surreal, ghastly possibility he has been a model for all clubs torn between those twin curses of the Premier League, debt and delusion. Previous Newcastle owners may well have bled black and white, but profligacy will only ever be registered in the red. By selling high and buying cheap, Ashley has begun to staunch the debt. By hiring Alan Pardew and, plainly, some excellent scouts, he has moreover sold well and bought well. And perhaps Hughton was too meek to spot and stifle the dangers of player status in dressing rooms. A team shorn of Carroll, Kevin Nolan, Joey Barton and Steve Harper had an invertebrate look to many Newcastle fans. But Pardew and his promoted captain, Fabricio Coloccini, have reminded us that no backbone is external. And, however long this early momentum endures, you will not find many Geordies now yearning for Nolan when they have Yohan Cabaye.
Newcastle have shown that the distortions of a market that values Carroll as the equivalent of the entire Uffizi gallery are reciprocated in its backwaters. Distaste for Ashley was informed by his pile-'em-high fortune at Sports Direct, but here it seems as though he has shown that less really can be more. If only to that extent, other clubs could do well to follow his example.
In unearthing Cabaye, Tioté, Ben Arfa, Krul, Gutierrez and Ba, Newcastle have disclosed the irrational geography of the transfer market. And here, gratis, is the next trick for all clubs wanting to get one step ahead. If you look at where the Premier League spends its big money, you might well conclude that football is played only in South America, Africa and various outposts of Europe, from the Balkans to Scandinavia to Iberia. Nobody seems to have noticed that by miles the best group of young players in Europe, together developing the only conceivable threat to Spain, is assembling bang in the middle.
The only team to outclass Manchester City this season is Bayern Munich, for whom Mario Gomez scored yet another hat-trick during the week against Napoli. Two of his goals were poked in from the six-yard box, albeit he did try to compensate by shooting from just outside his own area as Napoli chased the game in the final moments. Gomez stands as one of the last bastions of traditional centre-forward play, combining Pippo Inzaghi's propensity for being in the right place at the right time with the sort of physical presence Geordies might find reminiscent of Alan Shearer. But those managers trying to evolve the more centrifugal tactics should note that much the richest seam in Germany's emerging generation is in midfield.
After seeing Ozil and Khedira at the World Cup, Jose Mourinho wasted no time in bringing them to Madrid, and along with Schweinsteiger and Müller they will guarantee a frightening core of energy and experience next summer. But so many young stars are emerging in their slipstream that it seems perplexing that Arsène Wenger broke the apparent Premier League boycott of German players on the outdated stereotype of their discipline, ostensibly represented by Per Mertesacker, instead of investing in the youth and flair of a Mario Goetze or Marco Reus.
Perhaps part of the problem is that the Premier League vogue for foreign managers has not extended to German ones. Or perhaps even football professionals have had their judgement retarded by the stale generation that yielded little more than Ballack, and provoked the sort of dynamic renewal craved for England. How perverse, then, that we should so disregard the tired old mantra: you can never rule out the Germans. Clearly it is not just the Toon Army, nor even Mike Ashley, who can be too glibly betrayed by their reputation.Reuse content