The pitch at Newcastle United’s training ground was deserted apart from three men and five metal cutouts. Although the team have been losing too many games for comfort, there was still laughter as Georginio Wijnaldum and Florian Thauvin went through their free-kick routines. One has taken rapidly to Tyneside life, the other has yet to begin living up to the £13m price tag Newcastle met to sign him from Marseilles in the summer.
Manager Steve McClaren made no differentiation. He offered tips, joined in the jokes and followed the pair as they headed into the training ground four miles outside the city. In there, all around them, on the walls that lead to the changing rooms, to the team meeting room, to the gym and to the canteen, are slogans. Some are handwritten each week by Steve Black, one of four men picked by McClaren in the summer, following his appointment as head coach. Some are in print and designed to imprint.
Black, who has worked with the Wales rugby union side, Jonny Wilkinson and Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle among a host of others, is officially “coaching consultant”, unofficially the club psychologist.
“Newcastle United players don’t think less of themselves but think of themselves less,” reads one of his signs. “Play for each other and the name on the front of the shirt, then everyone will remember the name on your back,” reads another.
McClaren’s black Audi A8L is one of the first cars at the training ground each morning, usually before 8am. He is normally one of the last to leave. Doors are open, discussions encouraged. On the training field, Ian Cathro, the 29-year-old Scottish coach who was assistant manager at Valencia last season, encourages the players to rotate the ball twice. Newcastle are passing the ball more. The possession stats are up. They had more than two thirds of it in the 3-0 defeat at Sunderland.
There are tactical meetings in the afternoon, after training, after Cathro has ushered the last players off the training field. There is no sense of hurry. It is a long process. Newcastle lost 24 times in the Premier League at St James’ Park in three seasons before staggering over the finishing line in May, beating a West Ham side who were metaphorically lying on a beach.
Newcastle had ignored two transfer windows as buyers. The team had been neglected. The starting point for McClaren was low. There were scars in the squad. Bit by bit they are being soothed away.
At the afternoon team meetings only the positive highlights from the previous game are shown. From the defeats at West Ham (seven minutes of positive highlights) and at home to Watford there was a dearth of material. After a 6-2 victory against Norwich City, a dominant display in the derby until Fabricio Coloccini’s dismissal (later overturned by the Football Association) and the home draw with Stoke, there was more footage to play with.
There are fewer dissenting voices inside Newcastle United. There has also been relative calm among the supporters, despite a position third bottom of the Premier League table and McClaren being second favourite with some bookmakers to be the next top-flight “manager” to be relieved of his duties.
The likelihood is that he is one of the safest. He needs results, unquestionably, and there is more riding on today’s early kick-off at Bournemouth than either he or his backroom staff would like to admit.
However, he was handpicked by the Newcastle managing director Lee Charnley.He does not have the title of manager, as his predecessor Alan Pardew did, but he has more involvement and, crucially, more say.
When one new signing arrived during Pardew’s reign the manager did not know who he was. Pardew railed unsuccessfully against that undermining. McClaren is on a football board, newly formed in the summer, along with Charnley, chief scout Graham Carr and former captain Bob Moncur. If that looked largely ceremonial, there was an unpublicised boardroom meeting of senior figures from the club this week to discuss club policy. McClaren was there.
There have been highs and lows for McClaren in his managerial career. This feels more like the man who took charge of Middlesbrough – his most successful domestic tenure – and slowly turned the club towards silverware and a European final.
There have been buzzwords along the way. Today, it was “consistency”. Newcastle have not been consistent, either on or off the field, since 2012, when they finished fifth in the Premier League. Since then it has been a draining struggle.
“We are trying to get consistency,” McClaren said. “In team selection, in players, in style of play and in performance. We want calm and patience – and that word consistency – in performance.
“It’s important what you do Monday to Friday. The players are enjoying it. They are enjoying the style of play. We have to keep playing the style of football we are.”
In meetings in the summer, when questions were raised about the general fitness of the players the new backroom staff had inherited, the mantra was repeated: keep the ball, keep moving the ball, keep believing, no matter what the reaction.
“What you can control is what you do in the week, how you prepare for the game,” McClaren added. “What you can’t control are referees, and your opponents to a certain degree. Sometimes you just have to believe, and we do believe.
“We think we’re going in the right direction now and we have to continue that confidence and that belief. Eventually you need results to keep that belief going and we hope that will come.”
That the patience of Newcastle supporters – which has been unfairly questioned in recent years – is largely yet to waver, says much.
At the end of the game at the Stadium of Light McClaren walked to the fans – as he does after every game – and even in the cauldron of another defeat to Sunderland, he was applauded by those from Tyneside. It was a revealing show of support – something he maintains on several different levels.
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