As Alan Pardew proudly strode across the pitch at the Stadium of Light after the final whistle of Newcastle United’s 1-1 draw with Sunderland to punch the air and salute the travelling contingent of Geordies, you couldn’t help but get the sense that the Toon’s season had finally turned a corner.
Up until then, for whatever reason, Newcastle have been a pale imitation of the side that took the Premier League by storm unexpectedly last season when exceeding what anybody dared dream possible by finishing in fifth position, one place above European champions Chelsea.
With expectations higher at St James’ Park than in some time, the failure of the Magpies to fire so far this campaign has been one of the season’s big disappointments. All the key men from last season, with the exception of Demba Ba (who currently tops the goalscoring charts with six goals already) have underperformed and it has resulted in stodgy displays and underwhelming results – their only league wins so far were fortunate ones at home to Tottenham and Norwich.
That remains the case, but the Tyne-Wear derby looks like a turning point to me. Newcastle were far better, even with ten men for an hour, and looked far more like their old selves. Consecutive wins at home in the Europa League have helped to add to the momentum and I think their upward trajectory can continue when West Bromwich Albion visit St James’ Park on Sunday.
The Toon are a shade under evens at 19/20 to claim the points, with the draw at 12/5 and the Baggies at 14/5, and I like that price about Newcastle very much.
Steve Clarke has made a mockery of those who were falling over themselves to tip West Brom to struggle due to his lack of frontline management experience and another comfortable season looks easily within reach for the Baggies. It helps that he has inherited a solid squad well versed in the rigours of the Premier League, but the former Chelsea assistant has kept things ticking over nicely.
However, he is still awaiting his first away league success (he has picked up a win at Yeovil in the Capital One Cup) and West Brom’s form on the road has not matched their record at the Hawthorns for some time.
Under Roy Hodgson, for most of last season the Baggies were better on their travels than they were in front of their own fans but that trend eventually reversed and Clarke is continuing in that vein. Since a famous 5-1 win at arch-rivals Wolverhampton Wanderers, West Brom have won just one of nine away league fixtures (at Liverpool in April) and have just two points to show this season from trips to Tottenham, Fulham and Aston Villa.
That is not the most daunting fixture list and a trip to the north-east could prove a difficult task. Since Newcastle’s last game at home in 2011 (ironically, a 3-2 loss to West Brom), their form has been excellent. Just two defeats in 14 games (to both Manchester clubs) is very good indeed and even without playing too well they boast a 5-1-1 record in all competitions this season.
And I saw enough in the derby match last weekend to make me believe that Newcastle can turn it on and go on a fine run as winter approaches. I have always believed that they would as I am a fan of the manager and think they possess some real quality, but now the evidence is suggesting it is about to happen. At a shade under evens, I think Newcastle are must-bet stuff on Sunday.