Fabricio Coloccini and Papiss Cisse sum up Newcastle's success in recruiting and retaining top players
When the Magpies were third in the table earlier in the season, unbeaten after 11 games, everyone was quick to praise them for their great start - but the general consensus seemed to be that their European challenge would fall away as the season progressed.
They had made plenty of impressive signings, and were galvanised by a manager who engendered a strong team spirit by getting rid of some of the alpha males from the dressing room.
But this was still Newcastle. Still owned by Mike Ashley, still weighted down by the high expectations of the supporters, still giving their grand old stadium a funny name and still wearing away kits of highly questionable colour. Surely they would find a way to mess things up.
Well, guess what: it's springtime and Newcastle are still here. Sunday's 3-1 win at West Brom puts Alan Pardew's team sixth in the table, level on points with fifth-placed Chelsea and five points off a Champions League play-off spot.
Moreover, the gap between them and Liverpool is now eight points, meaning they will still be in the top six at the start of April regardless of results in this weekend's fixtures - which include the Reds rocking up at St James' Park on Sunday.
It's no secret that a fair slice of the credit for Newcastle's success is down to their well-managed transfer policy, which puts the teams around them to shame. It's all such a far cry from the days when they let Deportivo La Coruna name their price for Albert Luque and allowed the player to do the same with his wages, or when Dennis Wise told Kevin Keegan he could look up incoming signing Ignacio Gonazalez on YouTube.
The attacking trio of Demba Ba, Hatem Ben Arfa and Papiss Cisse which put West Brom to the sword at The Hawthorns yesterday cost a total of just £11 million. At £9m Cisse accounts for the vast majority of that, while Ba didn't cost a penny in transfer fees. Elsewhere in the side there is Cheick Tiote (£3.5m) and Yohan Cabaye (£4.8m), who have both helped transform the midfield and left few on Tyneside pining for Kevin Nolan and Joey Barton.
Compare that spending to the main signings of Chelsea over the same period — Oriol Romeu (£4.5m), Juan Mata (£23.5m), Romelu Lukaku (£18m), Fernando Torres (£50m), Ramires (£19m) and David Luiz (£21m) — and the Londoners should feel embarrassed that they are currently level with Newcastle and in the only guaranteed Europa League spot on goal difference.
As for Liverpool, their own major purchases over the past three transfer windows — Charlie Adam (£8m), Stewart Downing (£20m), Jordan Henderson (£16m), Jose Enrique (£5m), Luis Suarez (£23m) and Andy Carroll (£35m) — may have won them the Carling Cup but have not gained them many admirers outside of Anfield, where they lost to Wigan on Saturday.
In a way, Newcastle's transfer policy since their return to the top flight is not really much of a policy at all. Refusing to overspend on transfer fees and signing your best players to long-term contracts is exactly how football clubs should handle their affairs. The fact that a club — and Newcastle, of all clubs — is earning praise for such an approach probably shows just how poorly managed the sport of football is as a whole.
The basis of Newcastle's current success is not exclusively down to this new model, of course. Pardew has inadvertently benefited from the former excesses of the Wise-led 'Cockney Mafia'. Players such as Fabricio Coloccini and Jonas Gutierrez stayed on Tyneside despite the club's drop to the Championship in 2009, at least in part because the lack of relegation clauses in their contracts kept them on Premier League wages in the second tier. Newcastle may still be in with a shout of the Champions League with eight games left to play, but you can bet that any new contracts signed these days are far more thoroughly prepared.
A lot of credit too must go to Pardew, whose personality and ambition surely plays a major part in convincing players of the potential of the project on Tyneside. Most, if not all, of his signings could surely have earned more money elsewhere.
Brendan Rodgers and Paul Lambert may be the top candidates for the Premier League's Manger of the Year award, but Pardew can certainly lay claim to being the best of the division's English coaches. Sure, that's from a shortlist of him, Harry Redknapp, Roy Hodgson and Terry Connor, but the point still holds that he has done a great job since he replaced Chris Hughton last season.
If Newcastle can continue their run of shrewd signings this summer and keep hold of their own star men, then it will not be a surprise if they are at least skirting the top four this time next season.
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COMING UP: You can watch highlights of each and every one of the weekend's Premier League games right here, right now. We will also be giving you the chance to vote for your Goal of the Week from our pick of the top five strikes. Paul Parker will be giving his verdict of the weekend's action, while we'll be picking our Team of the Week before offering full live coverage of Manchester United v Fulham at 20:00 this evening.