Mick Lowes

When he's not on air at BBC Radio Newcastle, Mick Lowes takes time out to pen an exclusive blog for nufc.co.uk. In this latest instalment, the man who has reported on the Magpies' fortunes home and away for countless seasons, talks about our start to the 2012/13 campaign and who has caught the eye in the opening weeks...

 

This is my first blog since the new campaign began, and with the possible exception of the result against Aston Villa - which was disappointing whichever way you dress it up - the season has got off to the typical start we were expecting.

I always thought the Tottenham game would be a good gauge of two sides that finished so close to each other last season, and it was a tight match that could have gone either way.

But as tight as it was, it was reassuring to come away from it knowing that we're as good as Tottenham and we were able to go one better than last term's 2-2 draw at home and actually beat them.

The trip to Chelsea, just two days after our game in Athens, was always going to be very, very difficult and they are clearly a much stronger side than they were last season. But when their two goalscorers cost £80 million-plus, the least you should expect is a bit of quality.

So the result at Stamford Bridge didn't surprise me at all, and it was the match against Villa that maybe left people scratching their heads slightly, but at the same time we didn't lose the game.

We've started our league campaign with a win, a defeat and a draw, and that's certainly not the worst scenario in the world considering the difficult fixtures we've faced.

It's been a case of feast and famine so far, with five games in 16 days to get us underway, followed by a completely blank fortnight. Now we have another five matches in 12 days coming up and those games will tell us a bit more.

One thing we did know coming into 2012/13 was that the Europa League would change the dimensions of the campaign considerably, and we've seen this in action over the last few years - most notably with Stoke City last season.

Playing on a Thursday, then going again on the weekend puts more demands on the squad, but it does mean that very few players will be left kicking their heels in frustration.

Whether the Club's perspective of the competition changes the longer it goes on remains to be seen, and if we suddenly sense that there might be an opportunity to get to the latter stages, then Alan Pardew's plans might change.

But at this moment in time, we need to consolidate ourselves as a top six Premier League team and be in the hunt for European football every season.

Domestic success is the most important thing right now because we're not Chelsea, Manchester United or Arsenal - teams who are constantly looking to prove themselves on the continent.

It will come as no surprise to hear that my stand-out performer so far has been Hatem Ben Arfa, and bearing in mind we've only played three league games, he's had a positive impact.

In a tight game against Tottenham, he was undoubtedly the difference between winning and drawing the match, and over and above the fact that he won and converted the winning penalty, he was also our most inspirational and creative player.

He also stood out against Villa because, ultimately, he got the goal that helped us avoid defeat, and which ever way you look at it, Ben Arfa has been our most dangerous player so far and the early signs from him are very, very encouraging.

I've also been pleased to see Steven Taylor back in the team and doing well. We missed him last season and he's come back to show what a good player he really is. He looks fit and healthy and he looks like a man who is quite rightly making up for lost time.

Of the youngsters, Romain Amalfitano's cameo in Athens was impressive in its own right. He looks like a player who is comfortable on the ball and who links play well and wants to be involved.

And in many ways, Gael Bigirimana has been a revelation when you consider where he's come from and where he is now. He was impressive against Atromitos and looked promising, but you had to factor in the opposition.

Then suddenly, he comes on for the best part of an hour against Villa in the Premier League and he was outstanding. He showed no signs of stage fright or fear and he was prepared to look for passes that more senior players weren't looking for.

It's good to know that we have players like that, who are ready and willing to step in and give their all for the team as and when they're required and whatever the competition.