One, which team is the biggest surprise package of this autumn?
Two, name half a dozen of their starting XI?
And, no, the answer isn’t Norwich. Though I strongly suspect 90% of Premiership punters living outside Norfolk would struggle with question two.
The answer – to my mind – is Newcastle United, who after last night’s 3-1`win at The Britannia Stadium strode into third place on the back of now 13 games unbeaten in the Premier League. That, in itself, is the longest run of games without a top flight defeat they have enjoyed in 61 years.
They entertain Everton this weekend; on current form, it would be a reasonable bet to see them extend that run to 14 games unbeaten in front of a slightly disbelieving Toon Army.
On my frequent visits to Tyneside this autumn, that is certainly my impression – that no-one was quite expecting Alan Pardew’s Black and White Army to be where they are; in fact, quite the reverse on the back of Andy Carroll’s big money exit to Liverpool over the summer and the whole Joey Barton circus leaving town.
And hands up now – I had Newcastle down to struggle this year; from a distant vantage point, they looked the basket case as the fans and Barton lined up in one corner and the less-than-loved chairman-owner plus his ‘puppet’ manager stood in the other.
But given we are now ten games into the season, Newcastle’s position in the league table is no fluke; they are where they are for a reason.
The question is, what is that reason?
And I think part of the answer lies in the second question – name six first team players.
I’m no anorak when it comes to Premiership players; perhaps I’m not the best one to quiz. Steven Taylor, I’d get; Shola Ameobi is another – though he was on the bench last night; Leon Best. Norwich once fancied Ryan Taylor.
Jonas Gutierrez? Danny Guthrie? Gabriel Obertan?
They don’t roll off the tongue in the way that a Given, a Barton, a Speed or a Nolan did.
And go back over the last decade or so and Newcastle have always had their ‘stars’; big name players who were the whole Premiership part.
Barton, of course, was the classic example. He was, by many an account, Newcastle’s best player last season. His Twitter following almost matched his weekly wage bill.
But even Barton failed to inspire a run of games like the one that United are currently on; nor inspire the kind of formidable defensive record that Pardew’s men currently boast.
What if the answer lies in the suggestion that Newcastle are more of a team than they have ever been of late because there are no Bartons or Givens in the mix? That there are no stand-out ‘stars’ around whom the world revolves.
Alan Shearer would be another; Gazza, Beardsley, Keegan… the list goes on and on.
And yet here are 16 lads doing as well as any Newcastle team has for a generation in a side that barely has two household ‘names’ to its credit.
Perhaps, to coin that horrible phrase, it is the ‘team’ that is the star; that – for once – they are, indeed, all in it together, as opposed to a rag-tag of bit-part players struggling to impress in Joey’s wake.
The parallels with the team that Paul Lambert has built at Norwich ought to be obvious.
As mentioned above, I would suspect most non-Canaries would struggle to name six starting players at Norwich.
Likewise, ask a pub in Liverpool to name Norwich’s ‘star’ player and I would imagine you would get half a dozen answers – or else, just the one. Grant Holt. And he’s still to command a regular starting place, hero that he is.
Would Russell Martin cross many a lip? Bradley Johnson? David Fox?
I guess Demba Ba would be deemed Newcastle’s ‘star’ turn after last night’s hat-trick took his tally for the season to eight. But, again, I suspect if you put that question to a pub in Portsmouth, you’d struggle to find one answer.
It is interesting. Because what if the experiences of both Newcastle and Norwich this season are starting to prove a point to both managers and chairmen alike? Let alone the supporters – traditionally fed a big name star.
That certain Premiership ‘stars’ are way more trouble than they are actually worth – be it on the pitch or off it. Titus Bramble might be one whose arrival on Wearside might be cause for regret; Barton’s baggage is weighty; are Chelsea getting full value out of John Terry?
Of course, if you have the level of resource that Manchester City have, then you can live without the circus that follows Carlos Tevez about – ‘Whatever…’ can be your fall-back position.
A team of Newcastle’s means – certainly under this latest regime – however would far rather get shot of such bothersome top-earners and pay a team of relative nobodies relative peanuts in the hope that one team can, collectively, achieve far more than 11 Big Charlie individuals.
And right now, on the banks of both the Wensum and the Tyne, that policy appears to be working a treat…