As we suspected all along, it has come down to the last day of the season. West Bromwich Albion had managed to postpone the hangman’s noose for a couple of weeks longer than many people had expected, but they finally fell through the trapdoor at The Hawthorns with a home defeat against Liverpool last weekend. This leaves two places in the Championship available for next season, and there are no shortage of takers. Two clubs from four – Hull City, Newcastle United, Middlesbrough or Sunderland – will be missing out on the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow for one season at least, and the press have been spending the week ensuring that there will be “controversy” tomorrow, no matter what.
Middlesbrough are almost down. We already know that they are dependent on results elsewhere all going their way. They have to win tomorrow regardless of any other considerations, and the chances are that they will need to win by at least two or three goals. They are away to West Ham United. Sunderland, on the other hand, have drifted into the relegation zone in the absent-minded way of the priests wandering into “Ireland’s largest lingerie department” in that episode of “Father Ted”. They face one of the ultimate tests in the form of a home match against Chelsea but, even if they fail to pick up a result there, it will still require results elsewhere to send them down. No-one seems to have spent much time wondering whether Chelsea will pick an under-strength team ahead of next week’s FA Cup final.
All of this leaves Hull City and Newcastle United. Newcastle have to beat Aston Villa at Villa Park, but even this may not be enough to save them. To put it simply, they need a better result from their match than Hull City can manage from their home match against Manchester United. Under normal circumstances, one would expect Hull, who have been pretty wretched since the end of the autumn, to fold, but Manchester United have a small matter of a Champions League Final to play against Barcelona in Rome on Wednesday night, and this appears to have really set the cat amongst the pigeons.
Acre upon acre of media coverage has been given to the moral dilemma facing Alex Ferguson. Should he play a full strength team and give Newcastle a considerably better chance of avoiding relegation, or should he rest his most senior players for what is – for them, at least – a meaningless end of season match? He seems likely to be going with the latter of these two options. The Manchester United that he puts out will still be strong enough to kick seven bells out of Hull. Such is the extraordinarily imbalanced nature of the Premier League these days.
Some have commented that Ferguson’s dislike of Alan Shearer – possibly borne from Shearer’s overlooking Manchester United to go and play for Newcastle United instead – but there is nothing solid to support this (and Ferguson, of course, wouldn’t be stupid enough to admit to anything like this in public) and, in the absence of firm evidence, we have to assume that he is merely acting pragmatically. After all, it’s hardly as if it isn’t going to be a tough enough match for Hull anyway. The possibility remains, however, that United will be in breach of the Premier League’s rule which states that “each participating club shall field a full-strength team” for every match. If Hull do survive under circumstances under which they might not have done otherwise, it would be less than surprising to see this rule invoked for the first time.
Much of this hand-wringing, however, overlooks one basic fact about Newcastle United this season. They have been terrible all season, and will thoroughly deserve to go down should this be the outcome of tomorrow’s matches. They currently have thirty-four points. Under most circumstances, they would already have been relegated a couple of games ago. The fact that they could survive relegation on thirty-five points (which is what would happen should they draw at Aston Villa tomorrow and Hull lose against Manchester United) should really be a cause for them to be thanking their lucky stars rather than sharpening their pencils for a torrent of moral outrage tomorrow evening if results go against them.
There hasn’t been a prosecution under this rule yet, and it will be unlikely that will see one in the next couple of weeks. Indeed, it is something of a reflection upon Newcastle’s season that they are in this position on the final day of the season. Hull, one might well argue, have been somewhat lucky with this fixture coming on the last day of the season, but it could just as easily have been that they might have needed to beat a full strength Manchester United team needing a win to lift the Premier League tomorrow. It should also be considered that if Hull do survive, they will have a colossal job on their hands in order to avoid challenging Derby County’s record low points score next season.
For Newcastle, another take-over rests on the results of tomorrows matches. One cannot help feeling, however, that no matter what happens tomorrow, Newcastle’s relegation would somehow be deserved. Every time I have seen them play this season they have been eye-wateringly bad – disjointed and lacking confidence, they have looked like a a group of players (rather than a team) with electric cattle prods shoved down their shorts. If they do survive tomorrow, it will be because of the abjectness of their rivals rather than anything that they have or haven’t done themslves this season.