It had been described as such all season, but it turned out that Newcastle United’s season wasn’t a soap opera after all. It was just an opera. Whilst soap operas usually offer comeuppance and redemption, operas can only offer the inevitability of the tragic ending. After nine months of trying to keep their heads above water, Newcastle United finally succumbed to the inevitable and were relegated from the Premier League. In the end, though, it was an almighty deflection – the sort of deflection that you could try and and replicate for hours on end without success – that took them down, but the truth of the matter is that the problems that have sent Newcastle on trips to Scunthorpe, Barnsley and Peterborough next season are institutional.
There had been complaints about Manchester United fielding a reserve team at Hull, but the truth of the matter is that Newcastle were exceptionally lucky to be in with a chance or staying up going into today’s fixtures to start with. Most teams that have thirty-four points with one game of the season left to play would already have been sentenced to the drop. It was good news for them that Hull City, Sunderland and Middlesbrough had all been doing their best to match their ineptitude over the last few weeks. It was also a sign of just how desperate this current Newcastle team is that they could play this tepidly against an Aston Villa team that was already quite clearly on its summer holidays.
Briefly, their travelling supporters were filled with hope. Olafemi Martins worked himself into an unmarked position and – surprise surprise – blasted the ball over from twelve yards, and then, twenty-five minutes in, Darren Gibson scored what might just turn out to be the goal of his life – a curler from over thirty yards out – to give Manchester United the lead at Hull. All Newcastle needed was a better result that Hull, and they would be safe. But they couldn’t even muster that. Newcastle’s spell theoretically out of the bottom three lasted thirteen minutes. Aston Villa hadn’t been looking a great deal like doing very much of note, but with six minutes left of the first half Gareth Barry’s weak forty yard shot bounced like a pinball off Damien Duff’s flipper of a leg, wide of Harper and into the corner of the net. The small favour that Manchester United had done for them at The KC Stadium had been undone as simply as that, and this time there would be no way back for Newcastle United.
Villa came out for the second half looking like their players had been given a verbal hammering at half-time by Martin O’Neill. They battered the Newcastle defence for the first fifteen minutes of the second half before easing off the throttle again somewhat. This, in many ways, is one of the differences between the likes of Aston Villa and the likes of Newcastle United. Villa, in an essentially meaningless end of season match, could turn it up a notch on demand. Newcastle, by contrast, were leaden footed and one dimensional. As time started to run out, they were reduced to smacking the ball as far and as high down the pitch as possible. They had no fluency or articulation – all they could manage was the sporting equivalent of smashing your head repeatedly against a brick wall.
Their wretched, enfeebled compatriots at the bottom of the Premier League could manage no better. Hull had no response to Gibson’s early goal for Manchester United, while Middlesbrough showed only brief signs of life before going down 2-1 at West Ham United to confirm their own fate. Sunderland showed a bit more mettle at home against Chelsea but still lost 3-2. Their role in the relegation battle at the bottom of the Premier League had been overstated by a media keen to play up the potential drama on the last day of the season. With the benefit of less than an hour’s hindsight, it becomes clear that neither Hull City nor Newcastle United were never going to summon up the wins that would have relegated them.
In the closing stages of this match, there was none of the end of season cut and thrust that we might normally have expected. The ease with which Villa were keeping possession had long since filtered through to the Villa Park crowd, who were cheering the home players keeping the ball with the sort of relish that might not be seen in this country again until the day of Margaret Thatcher’s funeral. The comparatively subdued football on offer made for a strangely funereal atmosphere. Newcastle were a busted flush. The jig was up. They had arrived at Villa Park with little to offer, and now they had nothing left to give. When the fourth official signified four minutes of injury time, the match became a strangely cruel and perverted form of torture. They could have played another forty minutes or another four hundred. It wouldn’t have made any difference to the final score.
At full time, all eyes turned to Alan Shearer, who had the face of a man that had just lost a £1m bonus. Mike Ashley, meanwhile, looked puffy-eyed with five or ten minutes left to play. There was rumoured to be a take-over deal pending that was dependant on Newcastle surviving relegation this season, so he has almost certainly lost a hell of a lot more than £1m this afternoon. There were also the now obligatory shots of tearful Newcastle supporters, but they also have a role to play in the downfall of this club. Those that got involved in the rather feeble “Cockney Mafia” protests earlier this season may be left to reflect upon their role in a season of almost constant turbulence at St James Park.
Newcastle’s fall from grace is almost unique in English football in that almost everybody that has been involved has been partly to blame. The players, clearly, have been largely concerned with picking up their pay cheques and little else. Whether those pay cheques can be assured not to bounce in the future is now in question. Mike Ashley listened to his heart when he should have listened to his head, and his attempts to portray himself as a “man of the people” backfired when the people themselves started expecting him to act upon every one of their whims.
And then there are the managers. Sam Allardyce may not have been able to fulfil Newcastle supporters apparent birthright to entertaining football, but the mid-table anonymity that he afforded Blackburn Rovers this season confirms that pragmatism still rules the roost in the bottom half of the Premier League. Kevin Keegan arrived in a blaze of glory, but was hopelessly behind the times in terms of how to run a Premier League football club. Keegan’s departure from St James Park set the tone for the rest of the season there. Joe Kinnear got off on the wrong foot by seemingly losing his mind a his first press conference, and his departure in February after heart problems was, in some respects, little surprise. Alan Shearer may have felt that it was his destiny to lead the club to safety, but talk of destiny studiously ignores the realpolitik of modern football. He has won just one match as their manager.
None of this bodes well for them for next season. Will supporters that have been used to the relative high life of the Premier League for the last seventeen years buy season tickets for the Championship in these straitened times? What sort of players are going to want to go to a club that has become a byword for mismanagement and factional infighting over the last couple of years or so? With a fall in income and a team that may be on contracts that the club’s immediate future can’t sustain, it will require careful management to ensure that they don’t “do a Leeds”. The fat lady sang at Villa Park this afternoon, but Newcastle fell out of the Premier League with a mournful dirge rather than a defiant crescendo.