When you don’t pay much attention to the Premier League, it becomes pretty easy for it to become a noise in the background. True enough, it’s a shrill, shrieking noise – the sound of a child in a supermarket after its mother has bought Ready Brek rather than Coco Pops – but it soon becomes little more than a drone in the background. I’m told that this is what tinnitus is like. I mention this now because until this evening I had no idea how properly bad Newcastle United are at the moment. You read about it in passing and snigger to yourself at the idea of Alan Shearer, with no managerial experience whatsoever, taking charge of a club in freefall and running the risk of becoming possibly the first ever Newcastle manager to manage no wins whatsoever during his time in charge at St James Park.
You look down the team sheet, and it doesn’t look so bad on paper. Shay Given might have gone, but Steve Harper had always been a reasonable deputy in goal, Damien Duff has always seemed like a lively enough kind of player and Michael Owen may have lost a couple of yards in pace but should have gained at least half a yard in wiliness. You look at Hull City, who may have been in a state of civil war since before Christmas and whose manager Phil Brown has long since forgotten how funny a middle-aged, shouty man with fake tan on and an ear-piece looks like, or at poor, demoralised Middlesbrough, where Gareth Southgate is starting to take the look of a sixth former caught embezzling from the tuck shop, and you think, “Well, Newcastle are bad, but they can’t be that bad, can they?”.
And then you see them play. They’ve been at home against Portsmouth tonight, and within about ten minutes of the kick-off, you’re wincing. There’s Mark Viduka, who looks like a cartoon character of himself. There’s Michael Owen, who has replaced that couple of yards of pace with what may be a couple of yards of ale. Nicky Butt is starting to take on the physical appearance of Bobby Charlton but, while he works very hard, plays with the attacking finesse of Jack Charlton and spends much of his time wandering around the centre of the pitch with a look on his face seems to indicate that he’s almost certainly dreaming, and that none of this is really happening.
Portsmouth, let us not forget, are no great shakes. They do, however, show occasonal flashes of inspiration. Peter Crouch is still inexplicably terrifying up front and Glen Johnson carries a physical presence that the poor, brow-beaten Newcastle defence seem absolutely terrified of. Moreover, even Portsmouth, who aren’t a million miles from the relegation places themselves, carry the assurance of touch of, well, a Premier League team. Newcastle United, by contrast, play the whole match as if it’s the last five minutes of their Premier League lives. Balls are slung into the penalty area with increasing desperation. Martins has their one of two decent chances that they manage all evening, but balloons the ball over the Portsmouth crossbar. It feels as if every shot they take is rushed or, in the case of Michael Owen, toe-poked into the arms of a grateful David James when it appeared easier to score.
Portsmouth have their moments. Peter Crouch has a convincing shout for a penalty turned down five minutes into the second half. Richard Hughes hits the post from a Jermaine Pennant corner. Nadir Beljhajd forces a very good save from Harper and, in the closing minutes, Johnson finds himself – one suspects – in more space than he realises and drags his shot across the face of the goal. Setanta, meanwhile, can’t help themselves. They start scanning the crowd for angry faces and sobbing Geordies early, and they’re not disappointed. The fist-clenching and chest-beating soon turns to heads in hands, scarves snatched upwards as if they want to cover their eyes from what’s going on before their very eyes. This sort of shot usually only lends itself to the match during which relegation is confirmed or the last game of the season, but the director can’t help himself. There’s just over 47,000 here tonight. Alan Shearer has already called it “the most important match of my career”, but the torpor is such that they can’t sell it out.
The cameras also pick out Mike Ashley in the crowd. Ashley may or may not have been having a midlife crisis when he bought Newcastle United, but the facial expression that he pulls at the end of the match is the sort of face that can only be pulled by a man that has bought a basket case of a club a few months before the biggest economic downturn since The Great Depression and managed to alienate the supporters within a year of taking it over. It’s the face of a man who, at some point in the last couple of months has thought to himself, “I know exactly what we need to do in order to dig our way out of this – a manager with no experience and… hang on… it’s coming to me… IAIN DOWIE!”. The match has finished goalless, but the crowd boos as if the tannoy man has just announced that they were using a puppy’s head for a match ball as a joke.
Yet somehow they can still avoid the drop. They’re three points from safety and, while they will surely have to write off Saturday’s match at Anfield, they then have home matches against Middlesbrough and Fulham, both of which could yet yield them enough points to haul them out of the mire. Much as the only rational conclusion that one can arrive at from this evening’s debacle is that it’s almost impossible to imagine where the six or seven points that Newcastle need in order to avoid the drop, the suspicion remains that somehow they will manage it. Hull, after all, haven’t won since the start of March and Middlesbrough have only won one match since the end of February. Newcastle have four more matches. Even a stopped clock tells the right time twice a day.