Newcastle United: Down Without a Kick
In the ups and downs of the scramble to avoid relegation, then, it turns out to be Newcastle United and Norwich City who are the losers. Sunderland’s comfortable three-nil win against Everton at The Stadium of Light last night was both the completion of another extraordinary rising from the dead on Wearside and confirmation, as if it were needed, that one cannot rely on this Everton team to do anything to great effect at the moment, and the morning after the night before is an inevitable time for the fall-out from it all to begin to settle. At Norwich City, the inevitable sense of disappointment at failing to avoid the drop may be tempered by the fact that, having only secured promotion through the play-offs at the end of last season, such an outcome to this season is not entirely unexpected. At Newcastle United, however, the story is somewhat different.
By any stretch of the imagination, the story of this season is not a plot line that is supposed to have come to pass. Last season was a disappointing one for the club, with it finishing in fifteenth place in the table and just four places above the relegation positions, but with a new manager in place and having finished in tenth place in the table the year before, there was no particular reason to believe that Newcastle would have a season as dismal as that which the club has endured. Steve McClaren, however, was the wrong man for this particular job and, whereas Sunderland seemed to recognise the structural issues within their club and act decisively to nip those problems in the bud, the senior management of Newcastle United seemed to freeze, which resulted in the departure of Steve McClaren coming too late in the day to be of any significant effect.
Upon his arrival at St James Park, Rafael Benitez – who had, of course, been managing Real Madrid just a few weeks earlier – took a few games to get into his stride, but the significant problem that he faced was that time decisively not on his side. Corners were turned, and it looked as if there was half a chance that he might even be able to scramble the club to safety, but ultimately he ran out of time, and last weekend’s failure to beat a moribund Aston Villa at Villa Park tipped the scales definitively against Newcastle avoiding the drop. There was still football left to play, but not only did Sunderland have a game in hand on their local rivals, but that game was against an Everton team that has spent the last few weeks repeatedly playing as though they’ve only just been introduced to each other in the dressing room before matches. Relying on that team of all teams to go to The Stadium of Light and pick up a result was optimism of the highest order, and so it is that, with a game to spare, Newcastle United face the prospect of Championship football again.
The good news for supporters of the club is that the last time the club went down in 2009, it managed what might have been an unmitigated disaster very well and bounced back at the first attempt, running up one hundred and two points and getting back into the Premier League at a canter. There was a sense at that time that this relegation could well be a precursor to some sort of apocalyptic implosion amid a storm of recrimination and bouncing cheques, and the fact that this isn’t wasn’t ended up happening may well have left their supporters more sanguine regarding the team’s prospects for next season. And, whilst there is still considerable unhappiness with owner Mike Ashley and his running of the club – the best that can ever be said for the state of the relationship between the senior management of the club and its supporters is a state of uneasy detente – unhappiness with Ashley and his minions is nothing in comparison with the all-out civil war that has broken out at Aston Villa over the course of the last couple of years or so.
Newcastle United might have been relegated from the Premier League, but they don’t give the impression of being A Crisis Club in the same way that they were in the past. This season’s post-relegation Newcastle think-pieces have been obituaries for a season rather than obituaries for a football club, and this has been in no small part because so many of the club’s key decisions and non-decisions over the course of this season have been so bewildering. There was a modicum of common sense in the decision to appoint Steve McClaren, but appointing him as a company director made little sense, and neither did the decision to keep him in place long after it was more than apparent that he was failing at his job. The decision to spend £80m over the course of transfer windows in order to seek to fortify the first team squad was, considering the team’s performance last season, a reasonably sensible looking one, but the choice of players to bring in couldn’t have been much more abject, and in light of this the apparent influence of the club’s Chief Scout Graham Carr over the running of the club defied all logic.
The appointment of Rafael Benitez came too late to save the season, of course. There was a noticeable upturn in fortunes following his arrival at St James Park, and had this change come a month earlier it’s just possible that something could have been salvaged from this train wreck of a season. Will the club be able to persuade to keep him on beyond next Sunday’s match against Tottenham Hotspur? It’s too early to say for sure and it’s not guaranteed that Benitez’s skill-set will be suitable for the peculiar demands of the Football League Championship, but if he is given the backing to tear up this dysfunctional squad of players and start afresh, with the aid of Premier League parachute payments there is no reason why the club shouldn’t be able to compete near the top of the table next season.
When Newcastle United were relegated from the Premier League in 2009, they played their cards just right. This, however, wasn’t where the club’s current problems found their root. The problems resurfaced with another period during which the club antagonised both supporters and the local media, and a playing, managerial and senior managerial staff that was, put simply, not up to scratch. Persuade Rafael Benitez to stay, give him the control to be able to rebuild the playing squad without breaking the bank and get rid of the driftwood that has been guiding the club towards the events of this week, whether that means the players, Graham Carr or Managing Director Lee Charnley, whose continued employment by the club remains something of a mystery, though, and all of this could change.
The Football League Championship will undoubtedly be a challenge, with competition for places in the Premier League likely to be stiff. Newcastle’s 2010 promotion was an exception rather than the rule in terms of the comfort that relegated clubs usually find at this level, after all. With careful management, some joined-up thinking and a lot of bridge building, though, this relegation may yet offer a fresh slate and a new beginning for the club. Years of experience, however, have indicated to its supporters that the successes that the club has come by since Mike Ashley bought it have come about more through accident than design. Is this a trend that can be reversed? If he can swallow a little pride and start rebuilding properly, then it can. The biggest question facing Newcastle United as this season comes to its dismal end is whether he has either the desire or ability to do so.