South Africans have always followed the English Premier League very closely. In some parts of the country Manchester United and Liverpool have a larger following than local clubs. Now I do not have much love for the Red Devils or Scousers but instead I have been a Newcastle United sufferer since a boy when the side was promoted back to the top flight and thrilled fans and neutrals alike with an attacking brand of football under Kevin Keegan.
From the highs of finishing second in the league in the mid-1990s and playing in the Champions League to the depths of relegation in 2009, there never really is a dull moment supporting the Magpies. Nine matches ago the Tyneside club had 35 points and were looking at finishing comfortably mid-table. However, a serious slide in fortune has seen John Carver’s side suffer eight straight defeats; a disastrous run that was finally arrested on Saturday with a home draw against West Bromwich Albion.
Newcastle finds itself only one point above the relegation zone thanks to a sudden surge in form by the likes of Leicester City, Aston Villa and fierce local rivals Sunderland. Carver accused defender Mike Williamson last week of having himself sent off deliberately. Club captain Fabricio Coloccini had a row on the team bus afterwards with goalkeeper Tim Krul. Coloccini wrote an open letter to the fans last week; a move strongly criticised by all-time club leading goal scorer Alan Shearer who said: ‘If there is one thing that is pretty much guaranteed at Newcastle, it’s that the fans will turn up and support. Despite there being protests and fans not turning up for specific games, there has always been 46,000-plus there. So for a player to come out and ask the fans to still support them, I was a bit taken aback and disappointed in that. First and foremost, the players have got to give the fans something to shout about. That has to come first and for a long time the fans haven’t had anything to shout about.’
The lack of commitment and downright below average displays has had me feeling despondent and has brought back memories of 2009. I recall six years ago watching the side draw at home against Portsmouth and thinking to myself that I could not believe how bad they were. That feeling has eerily returned in 2015.
Carver’s lot has the third-worst goal difference in the entire league and the second-worst defence (only thanks to Queens Park Rangers losing 6-0 on Sunday). Only five teams have scored more goals than the impotent Geordies this season. Last week former England boss and current Derby County manager Steve McLaren was offered the job at St James’ Park for the final three games of the season.
I am not sure what is worse: The fact that people like McLaren are now Newcastle managerial candidates, or that he turned it down. Consider the latter and it is no surprise. Why would any boss want to go to the north-east? Owner Mike Ashley rules the club with the tightest of budgets and the manager’s duties do not vary beyond coaching on the training ground. The club has become complacent although you would not really know for sure owing to a real lack of communication from the Ashley regime.
What is the club’s vision? What are the plans for the future? No one really knows except Ashley and his inner circle. The old adage of actions speaking louder than words would indicate that as long as the club remains in the top flight then the bosses are happy.
I have long said that in the modern era of football a club like the one I support has no chance whatsoever of winning the league or even finishing in the top four. Newcastle simply cannot compete with the likes of Chelsea and Manchester City who are spending £100 million-plus per transfer window. The league has by and large become a contest of who can spend the most and while overall spend does not guarantee success, it can buy you a ticket into Europe. Clubs like Newcastle cannot afford that voucher.
The Premier League has become a contest between a handful of clubs who vie for the title, with maybe another pair challenging for a Champions League berth. Everyone else is just fighting for seventh, or to avoid relegation.
And with the mention of the dreaded drop zone, I reach my conclusion. There are too many harrowing similarities to 2009 and perhaps most ominously it is going to be a contest between the Magpies and Hull City for the third and final relegation place. Six years ago my side was away at Aston Villa, who was pretty good that year, lost 1-0 and went down while Hull stayed up. The face of Michael Owen looking like he had just returned from the supermarket and they were out of milk has stayed with me, in contrast to Steven Taylor who cried like a baby at the final whistle.
Six years on there are again too many Owens and not enough Taylors on Tyneside – plus a Hull. Carver’s side finishes with an away game at QPR, already relegated, and at home to West Ham United on the final day – wouldn’t Sam Allardyce love to be the man to send his old club to the Championship?
However Hull must play Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United and my feeling is that those two fixtures will be beyond the Tigers and Newcastle will survive; not because they were better than Steve Bruce’s side, but because Bruce’s boys were worse. This season, or nightmare, cannot end soon enough.