Newcastle United are Going Down but Looking Up
Saturday 7th May. A leisurely, idyllic afternoon spent at the open-air thermal spa-heated pool at our campsite in southern Tuscany. The skies, which had been cloudless and brilliantly blue for days, gradually turned first a bruised purple and then a stunning near-black. And then – just as news filtered through that Newcastle could only muster a 0–0 draw at Villa while Sunderland had twice come from behind to beat last season’s champions Chelsea – the heavens opened. Mother Nature’s sense of timing was exquisite: the perfect storm that had been brewing all campaign had finally broken.
After all, neither failure to condemn the hapless, managerless, long-relegated Villains to a club-record twelfth successive defeat nor the Mackems’ improbable victory that day was the reason we lost our place at the Premier League trough, just as it’s about to be topped up with even more tasty TV money.
Neither was our great rivals’ subsequent easy trouncing of an Everton side already on the beach and seemingly trying to get Roberto Martinez the sack, the result that confirmed our demotion.
Neither was the last-gasp defeat to Norwich, also destined for the Championship, after twice recovering from a deficit.
Neither was losing 3–0 to our arch enemies despite outplaying them for large parts of the game – a sixth derby defeat in succession.
Neither was conceding a stoppage-time winner at home to Everton on Boxing Day, throwing away a two-goal lead against Chelsea or getting thumped 5–1 away to Alan Pardew’s Crystal Palace and 6–1 away to Man City (in the latter case, after taking the lead).
Neither was the chronic inability to score goals and offer a semblance of protection to our own net.
Neither was the players’ poor form, lack of fitness, gutlessness and ill discipline.
Neither was the wholly inadequate leadership both on the pitch and (until early March) on the touchline.
Neither was the appointment of Steve McClaren, damaged goods after Derby’s dismal collapse in the second tier, or the subsequent reticence to give him the boot even when it was obvious he was completely out of his depth and had set us on a collision course with relegation.
Neither were the decisions taken by the man who appointed him, bungling managing director Lee Charnley, or by Charnley’s puppet-master, Mike Ashley.
Neither was the underinvestment in the squad that saw us fail to sign a single player on a permanent deal from January 2013 until June 2014 – a catastrophic error of judgement for which subsequent splurges of cash could only ever be a sticking plaster.
Neither (when we actually committed to acquiring players) was a transfer policy presided over by chief scout Graham Carr that frequently baffled in terms of both apparent priorities and targets, and that bore precious little fruit.
It was all of these things, and more.
But enough of that. Anyone wanting to wallow in doom and gloom can have their pick of post-mortems. I’d prefer instead to at least try to look on the bright side and propose four reasons why relegation might actually be a good thing – even if largely in an attempt to convince myself as much as you.
1. Relegation is a wake-up call that can’t be ignored
Let’s be absolutely clear here: there is no injustice in the fate that the club has suffered. Relegation is a richly deserved punishment for a multitude of sins. The only injustice is the fact that those who ultimately suffer the most – the supporters – are blameless.
The victory over West Ham on the final day of the 2014-15 season that ensured Premier League survival for another year merely papered over the cracks. It brought temporary relief and respite, but only deferred the inevitable. In the wake of that great escape, there was neither genuine recognition and acceptance of the fundamental failings that had brought the club to the brink nor the development of a coherent new philosophy to take it forwards and ensure that there would be no repeat. We’ve failed to learn from our mistakes – and the quirk of fate that meant that our demotion was effectively sealed at Villa Park, as it had been seven years previously, merely enhanced the feeling of déjà vu.
There is surely now no scope for complacency, no possibility of pretending it ain’t broke and so doesn’t need fixing – it is and so it does. From top to bottom, things need to change (with the notable exception of the man in the dugout). Ashley is unlikely to relinquish his grip on the club, though, so the next best thing we can hope for is that Carr and Charnley are shown the door.
2. We can slim down to fighting weight
I don’t buy the line trotted out ad infinitum by pundits and rival fans alike that our squad was weak and ill-equipped for the Premier League; the final day’s extraordinary demolition of Spurs gave the lie to that spurious claim. It’s a truly remarkable football team that can romp to a 5–1 win with ten men against a side that until the final weeks of the season were strong contenders for the title, and yet still contrive to leave me feeling depressed – depressed that it was much too late, depressed at the thought of what might have been. As I’ve been saying all along, quality and ability were never the problem; attitude and application were.
Neither do I accept the argument that our recent transfer activity has been an unmitigated disaster. If nothing else, Andros Townsend has been an excellent acquisition, giving us pace and creativity in forward areas, while Chancel Mbemba and Aleksandar Mitrovic have both shown promise (the latter could do with showing his studs to opponents’ shins rather less often, though). Signing the Dutch Footballer of the Year last summer was a major coup – in his defence, how was Carr to know that Gini Wijnaldum would transform into the Invisible Man every single away game? Or that Siem de Jong would spend his days on the treatment table while his younger brother Luuk, a goalless flop during his time on loan in the north east, captained PSV to a second consecutive Eredivisie title won largely thanks to his scoring exploits?
Nevertheless, Carr has undoubtedly been responsible for some transfers more laughable than his son’s comedy routines: Florian Thauvin, Remy Cabella, Emmanuel Riviere, Henri Saivet and Seydou Doumbia – the latter pair signed in January to help us escape relegation (ahead of the defenders and out-and-out goalscorer we actually needed) but both soon discarded. All five should be swiftly shipped out, closely followed by the man chiefly responsible for bringing them to the club.
Of the rest, Daryl Janmaat, too often our best attack-minded player but rarely bothered about fulfilling his defensive duties, has been looking for an escape route for a while, and relegation provides it. Moussa Sissoko was heaped with praise for his all-action captain’s performance against Spurs, but that only threw into relief the shockingly lazy and spineless displays the alleged dynamic powerhouse has put in all season and smacked of a player suddenly aware of the need to put himself in the shop window. Fabricio Coloccini and Papiss Cisse have both attained cult status on Tyneside and then seen it eroded away to nothing by virtue of long outstaying their welcome. Out-of-contract duo Sylvain Marveaux and Gabriel Obertan have both already left.
As was the case seven years ago, the loss of our Premier League status should help us to rid ourselves of any self-interested mercenaries who think they’re too good for the division they’ve landed us in – leaving us with a core of players who actually want to play for the club and understand the privilege of doing so.
3. Youth will have an opportunity to shine
The departure of big-name first-teamers, allied with the necessary reduction in the transfer budget, will inevitably mean that young players will get a chance to stake a claim to a place in the side. While the fortunes of our youth teams have largely matched those of the seniors, giving little cause for optimism, there are several players already in the first-team squad who stand to reap the benefits of relegation.
Take Ayoze Perez, for instance – a clever, skilful forward tied down on a long-term contract, who would profit from a regular run in the team. Or Jamaal Lascelles, who emerged over the last few weeks of the season as a rare beacon of hope for the future, a committed defender and potential skipper whose stature and willingness to be vocal both on the pitch and in the dressing room put many of his older and more experienced team-mates to shame. Or Paul Dummett, often a rabbit in the headlights in the Premier League, who may yet blossom when up against less taxing opposition and spared the full glare of the media spotlight. Adam Armstrong should return from a prolific loan spell at Coventry full of confidence and Rolando Aarons remains an exciting prospect – if we can both get him to agree to a new deal and then keep him fit, that is.
And then there’s Mitrovic. In 2009, Andy Carroll left the Premier League a raw talent; when he returned a year later, he was the undisputed focal point of our attack, a frequently unplayable menace to even the most accomplished of defenders. This isn’t to say that we can expect to sell our frequently profligate and ill-tempered Serb to Liverpool for £35 million in 18 months’ time – just that doing time in a more forgiving and physical league may be the making of him too.
Of course, there may also be some senior players for whom relegation proves a blessing too. After all, Coloccini, Jose Enrique, Jonas Gutierrez and Kevin Nolan all had that season in the second tier to thank for finally finding their feet at St James’ Park.
4. We can become Newcastle United once more
I don’t think it’s arrogant or presumptuous to suggest that we’ll win more games next season than we have this, and supporters will actually be able to start looking forward to Saturdays again. Never underestimate the simple virtue of regular victories putting smiles back on faces – especially in Newcastle, where the club is at the very heart of the city both geographically and metaphorically and where the fortunes of the football team have a huge effect on the mood of the city as a whole.
I’ve written previously on this site on this very topic – and on the alienating gulf that has opened up between the club and its lifeblood, the city and the fanbase. It would be naïve in the extreme to suppose that one successful season in the Championship could be a panacea, reversing decades of drifting gradually apart – not least because the most fundamental problem, Ashley’s continued ownership of the club, is unlikely be resolved.
Nevertheless, it’s beyond dispute that relegation and our Championship sojourn seven years ago not only unified and galvanised the team, it also helped to bring the club and the supporters closer together (albeit, as has proven the case, only temporarily). Newcastle is in many ways at a lower ebb than it was back then – before the consequences of the credit crunch and years of Tory government had really been felt – and, as I noted in that October article, is “in desperate need of the sense of community and belonging, the civic pride and identity, the feelgood factor and escapist pleasure, the solace and succour that the city’s football club can potentially provide”. The final match of a miserable season may have been meaningless on paper but the extraordinary collective outpouring of passion, positivity and loyalty from the stands in response to what was happening on the pitch couldn’t have been much more meaningful – not least because it was critical in persuading Rafa Benitez to commit to a highly improbable new three-year deal with the club, surely despite his better judgement.
Here’s hoping, then, that this time next year we’re toasting another immediate return to the Premier League and writing mildly smug “where-did-it-all-go-right?” guides to bouncebackability. Of course, there’s also a good chance that I’ll be reminded of this article and wince. After all, lightning rarely strikes twice, as the old saying goes, and Leeds are a glaringly obvious cautionary tale illustrating that fallen giants can endure protracted exiles from the top flight due to precisely the combination of on-field failure and off-field folly and mismanagement for which our club has become renowned.
But let’s think positive, eh? For better or worse, blind faith is what we do best.