Mike Ashley departed Newcastle United at the beginning of October like an overthrown dictator. Not two months on, the full force of the empty destruction he left is being felt hard.
It will be no consolation to Eddie Howe, in the St James’ Park dugout for the first time against Norwich City on Tuesday night after a bout of coronavirus, that without Ciaran Clark’s ninth minute red card, his team would most likely have won their first Premier League game of the season. But they didn’t and now 14 have been and gone.No team that has ever been in this position has avoided relegation.
Such an early set back forced Howe into the sort of tactical change he’ll have seen as painfully at odds with his beliefs. Ryan Fraser, an attack-minded winger, was sacrificed for Federico Fernandez to take Clark’s place in the back four and all attacking intent was compromised. A must-win game, the game to kickstart a major clean up operation, petered out into another frustrating draw. It was the seventh of the campaign for Newcastle United.
There was context to the result. In isolation, it was impressive and heartening for a packed and raucous stadium to watch their team fight, bleed and sweat for the cause for more than 80 minutes. They took the lead through a second half penalty but any mistake was always likely prove fatal. Norwich struggled to increase their intensity to fully utilise their extra man but did in the end.
Reality has bitten for many supporters. Burnley visit Tyneside on Saturday but it was supposed to be as the second act in a crucial week. With no three points after Norwich, following on from Brentford, Watford, Southampton and a number of others. There is no guarantee they will even beat the Clarets and was a sense of resignation to the inevitable, a third relegation to the Championship inside 15 years.
All is not lost. A salvage mission is still possible if Newcastle United are brave, clever and lucky. The likes of Queens Park Rangers in 2013 and Sheffield United last season, who faced a similar mountain to climb, didn’t have the weight of the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund to throw around in January.
However, there are five incredibly difficult games to play before them — away to Leicester, Liverpool and Everton and at home to Manchester City and Manchester United — and the type of player who can make an instant impact in the heat of a relegation battle are both in short supply and likely to have other options. Newcastle United need to be in touch with the pack by the time the winter transfer opens to be in with a chance of being proactive and hopes of that are slipping away at a rapid rate.
Clark’s error was both the cause and a symptom of Newcastle’s problems. Howe drew some criticism for his decision to play him over Fernandez, who came out of the cold to perform well, but the truth of the matter is his time at the club has been overdrawn to the extreme.
Signed in 2016 as a squad player in the last Championship campaign, that he remains so close to the first team picture a division above five years later epitomises Ashley’s austerity approach to running Newcastle. Players, including Clark, were given new contracts and kept on because it was cheaper than clearing the decks and upgrading at the appropriate time.
The previous ownership was lauded for running a tight ship but they cut costs and took risks, eventually banking on the takeover going through before any dire consequences of his negligent approach came home to roost. In that sense, he has been the biggest winner of the entire saga.
Gamble after gamble paid off while Mike Ashley was in power but, like a ticking time bomb, there was always a point coming when the luck would run out. Spirit wouldn’t always be enough. The brilliance of Wilson, Saint-Maximin and latterly Joe Willock, which papered over cracks of Steve Bruce’s undercooked tactics, wouldn’t either.
Newcastle United started the campaign, with Bruce and only the permanent signing of Willock, consistently avoiding quality time on the training ground. Their fitness levels suffered and thus no wins were secured from an auspicious fixture list. Once quality and standards dropped, it became ominous. Ashley got out in time for his successors to inherit an almighty shell of nothingness and the size of their task has been revealed to them gradually.
But life after Ashley had a hefty value and although far from ideal, the current plight has been softened by the collectivity of the fans to the board and management, as well as the players. There may be a widening acceptance of another relegation but unlike under Ashley, there is no dread and no fear.
All Newcastle United fans have wanted in recent years is to feel appreciated and represented, to know the club respects and honours them. The expectation is that even relegation would be little more than a year’s setback, putting the big plans for Newcastle on ice. Nothing is guaranteed but, given their record in the Championship and obvious spending power, there is a belief that even the worst outcome of this season is not worth fretting over.
With 24 games, including trips to Anfield, the Etihad Stadium and Stamford Bridge, remaining, and 30 points at the very least required for survival, it is getting to the point where Newcastle United would need to perform at European qualification levels to stay up. An incredibly tall order indeed.
Boos, perhaps for the referee, Clark or the general situation, were heard at full time on Tuesday but Howe and his players were generally well received. There could be dark days to come, it may get worse before it gets better but the Newcastle fans are in this for the long haul, and just feeling as though the club and city are pulling in the same direction is cause for positivity.
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