Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 24 April 2014

Newcastle look a good bet for relegation

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - AUGUST 19:  Samir Nasri of Manchester City celebrates scoring the fourth goal during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester City and Newcastle United at the Etihad Stadium on August 19, 2013 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - AUGUST 19: Samir Nasri of Manchester City celebrates scoring the fourth goal during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester City and Newcastle United at the Etihad Stadium on August 19, 2013 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

The favourite to become the first Premier League manager to be sacked stood on the touchline with his legs and arms crossed. Frankly, it was as good a plan as any. You wondered what, other than the word “help”, was written on the pad on which Alan Pardew made entries throughout Newcastle’s long, dreadful night.

Nobody on Tyneside imagined anything else. There are many things that separate Newcastle from Sunderland and one of them is that on Wearside they expect things to go wrong and are seldom disappointed. The Toon Army was always an organisation that marched on blind optimism.

In 1999 they had begun the season by taking one point from their first seven matches under three different managers. Then, in Bobby Robson’s first game at St James’ Park, they thrashed Sheffield Wednesday 8-0. Alan Shearer scored five. The next day, Alan Oliver, the Newcastle Evening Chronicle’s football correspondent, was phoned at his desk by an excited supporter.

“We can do this y’know,” said the voice. Yes, Oliver agreed, he thought so too. However, the men were talking at cross-purposes. The journalist was talking of Newcastle avoiding relegation. The fan was arguing that they could still win the championship. They were then second bottom, 16 points adrift of Manchester United.

That optimism was there in the massed banners and costumes that accompanied Newcastle to successive FA Cup finals under Kenny Dalglish and Ruud Gullit. It was there in the cars that circled St James’ Park with scarves fluttering out of windows and horns blaring as if Newcastle were suddenly Buenos Aires on the night Mike Ashley brought back Kevin Keegan. It was there when they massed in front of the Milburn Stand as Shearer returned in vain attempt to save the club he loved from relegation,

That optimism has been entirely extinguished. Newcastle’s record in Manchester is a dismal one. Since 1972 they have played 54 league fixtures there and won twice, both at Maine Road, but they would never have travelled there so certain of defeat. Last night they sang: “There’s only one Bobby Robson.”

Before the match Moussa Sissoko had declared in the pages of the Evening Chronicle that Manchester City should not be feared. There is, admittedly not much else the midfielder might have said but the interview was greeted with guffaws that sounded the length of the Tyne. One of the most fervently supported clubs in Europe did not sell their ticket allocation for the match.

It was not a performance that would have encouraged Yohan Cabaye to linger. Pardew had remarked that following Arsenal’s bid, he had been withdrawn “for the good of the team”. There may have been a danger that with London and Paris St-Germain calling, Cabaye’s head would be elsewhere. However, it is hard to imagine he would have been less focused than Steven Taylor. The centre-half is a product of the Newcastle Academy and was the only Englishman, let alone Geordie, in Pardew’s starting line-up. Taylor is a decent bloke and in love with his club but so were all of those in the stands wearing black-and-white shirts. Moments after he escaped conceding a penalty for handball, Taylor used his arm to knock Sergio Aguero to the ground to get himself witlessly sent off. It was part of a wider pattern.

But for a fortuitous win over Fulham, Newcastle might have been relegated last season and they look a decent bet this time around. Pardew’s authority has been stripped away, first by the departure of the man who appointed him, the managing director, Derek Llambias and then by the arrival of Joe Kinnear as director of football.

It was a move as wilfully insulting as engaging a firm that the MP for Newcastle Central described as “legalised loan sharks” to sponsor their shirts. Papiss Cissé may not have liked Wonga but, judging from his display at the Etihad, he likes playing as a lone striker even less. Kinnear, a man who once called the midfielder, “Johan Kebab” is the man who presumably will be given the task of encouraging Cabaye to stay.

In his two months in charge of transfers Kinnear has signed one recruit, Loïc Rémy, who has the grace and style the Gallowgate might appreciate but who is also injured, on £80,000 a week and facing a charge of rape. Credible candidates like Ricky van Wolfswinkel, Darren Bent and Pablo Osvaldo have gone to Norwich, Fulham and Southampton, clubs that have nothing like Newcastle’s appeal.

Tim Krul, who made his first save after two minutes and made them repeatedly thereafter, was Newcastle’s lone hero. This was his first match since he dislocated his shoulder in a derby against Sunderland that Newcastle lost 3-0. This, in its own way, would have hurt just  as deeply.

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