Newcastle United is the great football soap opera played out on the banks of the Tyne – and it was a grim storyline after Saturday’s home defeat by Bournemouth left them in the Premier League relegation zone.
Magpies great and BBC Sport pundit Alan Shearer told Match of the Day the club was “a mess from top to bottom” while besieged manager Steve McClaren admitted the display in the 3-1 loss was “going down material”.
Newcastle’s elder statesman and former chairman Sir John Hall said McClaren should be sacked, saying: “It’s probably time he goes. You’ve got to find someone to harness the team.”
So other than that… why has this giant of a club found itself in the sort of crisis it attracts on a regular basis and facing relegation once more?
Do Newcastle fans expect too much?
This is the age-old – and unfair – question aimed at the Toon Army.
Expectations should be high at Newcastle United. This is a one-club city with a huge stadium that is a landmark, bang in the middle of it, attracting 52,000 fanatical supporters on a regular basis.
This is a captive audience with a burning passion for the game and their football club – so, yes, expectations should not be played down.
Newcastle’s fans do not expect too much, however. They simply expect to see a club given such backing to at least have a crack at winning trophies. Too much of the Mike Ashley regime has been about preserving Premier League status, with even the FA Cup regarded as an irrelevance until this season.
- What they should expect is better than 19th place with 24 points from 28 games after an outlay since the summer of almost £80m on eight players.
- What they should expect is better than constantly living in fear of relegation, only surviving the drop on the final day of last season with a 2-0 win against West Ham.
- What they should expect is better than a team that has spent six days in the top half of the table, 207 days in the bottom half and 144 in the bottom three this season – with a highest place of ninth.
Newcastle have only had two top-10 finishes in the past six campaigns, with fifth place under Alan Pardew in 2011-12 almost looking like the glory era.
Since the start of last season, out of 66 Premier League games, Newcastle have only won 16 and lost 35. Expectation is certainly being built up.
Those vast crowds, of course, bring pressure – but no more than 76,000 watching at Old Trafford or 60,000 at Arsenal – and every Newcastle player knows they will be elevated to almost deity status should they give those supporters the success they crave.
Newcastle’s fans are not expecting Premier League titles or Champions League successes – just more than the constant diet of mediocrity they have been fed.
In reality, the Toon Army has been patient. This is club that has not won a major trophy since the 1969 Inter-Cities Fairs Cup – a little expectation is excusable.
Is McClaren to blame?
McClaren was handed a three-year contract in June – an appointment seemingly long in the making after Pardew left for Crystal Palace and John Carver held the fort, and one confirmed despite a dismal end to his tenure at Derby County when they failed to make the Championship play-offs despite strong financial backing.
It was an underwhelming move given McClaren’s credibility problems in England since his disastrous spell in charge of the national side – but he talked big by insisting trophies and the top eight was his target.
The top eight looks a long way off with six wins and 16 defeats from 28 games, and the FA Cup run ending in the third round at Watford.
McClaren won a big reputation as a coach working alongside Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United, notably in the Treble season of 1998-99 – but his managerial career has been a mixed bag.
He won the League Cup at Middlesbrough in 2004 and Eredivisie with FC Twente in the Netherlands in 2009-10.
But he was a failure at Wolfsburg and in a second spell at Twente before fruitless times at Derby and this shocking stay at Newcastle. He also had a 112-day stay at Nottingham Forest in 2011, but that was ended by differences with the hierarchy as much as football matters.
Players who have worked under him speak in glowing terms of his ability on the training field – but such references are harder to find as a manager.
Martin Keown, who worked under McClaren when he was on England’s coaching staff, said: “I thought he was an excellent coach – but no, not a manager for me.”
He added McClaren looked like “a rabbit caught in the headlights” in his post-Bournemouth interview.
Where questions could be asked is whether McClaren is working with the players he really wants as, for many seasons, Newcastle chief scout Graham Carr has been a major player behind the scenes.
The bottom line, though, is that ultimate responsibility lies with McClaren and even his place on Newcastle’s board – that rather unusual award that came with his appointment – will not save him if managing director Lee Charnley decides he must go.
And, given McClaren’s demeanour, admission the club are heading down, and miserable results, it is surely when rather than if he goes.
The Ashley effect?
Mike Ashley has long been regarded as a toxic presence at Newcastle United, described by fans as a member of the ‘Cockney Mafia’ running the club – but can he be blamed for this season’s debacle?
Of course he agreed to McClaren’s appointment but this was very much driven by Charnley, and Ashley even stepped down from the board last summer.
McClaren joined along with Charnley, chief scout Carr and club ambassador and former captain Bob Moncur.
Ashley also sanctioned that £80m spending spree, that started in the summer and continued in January with the arrival of England pair Jonjo Shelvey from Swansea City for £12m and Andros Townsend from Tottenham for a similar figure.
It has had little or no impact but while Ashley can be accused of many things, he cannot be accused of keeping his hand in his pocket this season.
On that final day last season, in a rare public statement, he insisted he would not sell Newcastle “at any price” until they won a trophy. It may be a long stay.
Ashley’s problem, one that still exists today, is he is regarded as a malign figure by the Toon Army and has been almost since he bought Hall’s 41.6% stake in the club in May 2007, taking full control later that year.
He won fans over by re-appointing the beloved Kevin Keegan as manager in January 2008, but Keegan left unhappy with the hierarchy eight months later and Ashley has never been well regarded since.
Ashley wanted to sell Newcastle as far back as September 2008 – issuing a 1,644-word statement explaining why – but is still there, locked in a loveless relationship with the fans that casts a constant cloud over the club.
He has backed Newcastle with cash this season but once more it has resulted in failure.
Newcastle, with its ground and potential, should be a huge going concern but it is heading towards the rocks, in this case the Championship.
Ashley insists he will be staying – but relegation may change his mind.
Bad buys, bad results
Carr, Newcastle’s powerful 71-year-old chief scout, likes a low profile but has been pushed into the spotlight by the failure of the club’s recent recruitment policy.
Carr signed an eight-year contract in June 2012 – reward for bringing the likes of Hatem Ben Arfa, Cheick Tiote, Yohan Cabaye, Papiss Cisse and Sylvain Marveaux to Tyneside.
The golden touch has since deserted the old campaigner, with players brought in this season lacking the leadership qualities and stomach for a Premier League relegation fight.
Newcastle, in search of goals on Saturday, did not even start with Aleksandar Mitrovic, bought for £14.5m from Anderlecht in the summer. And Florian Thauvin, signed from Marseille for £12m last August, was sent back on loan in January after looking out of his depth.
Georginio Wijnaldum, signed from PSV Eindhoven for £14.5m, has shone fitfully while Chancel Mbemba, an £8.4m capture from Anderlecht, has looked promising.
McClaren has talked up the fighting spirit of Shelvey and local boy Jack Colback but a succession of performances without fight do not support his words.
It is significant, however, that Carr’s strategy of recruitment from abroad was ditched in January and he is now coming under fierce scrutiny.
And there is no promise in youth either. Shearer pointed out the lack of academy players coming through, confirmed by the fact Newcastle’s Under-21 team is two places off the bottom in Premier League Division Two while they are ninth out of 12 in the under-18 table.
What must change?
McClaren, in a brutally honest interview after the Bournemouth game, admitted Newcastle would be relegated on such form. It may just have been his farewell speech.
It was not the talk of a manager full of faith in his players and Ashley and his colleagues – with Charnley the main powerbroker – must have been dismayed at such a bleak bulletin being delivered by the man supposedly in charge of inspiring his players.
So results must change, self-evidently, but there is a growing case to change a manager who has looked anything but the “perfect fit” described by Charnley in the summer.
Recruitment has been beyond average and the production line from Newcastle’s academy appears to have developed a bad case of rust.
And for a man whose task was outlined as that top-eight finish and who was “heavily incentivised to try and win a cup competition” the future looks bleak.