On the opening day of the season, nearly 48,000 long-suffering Newcastle United fans entered St. James Park in the hope of seeing their beloved team battle. That they did, but the Magpies ultimately lost 1-0 to a talented Arsenal side. In their next game, there was not even a glimpse of a fight, with Newcastle comfortably beaten by Norwich, before somehow poaching three points from at Tottenham a week later.
Those three opening games, along with the 1-1 home draw against Watford, which created more questions than answers, epitomises Newcastle in this top-flight stay. Equally capable of beating a big team as they are of struggling against relegation fodder, the Tyneside outfit remain a highly enigmatic and unpredictable team.
The club’s reputation as one that is institutionally inconsistent is further backed by the advent of two relegations this century, in 2009 and 2016. Both were followed by immediate promotion, but this is a way of life that Newcastle fans rightly desire to eschew permanently.
Of course, Newcastle fans want nothing more than a return to the good times, but deep down they know that the club’s relegation price in football spreads is much higher than it is in title stakes for a very good reason. Those same Newcastle fans would name club owner Mike Ashley as that reason.
A man seemingly trying to spend as little money as possible to get by, Ashley’s desire to exercise the same frugality at Newcastle as he does with his other businesses has backfired. A figure perhaps hated beyond any other chairman or owner in Premier League history, his efforts to sell the club have thus far been fruitless.
Ultimately, he has created his own catch-22 situation. Newcastle will not attract the right buyer until there is real momentum on and off the field, and a trophy – while never so distant – has never been so sorely needed. Such ‘momentum’, however, cannot be attained without the willingness of an owner to invest a lot more money into the side.
Joelinton: Early Form Encouraging
Leopards like Ashley never change their spots, and it is in the very nature of a businessman in Ashley’s mould to stick to his own principles, however flawed they may be. Nonetheless, the signings of Allan Saint-Maximin and Joelinton could represent the first subtle signs of a change in attitude from Ashley.
On early evidence, the acquisition of Joelinton is exactly the fillip Newcastle needed, especially after losing Ayoze Perez to Leicester. Impressively, Joelinton’s strike at Tottenham means that he has been on the winning side in five of the previous six competitive matches in which he has scored. While it is too soon to call him a talisman, forging a winning game plan through a marquee signing is something that has been alien to Newcastle for too long.
Saint-Maximin, meanwhile, brings an impressive amount of flair, and he too has caught the eye during his first few games in the famous stripes. While he is said to know every ball trick in the book, there is no guarantee that this will sustain him in the long-term, but compared to other arrivals under Mike Ashley, he does seem to have more strengths than weaknesses at this point.
Route Back to Top-Six lies in Past Glories
It seems as though survival is now the typical goal for Newcastle – as it fundamentally is for any team other than those that have occupied the top six since the end of 2016/17. While this train of thought persists, the likelihood of that elite group being breached grows slimmer, but nothing lasts forever.
Newcastle fans know this as well as supporters of any other downtrodden club. They are no strangers to a dark night before a dawn, and the club’s yo-yo culture goes back further than the aforementioned relegation-and-promotion episodes. Infamously, the 1991/92 season saw Newcastle survive a brush with relegation to the third tier, which if lost, would have unquestionably erased all of the memories to come – of Cole, Beardsley and Ginola, and of Kevin Keegan’s exquisite counter-attacking brand of football.
As it was, the following campaign would yield a second-tier title, followed by several seasons of challenging for the Premier League title under Kevin Keegan. There then came a slump in the late 1990s after Keegan’s departure, followed by a surge under Sir Bobby Robson, culminating in a third-place finish in 2003.
Both Keegan and Robson showed exactly what could be achieved with a harmonious dressing room, and even Rafael Benitez could have achieved similar success, had he been granted sufficient resources and a contract worthy of his skills.
A Sense of Timing Needed to Avoid Continued ‘yo-yo’ Culture
Admirable though it was for Newcastle to attain such high finishes under both men, the Magpies experienced these surges at times when other clubs were in transition.
In the mid-1990s, the weak spot was the disintegration of the original ‘Big Five’, as the likes of Everton, Tottenham and even Arsenal slid down the table. In the early 2000s, Manchester United’s grip on the title was starting to weaken, while Liverpool, Leeds and pre-Abramovich Chelsea were no longer the draws they had been for the continent’s biggest names.
Here and now, in 2019, Chelsea are inconsistent under Frank Lampard, Tottenham are perhaps one more trophyless season away from losing a top manager and their main gun, and Manchester United remain a side under construction, albeit with a manager that is inexperienced in managing big egos.
Were Newcastle in a position to sign a few more players like Joelinton, that is a situation which they could easily exploit, improving their chances of breaking into the top-six for the first time since May 2012. The headstrong recruitment must not stop at Joelinton and Saint-Maximin, and will need to continue in January.
The alternative is unthinkable from a Newcastle perspective. Two years from now, the ‘top six’ may well have transformed into a ‘top eight’ – perhaps to accommodate the elite’s nearest apparent contenders Everton and Leicester – leading to a much more widespread sense of purposelessness amongst the St James Park faithful. Any existence without apparent purpose leads only to further decline, and eventual relegation.
While Newcastle are not yet doomed to eternal obscurity, another lost relegation fight may prove too much this time around. Only by selling the club can Mike Ashley ensure that this scenario remains consigned to the world of nightmares, and not the world of the living.