Newcastle United have the fifth-highest average attendance in English football, regularly attracting over 50,000 loyal fans to St James’ Park. Yet despite this passionate supporter base, the club has been starved of success, and once again, the arrival of spring finds them involved in a Premier League relegation battle.
In the Premier League era, there is no such thing as “too big to go down”, and having recently tasted Championship football, Newcastle fans are in no hurry to return to the second tier, so the Premier League table makes for uncomfortable reading. At the end of February, Newcastle were just three places and two points clear of relegation.
There was no indication that a relegation dogfight would be on the cards after a strong start to the season saw Newcastle up to seventh in the table. However, that positive beginning came to an abrupt end. A run of eight defeats in nine saw them drop into the relegation zone, and while there has been a slight improvement since then – along with a memorable 1-0 home victory over Manchester United – the Magpies are still firmly in the relegation mix.
Every Premier League season seems to throw up one team that suddenly hits a rich vein of form in the final weeks to get themselves out of relegation trouble. Having already seen their team pull off an unlikely win over Manchester United, Newcastle supporters who are thinking of placing a bet with Stakers.com on the Premier League over the next few weeks will be hoping that Rafa Benítez’s men discover their form and land some more surprises at tempting odds.
Ask any Newcastle fan what the problem is and they will point you in the direction of owner Mike Ashley. In his time at the club, there have been a string of mistakes, gaffes and missed opportunities and an increasingly tight budget. Discontent with Ashley reached a head last summer when Benítez was denied the significant transfer funds he needed to strengthen the team, and that parsimony was in evidence again during the transfer window, despite the fact that Newcastle went into January in the bottom third of the table.
Ashley has said that he can’t compete in terms of the spending power of the big clubs in the Premier League and has made it clear that he would be prepared to sell the club, and yet following the collapse of the proposed sale to Amanda Staveley, Ashley is still there and still keeping a tight grip on the purse strings. The fact that in the big-money Premier League era Newcastle’s record signing remains the £16.5 million they paid for Michael Owen in 2005 is an indication of how far the club’s ambition has fallen short of the fans’ expectations.
The end result this season has been a team that has stagnated in the Premier League. Benítez is revered by Newcastle fans, while their ire is aimed at the owner. In the circumstances, given the weight of expectation and the limited funds available, Benítez did an incredible job getting the team into the Premier League and has managed to extract the maximum from his squad so far this season. How long he is prepared to continue to do so on a small budget is another question, and one that keeps Magpies fans up at night.
Newcastle’s strength under Benítez this season has been their defence. Led by the immensely promising Jamaal Lascelles, Newcastle have been fairly solid at the back. In fact, only six teams in the Premier League have conceded fewer goals, and they’ve been particularly tough to beat on the road, with only Chelsea and the two Manchester teams able to beat them by more than a goal. Unfortunately, they have been unable to turn those good performances into points, for a simple reason: a lack of goals.
Their most significant summer signing, Jacob Murphy, has shown glimpses of ability but has only scored once. Matt Ritchie, who was on target 16 times last season, has only found the net once this time around, while the usually prolific Dwight Gayle has just five to his name. Joselu – who has struggled to make an impact since his move from Stoke – and Ayoze Pérez are the club’s second joint top scorers this season, with four apiece.
There is some hope for Newcastle in the fixture list. Although they do have a string of tough games – at home to Chelsea and Arsenal, and away at Liverpool and Tottenham – they also have some crucial and winnable matches against relegation rivals Southampton, West Bromwich Albion and Huddersfield Town, and all at St James’ Park. Given that the points threshold for safety might be lower than usual this year, if they can extract maximum points from those three games and pick up a point or two elsewhere, they should be able to avoid relegation. What happens after that depends on whether Benítez is prepared to stay and, above all, whether Ashley finally makes good on his promise to sell the club.