Newcastle fans must have watched Leeds United’s loss to Millwall in the League One play-offs and shuddered. It was like watching The Ghost of Football’s Future. Two clubs of similar size with similarly raucous fans, they are teams that by rights should never experience relegation from the top flight, let alone into League One. But it happened to Leeds. And it could happen to The Toon.
There can be no doubt that the steep road Leeds followed during their rapid decline could be one that Newcastle are already barrelling along themselves. The similarities, from playing staff, to wages, to financial excess, to a quick succession of managers, is almost eerie. To a Newcastle fan it should be downright terrifying.
The Championship is an unforgiving place – graduation is difficult, expulsion is effortless. Here are eight reasons why Newcastle will find next season to be the toughest battle the club has faced since before King Kev’s revolution in 1992:
1. Expectation: Birmingham faced their fair share of expectation last season and only just managed to cope with it. They went up, but with the players at their disposal it was hardly inspiring. Newcastle have an even larger mountain to climb. Pundits and the Newcastle public, regardless of who stays and who joins, will expect Newcastle to not only win the league, but to win it in style and with games to spare. Newcastle failed to deal with the pressure last season – can they reverse that next season?
2. The Bus: Fans, management, players and directors are going to be desperate for their club to beat Newcastle. No other team in the league has the cache of the Toon. At St James’ Park teams will, as they say, park the bus in front of the goal. Away from Newcastle, teams will fancy themselves to take a black-and-white scalp in front of their biggest crowd of the season. Every game, from Doncaster to Blackpool to Peterborough, is going to be a scrap. Are they up for it?
3. The Manager: As things stand, Newcastle do not have a manager. In fact, they have not had a permanent boss since the Keegan debacle at the start of last season. Alan Shearer looks likely to take the role and perhaps given a blank sheet of paper he may thrive where this season, to be blunt, he ultimately failed. Yet even with the talismanic Shearer Newcastle could struggle as they come to terms with the take-no-prisoners nature of the Championship. To overcome that, Newcastle need stability on and off the field, which leads us to…
4. Ownership: Mike Ashley wants to sell and says he wants to sell fast. Few could blame him. Newcastle have a large squad full of players on extensive wages that cannot be supported in the Championship. Not only will the new manager need to be rid of a substantial portion of the playing staff, he’ll also need to pick up a few players who will help guide them through the second tier. The longer the sale of the club drags on, the more difficult this will be and the more unprepared the club will become for the new season.
5. Middlesbrough: Newcastle will be favourites, but in reality Middlesbrough will, gallingly, probably be in better shape than their local rivals. Steve Gibson manages the finances of the club well and always backs his managers. The team should really only lose one or two of their better players and, due to injury, they may even hold on to Stewart Downing for the whole campaign. If Middlesbrough do storm the league it will heap pressure on the Toon and leave just one automatic promotion spot up for grabs.
6. Unpredictability: The Championship is an odd league in many ways. It has become a cliche to say that any team can beat any other, but it is close to the truth. Last year, mediocre Coventry beat Birmingham home and away, while Wolves were battered 5-2 against the usually-feeble Norwich. The gap between the top and bottom of the table is nowhere near as large as it is in the Premier League.
7. Goals: Having a Kevin Phillips or a Sylvain Ebanks-Blake in the squad can pay dividends for any Championship team. Newcastle need to act quickly. Michael Owen will be gone, as will Mark Viduka and Obafemi Martins. Peter Lovenkrands may look for a transfer, which means only the terminally under-achieving Shola Ameobi will be left of Newcastle’s senior strike force. That seems unlikely to be enough.
8. Referees: We often hear how bad the standard of refereeing is in the EPL, but whatever the real truth, it cannot be denied that those in the Championship are, by definition, worse. The Championship, for example, boasts ‘phantom goal’ referee Stuart Attwell. They are not referees impressed by reputation and the Magpies may find it tough to struggle in the more physical second tier.