All is not well at St. James’ Park. After seeing his side slump to a 2-1 defeat, leaving them mired in 16th place in the Premier League, the Newcastle manager bemoaned the spate of injuries that had plagued his squad’s key players. “We need some new faces” the concerned boss told the press, only echoing what the back pages had been screeching even before the transfer window opened at the start of the month. As regards to the next game, the Newcastle manager ruefully admitted “I don’t know whether I have eleven fit players”. Testing times indeed for players, staff and fans alike up on Tyneside; regardless of their status as a club ‘too big to go down’, Newcastle are embroiled in a relegation battle. A battle they will lose come the end of May.
This is not presumptuous speculation. The Newcastle manager quoted was Joe Kinnear; the 2-1 defeat was away to Manchester City; the season was 2008-09. Newcastle finished 18th and were demoted from the top flight of English football for the first time in the Premier League era. For even the most ardently optimistic Newcastle supporter, the parallels between Newcastle then and now are alarming. 23 games into the season they were relegated, Newcastle were 16th, having amassed a miserly 23 points.
Injuries to important players had reduced their squad to the bare bones and it was over a month since their last Premier League victory. Currently Newcastle trail the spectre of their relegated side by two points from the same number of games and have a squad similarly beleaguered by injury. Defeat to Reading at St. James’ Park means Newcastle have lost 10 of their last 13 games, picking up a desperate two wins in their last 18 games.
The temperature may be plummeting daily, but Alan Pardew felt the heat of close to 50,000 dissenting voices through the icy sleet as Reading celebrated their second win on the bounce. Coupled with Newcastle’s poor form, those around them seem to be picking up the pace needed for the relegation battle to remain competitive until the final few rounds of fixtures; while Reading have won their last two matches, Harry Redknapp’s reinvigorated QPR have yet to be defeated in the new year. Newcastle may be six points off the bottom, but they are locked in a quadrumvirate of sides separated by just two points. Of those sides, Pardew’s depleted squad is in the worst run of form, and has arguably the toughest run of fixtures as February approaches.
Newcastle need players, and fast. Last season’s glories have in a sense only exaggerated the depth of the problems they face this year. In an admittedly inspired season on Tyneside, Newcastle were blessed with a scarcity of injuries to the vital players in their squad. Captain Coloccini was a proverbial rock in the heart of their defence, while Frenchmen Cabaye and Ben Arfa consistently provided ammunition for the Senegalese strike pairing of Demba Ba and the sparkling Papiss Cisse. However, it was the quality and consistency of these key players that protected the vulnerable underbelly of Newcastle’s small squad to be exposed.
This season however, these pivotal players have been frequently injured, and consequently have been far from the impressive levels of performance they attained so regularly last year. Coloccini is unsettled in his personal life, and his performances on the pitch have been similarly unnerving, while Cabaye has missed roughly half of the campaign so far. Although the talented playmaker’s return to action yesterday provided a much needed spark of creativity in the centre of the park, the many chances he created were all to often spurned by Newcastle’s lacklustre frontline.
Papiss Cisse was the standout signing of last season, startling many by not only the amount of goals he netted in the second half of the campaign, but the exceptional variety of his strikes. His impact was so great that Demba Ba’s loss of form was hardly an issue as Newcastle contested for a place in the top four. This season however, the narrative of Newcastle’s frontline has been a more disheartening tale. Cisse has failed to fire, frequently relegated to the wing to allow Demba Ba to play alone through the middle. While Ba frequently found the net in the early months of the season, his departure to Chelsea has left Pardew desperately short of attacking options. Aside from the unconvincing Cisse, the Ameobi brothers and Nile Ranger make up the remainder of Newcastle’s striking squad; a four man front line that has scored five league goals between them.
Truthfully, Newcastle lack depth in all areas of the field. Their pitiful capitulation to Brighton in the FA Cup demonstrated the glaring lack of resources at Pardew’s disposal, a fact similarly emphasised by the introduction of Perch and Bigirimana in place of Marveaux and the excellent Cabaye against Reading. Strengthening the squad is therefore a must if Newcastle are to scrape the wherewithal to fight their way out of the relegation scrap they are sinking into.
However, this may be easier said than done. Failure to capture desired signings in the summer looks more and more short-sighted, as their attraction powers as a club are now far less potent than they were when they had a 5th place league finish to promote. Loic Remy’s decision to spurn Newcastle’s offer in favour of bottom club QPR’s advances may suggest something about the nature of the player himself as Pardew hinted, but the stark reality is that Newcastle are unlikely to attract the big name signings that their fans are crying out for.
The signing of Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa will hearten supporters, but Coloccini is still desperate to leave Tyneside to return to his native Argentina, so it is likely Pardew will need to strengthen further in the defensive department. Funds are available for Pardew to bring in reinforcements, but whether or not Newcastle can attract the appropriate standard of clientele to dig the club out of their current predicament is less clear.
The rot must be stopped at St. James’ Park. Relegation may be unthinkable for the die hard fans on Tyneside, but the club are showing relegation form. Thankfully. the reappearance of Cabaye and the imminent return of Steven Taylor will bolster Newcastle’s starting eleven; adding much needed experience and quality to a side that has looked fairly inept in recent matches. New signings are surely forthcoming too, but the likelihood is that Pardew and his players will have to show great tenacity in the coming months if they are to be clear of the danger of the drop as the season closes.
After the Manchester City defeat in January 2009, Joe Kinnear took heart from the fact that Newcastle’s next three games were winnable. They took four points from their next three matches, leaving them in 14th place with 12 games to go. They were relegated. Pardew’s Newcastle face Aston Villa, Chelsea, and Tottenham Hotspur. On current form, amassing four points from those games looks a challenging prospect. As the players trooped off in the sleet after the Reading game, the shadow of possible relegation stretched over St. James’ Park. Pardew must pray that the sun soon returns to Tyneside.