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.