January the 19th – Newcastle United 1 Reading 2. The 12th league defeat of the season – 21 points tallied in 23 games – the Magpies spiralling uncontrollably towards relegation.
On the back of such a valiant but fruitless Christmas period, the importance of the fixtures in January grew exponentially. Point(s) against Everton was squandered in a game where little was expected – a dour draw against Norwich provided only small relief in points and morale.
Defeat to Reading was suicidal by Newcastle; a mixture of woeful performances on the field and management on the touch line conspiring to gift a first away win of the season to a side as poor as any to visit St James’ in recent years. The weaknesses were painfully visible: ‘the asset’ is looking in serious danger.
Bluntly, relegation this season would be a catastrophe for NUFC – the inevitable stripping of the far more tangible assets that were on offer in 2009 promising to be as brutal as that which occurred to Leeds during their demise. But this season also holds the addition peril of being the last in which the current PL TV deal stands – a huge increase in revenue set to begin in the 2013/14 season only serving to increase the gap between 1st and 2nd tier football.
The gamble wagered in pre-season has failed alarmingly, and the potential danger was clear. The speed of Newcastle’s quadruple acquisition in the week previous has undoubtedly taken everyone by surprise – but when considering the logic of spending in the region of £15m on badly needed players, or face a very real threat of ‘the asset’ (viewed from strictly business eyes) being devalued to an extent from which it would be almost unrecoverable, Ashley’s dusting off of the cheque book becomes very understandable. Solace can be taken in there being a reaction from the board, but this is bluntly their last opportunity to right the wrongs of their own policy this summer (apportioning much, but not the entire blame for our current plight). The losses of the original gamble have left us facing elimination – and as such we are now ‘all in’.
Alan Pardew, having regularly bemoaned the quality at his disposal, reputedly now has a squad far more appropriate for the demands of the Premier League, save for his trump card of Demba Ba. Naturally, Pardew’s job will be to integrate these signings into usable and useful players in a very short time – but more over there is no time like the present to take a frank look at his own tactical and team selection decisions. Jeers of ‘you don’t know what you’re doing’ may have been met with gestured retaliation from Pardew – delivering his own swipe at the ‘negativity’ in the post-apocalyptic landscape of the Reading defeat, but he can no longer deliver such tenuous excuses and ‘admit’ to mistakes he frankly shouldn’t be making in the first place. Faith in him may have been battered en-masse, but he remains Newcastle manager and it is now up to him to restore both competence and confidence in the playing aspect of the club.
Tomorrow Newcastle travel to Aston Villa – a club rock bottom on confidence and a point and a place below them in the league. The artificial boost of confidence to NUFC provided by the new signings has swept through the rank and file of supporters, and win could spark in motion a long overdue recovery. But equally, things could soon come crashing down if we were to face defeat in that very same fixture.
The chips have been moved across the table, and now we await the turn of the cards…
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