IN hindsight, perhaps Newcastle United’s FA Cup third-round defeat to Cardiff was for the best.
After shipping three goals without reply to Chelsea and four goals without reply to Spurs, at least the lack of a weekend game means the Magpies can’t round off the week with a 5-0 hammering. At the moment, small mercies are the only mercies you can take.
Forget the league position in the top half of the table or the memories of this season’s victories over Manchester United and Chelsea, Newcastle are in the grip of a crisis that threatens to have far-reaching repercussions on Tyneside.
It won’t result in relegation – even a side as bereft of confidence and quality as the current Newcastle one are capable of picking up the three or four points they probably need to guarantee their safety between now and the middle of May – but it could account for Alan Pardew and it has already deepened the chasm that divides the rank and file support from the club’s recalcitrant owner, Mike Ashley.
That divide is currently wider than ever, although whether that makes meaningful change more or less likely is a moot point.
There is anecdotal evidence of supporters cancelling season tickets and direct debit payments, and there is talk of an organised stay-away from the televised home game with Aston Villa a week on Sunday.
The language of finance appears to be the only one that Ashley understands, so perhaps a drop in revenue will be the prompt he requires to enact meaningful change. Given the vast increases in television income that have already been banked this season, however, it could be a case of too little, too late.
Apathy rather than anger is the prevailing sentiment, driven in no small part by the fact that we’ve all been here before. Towards the end of last season, Newcastle followed a 3-0 defeat to Sunderland at St James’ with a 6-0 home humiliation at the hands of Liverpool.
It felt like the beginning of the end for the current regime, but proved little more than a hump in the road. Utterly unconcerned by the mood of his club’s supporters, Ashley is perfectly willing to ride out storms like this provided the bottom line remains reasonably constant.
That is good news for Pardew, whose position has been questioned by a growing proportion of the home support, even if large-scale animosity has been conspicuous largely by its absence.
A number of supporters appear to feel that Pardew has taken Newcastle as far as he can, although plenty more are understandably dubious of who would replace the current boss if he was to be jettisoned.
Unless Ashley abandoned all of his business principles, it wouldn’t be someone prepared to challenge the owner and rock the boat. Yet more jobs for the boys? A return for Dennis Wise perhaps? Little wonder some have concluded, ‘Better the devil you know’.
That said, however, the current situation cannot be tenable for much longer. Even in the madcap world of Newcastle United, a club cannot fail to score in seven of their last eight league games and continue as if nothing has happened.
Four of the Magpies’ next five matches are against teams in the bottom half of the table, and Pardew’s task in the next ten days is to generate some energy and pride in a group of players who appear to have downed tools.
In his press conference at the start of the week, and programme notes ahead of Wednesday’s game, Pardew bridled against suggestions that Newcastle’s season is over.
“An insult,” he concluded. Well, the real insult was the lack of a performance on Wednesday night, and having been forced to concede that his players “looked unconfident and a bit unsure of what they were doing”, Pardew has accepted that something has to change.
Initially, that will be personnel, with Fabricio Coloccini, Cheik Tiote and Loic Remy due to return for the Villa game, but it will also have to be a change in mindset given the lack of anything tangible to play for in the final three months of the season.
By failing to prioritise the cup competitions, Newcastle have dug themselves into a hole whereby their remaining matches are of limited significance. Southampton are in a similar position in terms of the league table, but with an ongoing FA Cup run to energise them, it is no coincidence that the Saints are unbeaten in their last eight matches. That is what a cup run can do for you.
Newcastle don’t have that to inspire them, so Pardew will have to find another way of his motivating his squad. Merely appealing to their professionalism hasn’t worked so far, so a different tack is clearly required.
It will not be an easy task, but even taking Ashley’s unpredictability into account, it could be the key to Pardew saving his job. Avoiding relegation last season turned into a struggle; salvaging anything from the wreckage of the current campaign will be just as tough.
AMID the ongoing Kevin Pietersen fiasco, it’s been difficult to know who should shoulder the blame for the fiasco that is embroiling English cricket.
Pietersen? The rest of the squad? The former four-day coach, Andy Flower, or the one-day coach, Ashley Giles? James Whitaker, the chairman of selectors? Paul Downton, the ECB’s new managing director?
The cast list is just about endless, and if one thing has become glaringly apparent from the latest mess it is that power is dispersed into far too many hands and therefore responsibility is easy to abrogate as a result.
At the moment, a panel of selectors selects the squad for a game, the head coach and captain get together to pick the starting line-up, and the ECB hierarchy appoint all the relevant figures to their positions.
It is far too convoluted a system, and in the future, it would be surely be better for the head coach to have much more power concentrated in his hands. He should certainly be selecting the squad, rendering the current panel of supposedly independent selectors redundant.
As Flower’s experiences have proved, a head coach ultimately stands or falls by the performances of the players on the field. So the very least he deserves is to be able to pick or drop who he wants without interference from elsewhere.
Would that have saved Pietersen? Given his explosive relationship with Flower and a number of his team-mates, possibly not? But at least the identity of the person making the call would be clear and they would be accountable for that decision in the future.
CHAMP OF THE WEEK
Who knew snowboarding could be so exciting? The Bristol boarder had the nation on their edge of their seats as she finished third in the slopestyle event at the Winter Olympics and claimed Britain’s first ever medal on snow. Her emotional reunion with her parents only added to her charm.
CHUMP OF THE WEEK
Yes, Phil Bardsley played the Sunderland defender into trouble. But Brown’s third-minute challenge on Shane Long on Saturday was still unnecessarily reckless and effectively ended his side’s hopes of a win over Hull. For all his qualities, Brown’s judgement occasionally leaves a lot to be desired.
PERFORMANCE OF THE WEEK
ENGLAND vs SCOTLAND
Most of the assessments of Saturday’s Calcutta Cup encounter have focused on Scotland’s failings, but England still had to beat them, and by racking up a 20-0 scoreline at Murrayfield, Stuart Lancaster’s side underlined how far they have come in the last couple of seasons. Next weekend’s home game with an unbeaten Ireland will be one of the highlights of the Six Nations.
BET OF THE WEEKEND
Another disappointment I’m afraid as Far West came crashing down at the final fence, just as he looked like landing each-way odds of 10-1 in the Betfair Hurdle. We’re still in profit though, so follow @scottwilsonecho on Twitter or log on to The Northern Echo’s website on Saturday morning to follow this weekend’s charity selection. Running total: +£6.00