THE world always looks a better place at Christmas time, and certainly the world looked rosier for Newcastle United fans on the holiday.
Victory over Stoke City the day after Christmas was a contender for one of the fine performances of the season at that moment for black-and-white supporters. A first half of the season had seen plenty of them, such as a brilliant scrap to a 2-2 draw with Liverpool, and superb wins over Chelsea, Spurs and Manchester United – ending a 41 year winless run at Old Trafford in the case of the latter.
Fast forward to the next major holiday of Easter and in intervening 4 months, everything has imploded.
Since that Stoke game, Newcastle have only won 4 Premier League games, were knocked out of the FA Cup in Round 3 by Premier League strugglers Cardiff City, have seen their manager ‘headbutt’ an opponent and have embarked on some of the worst form in the club’s 122 year history.
Defeat by Swansea City on Easter Saturday was the team’s 5th Premier League defeat in a row – the first time the club has lost 5 consecutive league matches since 1992. At the time, the club was struggling to avoid relegation from the second tier.
This season is certainly an improvement both on that, and is also improvement on last season, where depressing and continuously poor performances almost yielded relegation.
There is no mathematical danger of 2013-14 ending in demotion for the Tynesiders, who have not been lower than 9th since the win over Chelsea in November.
But that run is under threat after woefully inept form has left the club slowly sliding down the league. Its only thanks to the late blossoming of form by Stoke City and a resurgent Crystal Palace that Newcastle’s top 10 position has not been under any real threat until now.
So, what has gone wrong?
The generally accepted view is that the team have not adequately replaced midfielder Yohan Cabaye and missed Loic Remy, who has most of 2014 so far with injury and suspension.
Cabaye departed in late January for Paris Saint-Germain – one fan rumour is that he left below market value after former Director of Football Joe Kinnear couldn’t tell the difference between a pound and a Euro sign. The first game after saw a tactic like the one with Cabaye almost get a win at Norwich but for some cock-eyed finishing, but since then, continually shifting tactics and personnel has compromised Newcastle’s performances.
Injuries have not helped – not quite the 10 injuries manager Alan Pardew claimed after defeat by Stoke – but the formational inconsistency has been particularly troubling.
In recent weeks, players have been shoehorned into all manner of bizarre formations that have all yielded no reward. At times against Swansea, the whole team appeared to be out of formation, with it shifting all over the place during a confusing first-half.
This tactical confusion has also been coupled to a total lack of attacking initiative. Most fans have coined the concept of players losing their attacking abilities as being “Pardewed”, with the likes of Papiss Cisse, Hatem Ben Arfa, Sylvain Marveux, Sammy Ameobi, Moussa Sissoko and Yoann Gouffran all shorn of attacking innovation they had shown earlier in their Newcastle careers.
Much as losing players with the world-class quality of Cabaye and Remy would hurt all teams, the complete stifling of all other options has left fans withering and scathing at the management.
This is before we get to the manager himself. In this spectacular losing run he has been watching from up in the stands or from his office at the club’s training ground, as part of a combined stadium and touchline ban for his incident at Hull in March when he headbutted David Meyler.
His post-match press conferences are an amazing exercise in PR rubbish. He continually blames everything apart from his poor tactics and team selection, and evades the fact the dressing room no longer seems allied behind him, which has been evidenced by post-match dressing room arguments with players after recent games.
With the forever unpopular Mike Ashley still unwillingly running the show on Tyneside, Pardew is likely to remain despite fan unpopularity inexorably rising on social media, and terraces beginning to show disgust and protest.
While some pundits think picking on the man is wrong, there is evidence things are reaching a decline in the black-and-white stripes, and action has to be taken to avoid following the lead of West Bromwich Albion. Last season, a Baggies team reliant on a loan player finished in the top 10 after being in the top 6 at Christmas time, and they now find themselves struggling to avoid the relegation dogfight.
But despite this, the Newcastle United playing squad continue to exude the air of a squad that has given up, and unless something changes, next season could continue this depressing momentum to somewhere much darker.