I feel like I’m repeating myself a bit here, but sometimes it’s the hope that really hurts. For me and anyone roundabout my age, it’s been pretty much a life trick.
I was 12 years old when Kevin Keegan took over as Newcastle United manager, almost perfect timing. In the teenage years that followed (going regularly with mates from school, first away game etc) Newcastle United were bloody good. Good to watch, good at winning, ambitious on all fronts, it was brilliant, seems like something from a different age now.
Alright we never won anything, but it wasn’t through lack of trying. Every season brought the same level of hope and excitement and surely it was only a matter of time before we took away a big prize.
Of course, the dreams all turned to dust and here we are. It is through the retrospective view of that magnificent era that a strange memory resurfaced for me in recent months…
Every season in the early Premier League, there were two clubs that annoyed me intensely; Coventry City and Southampton. Every year without fail, both these teams would threaten to get relegated but somehow manage to extract themselves from the mess, condemning some other poor sods in their stead.
In fairness to Coventry, they would at least regularly roll over when faced with Newcastle and one of their last ditch escapes was at the expense of the mackems, but Southampton were a colossal pain in the arse.
Our annual defeat at the Dell, coupled with a couple of unlikely turnovers at St James, were probably factors in our failure to clinch one of those elusive championships.
While all this was going on, I would think ‘what must it be like supporting one of these teams?’ There is never any realistic ambition, never any notable contribution to the league’s appeal but still they cling on like a pair of unwelcome barnacles on the bottom of the Premier League. What must it be like to support these teams going into another season of largely negative results to just do the bare minimum to loiter for another year, to simply exist as a top flight team.
Fast forward two decades and I give you Newcastle United and Sunderland.
The behaviour of the North East’s big clubs over the course of recent years has represented everything I pitied and resented about those two nineties strugglers. Bimbling between 15th and 19th place but consistently escaping via the mantra that there are always three worse teams, adding little other than being comedy victims of other teams’ big wins or spoiling it for someone else with a few unlikely upset victories. The existential status of clubs with a combined average attendance of close to 100,000 is as miserable as it is unfathomable.
This season, of course, will be different. Barring a stunning collapse by Crystal Palace that will include a shift in goal difference of 17, someone will not weasel out of this one.
Relegation is coming to Tyne & Wear and the agony of finding out exactly whose soul it claims, is making this season end insufferably drawn out.
Whoever suffers this demotion can’t say they haven’t had it coming. Other than regular away travellers who may enjoy the trip to Newcastle, I can’t see many in the Premier League missing us/them, same as I didn’t miss Southampton or Coventry when they finally succumbed.
Except, we’re not going to be like that any more. For the first time in years there is some semblance of hope for the future as we have stumbled into a top manager who, it seems, will be given the chance to manage properly. If we can slip out of this mess and Rafa rebuilds this squad, I would argue that the very least we can hope for next season is no relegation battle.
If we fail to escape (which we are still favourites to do), then I fear all hope is gone. Rafa can quite reasonably claim to have done an admirable rescue job, but the mire McClaren had left us in was too much to salvage. It cannot reasonably be viewed as his failure and there will be no shortage of suitors in Europe’s top leagues, or even internationally following the Euros.
If he did commit to getting us out of the Championship and didn’t manage to, this would be without question his failure, and failure in the second tier of English football would be far more likely to put off these suitors.
I don’t like it, but Rafa will go, his replacement will be drawn out and inadequate and we will be faced with the unpalatable choice of being under-resourced for the season ahead or getting further into hock with Mike Ashley to ensure a bounce back.
Conversely, given Norwich’s tricky run-in, I suspect it will be Sunderland that grab the remaining Premier League place, and instead launch that brave assault on the upper echelons of the table, forming an identity and presence that adds to the league considerably.
Except of course they won’t. Sunderland have actually been at this demotion-dodging for a lot longer than us, given that we’ve actually had a year down there and competed in Europe in the time where they’ve been consistently occupying the bottom 25%.
They will continue to do this, boring the league with Allardyce football and overhauling less-deserving teams in the latter stages. Of course they won’t care, as our likely demise will entertain the SAFC fans far more than whatever occurs on Wearside.
I often wonder if there will ever again be a time like the Keegan era, where we are relevant at the right end of the table and games are an exhilarating event, rather than a chore and/or an embarrassment. The next 3 weeks could go some way towards providing an answer.
Follow Jamie on Twitter @Mr_Dolf