When the seeds of Newcastle United failure were sown
For season after season Newcastle United have been struggling in the bottom half of the Premier League, with the fifth-place finish in 2012 now almost forgotten.
We all know the one constant in these years of failure is the owner, who has presided over a less-than-merry go round of players, coaches, managers, sponsors and even stadium names.
Sadly for diehard fans, that one constant has promised to stay “until we win something”. Because the check list in the Sky TV interview he gave before the West Ham game last May didn’t include what old-school supporters call Division Two, we have to assume Mr Michael Ashley is in for the long run.
He has shown an almost incredible ability to learn nothing from his mistakes, as shown by the second coming of JFK, the unfair employment treatment meted out to Keegan and Gutierrez, the repeated recruitment of “cheap” foreign footballers who end up costing millions in fees, salaries and subsequent sales or free transfers, the appointment of unqualified directors.
Whoever said the first lesson of history is that errors are made time after time must have met Ashley in a previous life.
All of which offers few grounds for optimism as one season drags towards its angst-laden finale and another is due to start in little more than three months. But perhaps, for once, our malignant owner might look back to last summer and take stock.
The pre-season shambles of a meaningless American tour, with matches played against sub-standard opposition on pitches more likely to cause injury than sharpen fitness, set the tone for an appalling start to McClaren’s Premier League campaign. With only three games remaining: the team, the club, the supporters are still paying the price for that bonkers trip.
Compare Newcastle’s pre-season with the work Tottenham did. In an interview with The Daily Telegraph last week Kyle Walker, the full-back likely to play for England at the Euros in June, said the players loathed the training regime prescribed by their manager.
“I’m not going to lie, at the start it was horrible. Horrible. When you reach the first team as a professional, it’s kind of like, ‘If you want go and do gym, do gym. If you don’t, you don’t have to’. But when he [Pochettino] came in [from Southampton in 2014], gym was compulsory.”
Remember, Walker is no one-dimensional puritan of a professional sportsman. Days before playing for his country in September 2013 he was pictured apparently inhaling laughing gas from a balloon earlier that year in a Sheffield nightclub.
You could say he plays hard on and off the pitch. And he is sensible enough to recognise the benefits of Pochettino’s methods.
Last summer Walker and his teammates pushed themselves to the limit. They are now reaping the benefits. “We’ve got four games left and we’re still running almost every other team off the pitch,” Walker said. “The only team close to us, if I remember correctly, is Bournemouth.
“That’s what I meant about doing the basics right. We can all play football, but one of the basics of this game is that you need to run about and work for each other. That’s what’s pushed us on to the next level. Now, if he says, ‘Do a gym session in the afternoon’, it’s a normal thing. We just get on and do it.”
Football being a funny old game, the last time Newcastle won an away game in the Premier League was . . . at White Hart Lane, against a strangely underperforming Tottenham. And the away win before that was at Bournemouth, when we were run ragged by the new boys.
But those two results cannot obscure the reality that hard work brings its rewards. Or that we have won precisely two matches on the Premier League road this season.
Just look at the table for confirmation. Bournemouth were almost every pundit’s favourites to be relegated before a ball was kicked last August. They secured their elite status weeks ago, overcoming a series of long-term injuries to their most valuable players while producing a decent amount of good football.
And Spurs are still in with a shout of the title, reviving a style not seen for 20 years and the pomp of Keegan’s Entertainers. Meanwhile, we’re belatedly fighting tooth and nail to save our place at the top table, with a proper manager in charge for the first time since goodness knows when.
Most Newcastle United fans believe we would never have been in these dire straits if Benitez had got the gig in January, when the writing was on the wall and the only man refusing to read it was Ashley. No good crying over spilt milk.
All we can do now is hope: hope the Rafalution saves us on May 15. And hope the next pre-season sows the seeds of success rather than the seeds of failure.
Like most men, footballers are happy to coast if given that option. We can all name the men in black-and-white stripes who have sweated blood for the cause these past few months. And we can all name those who have taken the easy option. Benitez has proved already he cares nothing for big reputations. Anyone found slacking on his watch has been warned: he’s got your number.
What we need now is for the man from Madrid to make Tyneside his home and make the players fit for purpose. Strangers things have happened . . .
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