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Opinion

Toon on the edge of darkness

4 weeks ago
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There it was this morning, a solitary magpie, perched in a tree a few yards from my mother’s kitchen window.

Was that an omen, with the Mags scheduled next weekend to face the Seagulls (of which there are too many to count circling over Hove Park as I write)?

Yes, that’s the Hove Park as in Brighton and Hove Albion, who look increasingly likely to be our biggest rivals in the relegation dogfight. And talking of dogfights, you get a few of them in the park, certainly more fight than I’ve seen from some of the Newcastle United midfielders at St James Park in recent times.

Sorry for the rambling start; I think a trick cyclist would suggest I’m refusing to face the issue head-on. And that issue is, to paraphrase Bruce Springsteen, the darkness on the edge of Toon.

Perhaps that should be: Toon on the edge of darkness, which they “most definitely are” (copyright Mark Lawrenson) with only 10 matches remaining in which to preserve their Premier League status. I almost wrote “elite status” but that would “most definitely” (copyright Lawro) be over-egging the cake, gilding the lily and essentially indulging in blackly hilarious hyperbole.

From the perspective of this self-exiled Mag who headed to London in search of success more than 40 years ago, Newcastle United have not enjoyed elite status since 2003. If a year is a long time in politics, 18 years equate to a lifetime of underachievement since I stood in the decrepit San Siro and saw Bobby Robson’s team play Internazionale off the pitch in the first half. Yes, 18 years of underachievement . . . but enough about me.

What I’ve witnessed while Steve Bruce has been the nominal boss is so remote from the football overseen by Sir Bobby as to be barely recognisable. The definition of a great manager is somebody, anybody, please, with the ability to make a team greater than the sum of the parts, to inspire players to be better than they thought possible, to challenge preconceptions, defy the odds, make second-raters into overachievers.

We all know some of the men who went toe to toe with Inter in the Giuseppe Meazza Stadium on that March night in 2003 were not great footballers. The keeper was a given, Shay Given. But a back four of Andy Griffin, Andy O’Brien, Titus Bramble and Olivier Bernard was unlikely to inspire confidence among their mums, never mind among the countless thousands of away fans populating the lower section of the Curva Sud, above which were positioned some deeply unpleasant Inter ultras. No, the defence was “most definitely” (copyright Lawro) less than watertight. In midfield and attack, however, we lined up with Jermaine Jenas, Nobby Solano, Gary Speed (RIP), Alan Shearer, Craig Bellamy and Laurent Robert. In nearly 50 years of supporting United, I cannot recall a superior front six. Each one, on his day, an ace in the pack.

Our heroes went in for their half-time oranges one up (Shearer) but in the so-called all-seater stadium — in reality, bits of wood bolted into concrete terracing — amid the feeling of pride was the strong suspicion that this was unsustainable. Now that’s a word I’ve heard again this season, though in a rather different context. Eighteen years ago, for 45 minutes we had made Inter look like a bunch of pub footballers. But we had scored only once. In the end, despite a second by Shearer to give us the advantage again after Christian Vieri equalised, we gained nothing more than an honourable 2-2 draw.

Many Geordies left Milan with a feeling of “what if?”. What if the match officials had been unbiased, what if Vieri hadn’t scored just after half-time, what if our superiority before the break had yielded more than one goal. And what if the late, great Gary Speed had buried that back-post header in the final minutes rather than powering the ball inches wide of the net. Remembering that incident as if it were yesterday also reminds me that football is only a game. It’s not a matter of life and death, thank goodness.

Yes, that night was unsustainable, because dreams die young. While it lasted, it was glorious. This season’s early victories were unsustainable for quite different reasons. Wins and draws were picked up by living off scraps: nearly every shot or header on target hit the net; Karl Darlow continually our man of the match; opponents missing open goals; referees and VAR coming to our rescue. We all knew that was unsustainable and so it has proved.

While dreams die young, nightmares tend to linger like a summer haar over Cullercoats. You can never be sure when the sky will turn from battleship grey to duck-egg blue.

The current owner, aided and abetted by a series of disreputable patsies, is responsible for a calamitous decline in the club’s fortunes. Where this will end is open to conjecture, though anyone dismissing the likelihood of a prolonged stay in the lower divisions should cast their eyes only a few miles southeast, to a small club on Wearside. That’s why I fear the Toon are on the edge of darkness.

The immediate concern for Newcastle United is Brighton at the Amex on Saturday. Win that and we might just survive in the Premier League for another dire season. Not the most enticing prospect. But lose to the Seagulls . . . the bookies would make us odds-on for the drop. And you rarely meet an impoverished bookmaker.

An awful lot of what we have witnessed under Ashley and, lately, Bruce is unsustainable. The “training centre” is a sick joke. The coaching is sub-standard. The tactics are more outdated than a VHS videotape and far less entertaining. While professing to send out his players to win every match (don’t make me laugh!) Bruce adopts an approach more negative than Didi Hamann screaming “nein, nein, nein.”

The recruitment “policy” is more baffling than the Enigma Code. Perhaps that would explain how we paid in excess of £40m for an export from Germany that appears to be the first known example of a Brazilian forward with no nose for goal. Something must have been lost in transcription.

Compare that 2003 line-up (from which Woodgate was a notable absentee because of injury) with the starting XI this season and you will see how far the mighty have fallen. Even if we beat Brighton, the 31 points from 29 games might prove the high watermark. A team struggling to score at one end while failing to keep clean sheets at the other cannot be expected to win against Spurs, Burnley, West Ham, Liverpool, Arsenal, Leicester or Man City. Anything more than one point from those seven fixtures would be a welcome surprise; “most definitely” (thanks, Lawro). Which takes us to the final two fixtures of the season: Sheffield United at home, then Fulham away.

Relegated teams love to drag others down with them. Even with a new manager, the Blades will almost certainly be too far adrift by mid-May to escape. When facing a condemned man, beware the death throes . . . especially the long throws. One thing Sheffield United have in abundance is big men with the ability to cause trouble in the opposition penalty area. Covid permitting, 10,000 spectators will be allowed in. I wonder how many will secrete a cabbage, or at least a brussels sprout, about their person. In the good old days, some local evening newspapers printed a Saturday sports edition known as the Green ‘Un. They would never have guessed that in the internet age, the match report would feature vegetables from the brassica family.

Let’s banish that thought and believe we will beat Sheffield United. Optimistically, that would give us 35 points as we head to Craven Cottage. Two long, long seasons ago, Fulham away was the last match of the season. It was also the final game in charge for Rafa Benitez. And the first game since Scott Parker had progressed from caretaker to “permanent” manager. We won 4-0. With Bruce desperate to show he can better the achievements of his predecessor at Newcastle United, what could possibly go wrong?

In the words of The Boss, I fear we’ll be going “down, down, down”. Our Bruce couldn’t even get a tune out of the E Street Band. He has 10 matches in which to confound his critics and make Newcastle United play something tolerable.

Otherwise, darkness beckons.

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