Thursday 9 May 2013

Tempting Fate

Published in The Mag on 13th April 2013

Alan Pardew’s post-match interview after our lucky last-minute defeat of Stoke in early March was a classic example of tempting fate. When asked about Newcastle’s involvement in the relegation battle, he replied: “to be honest, I think we are done” and while Newcastle aren’t quite in a precarious position yet, Pardew is surely wishing that he had kept his mouth shut.

This season has been nothing short of a disaster and the sooner it is over, the better. The old cliché goes that some teams are “too good to go down” and while that may genuinely seem to be the case as far as Newcastle are concerned, it is far from inconceivable that they could find themselves heading back down to the Championship by the time the final whistle blows after the Arsenal match on 19th May.

To be fair to Pardew, most of our defeats this season have been due to a lack of quality rather than a lack of effort and the level of performance, while not yielding many points, seems to suggest that he retains the trust of the players. Although, it is somewhat concerning that our meekest and most dispirited surrender so far this season came in our last league outing, against Man City, and hopefully it was just a blip rather than an ominous sign of things to come. While nobody realistically expected us to beat Man City in their own back yard and there were arguably mitigating circumstances for our defeat to Wigan, those two defeats have dragged us right back into the relegation scrap and arguably in an even worse situation than we found ourselves in when Reading had just left St James’ Park with all three points back in January.

However, while the spirit in the camp remains high, one battle that Pardew may well be losing is the one to keep the fans on-side. Despite the obvious toll that their Europa League exploits have taken on his team this season, Pardew’s optimism has grown as they have progressed and he has recently been trying to encourage the fans to believe that Newcastle can go all the way and win it. However, the unfortunate reality is that while progress has been steady, it has also been unconvincing and has come at a significant cost as injuries to Tim Krul, and, in particular, Hatem Ben Arfa, have had a hugely negative impact on our domestic campaign.

Nevertheless, some supporters have said that they would happily swallow the bitter pill that is relegation if winning the Europa League was the spoonful of sugar to help that particular medicine go down – although in recent weeks Newcastle have had the worst of both worlds as the defeat of Anji set up a very tricky tie with Benfica that will, in all likelihood, end the European dream before leaving a dejected Newcastle side facing into an uncomfortable relegation dogfight as the season draws to a close.

While there have been some very good performances and victories since January’s transfer dealings reinvigorated the club and brought new hope following a bleak mid-winter, we are now at the stage of the season where points need to be earned if we are to secure our Premier League status for the next campaign. While the French imports have settled in remarkably well and have undoubtedly raised the overall standard of both our starting XI and the squad in general, a survival scrap is a tough introduction to the Premier League for anybody – regardless of whether they are French internationals or not. Pardew has often shown himself to be tactically naïve and some of his substitutions often leave a lot to be desired (but that’s a discussion for another day). My point is that he is unlikely to have a tactical epiphany that will see everything click into gear and for us to suddenly start putting teams to the sword with decisive mastery – so, with so few games left, confidence will be key if Newcastle are to hold their nerve and ensure survival.

The match against Wigan was a genuine six-pointer that turned the tide in their favour and has given them momentum and confidence going into what has now become a consistently strong part of the season for them. Similarly, the upcoming derby at St James’ Park presents both sides with a massive opportunity to leave the other deeply mired in what Adrian Chiles would call “the brown stuff”.

Until the recent managerial upheaval on Wearside, I had complete faith that Newcastle would confidently sweep Sunderland aside but Martin O’Neill’s sacking has really thrown a cat amongst the pigeons and, despite his success with Swindon, Di Canio remains somewhat of an unknown entity as a manager and it is virtually impossible to predict what effect he will have in the remaining weeks of the season. A victory of any kind would, of course, be one to savour and may well have the added bonus of helping to sink The Good Ship Mackem but it’s vital that Newcastle don’t let the pressure and the emotion of the occasion put them off their stride and leave them vulnerable to yet another smash-and-grab home defeat in a game that they should really win.

Nobody has a God-given right to stay in the Premier League but while Pardew was somewhat premature in saying that Newcastle had pulled clear of trouble, he was right to suggest that his side should have too much quality to spend their weekends worrying about what’s going on below them. Hopefully the last couple of weeks have given both the players and staff the wake-up call they needed to ensure that they finish on a high and set themselves up to challenge at the right end of the table again next season.

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