NEWCASTLE: The unmentionable, what neither the fans nor the new owners dare think about, gets ever nearer for Newcastle United.
And, this time, it feels more self-inflicted than ever.
Eddie Howe’s black and white army — urged on continuously by a vociferous crowd from minute one to minute 90 (+6) at St. James’ Park — showed fight and commitment. Pain, passion, bodies on the line.
They had it all. They even scored, went into the lead — and had a VAR decision go in their favor.
Three points, though? That remains as elusive as ever.
And while they can explain away yet another two points dropped on home turf against a newly promoted struggler, mainly due to Ciaran Clark’s still inexplicable decision-making in his ninth-minute sending off, facts do not lie. This was yet another two points dropped. Yet another game ticked off without a win. Yet another opportunity gone begging.
Howe, in his assessment of the game-altering red, said: “It wasn’t the ideal start to the game, that’s for sure.
“I think that was a really difficult moment so early in the match to be down to 10 men,” he said. “In the cold light of day, I think Ciaran would have taken a different decision, but in that moment (it was) probably an impulse has just made him stop the striker.
“These things happen in the game. My immediate reaction was to not focus on that, it was to figure out very quickly what we had to do and try to find a solution to the problem,” Howe said. “Last thing I wanted to do was take Ryan Fraser off the pitch, but I felt I needed to do that for the team. Fede (Federico Fernandez) came on and I thought he was absolutely magnificent.
“Apologies to Ryan but Fede came in and made a big difference.”
Sadly, stepping into reality for a second here, Newcastle’s opportunities will soon run out. The “R” word has never been so glaringly in focus on Tyneside as it appears this year. Things didn’t get this bad in 2009, nor in 2016, the only two times the Magpies have been relegated from the English Premier League.
Never has a team, in Premier League history, risen from a 14-game winless start to the season to remain in the division a year later. United and Howe will have to write their own little piece of history this campaign if they are to break that record, which has stood for nearly 30 years.
Callum Wilson, United’s newly appointed captain, looked to have lifted the gloom on Tyneside — which now stretches to 15 games in all competitions — with his 61st-minute penalty, awarded after a handball was picked out by VAR. However, a Teemu Pukki volley, with about 12 minutes remaining, punctured what was building into a crescendo at SJP.
That goal, excellently taken by the flying Finn, was everything Irishman Clark deserved, but not one of the teammates he left out there, who to a man ran themselves into the ground for the cause.
Joelinton, Javier Manquillo and Jonjo Shelvey, so often criticized by fans, left their heart and soul out on the park. Fernandez, whose year has been massively impacted by a bout of COVID-19, was imperious.
“I thought the players responded magnificently. They gave everything, I can’t fault any of them for the effort and commitment they’ve given in the match,” said Howe.
“It was hugely disappointing we couldn’t get over the line and win the game, but I think we saw a really positive sign in terms of resilience and collective spirit, which we’re going to need for what lies ahead.”
Barrel loads of positives, yet only one more point on the board. Two less than was needed. Howe’s words, not mine.
The gap at the bottom of the table remains six points, but a late, late Leeds United win against Crystal Palace was another moment that felt like a nail in the coffin.
It now feels like a win against Burnley on Saturday or bust for Newcastle United’s season.
What remains in the afterlife for the Magpies is not set in stone. But their day of reckoning is upon them, it feels. And anything short of three points against the traditionally tough, physical, Sean Dyche-driven Clarets, who sit one place and two points better off than Newcastle ahead of their trip to Wolves on Wednesday night, would surely see a wave of realization sweep the banks of the Tyne, if it hasn’t already. Although a point would feel like an emotional stay of execution in many ways.
Relegation is the word no one wants to utter, but it is staring everyone square in the face.
The releasing of the Mike Ashley shackles, the arrival of the Public Investment Fund and Amanda Staveley with their belief, their understanding and their riches, the binning of the old regime’s neglectful, apologist Steve Bruce and the coming of a manager, Howe, with fresh ideas, impetus and vigor. It was all meant to see change. It was all meant to see a lift. None of it has. Improvement, yes. Three points, no.
And so United flounder. Their worst start in history and then some. Gone are the bounds of Mr. Sports Direct, but the remnants born of his derelict near-15 years in charge live on. This is PIF’s world we now live in, but it too is counting the cost of Ashley’s painful decade and a half. No amount of riches can seemingly save United now, not with January still a long month away.