How did it come to this? Again.
On April 9th 2012, Hatem Ben Arfa’s masterful solo effort delighted St James’ Park and set Newcastle United on their way to a fifth successive league victory to move the sleeping giants level on points in the race for the fourth and final Champions League spot.
Four years on, to the day, and Andros Townsend scored an outstanding goal of his own, but on this occasion it was not to the delight of the Toon Army faithful. Perhaps because their ten plus hour round trip from St James’ to St Mary’s was ultimately to endure yet another 90 minutes of inept, gutless and heartless ‘football’, as their anti-heroes slumped to a 3-1 defeat at the hands of Southampton.
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Six points adrift with as many games remaining, beating the drop should not be beyond the realms of possibility, but for this group of players, survival seems – much like the journey back to the North East from the South coast – a million miles away.
Alan Pardew’s class of 2012 fell agonisingly short in their remarkable chase for Champions League qualification, losing three of their last four games and missing out on the final day, but the Toon, who were fighting their way out of the Championship just two years earlier, were back.
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Ben Arfa, alongside French international teammate Yohan Cabaye and 16-goal centre-forward Demba Ba, looked set to spearhead the Magpies’ latest attempt to interrupt London and Manchester’s Premier League supremacy.
If the club was a sleeping giant then, it is in a coma now. The freefall started that very summer.
With their trio of Champions League quality stars and, at the time, Britain’s 36th wealthiest individual running the club, now was the time to invest, as Sir John Hall had in the nineties, and bring back the glory days to the success-starved club.
But instead, Mike Ashley dusted the cobwebs from his chequebook just once, adding a solitary first-team signing to an already stretched squad.
Momentum was lost, Ba, Cabye and Ben Arfa were cashed in on and not replaced and two relegation fights sandwiched a mid-table finish over the next three seasons.
That brings us to here. 19th in the table, one point from their last seven outings, poised for an all too soon return to the second tier.
Money Has Been Spent
The national media nauseously gushed as Ashley took the season’s spending beyond the £80 million mark in January, but what was not often mentioned was that only £60 million had been spent over the previous three seasons combined – with £50 million coming back from the sales of the ‘assets’ that put Newcastle back in a position to mix it with the league’s elite.
A net spend of £10 million over three years is more fitting of a club happy to hang on for their Premier League lives each spring. So why is there such dismay at being in this desperate position? Because there has been money to spend, but the club has been reactive, rather than proactive with its spending.
The mentality has been to spend as little as possible, hope that one or two of the bargain buys surprise and have enough quality to pick up some points (before they are sold at a profit), and then pray that there are at least three teams that are even more useless.
How the money has been spent has been equally poorly thought out. Attacking midfielders Ayoze Perez, Siem De Jong, Remy Cabella (already away on loan at Marseille with seemingly little intention of ever returning), Georginio Wijnaldum, Florian Thauvin (also in sunny Marseille with as stronger desire as Cabella to come back across the Channel) and Townsend have all been brought in for big money. However, none are so outstanding that they can consistently produce the goods to hide the glaring deficiencies at the back.
Despite the heroic efforts of stand-in goalkeeper Rob Elliot for much of the season, the Newcastle net has been rippled on 61 occasions so far this campaign. This is the result of having a poorly equipped back-line with Daryl Janmaat the only player looking capable of performing in the Premier League consistently.
Club captain Fabricio Coloccini is long past his best, local lads Steven Taylor and Paul Dummett obviously have the club in their hearts, but the harsh reality is that they are just not good enough at this level, whilst youngsters Chancel Mbemba, Jamaal Lascelles and Massadio Haidara are not good enough yet and may never be.
The mess off the field has left new manager Rafael Benitez with this mess of a backline on it and even the Champions League winning coach will not be able to clean it up before it is too late.
What has gone wrong at Newcastle United in the past four years? Have YOUR say in the comment section below!