Full of hope, building expectations and then knocking them down; on the 125th anniversary of Newcastle United’s formation, there could have been no more suitable a performance.
Leicester City arrived at St James’ Park to a backdrop of fondness and celebration; flags were waved and banners held high, but the situation required a tentative approach. Newcastle needed to win, not just for sentimental reasons, but to end a torrid run of six games without one.
In recent times, Newcastle have been one of the more frustrating clubs to follow. Clichés are such for a reason, because everybody uses them and, more often than not, they’re true. Three in particular, though, have not been for the Magpies.
‘Fortune favours the brave’, yet a 52,000-capacity crowd, which turns up week after week, suffered again on Saturday; ‘good things come to those who wait’, yet, in their 125 years of existence, Newcastle have been waiting for a trophy for the last 48; ‘what goes around, comes around’, yet there doesn’t feel like an end to the misery, despite fans deserving just that.
Mike Ashley needs to take the hint
The 3-2 defeat at the hands of the Foxes was cruel, but served to show exactly why Mike Ashley must sell the club; days after he was spotted negotiating a deal over a curry with perspective buyer Amanda Staveley, his hand was weakened.
At one stage, it looked promising; for the second game in succession, Newcastle came out of the blocks at pace. Joselu, a man the home crowd have groaned at for weeks, netted his first goal in over two months after just six minutes, tapping home Dwight Gayle’s cutback.
It was important not to succumb to the same mistakes as they did at Chelsea by easing up. The lack of confidence soon took hold, though, and Leicester took advantage.
Same old problems
Gaping holes emerged in midfield, just like last week, and it played right into the visitors’ hands. They stretched the play, looking for striker Jamie Vardy, who the defence knew would chase anything. Long passes over the top undid Newcastle at Stamford Bridge and they threatened to again.
Instead, it was long shots; Damarai Gray went first, seeing his effort whistle inches wide of a helpless Karl Darlow goal, before Riyad Mahrez hit the jackpot moments later. Neither side kept the ball well, but it was the usually reliable Mikel Merino’s careless pass that led to the equaliser.
In the second half, Gray made it 2-1. Newcastle couldn’t live with the trio behind Vardy, with Marc Albrighton laying off Mahrez’s pinpoint cross-field ball in the build-up. Freeing them up, more than anything, is Claude Puel’s early legacy and it will surely help his side enjoy a fruitful campaign.
If Rafa Benitez doesn’t have a team full of the quality he wants, he certainly has one with the right amount of effort. They won’t stop battling and, like at West Brom a few weeks ago, they clawed their way back in. Gayle has suddenly hit form, which is a huge positive, and he looked to have snatched a point with just shy of 20 minutes left.
Mistakes prove costly, and again, as a perfect metaphor for Newcastle United over the last 125 years, the hope dissolved into disappointment.
Vardy hadn’t been directly involved throughout, but he was a constant nuisance; chasing a late long ball, he pulled the home defence out of shape, allowing substitute Shinji Okazaki the freedom of Tyneside to run through the middle and get one-on-one with Darlow.
A Newcastle change, Ayoze Perez, was able to get back but only to prod the ball into his own net. Heartbreak.
Kevin Keegan is probably the most important man in the club’s modern history, making it all the sadder that neither he, nor record goalscorer Alan Shearer, were in attendance to mark the anniversary.
Mike Ashley’s treatment of the pair shows just how much he has tarnished the club, and as Keegan said, nothing will ever be achieved with him at the helm, before adding that patience would see the fans rewarded by his eventual exit.
Keegan is adored, and Benitez is on a similar path, but his old saying that the public of Newcastle would accept losing if they were entertained by a high-scoring affair could not be seen as true at the weekend, if only because of Mike Ashley’s latest show of negligence and apathy towards them.
The players’ lack of confidence again led to their downfall. Once they let their grip slip in the first half, it was hard to see them regaining it. Doom and gloom will inevitably follow, especially if they fail to beat another in-form, confident side in Everton on Wednesday.
In dire need of rejuvenation
Perhaps Benitez’s team selection was questionable, but Jonjo Shelvey and the returning Christian Atsu and Jamaal Lascelles should start, and that could make the world of difference. The captain will prove pivotal, with 16 goals conceded in six games and the team’s once uncharacteristic openness at the back, late in the game, justifying a quick return.
January can’t come soon enough because whoever owns the club needs to back Benitez. It is in no one’s interests to risk another relegation, and with a sale looking unlikely before the transfer window opens, the responsibility to strengthen may well lie with Mike Ashley.
Dwight Gayle is proving the answer to Benitez’s striker conundrum once again, and he could prove vital. The gap between Newcastle and the bottom three is just two points now, and a tough fixture list means they are limping towards the New Year. Something needs to spark them into life, and soon.