BY DAVE BLACK
Newcastle United fell to a 1-0 loss at home to Brighton & Hove Albion on Saturday on a day that seemed to confirm Rafa Benitez’s men as relegation candidates. Already in the bottom three before kick-off, this fifth consecutive home loss coupled with Cardiff City’s win over Fulham left the Magpies rooted to the bottom of the table with just 2 points from 9 games.
There are rough statistics being bandied about whichever way you look. Those 5 consecutive home losses make it the worst start to a season at home in the entire history of the club. Failure to win on Saturday at Southampton will make it the worst start overall since 1898 and when you consider the club was only formed in 1892, obviously there’s no positive way to spin that. Optimists have pointed to a rough fixture list which has seen Newcastle face Tottenham Hotspur, Chelsea, Manchester City, Arsenal and Manchester United in 5 of the opening 9 games but Saturday’s defeat came against Brighton rather than one of the behemoths of the Premier League and has set alarm bells ringing.
Twitter is always a fun place after a tough loss. I find myself wading through a mix of knee jerk reactions and doom mongers looking for the occasional sensible head to make me feel better. Some accounts you give more credence to than others, so when well respected writer Dave Morton suggested we needed a miracle to survive, I started looking at road maps to Hull.
Barring a miracle, Newcastle United appear to be heading towards their third relegation in 10 years under Mike Ashley. To put that into perspective, the club were relegated just four times in 117 years before that #nufc
— Dave Morton (@DaveSMorton) October 20, 2018
But is Dave right? With 29 games still to play, it seems a little early to be asking for favours from above.
By that I of course don’t mean the board room. It’s well known that the majority of the blame is being laid at the door of Mike Ashley. Whilst that is justified and plenty of column inches have been devoted to that particular topic and the efforts to oust him, I prefer to focus on matters on the pitch. Is the team we have the worst in the league? Simply, no. Is it capable of getting three more points than Fulham, Huddersfield and Cardiff over the next 29 games? Well, I would certainly hope so.
You only have to rewind a year and look at the Premier League table to make yourself feel better. Crystal Palace had 3 points from their opening 9 games but were 5 points from safety. The Eagles went on to finish 11th. Whilst Newcastle don’t have anybody with the individual brilliance of Wilfried Zaha, we also don’t have to finish 11th. As Benitez put it on Saturday, “We'll just carry on trying to win games and try to find three teams worse than us.”
Even looking closer to home, in 2015 Sunderland found themselves 5 points adrift after 9 games and they went on to survive with a game to spare. Granted, that was at Newcastle’s expense, but that isn’t the point. It was a similar story in 2013 when not only were Sunderland 4 points adrift of safety but Crystal Palace were 5 points shy of 17th. Both stayed up at a canter.
Of course, for every positive spin there’s a Derby County or any of Sunderland’s three relegation seasons since the turn of the century. Sometimes teams are just not good enough to survive in the Premier League, but none of those sides had Rafael Benitez as their manager.
What of Benitez? His quotes at the weekend suggest the aim is purely a 17th place finish. The fact he’s still in the dugout is the real miracle here; why he has stayed on despite every broken promise is beyond me but the minute he gives up will be the time to wave the white flag. Unlike in other relegation seasons there has been a theory that demotion is something of a cleanser and we would come back stronger, but I really don’t think that would be the case this time. Whether this group would be as effective without the manager is a question we will more than likely soon find out the answer to, but how many of them would stick around for another tilt at the Championship, I am not too sure. I also think another relegation would mean even less chance of Ashley selling up as it is pretty much a guaranteed loss for him, which he won’t take.
So far we’ve seen the classic series of events that seem to befall a team in trouble. The only points so far have come from 0-0 draws; there have been several injuries to key players such as Shelvey, Rondon and Lejeune whilst rumours of a fall out between Benitez and captain Lascelles surrounded the home loss to Chelsea. Even when it looked like a positive result was incoming, a 2-0 lead at Old Trafford turned into a 3-2 loss by full time. Saturday’s defeat saw Newcastle rack up 27 attempts without scoring. Whether that is down to a lack of ability or fortune is up for debate.
It is time for Newcastle to start making their own luck though and getting that first win of the season sooner rather than later is imperative. Cross your fingers by all means, but keep the miracle on ice. For now.
FOLLOW DAVE ON TWITTER @cm9798