Welcome to the Virgin Media Midweek Kick-off! With Leicester now champions, we’ve turned our focus to the bottom of the table. So, we asked sports writers Patrick Smith and Matt Blake if top-flight stalwarts Newcastle United are actually destined to go down this season.
YES! They’ve run out of time
“Newcastle are going down like a badger kicked off a crane” – Matt Blake, sports writer, Virgin Media
They deserve to go down
Newcastle are languishing in 17th place in the Barclays Premier League with just two games left to go. They've got Villa away, which they should win, and Spurs at home, which they shouldn't. Not only that, but Sunderland and Norwich are one and two points behind them respectively, each with a game in hand. It doesn't look good for The Magpies – and they've only themselves to blame. Over the entire season, they have enjoyed just 48% of possession, scored an average of 1.08 goals a game, while conceding 1.78. But the most telling stat is that they've only won eight games all season – 22% of all their matches. Are they staying up? No, they're going down like a badger kicked off a tower crane.
Management has messed it up
While there is no doubting Newcastle’s pedigree as a great club with even greater fans, they've been plagued by managerial merry-go-rounds and failed transfers. Going through three managers in the space of a year can't have left the players with much of a sense of direction. Because footballers – like children – need stability to grow. And as far as the transfer policy goes, the boardroom's blanket focus on buying players who are under-24 and “on the way up” rather than looking to boost firepower up front has cost them. They'll presumably change this policy when they realise no one who's “on-the-way-up” wants to join a club that's “on the way down”. But by then it’ll be too late.
They've lost their team spirit
Shortly after losing 5-1 to Chelsea in February, Steve McClaren described Newcastle as “the most frustrating team I've worked with”. While they haven't imploded quite so spectacularly as rock-bottom Aston Villa, Newcastle's players haven't seemed to enjoy themselves this season. They don’t look like they even want to be together, let alone play or survive together. While Leicester City have dealt with the most high-pressure season in their history, we’ve still seen them having a laugh as they warm up... until the whistle goes, that is, and it's back to business. I can't imagine the Newcastle squad getting the bus home together after a win, let alone going for pizza.
Sunderland have Big Sam
No one likes to see the death of a local derby, but when it happens, you have to choose. And I choose Sunderland because they’ve got Sam Allardyce. Big Sam’s the dogfight king. While he’s no stranger to the bottom of the table, he has never been relegated. His physical, pragmatic style of play is what a team in Sunderland’s position needs. It may not be pretty, but it’s powerful and could prove enough to tip Newcastle over the edge.
Stats don't lie
Here's a stat no Newcastle fan wants to hear: of the 35 different clubs to have been relegated from the Barclays Premier League since its inception, 24 are yet to win promotion back. If Newcastle do go down, what usually happens will happen: their best players will jump ship along with the multimillion-pound TV bonuses that come with top-flight football. When that happens, they'll be left with nothing much more than a 52,000-seater advertisement for Sports Direct. True, they've bounced back once before, but how many times do they want to test the numbers?
NO! They’re here to stay
“Rafa has inspired the city and hopes of survival are high” – Lifelong Newcastle fan Patrick Smith, writer, Daily Telegraph
They've found form at the right time
Football fans are all too familiar with the saying, "It's the hope that kills you." And as a Newcastle United fan of 23 years, I know it better than most. Two months ago, I'd written them off. Heartless and lacklustre on the pitch, farcical off it, Steve McClaren's band of mercenaries certainly didn't fall into the fabled "too good to go down" category. But then something happened: they sacked McClaren and replaced him with the mighty Rafa Benitez. Suddenly a sense of optimism began to pervade St James' Park. It took a while, but the team has found form at the right time. Unbeaten in four, Newcastle are now out of the drop zone for the first time since February.
Newcastle have the more winnable remaining fixtures
Yes, Sunderland and Norwich both have a game in hand. But consider Newcastle's remaining matches: away at already-relegated Aston Villa, and home to Spurs, who now have nothing to play for. Sunderland and Norwich, on the other hand, have gruelling games on Saturday – against Chelsea and Manchester United respectively. If Newcastle beat Villa next weekend and Norwich and Sunderland lose, Benitez's side will find themselves four points clear of the relegation zone.
In Rafa we trust
He's the only manager in history to have won the Uefa Cup, UEFA Super Cup, Champions League and the FIFA Club World Cup. And only a couple of months ago he was in charge of such galácticos as Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale at Real Madrid. So how on earth is this Spanish maestro now in charge of a club in seemingly inexorable decline? Yes, he's being paid mega bucks, and yes, there's a relegation clause. But the fact remains: Newcastle pulled off a major coup here. And the fans will certainly be buoyed by his record against Spurs, Newcastle's final-day opponents: in 15 matches against them (14 with Liverpool, one with Chelsea), he's only lost three times.
The Toon Army has found its voice
Some say that Newcastle have delusions of grandeur; that their fans manically demand trophies. It's a load of codswallop; we'd be happy with some stability. Anyway, you only need to have heard the decibel-splitting cacophony at St James' Park on Saturday to know that the Toon Army are 100 per cent behind the players. Rafa has inspired the city, and hopes of survival are high again among the Geordie faithful.
If Newcastle do go down, they'll bounce back
Newcastle's relegation in 2009 was a solar-plexus knockout to fans who, only 13 years earlier, had seen their side come within a whisker of winning the league. Luckily, though, the following year, Chris Hughton's Newcastle were so imbued with grit and determination that they bounced straight back. Sure, if they go down again, they'll likely lose Rafa and much of their arsenal: Gini Wijnaldum, Moussa Sissoko, Andros Townsend. But you'd also expect them to keep hold of Rob Elliot, the promising Jamaal Lascelles, England international Jonjo Shelvey and striker Aleksandar Mitrović. That's an impressive spine to the team. Then again, they're not really going down, are they?
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