Newcastle manager Steve McClaren is a relentlessly positive man. He’s one of the few managers who could look at a deserved 2-1 defeat at Watford and insist that “we won’t have a problem [staying up] if we keep performing like that every week.”
McClaren is obviously trying to put an optimistic spin in what is an extremely perilous position for Newcastle, occupying one of the Premier League relegation spots as they now do, but it also leads to accusations that McClaren is not fully aware or facing up to the fact that relegation is a distinct possibility.
Surely the most frustrating aspect of this season for the Newcastle fans is that on their day, both the players and McClaren have shown that they are capable of getting results. They’ve beaten West Ham, Liverpool and Tottenham as well as drawing with Manchester United (twice) and Chelsea, so it’s not as if this team is a collection of no-hopers incapable of playing to a relatively high standard.
And therein might lie part of the problem.
Those results have led the wider footballing media to insist that this side is, for want of a better phrase, “too good to go down.” If they really were too good to go down they wouldn’t still be 18th heading into February.
Let’s not forget we’ve been here before with Newcastle.
In 2009 a team containing the likes of Damien Duff, Michael Owen and Obafemi Martins went down, so let’s not pretend that it’s impossible.
As much as that season was an utter omnishambles (featuring the Joe Kinnear comeback that nobody asked for), people would do well to look at that, or even the relegated West Ham side of 2003 containing Paolo Di Canio, Joe Cole, Michael Carrick and Jermain Defoe, as cautionary tales for when simply having good players is not enough to ensure survival.
This might be the best squad Newcastle have had in five years, but so what? What good is having an assortment of technically gifted international standard players if they have about as much mental strength and confidence as Scooby-Doo?
Their form against the better sides needs to start translating to beating the teams around them.
In fact, if anything, they should be prioritising those relegation six-pointers. Where the opportunity existed to build on beating Liverpool and Tottenham in quick succession in December, they have only won one in seven since – and again that was against sixth placed West Ham. If it came down to beating these three teams or beating Swansea, Sunderland and Aston Villa, they should be choosing the latter option every single time.
With that sort of ridiculous inconsistency plaguing this squad, the manager’s performance has to be called into question. They followed what was easily their best performance of the season in last week’s victory against what is a very good West Ham side with yet another abject display, coupled with a bewildering and unnecessary formation change, at Vicarage Road on Saturday.
It’s a question of leadership.
McClaren isn’t providing that, and they certainly aren’t getting any from captain Fabricio Coloccini, so one wonders where exactly it is supposed to come from – where is the on-pitch general ready to drag his teammates to scrappy wins against the other teams fighting for their lives at the wrong end of the table?
Newcastle, Sunderland and Aston Villa have been circling the drain for years now, but have always been saved by the fact that there always seemed to be three worse sides than them in the division. That luxury doesn’t exist this year; they have been overtaken by the three promoted clubs and without that safety net all that is left is the sobering probability that these are the worst three sides left in the Premier League.
With one week left of the transfer window, there is every indication that Newcastle are going to be busy – though their choice of targets should cause a bit of concern.
Andros Townsend and Saido Berahino appear to be the primary targets; the former has a reputation that far outweighs his actual ability, while the latter, prolific as he was for West Brom last season, has something of a monstrous ego for a player who has achieved relatively little.
Those two would be a massive gamble and could potentially torpedo what is already a fragile squad mentality.
They might come to regret not throwing piles of money at Charlie Austin until he finally agreed to move there.
Besides which, there’s a propensity in these situations to believe that money will solve everything. Mike Ashley finally investing in this squad has made them better on paper but the old problems still remain.
Sometimes verging on consistency, but usually only a few games away from complete turmoil – new players, manager, same old Newcastle.