What's gone wrong at Newcastle United?
Newcastle manager Alan Pardew claims club have been exposed by failure to build on last season's momentum and admits they are facing serious problems
The dressing room of a team falling down the Premier League is never one for a faint heart. Newcastle had lost at Fulham, a defeat that had moved them down to 14th in the table, a far cry from an outside shot of a place in the Champions League, as had been the case just six months earlier during a campaign where everything went right. Defeat against Martin Jol's side was the ninth time in 11 games that Newcastle had not won. Words were said, forthright opinions were exchanged between senior players as to why the club were failing and who was not pulling their weight. It needed the calm head of Shola Ameobi to launch an impassioned speech, a call to arms for everyone to unite quickly in order to save a season that few had predicted would head towards a relegation fight.
Yet that is exactly where Newcastle now find themselves.
Eight months after finishing fifth in the Premier League, Newcastle head to Norwich City tomorrow fighting to stay out of the relegation zone. Brighton, for the second year running, ended their FA Cup run at the first attempt last weekend. They have won just two of their last 16 games and whilst the eight year contract that Alan Pardew signed in September has given a club infamous for its unpredictability a degree of stability, concern grows over their form and serious questions have been raised about the lack of investment that took place in the summer.
Then, when Pardew had pocketed both the Premier League Manager of the Season and the LMA Manager of the Year award, Newcastle had genuine momentum.
Under the eye of head scout Graham Carr, the 68-year-old former Northampton manager, they had recruited well. Hatem Ben Arfa, Yohan Cabaye and Papiss Cissé had enjoyed exhilarating campaigns. Cissé, a January signing for £9m had proved the catalyst for an outstanding end to the season. The Senegalese forward scored 13 goals in 14 games, and they went into the final game of the season with an outside chance of a fourth-place finish. It didn't come. Investment didn't come.
Newcastle held firm on deals for Mathieu Debuchy and the FC Twente centre-half Douglas. They saved in the short term (the final price for Debuchy, who signed last week, was £2m cheaper) but the effect of not building on the wave of momentum that was created last season has been huge.
Senior players were unhappy that the only major signing in the summer was Vurnon Anita from Ajax, for £6.7 million. It was a squad that always looked ill-equipped to deal with both a Premier League campaign and the Europa League.
"We do need players," said Pardew today. "It's been obvious on this run, we've had an extended injury list, but even without that we wouldn't have had the opportunity to rest players when they needed to. Therefore, we accept that we didn't do enough in the summer and we need to do it now. We've made it clear we regret that.
"You lose confidence in terms of faith in what you are doing to some degree, but you have to stay strong. For me, sometimes I look back on periods, good and bad, and we keep a record of everything we do. Every training session is kept. I do worry about putting too much info into the players because when you win you don't have to do that. We need to show that desire on the pitch to satisfy our fans, but not push them over the edge, like Shola getting sent off [at Brighton] which was an uncharacteristic moment for him.
"We're going to have some tough decisions in the summer. We've got 17 games and at least two in the Europa League to go. I'll have a lot of questions answered about what I think is under the first team here, because at the moment, what has been under the first team at the moment hasn't produced as I hoped it would.
"The players who should have developed from the Under-21s, I can't even begin to explain the frustration. The frustration of our fans, the trust we built up last season, has started to erode away and we need to repair that over the second half of the season. For me it's been very frustrating.
"My mentality towards it is to make sure everybody is doing their jobs 100 per cent, keeping on top of my stuff, trying to lift my players and kick a couple of them up the bum in terms of the responsibility they have here. Particularly one or two of the younger players, the work ethic needs to improve and they need to improve as individuals. Those younger players have not produced what I wanted them to produce so they're going to have to work harder or they are going to have to leave this football club."
It is unimaginable that Newcastle could be dragged into a serious relegation scrap the season after qualifying for European competition for the first time in five years. The potential loss of their talismanic captain Fabricio Coloccini would be a huge blow. Demba Ba has already left after Chelsea activated the £7.5m clause in his contract and Newcastle can ill afford their most senior player to depart. However Coloccini has told the club he must leave over what his agent called a "personal matter". Pardew needs a striker to replace Ba and a central defender. And that is before the Coloccini situation.
On the plus side, Newcastle have been linked with Valenciennes' left-back Gaëtan Bong. Moreover, Cabaye, the man who sold the club to his former Lille team-mate Debuchy, is back in the squad for the trip to Norwich tomorrow. He is not quite 100 per cent fit after recovering from a groin operation but his influence on the squad is now so great that Pardew was desperate to have him travel. He may make the substitute's bench. If Coloccini leaves, Cabaye is the captain in waiting.
Ben Arfa could also return sooner than expected after a serious hamstring injury. Steven Taylor should be back by the start of next month. Cissé will return at Carrow Road, too.
Pardew needs them all back at the top of their game. As Ameobi, a Newcastle player for 13 seasons knows only too well, it is a football club that needs unity more than just about any other in the country.
Miserable Magpies: Toon in trouble
15 Goals conceded by Newcastle in their last four matches.
5 Wins in 22 matches in all competitions since Alan Pardew signed his contract extension.
20 Points from 21 games, three less than the same stage in 2008-09 – when they were relegated.
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