Newcastle are in meltdown. Off the pitch, owner Mike Ashley felt unable yesterday to attend a stadium he possesses and where his Sports Direct company logo dominates the Gallowgate End; on it, Newcastle gifted Hull victory with a performance every bit as fractured as the whole atmosphere surrounding the club. Newcastle were dreadful, the club are imploding.
What happens next, only Ashley knows. Or does he? There has not been much sign of coherent strategy so far and proof that Newcastle do not truly belong to Ashley came with his absence. His failure to turn up to the club he says he has spent £250m on in the past 16 months helped to reveal the full scale of the acrimony since Kevin Keegan departed. It raises another question mark against how long Ashley can remain.
Newcastle supporters protested as they said they would – long and loud – and when the chant went up in the 23rd minute of "Stand up if you hate Ashley", most of those inside St James' were on their feet. There were further "Dwarf" chants aimed at Dennis Wise, also not here – he was at Charlton – and the sheer volume of anti-London sentiment illustrated that even if Ashley and Keegan had found some form of reconciliation on Friday at their shock meeting in a lawyer's office on Piccadilly, geographical resentment would be merely camouflaged. "Cockney Mafia Out" were the words on one banner. It was applauded as it was taken around the ground. But those talks broke down on Friday and while there is an outside possibility that discussions can be rekindled, it still feels like Keegan could not return if Wise and his assistant Tony Jimenez stay. Throw in Derek Llambias, the managing director with whom Keegan has clashed over transfers, and Ashley would be removing a structure he has only just put in place.
Llambias was the only one here yesterday, the empty seats beside him symbolic of isolation. He tried to smile but his discomfort was obvious. How can any of this gang of four take any enjoyment from this? Not that there was much to savour for anyone in black and white. "Are you Grimsby in disguise?" came from the Hull fans after Marlon King had scored his second of the afternoon in the 55th minute.
By then 50,000 – officially – had made their way in. Once again they were given no information. It took the DJ to communicate, the snap of "Love Will Tear Us Apart" coming over the Tannoy just before kick-off. It was 36 seconds before the first chorus of "There's only one Kevin Keegan" was heard. Outside the song had been sung from lunchtime and the 2pm gathering outside the Milburn entrance was as angry as had been forecast.
When the match at last broke out, reckless Newcastle defending was then responsible for both Hull goals. Nicky Butt was at fault for the first after 34 minutes, sliding in to fell Peter Halmosi as he cut inside. Referee Andre Marriner pointed to the spot and King squeezed the penalty past Shay Given.
For the second goal, the £9m signing Fabricio Coloccini went AWOL as Hull attacked on the counter. Halmosi spread a 40-yard pass wide to King on the right. King had Charles N'Zogbia haring across to cover but stepped inside him with too much ease and placed his shot around Given into the far corner.
Hull, led by their captain Ian Ashbee, were neat and efficient. They lost their last match 5-0 to Wigan and had been forced to leave their Durham hotel late on Friday night following a fight with a wedding party. But Newcastle were the mess. Boaz Myhill's only first-half save came from a Michael Owen flick. A Danny Guthrie cross-shot later skimmed the bar.
But Xisco, a £5.7m signing from Deportivo La Coruña – by Wise and Jimenez – had an unimpressive debut even including his 81st minute tap-in after N'Zogbia's low shot rebounded off the woodwork. That gave Newcastle hope and briefly worried Hull's manager, Phil Brown. Listening to "Sack the Board" chants afterwards Brown said: "I'm just watching that door in case there's a riot."
Brown was smiling. Newcastle had not been able to equalise and their malaise was encapsulated in the ridiculous but deserved dismissal Guthrie collected in injury-time. He launched two bad tackles on Craig Fagan and was shown a straight red card. What a shambles.