Rikki and Emma Donaldson could not believe their good fortune. It was 11 July, their wedding day and news had filtered through to the Magpie Suite at St James’ Park that Newcastle’s new signing, Georginio Wijnaldum, was pitch side, posing for photographs with Steve McClaren, the new head coach.
The newlyweds joined the pair in front of the visitors’ dugout. Wijnaldum, the third most expensive signing in the history of Newcastle United, was charming. McClaren, Emma would later say, was “good banter”.
The quartet posed for photographs with beaming smiles. It made social media, it made the Newcastle Evening Chronicle. “Everyone was so jealous we’d met McClaren when we went back up,” Emma said.
Smiling brides and grooms, a new start; it was the perfect analogy for a football club. “To new beginnings.” You could almost hear the toast all over Tyneside.
On Wednesday night, 74 days later, McClaren unwisely followed through on his pre-season promise to applaud the supporters after a game had finished, regardless of the result. As his players had also been warned, he demanded the same of them.
Tim Krul, who, in 10 years, has seen the violent fluctuation of emotion this football club draws from the region’s people, attempted to pass McClaren and head to the sanctuary of the dressing room. The head coach physically stopped him and made him turn around.
There was probably somewhere around 28,000 Newcastle fans inside St James’ Park on Wednesday. Most were heading dejectedly for the exits after Chris Kavanagh had blown his whistle to confirm the side’s latest defeat of the season – their fifth – had come 1-0 at the hands of Sheffield Wednesday’s reserves.
They then noticed McClaren taking centre stage, clapping with his hands above his head. Nervous players followed suit. They were all jeered. The honeymoon did not even last 74 days.
McClaren has one win, against Northampton, from eight games. Newcastle continued their spending after landing Wijnaldum, forking out £52m in the summer in an attempt to right the wrongs of previous transfer windows. It has not worked. One of the signings, Florian Thauvin, arrived once more in a tuxedo before kick-off. He was criticised by Alan Shearer for such an act before Newcastle’s previous defeat, four days earlier, against Watford, again at St James’.
Like Thauvin, who was taken off at half-time, Newcastle’s players were smartly dressed as they trooped pitchside to their waiting cars, once the ground had emptied on another loss. Most ties were missing, the odd shirt was slightly sticking out. They looked like a wedding party sheepishly heading home the morning after the night before, craving the calming surrounds of home.
They did not look like a football team.
In the dressing room Steve Black, a Newcastle coach and motivational specialist who had joined McClaren on the pitch, had warned the players they could either be victims or fighters. They did not look like fighters.
Wijnaldum’s mood as he stood at the head of the same tunnel where he had smiled with a happy, newly married couple, was also a contrast. He said the football club needed men on the pitch. After 74 days, Wijnaldum had found one of the problems.
“What has to change? I think also the attitude,” he said. “We must stay positive because if we don’t stay positive it is going to go wrong. We need men now out on the field, players who want to work hard and give everything to get a good result.
“On top of that I think we must play free. Sometimes I have the idea that we play with a lot of pressure on us because the results are not going well. We must play free because then it is going to get better.
“I think that we must be more brave. We can control our performance so we must work hard to make that good. It’s not always going good and in the difficult times you must play free and show our quality. I think we have quality but we’re not showing it at the moment.”
Wijnaldum was asked if it was hard to have come from a team that had won the domestic championship last season – PSV Eindhoven – to Newcastle. “Yes,” he replied. “Really hard.” Wijnaldum is 24 but he was the senior signing in the summer. Alexsandar Mitrovic was 20 when he moved to Newcastle, Chancel Mbemba 21 and Thauvin 22. The team they joined in a league they had never played in escaped relegation on the final day of last season.
Newcastle have signed 14 players in the last three transfer windows, at a cost of £90m, but still do not have a goalscorer. They have not signed a brilliant player. Some, like Daryl Janmaat and Ayoze Perez have done well, but it is a lot of money spent to fall to the foot of the Premier League.
The pressure will eventually seep through to the managing director, Lee Charnley, and the chief scout, Graham Carr, who are the most powerful figures on a newly-created football board that also includes Bob Moncur, who lifted the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup in 1969, and McClaren.
Politically, McClaren is outnumbered. He wanted Charlie Austin in the summer, but at 26, and with an injury problem, the board he sits on felt it was too much of a gamble to pay £15m. They prefer resale value. Newcastle instead started the season with the volatile Mitrovic and Papiss Cissé, 30 and seeking a new club. Mitrovic was sent off early against Arsenal for stamping and has missed the last three games through suspension. Cissé is injured.
Newcastle have scored 13 goals in their last 21 Premier League games. They have won three league games in 2015. There has been one league win in the last 17 games.
“People say it’s a crisis. Phew, yeah, its getting very close to it,” said McClaren. It was put to him that the alarm bells were ringing off the wall after defeat to Wednesday. “Absolutely,” he said. He was asked if it was a more difficult job than he had thought. “Absolutely, without a doubt. There is never harmony completely in a football club. They’re a bunch who come into work, their attitude is good, they have the ability but it is not showing. It’s about time we started showing it.”
And then a marker.
“This is as far back as you can go,” he added. “This is the wall. Now you have to stride forward.”
That they must do so against Chelsea and then Manchester City added to the desperate feel of that rallying cry.
£50m well spent? Newcastle's summer signings
Chancel Mbemba 7/10
The £8m central defender has made a steady start to life on Tyneside since moving from Anderlecht.
Cards 1 booking
Georginio Wijnaldum 6/10
Has shown flashes – including a goal – of the ability that persuaded Newcastle to pay £14.7m but needs to dominate more.
Cards 1 booking
Florian Thauvin 4/10
Winger has much to do to justify the £13m paid for him. Substituted in his last two matches.
Cards 1 booking
Aleksandar Mitrovic 3/10
Yet to score but booked twice and sent off once. Club’s season rests on £13m man scoring and calming down.
Cards 2 bookings, 1 sending-offReuse content