We are back in the bottom three and the PL table makes for grim reading. Successive defeats at Everton and Chelsea have brought all of the criticism of the team from earlier in the season back into sharp focus. When a clearly angry and exasperated Alan Shearer is telling a national audience on Match of the Day that the team has a lack of character and key members of the first team aren’t putting the effort in, then things are getting very serious with twelve games to go.
As I type this, the Newcastle United party will be preparing for an extended winter break in La Manga, Spain. It has been described as warm weather training but McClaren says it might rain. We are told there will be two training sessions per day as if that is meant to make us feel better. McClaren has told us the only way he could get a friendly fixture was to go to Spain for a couple of weeks.
Is anyone buying any of this guff?
The simple fact is Steve McClaren is woefully out of his depth and should have been dismissed before Christmas. However, the futures of Charnley, Carr and McClaren are so entwined that I would guess that by sacking McClaren, Charnley is also presenting Mike Ashley with his own letter of resignation. McClaren is the man Charnley pursued relentlessly last year, who despite being rebuffed on three occasions, kept the United job open for six months for him while the club flirted with relegation under the stewardship of John Carver. Only when McClaren was sacked by Derby County for a post-Christmas collapse did the former England manager accept the United job. Charnley got his man. Steve McClaren is Lee Charnley’s big white hope.
Although McClaren has had the thick end of a decade of failure on his CV I don’t blame him exclusively for the abyss United is now staring into. That has to be shared amongst the other architects of this unfolding disaster. Ashley has starved the club of investment for years but last summer released the purse strings and directed Charnley to pursue their targets. Some players were bought at great cost but massive gaps in the squad remain. We still don’t have a goal-scorer even though it is now three years since Demba Ba left for Chelsea. We are now pinning our hopes on 28-year old (cough) Seydou Doumbia who has arrived at United after bombing at AS Roma. He should be given a chance but his lack of match fitness and our fixture schedule means he won’t start a game until at least March at the earliest. He looks like a consolation prize.
United hasn’t had a proper left-back since Jose Enrique moved to a comfortable seat in the dugout on the bench at Liverpool four years ago. Charnley’s late January window bids for several left-backs (including ironically Enrique who I’m told by contacts on Merseyside is woefully out of condition and lacks any enthusiasm to play football) appeared like an after-thought. He failed and as a result, McClaren is now forced to play Rolando Aarons out of position in a manoeuvre that threatens to be as disastrous for the player’s development as it does to our survival hopes.
Even the most ill-informed Newcastle United observer knew last season we needed central defenders as much as we did strikers. Chancel Mbemba looks like a decent hand and is an upgrade on Mike Williamson but he was never enough and at Chelsea McClaren was forced to select a clearly unfit Fabricio Coloccini and there was no more evidence to the years and his current injury catching up with our captain when he gave up five yards to Costa who is hardly Craig Bellamy in a hurry is he?
Much has been and will be made of the money invested over the last few windows at United but it’s never been about how much money has been spent and it has always been about the strength of the squad and the first team. But if we are going to talk about money, let’s question the wisdom of almost £50m poorly invested in Thauvin, Cabella and Mitrovic and further back money squandered on Mbwia, Riviere, De Jong, Ferreya, Santon, Anita, Obertan, Goufrann and need I go on?
How much expertise is there really at Newcastle United?
But none of that exonerates McClaren and he really has to be replaced if we are going to have any chance of staying in the Premier League.
McClaren had ample time to prepare his team for this season but has apparently abandoned the possession model he wanted to introduce at the start of the season and the style of play, such as it is now is no different to that which failed under Pardew. Earlier this season the question was asked about a McClaren style of play and about the identity of the team. We are still asking those questions and it’s the middle of February.
Of course, I’ve never sat in a dressing room and observed McClaren prepare his team for games but I have seen how they have started matches and halves and it looks like whatever message he gives them is either hopelessly inadequate or they aren’t listening. I don’t expect McClaren instructs players not to track back, press, cover, leave their positions and lose their shape but he seems hopelessly unable to persuade them to do it either.
Under Pardew and later Carver we all bemoaned the inability of our team to recover from gaoling a goal down. 1-0 down away from home and you might as well find something more interesting to do because they rarely came back. McClaren’s arrival at United has not made us more resilient. Shoulders still sag when we concede and the towel is thrown in far too readily. The players apparently lack any semblance of belief in themselves and for that reason you have to wonder what our erstwhile motivational coach Steve Black is achieving at United. Is the fragile mentality of our players so weak that McClaren’s forced and false optimism in his post-match interviews directed at preserving the resilience of the weak personalities in his own dressing room?
I’m sure I wasn’t the only one to clock Jonjo Shelvey looking to the United bench at Chelsea and asking for a direction that never came. McClaren appeared to have nothing to contribute, which of course is what lots of us have suspected for some time. I’m no psychologist but I’ve seen this retreat into the dugout before from managers and I recall the same with Souness (shudder), Gullit, Dalglish and Pardew of course when they have realised the game was up.
So comrades, what should be done?
I was of the view that McClaren should have gone before Christmas and a new man, my preference was for Moyes, to be allowed to buy 3-4 of his own players in the January transfer window and take it from there. I was of the view Charnley should have been replaced by an experienced club CEO and Carr’s position reviewed. Who can say if that might have worked but those wins at Liverpool (h) and Spurs (a) really were fools’ gold. There have been hints in the media that McClaren’s position has been under review since January but now is as good a time as any to press the button and make a change.
It looks highly unlikely Charnley is going to sack McClaren given he staked so much of his reputation (don’t laugh) on bringing him to St James’ Park and what the situation now requires is for Mike Ashley to intervene. Ashley has to pay the club attention and he has to start being professional. If Ashley fails to act, I fear Newcastle United will be relegated.
Doing nothing can no longer be an option!
There has been a lot of discussion in the last week or so regarding ticket prices. United lost no time in rushing out a press release in which they claimed their offers underlined their commitment to affordable football. I’ll not deny United have some good offers for families but these have been borne of necessity and its rich for the club to spin these offers as they have done.
Let’s have a look at some areas United should address.
Newcastle United should scrap match categorisation for ticket-pricing. It is unfair and iniquitous.
Newcastle United should scrap high cost membership schemes for non-season ticket holders which are self-defeating.
Newcastle United should seriously review the ticket offers it makes to casual, walk-up fans which undermine the value of holding a season ticket and the offers they have previously made to season-ticket holders which in the circumstances make some of the club’s most loyal supporters feel hood-winked and undervalued.
Newcastle United should seriously review its operations in regards for offers such as those to students. I was made aware of several cases last week where supporters who left University four years ago are still on student-deals. That would indicate negligence at the Box Office in terms of these deals are run but they do hint at other opportunities to offer more inclusive prices and which will nurture the club’s younger support in the longer term. Currently, there is too much of a price hike from children to adult ticket costs and whilst the club has those student deals it does not respond to the financial realities for young people, particularly those aged 18-24 just starting to make their way in the world and traditionally in lower paid or part time jobs. The club needs to look at bridging prices for young people. Years ago, we had them when we paid cheaper prices to go in the Gallowgate and Leazes Ends. Now younger fans don’t have that option.
United and Sunderland should also look at a reciprocal ticket deals for the derby matches. That would be a real commitment to both clubs’ most devoted supporters but it would also send a signal across the Premier League (presuming both clubs are in it next season, which they are unlikely both to be given the clip of the table).
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Anyway. Our excuse for a football team is on its way to Spain for some of that warm weather training we’ve heard so much about and there will be no Newcastle United this weekend.
Let’s be grateful for small mercies.
Keep On, Keepin’ On …
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