Newcastle United are going to owe Premiership survival to one thing come May. Their good start under Sam Allardyce. Indeed, that might look all very pollyannaish come the end of the season, because not a few of the clubs beneath them are better run and are capable of overtaking Toon with a little luck.
As I write this – before most of today’s matches have finished – Newcastle have just been turned over by Aston Villa. They are 12th with 28 points. That’s a full seven points above the relegation zone, which means that Birmingham, for instance, need to overhaul Toon by that much by May in order for United to go down. But 10th place is eight points away, which tells where they really find themselves.
The sheer dominance of the top three this season means that, as with other recent seasons, the results of the bottom five or so clubs are generally so catastrophic as to make trends hard to discern. But it’s my impression that Reading have most of their difficult ties out of the way already, and can concentrate on their football, which has been pretty good even in defeat at times. Sunderland are either good or bad, but do seem capable of scoring more than one goal a game. No doubt they are inspired by the Special Keano.
Likewise, Birmingham have been working their way through the top three lately, and they have a manager who feels a good fit for them. Bolton are impossible to call, but the Gary Megson who is in charge now looks recharged against memories of the man who worked so hard and often so unavailingly at West Brom.
No, if Newcastle are to stay up, I think they can thank Sam, early season results, and Wigan Athletic.
But I fear for them next season. Nothing in all of the recent analysis of the “new team” that Mike Ashley has pulled together gives me any feeling that any one of them genuinely knows what to do to improve the current situation. To be fair, and starting from here, as they have, it might not have been rescuable from the beginning.
A lot is said, and a lot has been said here lately, especially in the comments, about the need to organize a team. Before Allardyce arrived at Newcastle, the Toon fear wasn’t relegation, but boring football. I fear that that might have been a “Charlton” moment. You’ll remember, a couple of years ago, all of that talk coming from the Valley about Curbs not being the man to take Charlton to the next level, to help them kick on for Europe…
Whatever Allardyce may or may not be able to do, I think, and most honest commentators would agree, that he can organize a side if anyone can.
Although Newcastle were excellent for long periods in his last game against a Stoke side that are probably rather better than either Derby or Fulham, Allardyce didn’t manage to organize Newcastle into a functioning side in the time he had to his own satisfaction. He said so, and commented that he didn’t want the set of players he had to have his future in their hands.
This was taken to mean that Allardyce was blaming his tools. But what if he was right – what if there simply weren’t the players at Newcastle to produce what Allardyce wanted, let alone what the fans wanted? The squad looks OK on paper, but so did West Ham’s in their last relegation year. What if too many have lost interest, or never had it at Newcastle, or just aren’t good enough? What if they just don’t mesh?
Granted that Allardyce had had a full summer’s trading and a complete pre-season to work with, and things didn’t turn around, but I note that Newcastle’s slump began at about the same stage that Aston Villa’s did in Martin O’Neill’s first season. It takes time, and O’Neill had the advantage that Villa were desperate where Newcastle have been demanding. It’s easy to forget which club has won a European Cup. But not so hard to guess which is more likely to win another.
And yet, and yet. I look at the players. Milner – Owen – N’Zogbia – Martins – Given – Smith – Emre – Viduka – Butt – Barton – Duff. I’d back myself to do well with players of that calibre. Things must be bad indeed, and if they are that bad, is there any way for anyone to turn things around without the help of a post-relegation clearout?