Mark Brophy

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Asleep at the Wheel


Those in charge at Newcastle United have displayed breathtaking complacency in their attitude towards the team’s ongoing and ever-worsening slump. Was it a refusal to face facts or a naive hope that a lucky break would smash the cycle of poor performances and defeats that led them to allow Steve McClaren to continue to lead the club? It became clear weeks or even months ago that he wasn’t achieving any kind of positive progress. Yet they have allowed the situation to deteriorate until it is almost too late to escape the drop. Twice in recent seasons the club have assumed they would be ok in the end without anything concrete to base their confidence upon, and the easy option of doing nothing came off. They were right and Newcastle survived a relegation scare. This time however, when they tried the same trick there was no cushion of a points gap to the bottom three built up earlier in the season. A mid-season spending spree didn’t provoke any upturn in results or performances. This time it’s been obvious we are going down without something changing, but the hierarchy chose to follow their tried and trusted path and hope for the best. They’ve been asleep at the wheel as a great big brick wall approached at speed.


It’s not just their inaction towards a failing manager that’s displayed their complacency however, the club’s recruitment too has been the result of sticking their fingers in their ears and ignoring stark realities. They’ve been totally open for some years now that the driving factor in recruitment has been resale value. Players aren’t bought over the age of 26. They have searched obsessively for value, targeting leagues of a lower standard, unproven youngsters, and players with talent but who carry baggage with them, either in the form of their injury record or their reputation for attitude problems. The idea was these players may be better on the pitch than the price paid for them warrants. Unfortunately we’ve ended up with an injury-prone squad lacking in motivation and character. The point here is we’ve concentrated for a number of years on boosting the balance sheet in this way and completely neglected the idea of building a team. The last two transfer windows, two of the three in McClaren’s and the board’s much-vaunted grand transfer strategy, have been a depressingly characteristic illustration of this. Struggling for numbers of the correct standard at the back, we signed only one centre-back. Needing a proven goalscorer we could rely on we signed a promising youngster from the Belgian league and took a gamble on someone rotting in a Serie A reserve roster. All the while midfielder after midfielder kept arriving, to the point where we could probably field a complete eleven made up only of Number 10s. No attempt was made to address the deficiencies of the first team or the squad. We bought the players we might make the most profit on. In our chase of Saido Berahino we pursued for far too long someone who was never going to meet our criteria because West Brom were insistent from the off he wouldn’t be leaving unless we paid top dollar for him. We were never going to do that because it would make it doubtful we’d turn a profit on him so the entire episode was an utter waste of time for all concerned.


On the pitch too, there’s been an acceptance of things going wrong, a lack of urgency. The manager and coaches have assumed things would get better if we kept plugging away but they have not. We haven’t changed a team setup which has been failing for 4 years now. We have a number of players who lack commitment either because they assume they are destined for bigger and better things or because they’ve had enough of banging their heads against that brick wall. No-one has assessed our weaknesses and addressed them. This is what we do and we’ve had to hope it’d be good enough. Our downward spiral has ended with it being not good enough and even when it couldn’t be clearer still we persevere.


The fallout from the uncertainty over Steve McClaren’s position since the catastrophic defeat in the must-win home game against Bournemouth at the weekend has been perhaps the clearest example of the theme. If the board were of the opinion that they’d need to replace McClaren in the event of defeat, and they must have known that was the case, you’d think they’d have sounded out a few people beforehand about their availability and enthusiasm for taking on the job. As it is, it appears McClaren has just kept on turning up for work for day after day as the board attempt to line up a successor. Once again urgency has been in short supply. The board didn’t even meet until Monday. Lee Charnley has supposedly not spoken to McClaren since Saturday. It would be bad enough if it was just a case of not having had a contingency plan in operation, of being caught on the hop yet again and not moving as fast as most of us would like to enable a new appointment to have time before our next match at Leicester on Monday to find their bearings. If as is rumoured they are about to appoint Rafa Benitez then they should be congratulated, he would be a fantastic appointment. It doesn’t alter the fact that their dithering has cost the new man vital days on the training pitch, or even weeks if they’d bit the bullet on McClaren when they should have. If Benitez turns out to be the managerial equivalent of Berahino however, someone who would never accept restrictions to his role the club weren’t prepared to relax, then it would be even more of a waste of scarce, previous time, something we can afford even less now than we could in January.


It could yet be that our board plan to stick with McClaren, even if it’s just to give him another game or two to turn things around. Call that complacency, call it a dereliction of duty if you like but it would be a disaster for our chances of still being in this league next season. With only 10 games left every point counts and passing up an opportunity to increase our chances of gaining some at this stage wouldn’t just be sticking their heads in the sand, it’d be wilfully neglecting their duties. Whatever happens between now and May, McClaren cannot be allowed to be a scapegoat for the failings of others.


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