This could be one of the most important games of Alan Pardew’s entire tenure at St James’ Park.
If that might sound like over-stating the case given the modest opposition in a competition the board have already admitted is not a priority to an owner obsessed with the financial prize of retaining Premier League status, consider the alternative. Being dumped out of the FA Cup in the first week in January for the third time in four black-and-white campaigns? Pardew knows how deeply that hurts a city yearning for a run in this competition.
The problem is in the boardroom the competition has been downgraded.
The cat was let out of the bag at a Fans Forum event in September when finance director John Irving admitted the cups were no longer a priority, and those sentiments have been echoed by Aston Villa boss Paul Lambert in a stark reminder of exactly where the FA Cup is in the new order of things.
For Pardew the task is treacherous – he must tread the line between gunning for glory in the Cup and accepting it is the top 10 of the Premier League which keeps him in a job. He hardly needs reminding it is a tightrope he has failed to traverse in recent years.
He reflected: “I thought Stevenage was as low as I could get as a manager until the Brighton game last year. Really and truly.
“At least with Stevenage we could argue it was a proper cup shock and we were trying our very best to get through. There was the Cheick sending-off and things went from there.
“The Brighton game, I simply didn’t have a good enough team to put out that day and I feared what might happen before we even started. I don’t have that today.
“I feel we have a team which is going to win and I feel confident I’ve enough players to get through.
“I’m feeling good about it as I sit here on 33 points, the same as when we finished fifth, and our fans need to understand that and the decisions I make.
“Perhaps we need to freshen it up a bit. I’ve lost two of my back four and they both would have played.
“Colo is the captain and Debuchy has been my best player so for sure they would have played.”
If the form of the last eight or nine weeks has lanced a few of the boils that had developed following last season’s underachievement, the FA Cup remains an open sore for Pardew.
It is a competition he prospered in as a player, helping Crystal Palace to the final in 1990 where they were denied by a Manchester United team that was at the dawn of a new era of dominance.
As a young manager he led West Ham to within seconds of lifting the same trophy, only for a Steven Gerrard thunderbolt to rescue the game for Liverpool. Neither is a success story but everyone – regardless of their alliegiances – will remember those two contests.
That is the point here: it is the great one-off games supporters and the public remember rather than an eighth-place finish or a healthy balance sheet. The craving for financial stability is galling for most traditionalists.
To be fair to Pardew – who made a big play about taking the Cups seriously this season – he fielded a strong team in the League Cup this season and was only undone in extra time by Manchester City at St James’ Park back in October.
Any accusations of unduly altering his team this time around must be balanced against a festive fixture list that was especially gruelling.
“I don’t think it would be a bad thing to change the schedule,” Pardew said, donning his League Manager’s Association hat in solidarity with Lambert.
To be fair to the Newcastle boss, he has come up with a solution to the problem which is appealing. He continued: “We talk about a mini break all the time but we’re not going to get it. I think it might be worth moving the Premier League game on January 28th and moving it to August. Then you can change things around in January and you have two FA Cup games, an FA Cup period.
“You have the third round, then the fourth round the week after with a replay in between. You’d have a two-week FA Cup period.
“Would that work? I don’t know, but where it sits now is certainly a problem. We keep crying out for more games in August and September yet we cram five games into 15 days at this time of year. Come on.
“The devalued FA Cup? It becomes a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
Among the changes Pardew is contemplating are a recall for Papiss Cisse along with a start for Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa and possibly Steven Taylor too. Rob Elliot might get an opportunity in goal with Tim Krul struggling while Massaido Haidara is set to step into the void left by Mathieu Debuchy’s suspension.
Yohan Cabaye, carrying an achilles knock after the West Brom game, is set to sit out the match.
If it’s important for Pardew, it could also represent the last-chance saloon for a few players on the fringes of Newcastle’s squad. It was alleged Gabriel Obertan walked away from St James’ Park after being told he would not figure against Arsenal but the France winger is set for an appearance against Cardiff.
Given how lightly he has been used of late, it is a golden opportunity.