The shakiness of England's elite provides a golden opportunity for Newcastle United and Sunderland.
MIKE Ashley has already broken one footballing cartel in his business career. Now his Newcastle United have an opportunity to take on an even more tightly closed shop.
This time it will take more than a tip-off to the Office of Fair Trading about the fixed price of football shirts.
For a division which prides itself on unpredictability, the Premier League table has become depressingly familiar, at least at its top end.
Since Kenny Dalglish’s Blackburn Rovers – then its improbable moneybags – won the 1995 title, the four-stone trophy has been the exclusive preserve of Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea.
The Champions League places have been even more tightly sewn-up. Until Tottenham Hotspur broke the mould two seasons ago, those three and Liverpool had qualified every year since the number of English entrants increased to four in 2005.
The “Big Four” had locked themselves into a self-perpetuating cycle. By qualifying for the Champions League they earned money and attracted players beyond the reach of their rivals, making it much easier to do so again next season. With every year the gap widened.
Now the cartel appears to be breaking up, presenting opportunities for Newcastle and Sunderland.
Tottenham’s Champions League qualification in 2010 has won them a seat at the table they occupied when the Premier League was formed. Manchester City’s eye-watering wealth has bought them a place too. A first championship since – in Sky TV’s eyes – football began is beckoning.
Chelsea’s 3-1 humiliation in Naples raised the distinct possibility that for the first time since 1996, there will be no English team in the European Cup quarter-finals. While it will upset the Premier League to see its flagship clubs floundering, it should do the competition good.
Top of Uefa’s coefficient – the table which decides how European spots are doled out – England’s four Champions League places are safe so long as this season is not part of a long-term decline. Seven finalists in as many years have provided room for manoeuvre.
Former players have been queuing up to urge Newcastle to set their sights on Europe, and reassure them they can achieve it. Most neutrals will cheer them on too because theirs is a club reliant on shrewd, not chequebook, management. Previous seasons have been littered with false dawns. Plenty of teams have gate-crashed the top end of the table at Christmas – Sunderland were last year’s interlopers – only to drop off in the second half of the campaign. Newcastle are showing no signs of slipping away quietly.
Given the disparity in resources, all logic points to Newcastle finishing outside of this season’s top six. But the Magpies’ form has defied commonsense all term. They are three points above a Liverpool team revamped at great expense in 2011. Arsenal and Chelsea, under pressure after the Champions League exit door was pushed opened by first-leg defeats, are only a point ahead.
A top-four finish is a possibility, but even a top-six one would be a remarkable achievement. As Ryan Taylor put it last week: “Europe is the target and anything else is a bonus.”
They will need to tighten up away from home, where they have lost three of their last four, shipping ten goals in the two league defeats. But three of their next four matches are on Tyneside and the other against Arsenal, brutally exposed by Sunderland at the weekend. For a club with Newcastle’s support, the Europa League would provide a platform for the sort of transformation seen at Tottenham since they rubbed shoulders with Newcastle at the wrong end of the 2008-09 table.
The biggest disappointment would be if the Magpies finished sixth, only for the greater openness of English football to cost them a Europa League spot.
Only fifth would guarantee one. For every cup winner in the top five, another league berth opens. The same would be true if Liverpool won both cups. It could leave Newcastle hoping for a Chelsea, Liverpool or Tottenham win on FA Cup final day. For now, though, Sunderland can dream of Lee Cattermole lifting the trophy instead, something no North East captain has done since Bobby Kerr in 1973.
Like Newcastle qualifying for Europe, it would defy comprehension – and the balance sheet.
Even a one-legged knockout like the FA Cup has been dominated by the same three-team cartel since 1995. Portsmouth (2008) and Manchester City, last year, are the only outsiders to win it in that time.
Away to bogey team Everton in the quarter-finals, Sunderland will not place a big Brasso order just yet. But with both Manchester clubs and Arsenal out, and Chelsea and Spurs still to secure last-eight places, there is no denying the possibilities.
Such is the transformation O’Neill has brought to the Stadium of Light you would fancy his chances of leading another team into Europe – he took Aston Villa, Celtic and Leicester City there – given a whole season at it next term. Whether the window of opportunity will be open as wide remains to be seen.
Just to be able to dream of a North East team in Europe is a wonderful novelty in late February. To achieve it would raise smiles far further afield.