Call it a sign of how far Newcastle have sunk or just a reality check but Joe Kinnear has set his sights pretty low for this season, reports Stuart Rayner
IF reaching for the stars, over-stretching and falling flat on their red faces has been a recurring problem for Newcastle United in recent seasons, Joe Kinnear seems determined to buck the trend.
Beyond these parts the Magpies are often seen as a something of a laughing stock for the way fanatical devotion translates so quickly into unrealistic ambitions. But with the third biggest following in the country, Newcastle supporters are perfectly entitled to demand their club finally starts punching its weight. So anyone who sets his sights low – no matter how realistic – is playing a potentially dangerous game.
In outlining his hopes for the second half of the season, Kinnear saves his realism for the nitty gritty of the league and directs his romanticism where it belongs, towards the FA Cup. And it is realistic, with United still ten points from his traditional Christmas safety mark.
For the first time in his managerial life, the 61-year-old caretaker will head into Christmas mired in a top-flight relegation battle and if he escapes it by the skin of the teeth, he will be happy.
United go into tomorrow’s televised game at Portsmouth’s Fratton Park 17th in the table, a point above the relegation zone. They are unfamiliar surroundings but Kinnear will be happy to be there after the last game of the season.
“Yeah,” he says. “Because then I’d have done the job, we’d have stayed up.
“If we put our best team out I think we’ll do well in the FA Cup. People keep telling me we’ve got a tough draw in the third round (at Hull City) but I think we’re capable of getting something from it.”
Kinnear was hired as a firefighter. With Kevin Keegan gone and morale shot to pieces, Newcastle were locked in a battle with Tottenham Hotspur to see which big club could under-achieve most spectacularly. The squad lists, the budgets, the attendances might have persuaded some otherwise, but the Magpies were up to their necks in it.
“I said from the minute I walked in here we were in a relegation battle,” Kinnear recalls.
“We had four points. What else do you do? That was a fact.”
It might seem obvious, but there is a point to Kinnear’s candid assessment. Many a team have dropped out of the Premier League after realising too late they were not, after all, too good to go down. But convincing the players has not been a problem, it is the power-brokers Kinnear has had to shock into action. Few will be shedding any tears, but Mike Ashley is trapped in a Catch-22 situation. The United owner has decided to sell up, worn down by the vitriol emptied on him after Keegan’s departure. No longer interested in the plaything he once took to so enthusiastically, it seems illogical to throw the proceeds of millions of cheap nylon replica shirts at the club. But starve it of cash and, financially speaking, he risks cutting his own throat.
“I’ve made it clear to Mike and Derek (Llambias, Newcastle’s managing director) and I said to them before the injuries we’ve got that if there was any stage where we lost four players we are knackered because of the strength in depth.
“As I said to Mike, he’s got to protect his assets as well. It must be a massive loss financially to go down. It makes sense to me.”
Next month’s transfer window will be the fourth since Ashley began bankrolling United but the moans of countless previous managers about wafer-thin squads remain. Kinnear, though, believes his message is getting through.
“I think he has realised the potential seriousness now,” he says. “The easy thing is to say bad luck, bad luck, bad luck but that is going to do nothing for you. Every manager has had a go (at building a squad), they’ve bought five, six, seven players in. I haven’t had chance to do that. I’d like to buy six or seven.”
Kinnear came with a reputation as a man used to fighting off relegation from his days with the perennially unglamorous Wimbledon. The truth, though, is rather different.
“The lowest I finished was seventh from bottom,” he says.
“We always planned to get something like 26 points on the board by Christmas. We were never in the bottom four at Christmas.”
Alarmingly, with six to play for, United are ten points adrift of Wimbledon’s festive target. But Kinnear’s mental survival mark remains little different.
“This season I think teams will need about 42, 43 points to stay up,” he says, which would represent a return to normality after a couple of seasons where embarrassingly poor teams dragged down the total. “That’s as the current form is going at the moment with everybody battling for every point there is.
“It depends on what effect the (transfer) window has on all the other sides, whether they’re in a position to strengthen up or whether they lose key players. That will have a big say in what position teams finish in.”