A RUDDERLESS fallen Premier League giant struggling to keep its head above water in the Championship, huge swathes of empty seats and a deep-seated discontent that threatens to tear apart a once proud club.
For any Newcastle United fans taking their revival for granted, this afternoon’s visit to Hillsborough is an appropriate staging point to reflect on the club’s renaissance under Chris Hughton.
United ride high while free-falling Sheffield Wednesday – goalless for six games and without a win in ten – continue to thrash about aimlessly in the Championship’s shark-infested waters.
Manager Chris Hughton already has one UN citation (for turning down big money to play in apartheid South Africa in the 80s) but if he completes the job of taking previously crisis-torn United back into the top flight at the first attempt, perhaps his conflict resolution skills will come to their attention again.
Not that Hughton is dwelling on the respective fortunes of two of the division’s bigger clubs. Clinical and unfussy, United’s renaissance has not been an emotional journey for their collected manager – just a project to be tackled with professionalism and hard graft.
It is not swashbuckling or romantic – and the United fans have still to put Hughton’s name to song in recognition of his achievements – but anyone doubting how essential it is need just ask a Wednesday supporter.
“I think that coming into Christmas ten points clear is more than I could have wished for at the start of the season,” he said. “That is more so because we were very much going into the unknown. We didn’t know what to expect.
“We got a feeling of the shape of things to come after the first game at West Brom when we come away feeling it was a very good result.
“The way the players have applied themselves has been magnificent. We thought that the spirit would be good and that we had a group of lads who would be determined to put us at the right end of the table but to be where we are now is beyond our initial expectations.”
Likewise, the fate of Wednesday is not something to dwell on. Although their predicament is dire, complacency is not on the agenda for a club that only appeared to realise they were in danger of going down when it was too late.
“Sheffield Wednesday aren’t having the best of times but the only way to address this one is the same way we have every other game,” he said.
“Certainly if we need a reminder of how difficult this could be then we just have to cast our minds back to the Sheffield Wednesday team that came to St James’ Park earlier this season, played so well they were arguable the better team on the day but didn’t get the result they wanted.
“At some stage they will be scoring goals and winning games and we have to make sure it is not on Boxing Day.” Further evidence of the revival is provided by Danny Simpson, who skipped the summer hardship and joined Newcastle when the club was beginning to gather momentum.
He now speaks of a winning mentality to rival his parent club Manchester United and the statement doesn’t prompt a smirk or a joke, just respect for the way the black and white thresher has churned the Championship wheat from the chaff. “I think some teams play us and think they’re beaten before the start,” he said. “That has happened even more when they look at the league table. It’s great but it’s not a trap we can let ourselves fall into. They might think that we’re already promoted but we’re not and we know that we’re not.
“Teams go to St James’ Park hoping for a point now whereas at the start of the season, because of all the problems that were going on, they were thinking they could do us.” They are high standards that he fell foul of recently when he was dropped for the Barnsley game by Hughton.
“For the game against Coventry I wasn’t at my usual standard and Chris just said ‘you can’t play well every game so sit this one out and react the right way’. And I did in training, so I was glad he put me back in.
“Nobody is undroppable at this club and that’s a good thing. We’ve got some quality players who can come in and do a good job. You can’t take your position for granted, you’ve got to make sure you’re at it for every game. That’s just part of Chris being a good manager.”
His desire to make his move to St James’ Park a permanent one is beyond doubt, but he will have to wait until the New Year for Hughton to make a definitive decision. That commitment to Newcastle United even stretches to attempting to indoctrinate a young family member through his choice of Christmas presents.
“I’ve got two brothers and one’s a (Manchester) United fan and the other’s a (Manchester) City fan,” he said.
“I’ve just bought him a Newcastle shirt, so I’m sure he’s all confused! The young one is a United fan, the other one is trying to make him a City fan and I’ve just bought him a Newcastle shirt.
“He’s only eight, so I’m sure he’ll be confused. I’ve not seen them much since I’ve been up here, so it was good to spend time with them on Christmas Day. But the main thing for me is to concentrate on Sheff Wed and Derby.”