THE dark clouds surrounding the Mike Ashley regime have already begun to cast a long shadow over Newcastle United’s embattled playing staff.
While the club’s discredited and disgruntled owner looks to negotiate a way out of a mess partly of his own creation, the team that his prudent investment has helped to finance is struggling desperately – rudderless and stretched to breaking point.
A post-match attempt by caretaker manager Chris Hughton’s to shift the blame for his patched up team’s defeat away from the rising tumult on the terraces was admirable but it was fooling nobody.
United’s drop in performance level – and they were never particularly competitive against a well-organised Hull City – dovetailed precisely with the moment that the protests against Ashley spread across the stands of St James’s Park, rising in volume and ferocity.
For any Newcastle United fan nervously glancing at the Premier League table, that must be a huge concern because the rising tide of uncertainty surrounding the club is hardly likely to be turned back by Ashley’s statement of intent yesterday.
If you tear away the terrace discontent and the fog of confusion over the ownership what is left is a football team so perilously thin on resources that a long and joyless battle against relegation is a realistic prospect.
If that is the case, the club could well be counting the cost of Saturday’s defeat to Hull City come May.
Played out in a funereal atmosphere, Newcastle needed a positive start to re-focus minds on football but as United struggled to find their cutting edge attention drifted to turmoil off the field.
Before Michel Owen saw his header saved superbly by Boaz Myhill, Danny Guthrie screwed a volley wide and the die for a thoroughly dispiriting afternoon was cast.
Their profligacy came back to haunt them after half an hour when Nicky Butt, who had a rare off-day, brought down Peter Halmosi and the lively Marlon King managed to squeeze his spot-kick past the right hand of Shay Given.
A shell-shocked United struggled to formulate a suitable response and as their challenge drifted it was left to the supporters who carried a “Cockney Mafia Out” banner around the ground to rouse fellow fans among the crowd of 50,242.
The players retreated and King plundered a second, drifting past Fabricio Colocinni before sweeping his shot past Given.
Shorn of the injured Jonas Gutierrez and the departed James Milner, United created little from midfield and barely put Hull under pressure. Ashley’s point about not being able to afford the Shevchenkos, the Robinhos and the Berbatovs is a fair one, but it is difficult to see how the scouting job performed by executive director (football) Dennis Wise can be described with a straight face as “first class”.
True, Colocinni and Gutierrez have shown signs of class in their opening games for Newcastle but both are Argentinian internationals playing in La Liga – hardly rough diamonds snatched from obscurity. The Spain under-21 striker Xisco, signed from Deportivo La Coruna on deadline day, qualifies on that respect but despite the late goal that briefly sparked hopes of a fightback he was largely anonymous in a three-pronged attack alongside Shola Ameobi and Owen.
Both him and Ignacio Gonzalez, summoned from the bench as Newcastle rallied briefly in the closing stages, deserve time to prove themselves but United need match-winners now if they are to ward off the threat of a long struggle against the drop.
They didn’t have one on Saturday, and the day was brought to an ignominious end when Guthrie was given a straight red card for aiming a vicious kick at Craig Fagan, a reaction to the niggling spoiling tactics of the visitors.
Given the timescale involved with selling a multi-million pound business it is unlikely to be the final act of the Ashley era, but it certainly felt like the beginning of the end for his much-maligned regime.
Newcastle: Given, Edgar (Bassong 68), Taylor, Coloccini, N’Zogbia, Geremi, Butt, Guthrie, Xisco, Owen, Ameobi (Gonzalez 61). Subs (not used): Harper, Cacapa, Danquah, Doninger, Donaldson.
Sent Off: Guthrie (90).
Goal: Xisco 82.
HULL: Myhill, McShane, Turner, Gardner, Dawson, Mendy (Folan 73), Marney (Hughes 78), Ashbee, Halmosi, King (Zayatte 83), Fagan. Subs (not used): Duke, Windass, Geovanni, Ricketts.
Booked: Folan, Halmosi.
Goals: King 34 pen, 55.
Referee: Andre Marriner (W Midlands).
STATISTICS – Shots: Newcastle 15 Hull 9.
Corners: Newcastle 5 Hull 3.
Fouls: Newcastle 13 Hull 17.
Offsides: Newcastle 3 Hull 4.