NEWCASTLE United’s players held their Christmas party over the weekend. It probably started well enough, but ended as one of those nights when you are sat alone in the corner of a bar staring morosely into the bottom of a half empty glass of flat lager wondering where it all went wrong.
That was certainly the mood within St James’s Park on Saturday night as a stunned and speechless group of players traipsed out of the stadium still trying to come to terms with their failure to beat Stoke City despite taking a two-goal lead before the break.
It was miserable stuff and will have fuelled plenty of melancholy over the weekend. If the goalless draws at Chelsea and Middlesbrough were useful points on the road and acceptable in the circumstances, the opposite was true on this occasion – a poor result and a dreadful waste of two precious points.
Magnificent in the first half, the delicate nature of Newcastle threadbare squad was ruthlessly exposed in the second following an injury to Danny Guthrie, which forced manager Joe Kinnear to make some emergency repairs at half-time.
He can only do the best with what is available to him and at the moment he is trying to patch up a slit wrist with a plaster. Newcastle ended the game with a right-back, Habib Beye, playing on the right-wing, a centre-half, Steven Taylor, at right-back and another, Cláudio Caçapa, in the centre of midfield.
Stoke knew United were vulnerable because of the makeshift nature of their midfield and they grew in confidence as the Magpies clung on to their advantage.
United’s want-away owner Mike Ashley was not at St James’s Park on Saturday, still too scared to attend the ground where there remains so much ill-feeling towards him. But his managing director Derek Llambias was and we can only hope the former casino boss conveys the true grimness of the situation to him.
Kinnear has indicated he will be given money to spend in January and it is imperative he gets those funds. If he does not, the honest and bleak assessment of his side is that they will be in real danger of suffering a disastrous relegation which could crush the club financially and psychologically.
Some have disputed the results of a recent Journal survey which appeared to show 44% of fans were willing to accept Ashley as owner if he could not find a buyer. Ultimately, however, acceptance does not come into it and this is not a popularity contest.
Newcastle need Ashley to invest in players and Ashley needs to invest whether he is liked or not on Tyneside. Otherwise he is going to be the owner of a Championship club with a crippling wage bill and an alarming likeness to League One’s once-mighty Leeds United.
His net spend on new players since he took over is a little over £12m, a figure more than covered by the television deal with Sky. It is not unreasonable to suggest he will have to double that in the New Year if Kinnear is going to get the players he needs.
A left-back and a central midfielder are the most pressing concerns, even if the lack of progress on a new contract for Michael Owen remains equally critical.
Owen’s two goals, the first when he converted a delightful through ball from Jonas Gutiérrez and the second when he slid in Obafemi Martins’ equally pin-point cross, merely serve as an unnecessary reminder of his value to the cause.
Defending that lead in the second-half, Newcastle looked relatively comfortable at the back until Ricardo Fuller, on as a substitute, got in between Jose Enrique and Fabricio Coloccini and rolled the ball across for Mamadi Sidibe to tap in from close range.
That set the nerves jangling and even Shay Given seemed affected, unusually coming a long way off his line to make a punch. When he failed to make a proper connection Abdoulaye Faye could have bundled in an equaliser.
The former Newcastle defender would not be denied, though, poking the ball home from close range after the Newcastle defence had stood and watched Glenn Whelan’s free-kick fall to him on the edge of the six-yard box.
It was dreadful defending but it should also be pointed out that the free-kick, awarded by the linesman when Sébastien Bassong made the slightest of contact with Fuller – who did not even stumble – on the right touchline.
That infuriated Kinnear, who was sent off be referee Mike Riley, presumably for swearing at the linesman, although it may well have been a case of mistaken identity as it was his assistant, Chris Hughton, who appeared to be doing the majority of the complaining.
Kinnear has a reputation with officials and I wonder whether he was a victim of it here. No matter, with one charge already hanging over him, Newcastle’s manager can expect a lengthy touchline ban and a fine from the Football Association. As Hughton said in the post-match press conference, football is an emotional game. On days like this that felt like something of an understatement.