NEWCASTLE United have the next two weeks to contemplate what this woeful performance at Stoke has done, a fortnight to ponder the relegation battle they have thrown themselves into and to somehow work out how they are going to get out of it.
The Magpies were always going to be fighting for survival this season. If anything, they have over-achieved this season, staying clear of the relegation scrape for the vast majority of the campaign, even pushing themselves into European contention for a brief, surprising moment.
But it was always going to be where they ended up in May that mattered, and on current form they are in danger of allowing themselves to be dragged into the horrible mess below them.
Statistics can be used to illustrate so many different things, sometimes the same ones can even be manipulated to argue conflicting viewpoints.
For some, Newcastle have lost just three of their last ten games, for others they have won only one of those ten. At the very least they have been treading water while others have been on the move.
Two wins in 2011 is represents a depressing lack of a killer touch and both have come against teams, Birmingham City and West Ham, who are in and around the drop zone. The Magpies have been playing reasonably well up until now, they could well have won games they ended up drawing, but they were sluggish and slack at Stoke.
Bereft of a goal threat, lacking creative flair and width, shaky and error prone at the back. All the ingredients of a bad side. They certainly looked like one at the Britannia, although in truth they are better than this. Instead they are a decent side which has lost its way and that should be a major concern for manager Alan Pardew.
As often as they deny it, there is a suspicion some already believed they were safe, that satisfying mid-table mediocrity beckoned and summer holidays could be booked.
This was the painful reminder there is much work to be done before any summer breaks or recruitment drives can begin. Wolverhampton Wanderers are the next visitors to St James’ Park and for the first time since Sunderland rolled up and rolled over back in October, it is a must-win home game for the Magpies.
Win that and worries will ease, there will be no need for panic. Lose and all those painful, sickening memories of the spring of 2009 will come flooding back and the flood gates will open on the manager and his players. Newcastle never got going against a Stoke side riding the crest of an FA Cup semi-final wave.
Confident as they prepare for that Wembley date – why it is not being played at Old Trafford is beyond me – and keen to drag themselves away from danger themselves, they took full advantage of United’s limitations. Not until the second half did they put the game to bed, but even in the first half they looked far more likely to win it.
Stoke took the lead through Jon Walters’ near post header, as he moved in front of a flat-footed Sol Campbell to nod in Jermaine Pennant’s accurate near-post cross. Newcastle did respond and, in the 20 minutes before half-time, they looked the better side.
Yet, for all of their pressure and possession, without the departed Andy Carroll and the injured Leon Best, they rarely looked like scoring. Peter Lovenkrands failed to get on the end of a Shola Ameobi centre while Danny Higginbotham did well to clear a dangerous Kevin Nolan cross. And Shane Ferguson – on for the clearly unfit Jose Enrique after just 23 minutes – almost surprised Asmir Begovic with a hooked effort which was creeping underneath the crossbar before the goalkeeper got a hand to it.
Newcastle’s lack of width was worrying and Pardew’s 3-5-2 formation simply did not work against a side which plays with two wingers and thrives off crosses to tall, powerful targetmen.
However, individual and collective errors, not formations, led to their downfall.
Still in the game at half-time, they were out of it within just four minutes of the second-half.
First, Steve Harper dwelt on the ball when he should have punted it high upfield – the goalkeeper’s bootlace was undone which offers some semblance of a defence – gave it to Kenwyne Jones, who fed Matthew Etherington, whose cross was turned in by Pennant after Campbell had nodded it on to him.
Moments later and Stoke had all but secured the win that lifts them above United in the table, the disappointing Cheick Tiote clipping the legs of Jones on the edge of the area, allowing Danny Higginbotham to smash the ball into the roof of the net as Tiote ducked out of the way.
Newcastle tried to get back into it, a magnificent run by Ferguson, in which he beat three Stoke defenders, a rare highlight, while Barton had a free-kick turned away by Begovic.
Ferguson’s performance was an exciting glimpse of the potential he offers.
But Stoke looked comfortable throughout and even Ricardo Fuller, on as a late substitute, escaped any sort of punishment for kicking Barton – who had riled the home support with perceived play-acting all afternoon.
The Jamaican rubbed salt into the wounds soon after when he ran on to Walters’ flick and drilled the ball into the bottom corner with Harper hopelessly exposed by his defence once again.