Monday’s under-21 match between Aston Villa and Newcastle wouldn’t have been marked in red in many fans’ diaries, but after the Magpies returned from the Midlands with a victory, fans will hope it turns out to be a point in time that in retrospect is hugely significant.
By all accounts, coach Peter Beardsley‘s front three of Siem de Jong, Facundo Ferreyra and 18-year-old Adam Armstrong looked sharp. It is probably too much to expect any of these three to pull the senior side of their current torpor single-handedly, but Newcastle need hope and succour anywhere they can find it right now.
Despite a horrific run of six successive Premier League defeats, John Carver’s side are not yet face-to-face with disaster. They remain seven points clear of 18th-placed Leicester, despite the recent surge of form from Nigel Pearson’s team. They should be safe from the drop, even on the 35 points that they currently count and odds of [44.0] suggest they have done enough already this year.
Yet as Carver himself was at pains to underline after the miserable derby defeat to Sunderland, ‘should be’ is not ‘definitely are’. Apart from a twitch at the beginning of the second half, Sunday’s latest loss – at home to Tottenham – was another abject, lifeless display, with Mauricio Pochettino’s side barely needing to get out of second gear to impose themselves.
Much has been said about Sunday’s atmosphere and the major supporters’ protest outside St James’s Park elsewhere, and the issues in terms of the club’s direction are clear. What should concern for the rest of this season, though (and what should concern owner Mike Ashley, even if he is indifferent to fans’ interests) is that Newcastle are in freefall.
Their starting position is not a problem, but if we assume that they need at least another three points to definitely secure safety, it starts to get tricky. Carver’s team, a patched-up imitation of a Premier League-worthy side, have scored just three times in their last eight games. It is often hard to see where the next goal is coming from, never mind the next point.
This is exactly why the progress of de Jong, Ferreyra and Armstrong is of interest. They may each have notable clauses attached to their potential ability to help out – de Jong has not played for the first-team since August via injury, the on-loan Ferreyra has been forgotten and has yet to make a competitive debut, while Armstrong’s age and inexperience means he shouldn’t be lumbered with the responsibility of hauling his club out of the mire.
There is a strong argument for Carver to unleash at least one of them this weekend, however, with Swansea the visitors to St James’s. They are the only opponents with (at least ostensibly) nothing to play for that Newcastle will face until the final match of the season, when West Ham visit. In between are meetings with the aforementioned Leicester, Queen’s Park Rangers and West Bromwich Albion (the first two of which are away), teams with plenty to play for – and, it has to be said, teams who have shown higher competence than the Toon of late.
One senses that Newcastle are favourites against Swansea ([2.46] to win) because there is really no alternative if the panic button is not to be pressed. The draw, at [3.4], looks good given their bluntness of late. What is sure is that we will have a better idea come 5pm on Saturday of exactly how worried the Gallowgate faithful should be.