Villa Park provided the backdrop for Newcastle United’s Premier League relegation in May, 2009, as an own goal from Toon misfit Damien Duff, one of a slew of under achievers on the books at the time, consigned the team to a 1-0 defeat that meant they beat Hull to the drop by a single point.
Disaster on the face of it, but ultimately the demotion proved a blessing, with declining veterans and mercenaries released into the wilderness, and a squad of courageous warriors forged under the astute leadership of the club’s underrated coach Chris Hughton.
Fast forward seven years and Villa Park once more played host to the Magpies’ struggle to survive the drop, the nails in the coffin this time provided by a 0-0 draw against the already relegated hosts, coupled with arch-rivals Sunderland’s 3-2 win against Chelsea. Commence doom and gloom.
This time it feels different. In appointing Rafa Benitez, Newcastle have finally placed the club under the supervision of an elite leader, this disappointing stalemate making it five matches without defeat for the first time in around 18 months.
That survival is even possible at this stage is courtesy of the Spaniard organising a hitherto malfunctioning back four into something resembling a half-decent defence; dispensing with previous stalwarts Fabricio Coloccini and Steven Taylor in favour of young, teachable central defenders, led brilliantly by the supremely gifted Jamaal Lascelles, a 22 year-old left out in the cold for the majority of previous Manager Steve McLaren’s soul sapping tenure.
There is so much more to lose now. The club’s most natural outlet, Andros Townsend, is said to have an £8m relegation release clause in the deal he signed during the Winter window and a queue of admirers, whilst the likes of Benitez and his staff are unlikely to stick around to oversee things in the lower leagues.
There are no battle hardened spearheads in the mould of Kevin Nolan, no talismanic Andy Carroll’s coming through the youth team. The remnants of this latest disaster conceivably a team sheet smothered with names luminaries as Riviere, Ameobi, Gouffran, Haidara and Saivet.
Players recruited at the say so of Chief Scout Graham Carr, a man formerly held in high esteem. As the results of his approved acquisitions have diminished, so has the reputation of the 71 year-old, who despite working within the constraints of a blinkered blueprint could surely not have been expected to get it so spectacularly wrong so often.
Adam Armstrong offers hope, although his flame has dimmed in the latter months of a loan spell at Coventry City. Other gifted youth prospects such as Rolando Aarons and Kevin Mbabu are beset by regular injuries and have contracts that expire imminently. Will they be keen to stay put at a club seemingly in perpetual transition? Nobody could blame them, or the likes of Freddie Woodman for wanting to escape the Titanic.
Of course, in an ideal world the parachute payments of around £45m, as well as a reduction of wage bill with the release of high earners such as Taylor, Papiss Cisse, Marveaux et al, would allow the club to somehow talk some of the better players, and more importantly the management team, into staying put.
In reality any scenario where clubs actually want to purchase and pay wages to the likes of Riviere, Gouffran, Haidara, Coloccini (Palace apparently willing to pay £4m last Summer!) and others is wishful thinking indeed; the equivalent of sticking your best of Steps album on eBay with a £20 reserve.
Wijnaldum may be easier to shift, and for such a talented player he has probably been our biggest flop in the second half of the season. He’s a quality player in full flow, with bags of pace and technical skill, but as the seasons have changed so seemingly has his attitude.
A team with a spine of Elliot/Darlow/Krul, Lascelles, Mbemba, Dummett, Mbabu, Tiote, Aarons, Armstrong, Mitrovic and Perez could probably bounce back from the second tier, but make no mistake; this will not be a glorified 102 point cake walk as in 2009-10. If we scrape promotion by our cuticles it will be an excellent achievement. If we don’t then a prolonged drift around the bowels of English League football is likely to commence.
Our football club has become the sweaty man hiding a secret, in Rafa we are punching several weights too high already, we might be able to get Nigel Pearson or Tim Sherwood to shout us back up though.
For Aston Villa relegation provides a broom to sweep away the rubble, for Newcastle United it channels the gust of wind that blows away a short lived promise of better times. This one really hurts because this time we were given hope.