Halfway to nowhere: are North East clubs at a crossroads?

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Through the darkness of recent times, football has offered a beacon of light and hope to many. Think that’s a load of rubbish? Then there’s a decent chance you support someone from the North East.

Newcastle at a crossroads?

For the first time this season, it is difficult to figure out what to make of Newcastle. Until recently it was pretty clear: they were terrible. Admittedly, the combination of injury and Covid-19 hit them harder than most, but the sides they were selecting were still, fundamentally, Premier League quality. Or rather they should’ve been.

The lowest point came on arguably the day of the highest importance. An FL Cup quarter-final defeat to Brentford saw the Magpies squander their best shot at a trophy, or even just a final, for years. Steve Bruce’s men went to West London and were beaten not just by the better side on the night, but by the better team full-stop. Brentford, without eight key first-team players, seemed to be an objectively better team than them. A Championship side’s second string was too good for Newcastle United.

Then another humiliation from a team clad in red and white – a familiar feeling for the Toon Army – was dished out at Bramall Lane. Sheffield United had two points coming into the game and were giving an excellent audition for the role of ‘worst Premier League team ever’. Enter Newcastle, with three centre-halves, Paul Dummett deployed at left wing-back and, just in case that didn’t afford enough protection to keep the bluntest of Blades sides at bay, three holding midfielders. They lost 1-0.

Another defeat, this time to Leeds, featured a moment that summed up the Magpies’ plight. Along with the remarkable ease of the visitors’ goals, there was a free-kick in the first half, about 35 yards out in a central area. The defenders came forward and the commentators started rattling off Leeds’ appalling record at defending set-pieces. Experienced pro and gifted technician Jonjo Shelvey was poised. He walked up to the ball and, as nonchalantly as you like, booted the ball into the Leazes End. This wasn’t just a poor delivery: it was the delivery of a man who had given up.

Disillusionment with club and manager leave a looming sense that the return to misery is not far away.

Such signs made the 2-0 win at high-flying Everton a few days later more than a little surprising. The one continual positive of their campaign has been the form of Callum Wilson. Left to feed off the most meagre of scraps, the summer arrival is into double figures. After a defeat to Crystal Palace came yet another serious source of hope.

The win over Southampton, admittedly a Southampton fresh from their latest 9-0 defeat, was the result of a team determined to have a go at their visitors. Newcastle were too hot to handle for Southampton’s defence – heads still spinning from their last outing – and all was going swimmingly until Jeff Hendrick, surely one of their biggest disappointments this term, got needlessly sent off.

Injury to Fabien Schär with 10 to play left Newcastle with nine men to hold on to a one-goal led, and, to a man, they heroically battled their way to three points. Were it not for injury to Callum Wilson, this performance, including an excellent debut from Arsenal loanee Joe Willock, would be an inspiring belief in what could be to come. As it is, long term disillusionment with both club and manager leaves a looming sense that the return to misery is not far away.

Sunderland going nowhere fast

Sunderland envy clubs who fear a return to misery. They must have a reason to not be entirely miserable. The sacking of Phil Parkinson was one such reason on Wearside, as was the appointment of Lee Johnson, who seemed to be just what was needed. And he still is. What is also needed is a miracle.

As the spectre of season four in League One becomes increasingly less like a ghost haunting the banks of the River Wear and more of a solid reality that must now be faced, Sunderland seem like a team even Klopp or Guardiola couldn’t get a tune out of. Wins over Wimbledon, Ipswich and in the previous meeting with Shrewsbury had taken Sunderland well into the promotion conversation in the midst of a league which seems to get poorer with every passing season. A Papa John’s Trophy semi-final awaits and frontman Charlie Wyke has been nothing short of brilliant this season – a man much maligned before this term – is now the league’s leading goal scorer with 17 goals.

And yet the consensus is that while we may be halfway through the campaign, Sunderland are not halfway to anywhere – at least nowhere particularly good. The club desperate to make 1-1 draws fashionable have clocked up a league-high 11 deadlocks this term, including a deeply concerning 2-2 with Gillingham. Steve Evans’s men turned up at the Stadium of Light determined to launch an aerial bombardment that would turn Burnley pale. No Sunderland player stood up to it, as The Lads were bullied by the Gills frontline and incapable of keeping the ball in a truly turgid second half, before eventually caving in to a last gasp equaliser.

The return of Aiden McGeady gives Sunderland some much-needed, albeit frustratingly inconsistent, quality and the early signs around Jordan Jones, who arrived on loan from Rangers, are that his electric pace will at the very least liven things up a bit. The puzzle remains this: Sunderland have better players than everyone else in the league, better facilities, a better manager and yet, nearly three years into the League One odyssey, they are no closer to having a better team than everyone else. The impending takeover offers hope, as does the removal of the nonsensical salary cap, but ultimately, the players at the club should already be good enough.

Maybe it requires the acceptance that Sunderland are not ‘a massive club in League One’, but that Sunderland are a ‘League One club’. Because it won’t be long before the latter becomes the truer of the statements. That Lee Johnson is the best man to try and solve this puzzle, I have no doubt. That the puzzle itself has a solution – anyone not doubting that at this stage is merely fooling themselves.

Silver linings on Teesside?

This silver lining comes in the form of Neil Warnock. The fact that Warnock’s Middlesbrough have the most cause for positivity says it all, really. They may be inconsistent, the squad may be on the older side, and the boss may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but the ‘Boro’ are well placed as the ‘best of the rest’ in the Championship.

Home defeats to Rotherham and Blackburn were frustrating to a set of supporters who are now well aware that this season could well be going beyond the 46 games, but January ended with a point at leaders Norwich, which could even have been three. Late January also brought Neeskens Kebano – a standout in Fulham’s ultimately successful run-in last term – and Yannick Bolasie to the Riverside, a signing which at the very least had the rest of the league taking note.

Defeat to Brentford, even by four goals to one, is to be excused as it is looking increasingly as if the Bees are a cut above the rest of the division, though defeat last weekend to Wayne Rooney’s Derby will send alarm bells ringing. Ultimately, bar the top two, there appear to be no exceptional sides in this league, where last season there were arguably five for much of the campaign, so Middlesbrough must be seeing this as a shot, albeit an outside one, at securing a play-off spot and returning to the big time.

Image: Walt Jabsco via Creative Commons

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