After last weekend's catastrophic injury time defeat to Norwich, Newcastle United’s final few performances will decide whether the Toon Army will be making the long trip down to Southampton again next season or face a less demanding journey to Elland Road. With player commitment at an all-time low and a lack of senior leadership among the ranks, the chances of an escape act to rival Houdini’s ‘Water Torture Cell’ are slowly dwindling away. The travelling support were not here to build sandcastles, but for a Punch & Judy show of a very different kind; would this trip to the seaside result in joyous emotions scribbled in the sand or simply bad memories waiting to be washed away by the incoming tide?
Positioned near the left hand corner of the Northam Stand the Geordie faithful stood defiant as the game kicked off. It wasn’t long before the almost inevitable unfolded. After only four minutes Steven Taylor was left chasing shadows as he was hypnotized by the speed and agile footwork of the lively Shane Long; 1-0 Southampton.The despair from the stands was evident and a sense of déjà vu began to engrave itself upon the weary faces of the travelling support.
Even at this early stage Taylor looked completely out of his depth. One must wonder why Benítez opted to include him at the heart of an already fragile Newcastle defence when the infinitely more mobile and aerially adept Jamaal Lascelles sat slouched in the visitor's dugout. Does seniority and a career built upon being a ‘Geordie Lad’ warrant a starting place? Possibly in the current situation it does; however, that individual must lead by example and instill belief within their teammates, especially at a time when any lack of focus is unacceptable. This is a situation that Taylor should know all too well having faced a relegation battle under similar circumstances in 2009.
Credit must be given to the travelling fans, who didn’t let their heads drop, and instead rallied behind their team (as they have done all season) straight from the restart. The chants of ‘Rafa Benítez ’ grew louder. But surely, in the back of his mind, the Spanish waiter must have been wondering if he would have been better off pouring himself a large glass of Rioja, sitting on a sun soaked veranda and waiting for one of Europe’s elite to call and wake him from a prolonged summer siesta. Nevertheless, Benitez must be admired for wanting to get his hands dirty, lucrative pay deal or not.
Thirty-four minutes later and nothing had changed. The Newcastle players offered zero invention, coherence or passion. Not one passage of play was produced that convinced even the most bare chested of supporters that a fightback was imminent. A cardinal sin that is unforgivable in any circumstances, but in front of a proud yet neglected following it is almost morally reprehensible. When will players wake up and realise that they have the ultimate responsibility? The eleven men who take to the pitch every week always seem to escape inclusion in the league table of culpability when results and performances are considered unacceptable. Will we ever see the day when players are held accountable for poor form? Probably not, yet in any other profession employees showing similar attitudes and inept performances would be deemed surplus to requirements.
Looking on from the sidelines it was hard to pick anyone from the Newcastle side who was going to muster up the courage to try and change the script. Surely there was someone who wanted to alter the outcome of the post-match headlines that inevitably seemed to be spooling off the press even before the halftime whistle? Safe pass after safe pass were greeted with groans from the away end. Obviously this discontent does not translate well to the players on the pitch but who can blame the fans; they deserve so much better. By this point it was clear that not one Newcastle player was man enough to go looking for the ball, with each one as anxious as the next - cowering away, passing the ball backwards until only the goalkeeper, Karl Darlow, was left to take hold of the increasingly undesirable baton of responsibility.
Southampton were well organised, each player working for one another with a drive and determination that made the visiting fans secretly envious. This positivity and forward-thinking paid off as a swift counter attack resulted in a catastrophic slip by Janmaat which in turn presented Pellè with the chance to make it 2-0. The gentle ripple of the net sank the souls of the Toon Army deeper into the seemingly bottomless depths of despair. To compound the misery even further, Janmaat’s day was over as he limped off, replaced by Siem de Jong. One must wonder if John Carver was still at the helm would there have been insinuations of feigned injury in the post match interview? Everyone admires a team that goes down fighting but the first half from Newcastle was truly atrocious.
The start of the second half saw the introduction of Lascelles for Taylor with Anita switching to right back. A slight improvement in attitude was seen but normal service was resumed when Wanyama converted to make it 3-0 to the hosts. On fifty eight minutes the Toon Army finally had something to cheer about as Perez managed to fire Newcastle’s first shot on target. This effort was met with a sarcastic cheer from the away support, chanting ‘We’ve had a shot on goal, we’ve had a shot on goal’. A few minutes later the away fans had some cause for genuine celebration as Andros Townsend cut inside and fired a superb effort past the stationary Fraser Forster. Buoyed by Townsend’s thunderous strike the away support broke into further self-deprecating verse, singing ‘We’re gonna win 4-3, we’re gonna win 4-3’.
The fairytale comeback never materialised. When the final whistle was blown yet another indication of the lack of professionalism and commitment was evident. Not a single Newcastle player made their way over to the travelling Toon Army to show their appreciation. Cowardly stares and tentative applause were all that this group of Newcastle players could offer to the fans that had made the mammoth journey south as they walked down the tunnel licking their self-inflicted wounds. This was final confirmation that the dressing room has become a barren wasteland scavenged by mercenaries with no passion or pride for the club. The only players to take any credit from the game were Townsend and Lascelles with the latter showing the maturity lacking in the more senior players as he stood to face the post match media.
With Swansea making the trip to St. James’ next weekend, a win could change the mood around Tyneside. There has never been mutiny in the ranks of the faithful, but the so-called generals on the pitch are already waving the white flag.