Easter is just around the corner, and the Christian calendar designates this time of year to celebrate the return of a Messiah. At Newcastle United, the return came just a little earlier.
Just five weeks ago, Kevin Keegan walked back through the St. James’ Park gates to take charge after 11 years away from the club and three years in the footballing wilderness.
As a player his time with the Magpies was brief but prolific, and when he rejoined the club in 1992 as a manager he worked the same sort of magic. In a five-year tenure, he guided the North East giants into the newly formed Premier League and set about a revolution in attacking free flowing football with some of the most exciting players in the game.
When club owner Mike Ashley made the monumental decision to re-establish “King Kev” in the Newcastle hot seat following the departure of Sam Allardyce, the fans turned out in force to revel in his return as if he'd been an old war hero.
Anticipation of the reinstallation of out-and-out attacking football and a steady rise up the table engulfed the club, the city, and nearly all of football.
Many, however, were skeptical. As the Premiership approaches its final months—and after five league games under Keegan—Newcastle United has failed to earn a win since December. The squad is now in 13th place with 28 points and the prospect of a relegation battle.
The Magpies have to play away at Liverpool, Birmingham, Tottenham, Portsmouth, West Ham, and Everton—all teams that have plenty to play for. Having picked up only eight points on their travels this season, Newcastle’s chances of gaining more in their fixtures away are slim.
Their five remaining home matches are their best chance to gain the points they need to avoid the ignominy of relegation. After a 5-1 spanking by reigning champions Manchester United this weekend, the Magpies need to find a quick response to the gloom as dark clouds gather over the Gallowgate.
But their run in at home will be far from easy. Visits from Mark Hughes’ Blackburn and title contenders Chelsea in their final home game, sandwich within them three relegation “six pointers” and include a North East derby with bitter rivals Sunderland.
And of course these adversaries would truly enjoy condemning their Geordie counterparts to a spell in the second tier of English football.
Keegan’s biggest concern will be his defense, which has the third worst record in the league behind Reading and Derby County. In Keegan’s first round in charge of the club, the goals flowed in at both ends.
Back then, Newcastle’s players were more adept at scoring one more than their opponents.
Unfortunately, this approach does not seem to be working this time around. The squad has conceded nine goals in four games, managing only three in reply. Even the return of England striker Michael Owen has failed to inspire a goal glut at the right end of the pitch.
At first glance it seems astonishing that a team boasting members Owen, Nicky Butt, Obafemi Martins, Alan Smith, Mark Viduka, Damien Duff, and Shay Given are in this kind of trouble. Injuries have not helped Newcastle this season and the violent off field antics of midfielder Joey Barton has dragged the club into an even deeper mire.
Where Allardyce failed to inspire his team to perform, Keegan was hoped to prevail.
Then again, perhaps it was foolish to assume that Keegan would find the pulse of the Premiership straight away. He’s been out of football for so long and has even claimed not to have watched a game since he left his last managerial post at Manchester City in 2005.
How could we expect him to cut it in a league that develops and moves as quickly as the players who adorn it?
More importantly, Keegan’s appointment in mid-January left him with only two weeks of the transfer window available to assess and improve his squad.
Newcastle’s one saving grace is that three teams are likely to fair worse. The Reading squad has not won since December and has lost their last eight league games. Fulham have won only once in the last 16 and also have a new man in charge.
Derby have won only once all season—against Newcastle. With just nine points on the board in 27 games, this club is all but relegated.
As fate would have it, Newcastle must face both Reading and Fulham before the season is done. With only nine points separating them, it could get very ugly should Keegan’s men continue to struggle.
Realistically, Newcastle’s relegation is unlikely. Though the three at the foot of the table will probably remain in the same condition through May, there are also many other struggling clubs between them—and none have the squad that the Geordies have.
On the more cautious side however, no team is too good to go down. West Ham proved this nearly five years ago with Joe Cole, Paolo Di Canio, Jermaine Defoe, Michael Carrick, and Trevor Sinclair in the ranks.
It’s the results that matter and as it stands now, Keegan is yet to win a league game. If that continues the fans may need to look past their newly restored savior and turn to a higher entity for the answering of their prayers.