x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Blind faith and costly mistakes - the story of Newcastle's demise

How fitting it was that Manchester United, dragged unwillingly into an English Premier League relegation dogfight in the immediate aftermath of being crowned champions, came victoriously through in the nerve-jangling final series of matches which determined which of their poorer relations clung on to elite status.

How fitting it was that Manchester United, dragged unwillingly into an English Premier League relegation dogfight in the immediate aftermath of being crowned champions of their country for a record-equalling 18th time, came victoriously through in the nerve-jangling final series of matches which determined which of their poorer relations clung on to elite status. Sir Alex Ferguson, United's triumphant manager, had returned to duty after wallowing in the Old Trafford title celebrations to be threatened, absurdly, with legal action if he did what every manager in his position would have done four days before a season-defining European Champions League final against Barcelona. The proposed summons was portrayed as a joint venture by three desperate North East neighbours -- Newcastle, Sunderland and Middlesbrough -- in pointing out that anything less than a full-on United presence at Hull City would be detrimental to their own survival hopes. Needless to say, all three clubs issued firm rebuttals that they had considered such action. Ferguson ignored those placatory messages in the same manner as he would have undoubtedly ignored the original slurs on his integrity. The Old Trafford manager sent out, as was his undoubted right, a team of fringe players to ensure that his main men are as fresh as possible for Wednesday's Rome showdown with the newly-proclaimed champions of Spain. As had always seemed likely, the United reserves still proved too good for a declining Hull team and did their business in a most professional manner, defeating their anxious hosts but not deflating them. The North East trio were given the result and the performance they wanted but none of them were good enough to take advantage and it became a question not so much the best of the three surviving but the least bad (Sunderland) after losing at home to Chelsea. Sunderland's reprieve, along with that of Phil Brown's Hull who did most of their unlikely survival work in the first half of the season, brought a ray of sunshine to Wearside as Tyneside and Teesside were cast into gloom and doom under dark clouds of uncertainty. Middlesbrough's relegation, though painful, will be dealt with philosophically by their well-respected chairman Steve Gibson who has been through it all before with a previous manager Bryan Robson. Gibson is not a trigger happy chairman and will probably show the same degree of loyalty to another distinguished former England international Gareth Southgate who wants to keep his job and carry out a rebuilding operation. Newcastle, on the other hand, will be cast into disarray by what has happened to them - an unthinkable situation in the view of those blinded by the fanaticism of being connected to one of the best supported teams in the game. Kevin Keegan turned Newcastle into everybody's second favourite club during his romantic spell as a player and then manager but by the time Keegan returned to try to rekindle his beloved club's fading fortunes, that nationwide popularity had disappeared to be replaced in the main by critical observations of how the club was being run. Alan Shearer, the only living former player who can claim to be more popular in the eyes of the Georgie faithful than Keegan, was the fourth man to take charge of team affairs this season and will now give much thought to whether he wants somebody else to have a go in the hottest of hot seats. The former England striker had eight matches to turn a tide which had grown into a torrent and he came up one agonising goal short of securing survival. One goal or one save? The strike at Villa Park which condemned Newcastle to the wilderness of second tier of domestic football after 16 years dining at the top table was deflected into their own net by Damien Duff. Goalkeeper Steve Harper failed to react quickly enough to stop the ball hit tamely by Aston Villa's Gareth Barry. Shay Given, the long-standing St James' Park No 1, might have done better. How typically misguided it was then to allow the inspirational Republic of Ireland international to move to Manchester City midway through the season. One of many costly mistakes made in haste by the beleaguered St James' Park hierarchy which they can now repent upon at leisure. wjohnson@thenational.ae