NEWCASTLE UNITED’s fans are incredible. Just consider the club’s honours list: last trophy of any significance, 1969; most recent FA Cup triumph, 1955; last league title, 1927. They haven’t had much to cheer about, but they are intensely loyal, passionate and mostly, very well behaved considering that the river Tyne, in football terms, has been very foggy for years.
At Fulham, they were signing their hearts out to try and persuade Rafa Benitez to stay at the club. And who can blame them? Benitez is a top quality jobbing manager who likes to be in work. Unappreciated up the road from Fulham, he does a job and does it well. That’s why there’s no shortage of clubs that would take him on. Newcastle like a high profile manager – Keegan, Dalglish, Gullit, Robson and Benitez fits very well into that group. But, as we all know, this is a club that has underperformed for decades.
Some would say that the reason Newcastle United, with its great support, has been unsuccessful is because of where it is, that the commercial and cultural heart of the nation is in the south, underlining the overwhelming concentration on London and the capital flows that accompany it. Newcastle as a city, has suffered when the country tips into recession and its football club, despite a few peaks and false dawns, has never really recovered its status it enjoyed in Victorian and Edwardian times.
This was the final day of the 2018-19 season and attention was really focused on Brighton and Merseyside. Fulham were already relegated and Newcastle’s main concern was the future of “Wor Rafa”.
Relegation at some clubs provokes a sense of anarchy and betrayal. Sunderland fans kicked seats to bits when they fell into League One in 2018 and when some clubs have been relegated, there has been a pervasive sense of doom and apocalypse. When Manchester United went down in 1974, there was something very surreal about it. None of this at Fulham, it was all smiles and loud cheers for a squad that was clearly out of its depth in the Premier.
There’s a great deal of hope in the air at Craven Cottage, a belief that the squad picked by Moneyball logic can regroup and win promotion in 2020. There’s plenty of singing about Scott Parker, the newly installed head coach, who some insist is “one of our own”. Charlton Athletic may have something to say about that.
Parker clearly has the fans’ vote at the moment, but his record, despite three recent wins, does not inspire too much confidence. It is said the players are happier than earlier in the season, but it hasn’t really translated into results – Fulham may have won against Everton, Cardiff and Bournemouth, but when it truly mattered, they have fallen short. Parker was in charge (temporarily and full time) for 10 games and he lost seven. That’s a win rate of 30%, admittedly better than the two previous occupants of the manager’s seat.
But how many of the summer of 2018 signings will still be with Fulham next season? One would assume that not many, that there will be get-out clauses in their contracts, with relegation being one of the events that could trigger a move. The club may also want to dispose of some of their acquisitions given the likely lower level of income. Others may wish to leave a relegated club. There has been talk of the still developing Ryan Sessegnon defecting to Tottenham or West Ham, while Aleksandar Mitrovic has apparently expressed a desire to leave Fulham.
Fulham were poor against Newcastle, who looked like a team with a point to prove. The first goal was a superb strike from Jonjo Shelvey, who may be wondering what life would have been like at Liverpool should he have stayed at the club. Alternatively, he may be thinking that, with a name like his, how did he avoid being cast in the TV series, Peaky Blinders. Shelvey, who is more Chadwell Heath than Small Heath (the Peaky HQ), sublimely controlled the ball when it came out to him from a corner and his finish was pure quality. Silence at the Hammersmith End, deep-throated cheering from the Geordies at the opposite end. Pretty soon it was 2-0 after Sergio Rico failed to stop Christian Atsu’s low shot.
Fabian Schär’s header in the 61stminute was textbook, but nobody was marking the Swiss centre back. Finally, Salomón Rondon made it 4-0 in the dying seconds. It was not the sort of result Fulham needed as they down-size for the Championship and head for the summer. “A change of attitude and personnel,” said Scott Parker of the outlook for 2019-20. One word of caution, though, don’t let Tony Khan near player recruitment, Fulham.