The post mortem into Newcastle’s derby defeat to Sunderland this afternoon will make plenty of reference to John Carver. Rightly, too, because his team’s performance betrayed the difference between his coaching CV and that of his opposite number, Dick Advocaat.
That, however, is a short-term problem. Newcastle will surely replace Carver in the Summer, but - as night follows day - the cycle that they exist within will surely continue.
The culture is a problem. Not every on-field issue can be traced back to Mike Ashley, but the mentality which has been bred in the North-East has, and continues to, put the side at a perpetual disadvantage. This is the second season in a row during which, after a healthy points total had been established, the side’s performance has flat-lined. On each occasion mitigating circumstances have applied - the sale of Yohan Cabaye, the departure of Alan Pardew - but it’s difficult not to see that as a manifestation of what happens at board level.
Newcastle are very brazen about their Premier League intentions. The limit of their ambition is tenth place, they view cup competitions with unwarranted suspicion and they sign players who are likely to appreciate in value rather than those who would aid a team-building process.
The last part is the biggest concern, because it bleeds into everything else. The message to new signings is, essentially, ‘if you sign for us, one day you might get to play for a proper football club’.
Maybe that’s a very clever business strategy, but it has the consequence of ensuring that no collective ambition can ever exist within a squad - and it’s days like today, in games which as supposed to have some resonance, when that is at its most visible.
It doesn’t really relate to pride or passion or any of the other intangibles which add up to derby success, it’s about consequence. If a club sells itself as a holding pen for developing talent, what do seasons add up to beyond the collection of salaries, bonuses, and the development of a set of individual reputations?
That doesn’t completely explain any loss, but that issue never seems to be far from the surface with this Newcastle team.
In one sense, Mike Ashley and Lee Charnley are right: the club cannot compete with the league’s behemoths and it would be foolish to attempt to contradict that. It would be naive, however, to believe that other Premier League sides don’t also appreciate that and don’t also understand that they are operating under a glass ceiling.
The difference is that those other clubs rage against that reality, whereas Newcastle cheerfully embrace it. The ‘pointlessness of ambition’ argument at St James’ Park often sounds like an opportunistic excuse and a convenient asterisk against extremely cynical ownership.
It’s a bit of a simplification, but doesn’t it just feel as if this team is a reflection of the half-hearted manner in which it was constructed? Just like last season, once survival was basically secured the desire to actually achieve anything beyond existence evaporated - and that’s a very true reflection of the boardroom.
Who can blame these players, either? If their employers publicly follow the path of least possible resistance, what is that they’re supposed to be fighting for? If this team ever showed any visible sign of progress, if it ever achieved anything, those players know that its most important components would instantly depart.
How will that ever translate into anything positive? How are these players supposed to ignore the palpable sense of futility?
The difference today wasn’t talent and the earlier point about the coaching disparity is only half-relevant; Newcastle United don’t win these kind of games because they’re a team in name only, a group of players who know that they have no definite future together and who, subsequently, have no real obligation to the shirt that they’re wearing.
Better players might help that and a more credible manager would be of use, but this is a problem which transcends personnel changes and a few new faces are not going to disguise the overwhelming pointlessness of being a player at this club.
Newcastle are, unfortunately, a testament to the importance of identity.
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