Watching your side play Manchester City away from home is a strange feeling. With the Etihad Stadium now expanded to reflect its incumbent’s status in the game, it’s an environment which radiates with artificial advantage and any visiting team has to battle an inferiority complex as well as technical inferiority.
As a fan, you go there to watch your side lose. You may not accept it at the time or even during the game, but it’s a journey taken in hope rather than expectation.
They are the Harlem Globetrotters, you are the sacrificial Washington Generals.
So that’s the situation into which Newcastle United will walk tomorrow, freshly removed from their heartening 2-2 draw with Chelsea last weekend.
They will almost certainly lose. Even without Yaya Toure, City will probably prove too strong for them and, with a tandem of £50m wingers flanking one of the world’s most lethal forward and one the game’s most creatively potent attacking-midfielders, there are no excuses for this not being a home-win.
So if Newcastle are on a hiding to nothing, what is actually required of them?
To perform like a proper team.
Last weekend was impressive because, for the first time under Steve McClaren, those Newcastle players all appeared to be pulling in the same direction. The defensive organisation was generally excellent, the forward phases bubbled with verve and intent and, even if that didn’t quite add-up to three points, it was a welcome sign of improvement.
Or was it?
Even during the Ashley malaise, Newcastle have a handy record against elite sides at St James’ Park. Because of the context in which those results have occurred, they have to be treated with suspicion and as a symptom of the squad’s selective application. Jamie Carragher made a very pertinent point on Monday Night Football about the structural shape of that fixture and, again saliently, made the case that it would be impossible for Newcastle to replicate that type of performance against a lesser side. He was right - but the ability to counter-attack or a side’s willingness to be proactive and to expose themselves doesn’t effect their opponent’s baseline effort.
While it may be reductive to claim that Newcastle’s players have been guilty of pure apathy in the past, it’s not unfair to suggest that they have frequently lacked professional pride. Goals have been celebrated, tackles made, and headers won, but there’s always been the lingering sense that those actions have been powered by the wrong motivation. Those players care about their own reputations rather than the club’s overall cause and that, at the top of the game, will always show through.
Maybe it’s not apparent against a Chelsea or a Manchester United, but that dirty quality is always there, lurking beneath the surface and ready to reveal itself at St Mary’s or Villa Park.
So, if last weekend is to be a waypoint on this club’s road to respectability, then it has to be proven not to be a confidence trick. Was it the players or was it the crowd? Was it the manager or was it the television cameras? Newcastle can lose on Saturday and there would no disgrace in that, but the way they lose will still be important. It’s away from home and in a circumstance in which losing heavily would be forgivable, but will the team McClaren selects rage against that probability or will they take advantage of it and tune out for the afternoon? Will they work for an hour-and-a-half or will they bow to the inevitable if they concede the first goal?
Football teams - proper football teams - fight. Not just when the mood is right and when the sun is out, but always. They’re tightly bound tactically and hard to beat, irrespective of whether they’re the underdog or the favourite, playing Chelsea or Norwich. They are units. A group of player who understand that they can never individually be more than they add up to as a side.
Performance is everything for Newcastle tomorrow; they need to have enough professional pride not to be tempted by all the easy justifications for defeat. Prove that a corner has been turned and that the club isn’t on the same road to nowhere.