Newcastle 08/09: Premier League relegation despair for Toon Army

You could hear it leading all the way to the Quayside, through China Town and the Bigg Market; that deep hum of discontent.

There was a buzz around Newcastle on September 13, 2008, but it felt different, uneasy and angry. The supporters were in battle-mode, ready to fight for their voices to be heard.

Walking past the Tyneside Irish Centre, opposite St James’s Park, suspicions the visit of Hull City that day would not be a run-of-the-mill Premier League encounter were confirmed.

An organised protest, with the aim of forcing owner Mike Ashley to sell the club after the resignation of manager Kevin Keegan over Newcastle’s handling of transfers, was in full swing.

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Keegan would successfully take Ashley and the board – which also included Derek Llambias, Director of Football Dennis Wise and Tony Jimenez – to court and win on the grounds of constructive dismissal. He had been undermined for the entirety of his second spell at Newcastle and though he had escaped, vindicated and able to forget how his dream return turned into a living nightmare, the fans were left reeling and without a direction to turn.

Over the course of nine months, Ashley and his regime, unceremoniously dubbed the Cockney Mafia, had eroded trust from those who mattered most. What was to come, though, was even mote damaging.

Hull were newly promoted and, like so many before them, hell-bent on giving the Premier League’s elite a bloody nose. Despite a 5-1 humiliation at home to Wigan Athletic bringing them down to earth with a rather harsh bump before an international break, four points from their opening three games ensured they were more than a match for the wounded Magpies. In so many ways, the result didn’t matter – it was about making a stand.

The atmosphere inside and outside the stadium was toxic. The anger was more than palpable and it was enough to see every one of its targets, except Llambias, stay well away.

Signing two players, Xisco and Ignacio Gonzalez, as a favour to an agent on Transfer Deadline Day, whom Wise had told Keegan to watch on YouTube, was the final straw. In quite the twist at the end of a game played in a boiling pot of ferocity, the former scored a consolation.

Newcastle lost 2-1 and Danny Guthrie was sent off in stoppage time for a leg-breaking challenge on Craig Fagan. It was needless, born out of frustration and quiet clearly stoked up by the afternoon of swirling vitriol around him.

That was the game that signalled Newcastle’s nosedive towards relegation had begun, but it was a long way off and there were so many disasters yet to come. Chris Hughton, caretaker manager on the day, would be thrust into a much greater role a year later – his dignity, humility and strength of character sowing the seeds of an eventual resurrection on Tyneside, but he was powerless to stop the spiral.

Ashley immediately placed Newcastle on the market and released a statement purporting to be emotional about that decision. Supporters saw through his crocodile tears, speaking publicly about mistakes and not acting upon them is still a hallmark of his ownership today, 13 years on.

Rather than attempting to quell the circus with a proven, cool-headed replacement for Keegan, Ashley appointed a new head clown as Joe Kinnear was drafted in from the footballing wilderness on an interim basis.

Kinnear made a mockery of the position  Sir Bobby Robson said required “dignity in office” by taking journalists to task over their coverage of his arrival in his very first press conference. He swore no fewer than 52 times, with the Daily Mirror’s Simon Bird and Niall Hickman of the Daily Express most prominently in his line of fire.

Ashley, who himself had spent much of his first season partying in Newcastle’s nightclubs and dancing in his replica shirt at away matches, had hired yet another incumbent to a position who refused to act in an appropriate fashion.

Consortia from all over the world came forward with an interest in buying Newcastle at a knock-down price and installing Keegan as manager again was top of many lists.

Kinnear would regularly feed reporters such speculation and it was duly reported. But it was all smoke and mirrors in the end as Kinnear was rewarded with a contract until the end of the season.

Newcastle were plugging along somewhat as autumn turned to winter. After three successive defeats, following the Hull result, closed out September in disastrous fashion, they lost just once and picked up five points in October. That one slip up came at the the hands of local rivals Sunderland; their first ever at the Stadium of Light and on Wearside at all since 1980.

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Roy Keane had driven the Black Cats forward in just over two years in charge. His players knew their jobs and remained together. They took the lead through Djibril Cisse and grabbed the winner with Kieron Richardson’s thunderous free kick in the second half. It was another sorry milestone reached for Ashley’s Toon.

Victory over Aston Villa at the start of November bred hope again, but the following two games at St James’s Park laid bare the systemic issues plaguing Newcastle. From winning positions, they surrendered leads, first to Wigan and then Stoke City. Stoppage-time goals, both conceded to former defenders Titus Bramble and Abdoulaye Faye, proved costly. There was a lack of leadership and character in a disillusioned squad.

But the season truly unravelled after a hefty 5-1 defeat to Liverpool on December 28. Shay Given was all that stood between the Reds and a cricket score as Steven Gerrard scored a hat-trick. Given, who was within touching distance of Newcastle’s all-time appearance record at the time, decreed enough was enough. He’d been a steady and often spectacular presence over the years, playing behind some leaky defences in incredibly attack-minded teams. But this was too much.

The image of him kicking the ball high into the Tyneside sky while each corner of the ground chanted his name after Gerrard’s third is memorable. At full time, he ran down the tunnel and got away from the storm, before handing in a transfer request. Less than a month later, he signed for Manchester City, cash rich with an exciting project, momentum and direction – everything Newcastle used to be and weren’t anymore. It was a no-brainer and worth much more than breaking a record, no matter how special it may have been.

Days before Given moved to City, Newcastle were outclassed at Eastlands. After the game, in one of the most comical acts of the season, Kinnear effectively cut any ties between the club and Charles N’Zogbia by referring to him as “Charles Insomnia” in an interview.

The enigmatic Frenchman had shown glimpses of his talent since emerging as a teenager and had already been eyeing the exit door. He didn’t need to be asked twice and grabbed the opportunity to use the gaffe as leverage to force the issue.

Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur were previously linked with N’Zogbia, but he ended up joining Wigan. The question of why has long been asked of the player in relation to the move, there is no comparison when it comes to sizing up the clubs and their obsession with football.

If anything, it painted the true picture clearest. Newcastle were such a basket case and so toxic, heading only one way and fast, they made Wigan enticing and desirable.

Kevin Nolan arrived from Bolton Wanderers, but while he would end up paying back the £4million fee numerous times over, the best of him would come much later. Newcastle needed to find a neutral zone, to tick along quietly and escape the headlines, but in February 2009, the campaign took another dramatic twist.

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Kinnear, who had a history with heart trouble, fell ill on the morning of a crucial relegation clash against West Bromwich Albion at the Hawthorns, he needed triple-bypass surgery. His team won the game 3-2, but he was forced to step away from his duties.

Hughton was put back in charge until April 1, when Alan Shearer answered an SOS call with eight games remaining. Ashley’s refusal to act quicker in the face of the Kinnear situation was a precursor to much greater examples of irresponsiveness on his part in the future and it certainly added to Shearer’s incredibly difficult brief.

Not even three years after retiring and with no managerial experience, he was tasked with saving the club he loved most. He couldn’t say no, but perhaps, for the sake of his career and aspirations, he should have.

While Shearer cared as much as any fan, it was said that he upset the applecart by making a raft of changes around the club. His sheer presence was supposed to galvanise the players and inspire a reconnection with supporters – before then, everything was fraught. It didn’t work.

Chelsea at home, his first task, was a bridge too far, but there was a glimmer of hope when Andy Carroll scored in a draw at Stoke.

Once again, it was Liverpool who exposed the deep rot at Newcastle when, at Anfield, they won 3-0. Joey Barton, Newcastle’s midfield Rottweiler, was sent off for a terrible challenge on Xabi Alonso and banished by Shearer as a result.

While a victory at home to relegation-threatened Middlesbrough offered salvation, but failure to beat Portsmouth at home beforehand and Fulham afterwards would decide their fate.

Newcastle headed to Aston Villa on the final day knowing they weren’t in control of their own destiny. Hull City and Sunderland, two clubs responsible for defining defeats earlier in the campaign, were favourites to stay up.

Damian Duff’s own goal summed up the ineptitude of Newcastle’s plight as the most damaging, self-inflicted poisoning of a club was complete.

Shearer stood on the sidelines holding back tears, stone-faced and crestfallen. He’d seen Newcastle at their best, battling for league titles, in cup finals and the Champions League. But all his hard work – and that of the likes of Keegan, Robson in the past – had been slowly unravelling for some time; it was all escalated by Ashley.

First, there was too much pantomime, with Keegan’s exit and then Kinnear’s arrival. Then, it was the failed fairy tale of Shearer; Newcastle have seldom been run like a normal club – and that was perhaps most obvious in this season.

The Evening Chronicle said Ashley had a “massive rebuilding job” ahead of a “less glamorous life of trips to Peterborough and Scunthorpe in the Championship.” They, like everyone, expected Shearer to oversee the new dawn, but Ashley struck once more by ignoring the former striker when it came to negotiations. Shearer is still waiting for that call now.

Still under the retail tycoon’s thumb, they remain trapped in a purgatory, waiting to break free while simultaneously flirting with disaster.

This particular rift was closed the next season when promotion was achieved at the first attempt, but there will always be the chance of implosion at Newcastle with the current owner on the scene.

Want more Kinnear? Listen to Episode Two of The Drop, Sob on the Tyne, on Spotify and wherever you listen to your podcasts

Newcastle 08/09: Premier League relegation despair for Toon Army
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