Never has there been a state of instability in the midst of permanence than at Newcastle, and for years Toon supporters have clamoured for better at the club. Their banner of ‘We don’t demand a team that wins, we demand a team that tries’ back in 2014 was one of the many ways they’ve used to voice their displeasure at the players, managers, and, most noticeably, owner Mike Ashley, a team which such heritage, and support, should surely do better than tussle with relegation and promotion.

But there’s a sense of resignation, the feeling of it being inevitable, almost nothing to hope for, once it gets to the FA Cup, a competition with history and prestige, not unlike Newcastle, but one in which the Tyneside club have faltered miserably in. Their 3-0 loss to Chelsea in the Fourth Round this weekend means they’ve failed to get past this stage of the competition for 12 years. From managers Glenn Roeder, Sam Allardyce, Joe Kinnear, Chris Hughton, Alan Pardew, John Carver, Steve McClaren to Rafa Benitez; from the cupsets like defeats to Stevenage (2011), Oxford (2017), Brighton (2012 and 2013); the expected defeats- Arsenal (2008), Chelsea; to the unacceptable outcomes- West Brom (2010), Hull City (2009), Birmingham (2007); once it gets to the stage, the Toon Army just know the game is up.

And the game was up by half-time at Stamford Bridge, in the latest instalment of Newcastle’s regular FA Cup exits. The Magpies had begun the game in good stead, Jonjo Shelvey had tested Willy Caballero with a decent effort, not long after Massadio Haidara’s cross had caused the Blues defence some uncertainty, while earlier on Chelsea had been caught out in front of their own box, but some poor communication between Dwight Gayle and Matt Ritchie saw it amount to nothing. And on the half hour mark, they would fall behind, Michy Batshuayi tapping home in front of a rather unguarded net. Newcastle did finish the first half strongly, Shelvey forcing Caballero into two more saves, and the Argentine goalie also had to react well to deny Chancel Mbemba, but by then Batshuayi had added a second, and it was a long way back, if any.

‘We did well in the first half, we had chances, put them under pressure,’ said Benitez. ‘We made a mistake in the counter-attack for the first goal after the second goal we were unlucky. There is a big difference to play Chelsea at their home and be 2-0 down’. Marcos Alonso made it three for the hosts, who cruised through, while the visitors’ attentions will quickly turn to the league, as Benitez said, with Burnley coming to St. James on Wednesday, as Newcastle lie in 15th, only a point off the drop zone.

It was another routine cup exit for Newcastle, but with survival in the league to play, alongside Benitez’s clamour for new signings, not helped by takeover stand-off currently ongoing between Ashley and prospective buyer Amanda Staveley, it’s perhaps another side-track cut off, an unnecessary fly as they attempt to look at the big picture. Or given all that’s going on, perhaps progressing would have been a healthy distraction. Either way, there’s little time for the manager and players to ponder. Pressing issues still lie in wait.

Published in International Watch

It’s almost impossible, almost criminal in fact, to mention the FA Cup and not talk about its reputation for delivering shocks. Where else would you find a squad of part-timers and next-to-nobodies go full throttle against a team of superstars and come out on top? That teams don’t read the script has become the script of this competition, hence the prestige with which they revere it.

These days, though, the question is, do shocks really happen? That seems like a rather daft question: after all Lincoln City (from non-league) got to the last eight last season, beating Premier League Burnley on the way, the same season when League One side Millwall triumphed over then-Premier League champions Leicester City, and Championship struggling Wolverhampton Wanderers won at mighty Liverpool. Heck just three weeks ago, League Two’s Newport knocked out Leeds- two leagues above them- and Nottingham Forest were too much for Arsenal. But excuses keep popping up for most of those games, Burnley and Leicester would have been said to be relieved of the burden of an extra leg-tiring and wearing competition as they fought to survive in the Premier League, Liverpool were supposedly left to battle to keep their top four spot intact, while Arsenal’s loss at the City at the City Ground earlier this year, generated more headlines on the lacklustre squad and the future of manager Arsene Wenger than the Forest victory.

And over the years, it has kept happening. For almost a decade, of the three teams that get promoted from the Championship to the Premier League, only two have made it past the Fourth Round of the FA Cup (Hull City in 2016 and Huddersfield last season), both of which got promoted via the play-offs. For the rest, it has seemed like a case of ‘put it aside, we have much bigger business to attend to’. Arsenal have won the competition in three of the past four seasons, but before the run started, Wenger had emphasised the importance of finishing in the top four over lifting the country’s most prestigious, but least financially rewarding, competition. Wenger’s stance was echoed by Paul Lambert, then Aston Villa, who prioritised survival, while in 2014, Sam Allardyce fielded a weakened West Ham XI that was trounced 5-0 at Nottingham Forest.

So it was no surprise to hear David Moyes, current West Ham manager, prioritise league safety over the cup. Speaking about the fate of the Hammers upcoming opponents, Wigan, the Scot found it ‘a strange thing that they won the FA Cup and were relegated five years ago’. If you look back and ask Wigan if they’d rather have won the cup or stayed in the Premier League, I think their people would have rather stayed in the Premier League’. With West Ham facing a crucial home game against Crystal Palace on Tuesday after this, it’s clear what the target is for Moyes.

And who could blame him, or any of the managers treating this competition more of a burden than a chance of glory, with the financial benefits of getting to or staying in the Premier League ludicrously overwhelming. Wigan had their day in the spotlight following that FA Cup triumph over Manchester City at Wembley, but three days later they would lose their Premier League status. The following season they got to the Semis, and lost in the Championship play-offs, and they’ve suffered two further relegations since. Surely the Latics fans would have wondered what might have been if they hadn’t made it that far that season, how their fortunes might have been, if they hadn’t (ironically) won big on May the Fifth of 2013.

With Yeovil Town hosting Manchester United this weekend, alongside games involving Newport and Tottenham and Cardiff against Manchester City, there’s room for shocks. But with City fighting on four fronts (what seems like a ready-to-use excuse should they get knocked out of one), Cardiff having an eye on top-flight promotion, Yeovil battling to survive in League Two and Tottenham seeking to maintain their top four chase in the league, will there really be shocks, or simply, no matter the end result, fixtures to get out of the way?



Published in International Watch