About a year ago, Newcastle sat just outside of the European qualification spots. They didn't look like legitimate contenders, but the prevailing thought among the Toon Army seemed to be that they could maybe luck into a berth in the Europa League, assuming they could keep Yohan Cabaye and continue their good form.
That didn't happen, of course. Cabaye was sold, Loïc Rémy spent much of the rest of the season injured, Alan Pardew was suspended for headbutting David Meyler, and the players left didn't look particularly motivated. They gained just 14 points over the second half of the season - the worst mark in the entire Football League.
This year's iteration of the team could be headed for a similar fate, or at least it feels like it. Pardew's Glad All Over now, but no New Manager Boost™ has been forthcoming. John Carver is essentially the same man, minus the handsomeness and charisma. Ayoze Perez, for all his talent, is being handicapped by being forced to play on an island. Mike Williamson continues to uselessly wonder forward for free kicks. Yoan Gouffran has somehow not been put out to pasture. There is no energy around the club.
One of Pardew's most glaring faults (or perhaps his most glaring? Your mileage may vary) was the blinding inconsistency that plagued the club throughout his tenure. Last year's 6th place/last place split represents the most stark of contrasts, but there is ample evidence on display this season alone. Newcastle started the campaign with four points from seven matches before reeling off five straight wins, plus one in the League Cup. Their most recent dip is best explained by injury, perhaps, with third-choice keeper Jak Alnwick's historically poor save percentage the best indicator of their problems. Alnwick wasn't the sole issue, however, and a turnaround will not happen if the entire defensive unit doesn't show marked improvement.
The team needs a spark, and the reality is that at least Pardew was able to provide that once in a blue moon. Carver has shown none of that in the ten matches he's been in charge of so far (counting the time he spent in charge while Pardew was suspended). Where will the spark come from? One candidate is Moussa Sissoko, who looks about as likely to leave as Cabaye did at this time last year, which is to say that nobody is safe until the window shuts. Another is Papiss Cissé, as long as he can stay relatively injury-free and in form, but he's in Africa and could be in Swansea at the end of the month. Ayoze, while young, seems capable of putting the team on his back if he's allowed to play a game that complements his skillset. A high-profile purchase could generate some energy around the team, but seems unlikely.
No, the best chance for turning Newcastle around is fresh blood in the
manager's head coach's office. Speculation has been rampant that Carver will remain as caretaker until the end of the season. If the plan is to replace him, it would be a mistake to wait to do so. The major difference between this year and the last is that Newcastle were exponentially safer at this point in 2014. On 13 January, they had 33 points, which was ten ahead of 10th place Hull City and fifteen ahead of 18th place Cardiff City. Today, they are only eight points above the drop zone and have fewer teams between them and the bottom. To put it simply, Newcastle United cannot afford another rock bottom spring.
If Rémi Garde (or any other prospective manager) wants the job, he needs to be about the business of saving Newcastle United today. If Mike Ashley and Lee Charnley wait to hire their man, it may be too late. I happen to like Garde as a candidate, but I worry about a manager that won't start until the summer. A lost semester was an anomaly that Newcastle won't be able to get away with again. I want the next manager, whoever he might be, to take the job seriously enough to know that every match matters. Why not get to work now?