Jim White

Newcastle face bleak Christmas

The weekend after he signed his new, secure eight-year contract at St James's Park, Alan Pardew was at Reading, watching his side take a decent point in an early season scramble.

Always an engaging and open interviewee, after the game he was in a corridor at the Madjeski explaining to a handful of reporters what his spanking new deal meant. Smiling, he suggested that, knowing the workings of Sod's Law, it was guaranteed that Newcastle would now go into freefall and he'd be sacked by Christmas. How we all laughed.

With five defeats in the last six matches, Newcastle now face a party season pile-up of grizzly-looking fixtures with only a home game against QPR next Saturday looking remotely gift-wrapped. And it all starts tomorrow lunchtime against Manchester City.

It is not a good time for anyone to face the champions smarting from their first defeat of the season. This is a bunch anxious to prove that, contrary to growing rumour, they are not falling apart at the seams and are committed and, for wont of a better word, united. It is a particularly bad time for a side sitting firmly at the bottom of the form league and now only two points above the relegation zone. The ways things are going, and with the opposition on the horizon, they could be in the drop zone by the New Year.

That is clearly not where they should be. Nor, indeed, was that the direction the heavily contracted manager was expected to take them when he signed on the dotted line. Mike Ashley, a man who has previously preferred the Roman Abramovich method of managerial recruitment, will not reckon a dog fight the worthwhile product of uncharacteristic continuity.

As this point Pardew must be scratching his head to work out what has happened. Last season's festive period was very different. On Tyneside it was one of optimism and renewal, concluded when Newcastle eviscerated Manchester United in an early January fixture. That night at St James's, Pardew's team appeared to have at least three things their visitors didn't: a commanding goalkeeper, a strong centre back and two uncompromising defensive midfielders. A rough comparison of the two squads suggested that at least five of the Newcastle side would walk straight in to the United starting line up. Krul, Coloccini, Tiote, Cabaye and Ba: that was some spine on display.

And the good news for Pardew was that asset stripping boarders were repelled: he managed to keep all of them at the club over the summer. So this was supposed to be the season when they kicked onwards and upwards. A European place was the lower limit of their potential.

That it hasn't happened is cause for ever deeper lines to appear across the manager's furrowed brow.

Sure, injuries have not helped. That team that beat United has been in evidence on no more than a couple of occasions this season as Krul, Taylor, Tiote, Cabaye and Coloccini have all spent time on the treatment table. And Pardew's squad does not have the depth he might wish for. Particularly when he is also competing on a Thursday night in Europe.

But scratch below the line-ups and some other statistics begin to emerge. For instance, Newcastle are the only team in the top division yet to score from a set piece. Which, if nothing else, suggests they are not a side very adept at getting their head on the ball. Especially when Stephen Taylor is absent.

In fact, regular Newcastle watchers didn't need any statistics to tell them that. Watch Newcastle in action and it is disturbing how often they use a long ball out of defence. And how it almost invariably comes straight back at them after their front men are beaten in the air.

Sitting in smug judgment on the Match of the Day sofa, Mark Lawrenson would no doubt dismiss all relegation fears banking above St James's Park with a swift "they'll be all right." But Pardew knows that being too good to go down is the thinnest of Premier League truisms.

"It's a worry we don't have enough points on the board," he admitted after the latest defeat at Fulham on Monday. "We're not picking up enough points, that is pretty evident."

There was, you couldn't help noticing, a certain theme to his comments.

If he is looking for a parachute to brake the fall, however, the silk is unlikely to be sky blue. After feeling they were robbed last Sunday, City will be in no mood to assist their opponent's sudden reversal of fortune. Roberto Mancini has his own issues with over-bearing expectation. I have a feeling this could be an unforgiving Christmas for Pardew.

Just as well his boss gave him such a generous present back in September.