Newcastle United remain one of the grotesque curiosities in the Premier League era. This is a club that caters for an entire city in the North-East of England that regularly fills the 52,387 seats available at St James' Park. Increase that figure by ten thousand and home games would still be packed. This is an outfit that enjoyed healthy support when battling in the Championship in 2009/10 to the extent that attendance records for the re-branded division were broken easily. The average attendance that season was 14,000 higher than the next club in the list, Derby County for the relentlessly curious, and figures averaged over 40,000.
Newcastle fans are known for their passionate and lively support, and I'll never forget the level of support they gave their team away to Watford in a League Cup match nearly ten years ago in 2006/07 when they won on penalties. A cold November evening and there they were with happy to push the club on. Of course, there are many fans like that in world football, but Newcastle are a club in one of the richest leagues around with the stadium, the fans, and an entire city to lean upon. For those who watched Premier League football in the 1990s, Newcastle were one of the top division's great entertainers. They missed the inaugural Premier League season but were promoted as champions from Division One to take part in the second.
Entering the big time did little to overawe a side that had spent four seasons in England's second-tier. Sir John Hall as chairman and Kevin Keegan as manager helped the side to finish 3rd, 6th, 2nd, and 2nd (Kenny Dalglish took charge halfway through Keegan's final campaign) in the first four seasons back in the top flight. Sir Bobby Robson would push his cherished club further just after the turn of the century but it's been mostly disappointment since the late gentleman was sacked in August 2004 after finishing fifth in 2003/04.
Dodgy sponsors, backpage and frontpage drama, unpopular managers, even more unpopular ownership, disappointing FA Cup finals, relegation, unexpected surges in league form over a number of seasons, beloved goalscorers, tricky wingers, protests, bemused observations from neutrals, maddeningly long managerial contracts, seemingly endless destructive boardroom adventures, dressing room cliques, club leaks, and battles between management and players have all featured at some stage for Newcastle: a side without a permanent manager or head coach, a trusted owner, and a convincing strategy for the future.
John Carver's side is in absolutely wretched form with one win in the past eight league matches without consecutive league victories since winning five games in succession between October and November under former manager Alan Pardew. Now at Crystal Palace, having recently secured another impressive result against the reigning Premier League champions Manchester City, Pardew has taken a club struggling under Neil Warnock with concerns about relegation to seven points above his former club. When the former Charlton, West Ham, and Southampton manager took over, Crystal Palace were in the relegation zone and ten points behind Liverpool's next opponents.
After destroying Sunderland at the Stadium of Light, the South Londoners are just a point behind both Stoke City and West Ham United in a push for a top ten place. Whatever Newcastle fans thought and still think of Alan Pardew, he's made his point. He may have struggled at times and overseen some despairing football encased in horrendous runs of form, but he wasn't as incompetent as he was made to be. Crystal Palace have won four games in a row and are just three points behind last season's final total of 45 points that secured 11th place in the league. Pardew will need to prove that he can sustain the progress made next season but has restored the obduracy instilled last season by Tony Pulis along with adding a slightly more expansive approach.
A top ten finish. That's supposedly Newcastle's ambition (not an entirely unreasonable one) under Mike Ashley, an owner who can no longer enjoy the presence of another unpopular figure as a target for fans' frustrations. How the club attempts to reach such goals is more of a concern than prescribed targets designed to keep the TV money rolling in. There's already a protest planned (a few took place last year) for the next home game against Tottenham Hotspur after a fifth derby defeat in a row to local rivals Sunderland, a loss that hurt John Carver so deeply that he said it would define his time as manager. Depressing indeed.
Liverpool will enter the game after the results over the weekend and could benefit from points dropped elsewhere. Newcastle is a fine club that's one of the biggest in England in terms of support but gives journalists far too many sweet and plump stories to cover. Is there a recent league season that hasn't featured some discord of some sort? What do Newcastle have to play for? European football isn't going to happen, nor is relegation. Four straight defeats and a trip to Anfield. If Brendan Rodgers wanted his side to regain some composure and confidence that was eroded after defeats to Manchester United and Arsenal, this is the perfect opponent.
The Tyneside club should be a top ten regular with at least a system in place where managers can come in and work as seen at Swansea City and Southampton. Newcastle haven't fared horrendously under Mike Ashley compared to some other clubs, but nobody can say there's a plan beyond the bottom line. The owner can make promises to stand-ins and stay silent while his actions fail to communicate for him, but he's in charge of a club that's often ripe for three points in the closing months of a Premier League season. Newcastle are looking for "the noise, the passion, the feeling of belonging, the pride in your city" as Sir Bobby eloquently identified when sharing what the club meant to him.
Liverpool currently sit in sixth by virtue of goal difference and will not be able to point to injuries, suspensions, slow starts, or inefficient finishing for failing to take three points on Monday against a Newcastle contending with a parade of problems. Only complacency will undermine what should be a victory over visitors grasping for something more than just three points.