And so, after four seasons idly treading water, Newcastle United have drowned, relegated to the Championship. To make matters worse, it was Sam Allardyce’s Sunderland who held their heads under the water, laughing mercilessly as the light of United’s Premier League hopes slipped away.
If this final post of the season reads like a case study of the two clubs, that’s because it is only logical. Newcastle and Sunderland come from the same region, boast similar facilities and have both endured an embarrassingly lengthy dearth of success.
The Black Cats will play top flight football next season because they achieved where their rivals didn’t.
Here’s what we learned from an ultimately gloomy campaign on Tyneside…
Now, while Aleksandar Mitrovic makes himself an easy target with missed chances and foolish cards, he should not be the target of Newcastle supporters’ ire. He perhaps didn’t have the impact many hoped for, but the Serb could never be accused of giving anything less than his full effort.
The 21-year-old scored an equaliser in the Tyne-Wear derby, netted away at Manchester City, twice at relegation rivals Norwich City and contributed two goals and two assists across games against title-challengers Tottenham Hotspur. Mitrovic was never reliable, but always trying.
However, unfortunately, Newcastle needed more goals if they were to stay up – whether from the former Anderlecht forward or one of his team-mates.
Papiss Cisse worked hard, but too often didn’t offer a goal threat; Ayoze Perez still looks full of promise, nothing more; though Georginio Wijnaldum top-scored, he was anonymous in the crucial months of the season.
In contrast, Sunderland’s Jermain Defoe achieved where all of the above did not.
Scoring 15 league goals, 11 in 2016, he earned 14 points for the Black Cats. They finished just two points clear of Newcastle in the final league table.
Of course the signings of Jan Kirchhoff, Lamine Kone and Wahbi Khazri made a difference as Sunderland battled relegation once more, but Sam Allardyce’s side could well have gone down with a Mitrovic, Cisse or Perez in Defoe’s place.
Whether from within the current squad, including returning loanee Adam Armstrong, or a new signing, Newcastle must ensure they have the firepower to mount a promotion push next term.
Somehow far worse than appointing John Carver or Steve McClaren in the first place, the most serious crime committed by Newcastle chief Lee Charnley has been to back these men in the face of truly horrific results – his dallying meant Rafa Benitez didn’t step through the St James’ Park doors until March 11.
Where Sunderland’s Dick Advocaat realised his shortcomings early in the season, McClaren, lucky to be in the job, was never likely to follow in the Dutchman’s footsteps and quit.
Subsequently, Allardyce was able to invest as he saw fit in the transfer market, preparing his squad for a run-in where the Black Cats lost just once in 11 matches.
Benitez, meanwhile, worked with what he could, showing his immense tactical prowess to form McClaren’s misfits into a solid unit. However, after crushing defeats at Norwich and Southampton, a six-game winless run could not save Newcastle from the drop.
Charnley may pat himself on the back for getting an esteemed manager in, but it was too little, too late – he should have reacted sooner.
Hope. If not safety, that is what Benitez brought to NE1.
Just as Allardyce had at Sunderland, the Spaniard brought St James’ Park to its feet with his mere presence.
He also showed Newcastle supporters the talent that McClaren had hidden within the squad; Moussa Sissoko found form again, Andros Townsend earned an England call-up with his stellar displays, Mitrovic started to look a £13million forward.
While Sissoko will likely leave, and few will complain, there is a hope in the city that Townsend, Mitrovic, Perez, Mbemba and Lascelles will be among those to stay put and fight it out in the second tier.
With Benitez at the helm, this is a pivotal summer, where, incredibly, Newcastle could well emerge with a stronger, more united squad. Should that be the case, the club have the ability to blitz the Championship and then take on the Premier League again too.
Despite the horrible, frustrating nature of Sunday’s 5-1 demolition of Tottenham, it suggested that, on their day, these are players deserving of a higher posting than the Football League. It’s time now to show that they have the willpower to prove it.