"Never underestimate the predictability of stupidity."
Vinnie Jones' line in 'Snatch' has remained firmly in my memory since the first time I saw the film, twenty years ago. This isn't down to the elite acting of the greatest emergency goalkeeper in St. James' Park's history but because it could so easily be the title of a book about Newcastle United during the Mike Ashley era.
What could be more stupid than the last thirteen and a half years?
How stupid is taking a club that had an average league position of 8th and had never finished lower than 14th place since its promotion to the Premier League, relegating it twice and making 13th their new average?
How stupid is somehow stumbling upon a unifying and dignified manager in Chris Hughton, returning to the Premier League at the first attempt, making a solid start to the season and sacking him?
How stupid is finding another manager who united squad and fans after a relegation and repeating the same mistake in letting him go?
How stupid is finishing fifth with the best squad of players in a generation and not building on it?
The list goes on and on and, after thirteen and a half years, it all becomes so predictable.
How many times have you used the words, "It would be typical Newcastle if..."?
How many of you are surprised that the club doubled its previous transfer record to buy a forward that doesn't score goals?
How many of you were surprised that Newcastle United was the first Premier League club to put staff on the furlough scheme?
How many of you were surprised when your direct debits, in the absence of games, continued month after month without communication?
How many of you were surprised that Newcastle United was the first Premier League club with a COVID-19 outbreak so widespread that it required a fixture postponement?
How many of you were surprised when Championship side Brentford knocked Newcastle out of the Carabao Cup quarter-final?
How many times have you looked ahead on the calendar to a fixture with a team on a winless run and thought, "Well there's their first win in a while!"?
The 2020/21 Premier League season began as the most unpredictable season in its history:
Week One - Leeds score 3 vs Liverpool
Week Two - Palace score 3 vs Man Utd
Week Three - West Brom score 3 vs Chelsea and Leicester score 5 vs Man City
Week Four - Spurs score 6 vs Man Utd and Villa score 7 vs Liverpool
Week Five - Southampton score 3 vs Chelsea and West Ham score 3 vs Spurs
Chaos reigned supreme in those early weeks as the unnatural environment that football was forced to inhabit resulted in scores usually only seen in Football Manager simulations and many teams embraced it. Predictably, Newcastle did not.
Two wins, one draw and two defeats saw a points return of seven from fifteen and gave many onlookers the impression of par being achieved for a club recently entrenched in midtable mediocrity. However, fans were pointing to a lack of attacking football, a lack of adventure, a reluctance to embrace the unpredictable chaos. These complaints were backed up by possession statistics, lack of shots on goal, deep formations and passive play.
'Shit-housing' became the buzz word on social media as a 97th minute penalty and an 89th minute free-kick snatched consecutive away draws from the jaws of defeat. However, the gallows humour found in the public bravado about Brucey's Shithousing Mags was always privately tempered with a gnawing recognition that this was unsustainable.
The Leeds fixture on December 16th was one that caused concern despite similar league position, as fans saw beyond results and predicted that Newcastle would not cope with the high pressing and progressive passing of Bielsa's team. The final fifteen minutes of the game saw Leeds score three, with the infamous image of multiple Leeds players facing Karl Darlow still etched in black and white brains. So predictable.
The Leeds game was the first of what is now an eight-game stretch without a win for Newcastle. Struggling Fulham came to St. James' Park and, despite playing the final thirty minutes with ten men, came away with a point. Then Championship Brentford rotated their squad and still knocked out a strong (on paper) Newcastle side.
All so predictable. In fact, the NE1's Game Twitter account polled prior to the Quarter-Final and 85% of those who responded expected a defeat for Newcastle.
The Sheffield United result was almost a fait accompli, as a team with no wins in their first seventeen attempts no doubt welcomed Newcastle with eager anticipation. For days leading up to the game, social media was filled with references to Newcastle's infamous charitable donation of four points towards Derby County's total of eleven in the 2007/08 season - Mike Ashley's first as owner.
Newcastle's last eight games in all competitions have resulted in 0 wins, 2 draws and 6 defeats, when opponents included two of the current bottom three and a Championship side.
Newcastle's next eight games are all against teams currently occupying a higher league position, including two of the current top four.
Many fans are understandably pessimistic about this upcoming run of games and are calling for a change in management to be made before it is too late. With memories of Steve McClaren's descent into the abyss still fresh, thousands are virtually urging the owner to not make the same mistake again.
The phrase 'protecting his asset' is often used to suggest that Mike Ashley will, sooner or later, do what it takes to ensure his Premier League advertising board remains just that. The belief being that, regardless of his general disinterest and the minimalist remit of survival given to his managers, once the cash cow is under threat he will act as the successful businessman that he is.
However, it is worth remembering that Newcastle United occupied 19th place in the league table after just 6 wins from 28 games, before Ashley belatedly replaced McClaren with Benitez. This was the second relegation in what was his ninth season as owner - the first coming in just his second season.
Now in his fourteenth, the club is once again in a downward spiral with no sign of a change being made. Despite this, there are some who believe that he has surely learned his lesson and will act more decisively this time.
Never underestimate the predictability of Mike Ashley's Newcastle United.