Throughout Newcastle United's winter swoon, I've remained steadfast in my belief that at some point the tide of injuries, poor form and bad luck would turn. Newcastle would pull away from the bottom end of the Premier League table. The idea that any of us considered the prospect of relegation would seem fairly ridiculous.
After Wednesday's 2-1 home defeat to Everton, I'm no longer playing it cool. Sure, there's plenty of season (17 games) left for Newcastle to improve its fortunes. But relegation has to be considered a very real possibility at this juncture.
Newcastle fans could point to an inconsistent refereeing display from Martin Atkinson (hardly his first), Demba Ba's untimely (although not totally unwelcome) departure to Chelsea and Alan Pardew's decision to leave Papiss Cisse on the right of a 4-3-3 formation (the alignment in which Newcastle had prepared for the match before Ba's matchday exit) as factors in the loss.
Or, as Pardew correctly cited in his post-match interview, the key performers missing through injury and the need for reinforcements this month.
But, while all valid to varying degrees, any of those arguments misses the larger point: This team is a complete mess defensively. Only two clubs have conceded more goals in Premier League play than Newcastle's 39 this season: Aston Villa (41) and Reading (40). Newcastle has only managed three clean sheets in 21 Premier League matches. It merely looked like a matter of time before Newcastle conceded during a first half that saw Everton's Leighton Baines, Steven Pienaar and Leon Osman repeatedly threaten down the left.
Cheick Tiote seems more concerned with rampaging around the field and trying to foul the opposition into submission than protecting the backline and providing simple and steady distribution. Mike Williamson, for all of his effort, continues to look like a weak link at center back. None of Newcastle's right backs are difference makers, although hopefully Mathieu Debuchy will provide a significant upgrade. Usually-reliable Fabricio Coloccini has stumbled at several inopportune times. Even Davide Santon, who would receive a good chunk of votes for the club's player of the season at this point, struggled on Wednesday and failed to track substitute Victor Anichebe's run for the decisive goal.
Much of the attention in the coming days and weeks will no doubt center on Newcastle's search for Ba's replacement (and the preferred option seems to be, no surprise, Marseille's Loic Remy). But, as should have been the case last summer, the first priority in the transfer market must be at the back. In addition to Debuchy, Newcastle badly needs a Premier-League-ready center back. A utility man capable of filling several roles on the backline wouldn't hurt, either. Two days ago, The Journal reported that Newcastle had tabled an offer for Valenciennes' 21-year-old French center back Nicolas Isimat-Mirin, while West Ham's James Tomkins — a target last January — has also been tossed around as an option in recent days.
"We need some new bodies in, we need some bodies out of the treatment room and we need to get our best side back on the pitch," Pardew told reporters in his post-match press conference.
All of that is true. But if and when those bodies get on the pitch — remember, it's no guarantee that the injured players will return as planned or that no one else will get hurt in the remaining five months of the season — it's up to Pardew to once again instill the sort of discipline, organization and resolve that were the hallmarks of last season's team.
Or, as our Twitter friend @newyorkmagpie posted amid all the post-match doom and gloom, "I still believe in you Pards but give me something....anything."
Something. Anything. And soon.