WHEN Papiss Demba Cisse scored – yes, Cisse – on Boxing Day, anything seemed possible at Newcastle United.
Cisse capped a memorable Boxing Day on Tyneside with a late penalty in the club’s 5-1 win over Stoke City.
The striker had taken the ball after Erik Pieters brought down Hatem Ben Arfa. And for once, Thomas Sorensen couldn’t stop a penalty at St James’s Park.
Four days earlier at a sodden Selhurst Park, Alan Pardew’s side had brushed aside Crystal Palace with some ease.
The club was in touch with Arsenal, then atop the Premier League.
Yet just over seven weeks later Newcastle’s season has unravelled.
Slowly at first, and spectacularly more recently.
United have lost their last three games without scoring a goal. What’s more, they have been convincing, dispiriting defeats.
The home losses to Sunderland and Tottenham Hotspur were especially troubling. Newcastle were out-fought and out-thought by both teams on their own pitch.
As the south of England battles floods, there’s been a perfect storm of sorts on Tyneside.
United, put simply, have taken a battering, and manager Pardew – who had guided the team to memorable victories of Manchester United and Chelsea earlier in the campaign – is again under pressure.
There have been many factors at play.
But the most significant was the sale of Yohan Cabaye, and subsequent failure to replace him before last month’s transfer window closed.
Cabaye was the glue that held Newcastle’s largely-Francophone team together.
Combining aggression with creativity, he was unquestionably United’s most influential player.
The 28-year-old formed a formidable midfield barrier alongside a rejuvenated Cheik Tiote.
Owner Mike Ashley didn’t seem to want to spend, not when Europa League football was the only apparent potential gain. He speculates to accummulate in business, but not football.
The departure of director of football Joe Kinnear was welcome, but his exit alone won’t change things at St James’s Park.
With Cabaye gone and Tiote injured, is it any surprise that Newcastle, lacking a defensive midfielder to deputise, have been wide open? Not really. That’s just the starting point.
With the back four under intolerable pressure, the team has conceded goals, lots of them.
Without Cabaye – and suspended leading scorer Loic Remy – the team has also failed to score any.
United haven’t even looked like scoring in the absence of Remy, who must take his share of the blame for his actions at Carrow Road late last month.
Then there’s Pardew, the man many supporters are blaming for the club’s predicament. If you search Twitter for the hastag #pardewout, there won’t be any shortage of tweets.
Newcastle were too direct against Sunderland, and too open against Tottenham.
Injuries, the sale of Cabaye and the unavailability of Remy are significant factors, but fans demand more from those on the field in black and white.
And the buck, ultimately, stops with the manager in football.
Managers live and die by results. The experienced Pardew – whose tactics are again being questioned by supporters – knows this better than most. He’s been in the managerial firing line for 15 years ago.
Pardew has find a way to win with what he has, and he must motivate a dressing room which would be forgiven be questioning the ambition of a club they joined in the hope of winning trophies.
Unfortunately, silverware doesn’t seem to be top of Ashley’s agenda.
His goals seem financial, not footballing.
And should United end the season ninth in the Premier League, the club will have bettered the pre-season objective of a top-10 finish.
So why would he dismiss Pardew?
Ashley’s seldom seen at St James’s Park these days.
The club needs leadership and direction. It needs a managing director of chief executive officer, someone who is publicly accountable to an increasingly disillusioned fanbase and someone capable of overseeing a huge rebuilding job in the summer.
Pardew must prove again to the fans he is the right man to take the team forward between now and then.
For the moment, the direction must come from the pitch. The answers must come from within the four walls of the dressing room.
He needs leaders, but his players – bar Mike Williamson – were unwilling to put their heads above the parapets in the wake of the 4-0 defeat to Tottenham on Wednesday night.
Long after an emotional Pardew – not one to publicly castigate his players – had delivered a brief but withering critique of his team’s performance, Williamson spoke journalists.
One comment from the defender was particularly telling.
“The majority of the lads are hurting,” he said.
Only the “majority”?