The relentless nature of the Premier League schedule continues this week with an intriguing clash in the North East of England, as the country’s two biggest one-club cities collide at St James’ Park.
Newcastle host Leeds in a fascinating match up between two clubs who are unquestionably the heartbeat of their respective cities, both possessing fanatic and unwavering support and who both once shared aspirations of upsetting the established order.
Just two decades ago and there was huge optimism in both Tyneside and in west Yorkshire, with Newcastle and Leeds competing at the top end of the Premier League and each enjoying moments to savour both domestically and abroad.
Leeds had made steady progress under the guidance of David O’Leary with a side boasting an exciting collection of youngsters seemingly improving season upon season, reaching the last four of the UEFA Cup in 1999/2000 before reaching the semi-finals of the Champions League just a year later.
Newcastle themselves were beginning to challenge the Premier League powerhouses in Manchester United and Arsenal at a similar time, bouncing back from the difficult period that had followed Kevin Keegan’s ‘Entertainers’ to regroup under the management of one of their own in Sir Bobby Robson.
Robson himself had looked to youth and a side containing the talents of Craig Bellamy and Jermaine Jenas – spearheaded by Alan Shearer – secured back-to-back top-four finishes and Champions League qualification in 2002 and 2003.
These were dizzying heights for both clubs as Leeds tussled with the likes of Real Madrid and AC Milan in continental competition, whilst few of a Newcastle persuasion will forget iconic European encounters in Rotterdam, Milan and at St James’ Park.
The success, however, would not last and whilst Newcastle slipped away from prominence at the top, Leeds would combust entirely, the club left on the brink of financial ruin following idiotic and irresponsible ownership.
Leeds’ spending in a desperate bid to close the gap resulted in more than a decade in the wilderness, the ownership’s attempt to awaken a sleeping giant from its slumber resulting in bringing the club to its knees.
It was reckless and, in truth, largely unnecessary, given the home-grown foundation of a brilliant side produced by an excellent academy system that developed talents such as Harry Kewell, Alan Smith and Jonathan Woodgate.
Each of those names would be sold, alongside many more, during a desperate fire-sale that accelerated the Whites’ decline and saw them drop out of the Premier League entirely in 2004.
It would get worse before it got any better, spending three seasons in the third tier as part of a 16-year absence from the top flight that was only ended by a long-awaited promotion last season.
The intervening years for Newcastle have been less arduous but not without hardship, featuring in European competition just once since Leeds’ relegation and twice dropping out of the Premier League, only to bounce back at the first attempt on each occasion.
However, the ownership of Mike Ashley has been a period largely of unrest for Newcastle’s supporters, the retail entrepreneur’s reluctance to compete financially leading to several years of mediocrity and an almost perennial lack of ambition.
All of which leads us onto this week’s clash, two sides who once competed fiercely to challenge the Premier League’s status quo now meeting on hugely differing trajectories.
Leeds may have spent 16 years outside of the Premier League but their return has been a breath of fresh air for the division this season, an ambitious and fearless side directed by a manager with a unique style and the courage to provide freedom to his players.
The club’s hierarchy invested more than £96m in new talent during the summer and have provided an exciting side with the quality required to make an impression, paling in comparison to Newcastle and Ashley who, even in the ever-increasing and inflated world of Premier League transfers, allowed the Magpies’ transfer record to stand for over a decade.
That deal saw Miguel Almiron arrive and replace Michael Owen as Newcastle’s record signing, though there has been precious little investment since with the signings of Joelinton, Allan Saint-Maximin and Callum Wilson the only significant investments of note.
Leeds are not without their own faults, as punishing defeats at the likes of Manchester United and Crystal Palace this season show, but whilst there is hope surrounding Elland Road there is only gloom and an increasingly toxic atmosphere further north.
Ashley’s ownership saw the popular Rafael Benitez walk away from the club and his replacement could hardly have been more underwhelming for the Magpies’ support, Steve Bruce replacing the Champions League-winning coach much to the groans of the St James’ terraces.
It’s a move that failed to inspire and whilst Bruce’s reign should not be without criticism, there remains a sense that managing the modern Newcastle is somewhat of a poisoned chalice.
The unsettled supporters are now growing ever louder following a concerning run of results this season, Newcastle without a win in 10 fixtures in all competitions – a winless sequence sparked by a 5-2 thrashing at Leeds that symbolised perfectly the contrasting current fortunes of the two clubs.
The football produced by Newcastle is turgid and as uninspiring as the club’s much-maligned ownership, with tomorrow’s meeting bringing together the Premier League’s worst watch and the neutral’s favourites.
If it were a boxing match, Leeds would represent a whirlwind of movement, feints and clever combinations, whilst Newcastle spend much of their time on the ropes, absorbing punishment in a high guard and waiting – perhaps more fittingly, hoping – to land one bludgeoning blow.
Newcastle spent much of their Premier League existence as a side who entertained greatly, but there would perhaps be few neutrals who would be sad to see this side relegated – a worrying indictment of their current plight.
There will be envious glances cast towards the visiting side tomorrow from the Newcastle supporters, a side who have bounced back from a footballing wasteland and look capable of building on the brilliant foundations provided by a loyal fanbase and ambitious ownership.
Newcastle themselves have the foundations to return to prominence, though the Magpies’ malaise is only set to continue until the club’s ownership eventually changes hands.
There may only be a four-point gap between the two sides in the Premier League at present, but there is a chasm when it comes to hopes of returning to former glories.