Miles Starforth's match analysis: Aston Villa 0 Newcastle United 0
It was all going so well.
At least at the Stadium of Light it was.
It never really went well at Villa Park.
And Saturday’s goalless draw brought back memories of Newcastle United’s pitiful surrender at the same stadium seven years ago.
There was glorious sunshine at the stadium when the players took to the field against relegated Aston Villa.
There was also hope and expectation in the away end after a brighter few weeks on the field.
But the skies – and the mood – darkened during the game, and Rafa Benitez and his team left amid a deluge.
There were dark clouds above Villa Park as a gaggle of young Villa fans patiently waited for autographs from the one of the worst teams in their club’s history.
History will probably not judge this United team too kindly, either.
There is also dark cloud above St James’s Park given that Newcastle, barring an astonishing failure by Sunderland, is heading for the Championship for the second time in seven years.
For all the talk last summer of challenging for trophies and pushing up the table, United managing director Lee Charnley only had one job this season.
Charnley had to appoint a manager capable of keeping the club in Premier League ahead of the biggest TV deal in its history.
That was the be all and end all.
After years of flirting with relegation, Newcastle had to give it the brush off.
How difficult was that for a club with tens of millions of pounds in the bank?
Charnley left Villa Park, closely followed by Mike Ashley advisor Keith Bishop, soon after the final whistle.
There was a lot for Charnley to think about on the journey home.
After all, he, and he alone, had appointed Steve McClaren last summer.
And he also oversaw a spend of around £80million in the last two transfer windows.
Not all of that money was spent wisely, while McClaren didn’t prove to be a wise appointment.
But it was going well on Saturday.
News of Chelsea’s two first-half goals at the Stadium of Light quickly filtered through to the away end at Villa Park.
All Newcastle had to do was win.
They had to beat a team which had lost its last 11 matches.
Yet they were lifeless and lethargic before the break. United were careless with the ball and carefree without it.
Villa, by contrast, were energetic and enthusiastic, though they didn’t look like scoring.
Chancel Mbemba led his back four well.
But United themselves struggled to create chances against the home team’s five-man defence.
They were poor in the final third of the pitch.
They were sloppy with their final balls, which were all too often just lumped forward.
Andros Townsend, such an influence in the previous four games, struggled to deliver a telling cross, while Cisse just couldn’t hold the ball up.
Captain Moussa Sissoko, as he has so often done in his Newcastle career, went missing away from home.
There were some robust challenges, but once United had the ball, they just didn’t know how to break Villa down.
Things improved after the break.
Jack Colback put a chance over the bar after Cisse mishit a Townsend cross, while substitute Aleksandar Mitrovic lifted another effort over Mark Bunn’s goal and also headed wide of the target.
Georginio Wijnaldum, largely anonymous before the break, shot at Bunn.
And so it went on.
Mitrovic and fellow substitute Ayoze Perez couldn’t enliven the team, and the draw seemed inevitable.
Now relegation seems inevitable.
Villa fans – who threw hundreds of beach balls and balloons towards the pitch and unfurled a “no sobbing on the Holte” banner – revelled in the Newcastle’s plight after Jermain Defoe put Sunderland ahead.
They chanted “you’re going down with the Villa”.
Those same supporters had revelled in the club’s previous relegation.
That day there had been a classless “sob on the Tyne” bedsheet.
This result didn’t send United down, but it’s hard to see a way back for United, who must hope that Everton, a worse team than Newcastle right now, beat Sunderland on Wearside on Wednesday night.
If Sam Allardyce’s side can’t get the job done at the Stadium of Light, they have another chance on Sunday against Watford, another team with nothing to play for, at Vicarage Road on Sunday.
Football can be funny old game, but really?
Surely, United are down.
Benitez has simply run out of time, like Alan Shearer did in 2009.
Only one player of the players who had been on the pitch could be bothered to speak in the post-game mixed zone.
But that wasn’t such a big surprise.
They hadn’t shown enough character on the field, so why should we have expected them to show character off the pitch and front up to those fans who had paid handsomely to watch them go through the motions at Villa Park?
It looks like Newcastle will be back at the stadium next season.
The Championship has moved on since the club’s previous spell in English football’s second tier.
It’s an even more unforgiving division, just ask Chris Hughton, the last man to guide United out of it.
Hughton’s Brighton and Hove Albion side were denied the second automatic promotion spot by Middlesbrough on goal difference.
There’s no telling when Newcastle will be back.