Newcastle face new reality

If Newcastle thought they had hit rock bottom when they surrendered their 16-year stay in the Premier League on the final day of last season, they couldn't have been more mistaken.

After the events of the ensuing ten weeks that timid defeat at Aston Villa, which sealed Newcastle's relegation, was clearly far from the lowest ebb for a club spiralling out of control. The close-season problems have stemmed from the inability of the owner Mike Ashley to find a buyer willing to meet the £100 million asking price to end his two-year reign.

The resulting hiatus paralysed the club from top to bottom. The uncertainty has permeated through to the dressing room, to leave morale at dangerously low levels. Any doubts that Newcastle were in turmoil were erased in the humiliating 6-1 defeat at League One Leyton Orient in July.

Ashley's unwillingness to appoint a manager during his attempts to sell has had the most damaging ramifications. It has left Alan Shearer, who recently reiterated his desire to return as manager after his unsuccessful attempt to keep Newcastle up in his eight-game spell in caretaker charge at the end of last season, a frustrated bystander as the club has fallen behind its Championship rivals.

Ironically, the former England skipper will be at Newcastle's opening game of the season at West Bromwich Albion on Saturday, but not leading proceedings from the dugout as the majority of supporters want. Instead, Shearer may be at the Hawthorns watching from the comfort of the pundits' sofa as part of the BBC's live coverage of the game.

Despite almost daily rumblings of dissatisfaction from the dressing room at the shocking lack of direction, Newcastle have yet to see the predicted mass exodus of players. However, there remains time for several high-profile departures before the closure of the transfer window at the end of August.

Squad upheaval
Obafemi Martins made a £9 million move to German champions Wolfsburg last week, while Michael Owen and Mark Viduka both left when their contracts expired in July. But with Sebastien Bassong, Habib Beye, Joey Barton, Alan Smith, Damien Duff, Nicky Butt and Kevin Nolan all coveted by Premier League clubs, the Newcastle team that launches the season under caretaker manager Chris Hughton is likely to be much changed by the start of September.

To secure an immediate return to the Premier League, Newcastle are keen to retain the services of the above list. But that is where they find themselves in a catch-22 situation, in that they also need to move on several of those same players to reduce their crippling £60 million wagebill, which is simply not serviceable on the income of a Championship club.

There will be almost as much attention on the stands as on the pitch when Newcastle host Reading in their first home game of the season on 15 August. Much was made of the wide open spaces in the stands as less than 17,000, including a large away contingent, witnessed Newcastle's only home pre-season game against Leeds United, whose plunge from Premier League to League One and the brink of bankruptcy many fear the North-East club could repeat.

That 17,000 was barely half the figure who turned out to honour Sir Bobby Robson in a charity fund-raising game at St James' Park at the end of July in the Newcastle legend's last public appearance before the 76-year-old lost his long battle against cancer. However, with more than 25,000 season tickets already sold, a remarkable show of faith from supporters given the utter mess the club is in, Newcastle will still comfortably be the best supported Championship club in the coming campaign.