Like milk left in the sun, the Premier League table is starting to solidify. Down at the bottom, Queens Park Rangers and Burnley secured their relegations from the Premier League this weekend, and as went their seasons, so went their decisive games. The latter, whose efforts within limited means have been generally admired all season, squeezed out a doughty-but-not-good-enough 1-0 win over fellow strugglers Hull City. The former, a mess for most of the season, stared blankly into the abyss, while Manchester City scored six.
Up at the top end, Manchester United's victory over Crystal Palace and Liverpool's draw with Chelsea mean that unless we see a six-point and 14-goal swing in the final two games, the top four are settled. Given that nobody in England cares about the Europa League except the poor clubs doomed to participate, all of this adds up to a likely final day with just one point of interest: who will be that third relegated team?
Now, relegation is a traumatic thing, and wishing relegation on any team is something that needs to be done carefully. Fortunately, the neutral who wishes to back a horse for the glue factory is spoiled for choice. Each of the three most likely candidates to take the final spot -- Hull City, Newcastle United and Sunderland -- are all perfectly decent football clubs. Equally, though, it's hard to imagine that many neutral tears would be shed over noted tigriphile Assam Allam having to adjust to life in the Championship, or the collapse of Sunderland's bold moral stance that anybody accused of multiple counts of sexual assault with a minor should absolutely be suspended. Unless relegation gets worryingly close, in which case get him back in.
But when it comes to relegation, there is only one choice for the thinking neutral, and that's Newcastle. It's not nice -- Newcastle is a great city and one of the country's more likeable clubs -- but where Hull or Sunderland's relegation would just be one of those things, Newcastle's is necessary. Necessary for everybody else, and necessary for the club itself.
That Newcastle United is an unhappy institution is, by this stage, almost a cliche. So often dismissed by the rest of the country as a different breed with delusions of grandeur, two weeks ago Newcastle's fans unveiled a banner reading "We don't demand a team that wins, we demand a club that tries," which should be a statement of the obvious, but in needing to be said, became profoundly heartbreaking.
A boycott of the home game against Tottenham saw several thousand seats go unfilled, and although they actually managed to get a point against West Brom on Saturday -- their first in nine games -- they have been playing miserable football for months.
How they got here doesn't need repeating. Whose responsibility it is, does. Mike Ashley, the landlord from hell, is a man with a plan. The plan -- well, perhaps it's more of a calculation -- is that a Premier League team can be kept a Premier League team with a minimum of investment. That all a club needs to do is finish somewhere between 17th and eighth, and the swelling television money will keep rolling in.
That the consequence of this just-enough-and-no-more policy is a demoralized mess of a squad, and a caretaker manager that is so far out of his depth that he can't even see the shore, is besides the point. So, too, is the quaint and fanciful notion that football clubs are meant to be about something more than just the movement of money from there to here, from out to in. So, too, the fact that fans are being driven from the club. Here's one, Mark Brophy, on his decision to walk away for the moment:
Nothing we do can have an effect on the club anyway as they are reliant no longer on gate receipts but on the money coming in from TV rights. Well, the disconnect between club and fans means I no longer feel responsible for saving the club. Let the Sky millions roar the team home. Let the bulging cash account suck a goal into the Gallowgate net when it's most needed. If the players need inspiration at a vital moment, let them look to Mike Ashley laughing uproariously as fans sing he should get out of their club.
As long as Newcastle are in the Premier League, Ashley's plan is working fine. As such, and by inference, the only thing that could force him to change tack would be relegation. Whether he would decide to sell, and whether he would be able to sell, isn't clear. He's been down with Newcastle before, after all, and couldn't shift them then. But it would at least amount to a considerable slap in the face, and would certainly necessitate something approaching due care and attention.
But beyond what's best for the club itself, there's a wider picture in play here. It feels almost heretical, to entertain the notion, but here it is nonetheless: Ashley might be right. His plan might be workable, and if he can manage it, then there's no reason others can't follow in his path. If it costs less to keep a football club in the Premier League, just about, however miserably, then that football club receives simply by virtue of being in the Premier League ... well, that sounds like a reasonable investment. For anybody who doesn't really care about football, at least.
Nobody wants to see football clubs run stupidly, and Leeds-style dream-living is its own danger. But equally, nobody wants to see football clubs run too sensibly -- that is, run for the sake simply of continued persistence. A club that does nothing but exist barely exists at all.
Modern English football is such that only a few clubs can ever win the league, but almost every team knows that a decent manager given a decent squad to work with can produce something worth singing for. A bit of style, the occasional famous victory, maybe even a cup run. As Brendan Rodgers might say, you can live for many years without winning the League Cup, but you can't live for a second without hope. Right now, Newcastle are hopeless. In every sense of the word.
This, then, is perhaps a test case. Optimism insists that an owner treating a club with such contempt should lead to an implosion, that football should self-correct and expel the poison. Ashley is gambling that it won't. For everybody's sake, he needs to be wrong, else he won't be the last.
In effect, Newcastle are Patient Zero. They are the first Premier League zombie club. They have lurched back to unlife and are shambling around, moaning. Bits are falling off. And the fact that they used to be loved, or liked, or at least respected, or if not even that then generally tolerated, doesn't mean that there's an alternative to the shotgun.