Eddie Howe remains the right man for Newcastle but is in a “difficult moment” and cannot afford to lose to local rivals Sunderland in the FA Cup this weekend, says Gary Neville.
Monday night’s 4-2 defeat at Liverpool was Newcastle’s fifth in six Premier League games and their seventh loss in eight matches across all competitions.
Their dismal run has left them ninth in the Premier League table – 11 points off fourth place – while they have also been knocked out of the Champions League and Carabao Cup in recent weeks.
While a league-high number of injuries have undoubtedly contributed to Newcastle’s slide, a meeting with Sunderland in the FA Cup before back-to-back league games against title-chasing Manchester City and Aston Villa look ominous.
Speaking on The Gary Neville Podcast, the Sky Sports pundit said: “Newcastle have to make sure that this run they’re going through is just a blip and doesn’t become what they are for the rest of the season.
“There’s a danger given the fixtures they’ve got coming up in the next few weeks of it becoming a really terrible run and bigger questions being asked.
“There was a great chance at the start of the season that they weren’t going to handle Champions League football and the demands of the Premier League, being in the top four. They’ve had that Carabao Cup run as well.
“It was always going to ask a lot of them. But it’s been made more difficult by the fact that they’ve had injuries along the way as well. It’s a difficult moment for Eddie Howe.”
Neville added: “I thought this moment would come at a certain point and I think it’s really interesting to see how Newcastle deal with it as a club as the new owners have been pragmatic, sensible and done things in a way that has surprised many people, including myself.
“I thought there would be a bit of razzmatazz and they’d go for ‘show’ signings, but they haven’t done that. They’ve built a solid base from which to move from with a really good manager who has done a great job. The fans are back engaged, and the players are working hard against the challenges.”
‘Ashworth key for Newcastle | Howe still right man’
Newcastle’s poor run of form has coincided with rumours sporting director Dan Ashworth could depart the club for Manchester United following Sir Jim Ratcliffe’s arrival at Old Trafford – something Neville feels has not helped the situation the Magpies find themselves in.
“I do think there’s an added complication – and I’m not sure to what extent it’s true or not – where there’s speculation around Dan Ashworth and whether he’s been poached by INEOS to come to Manchester United,” he said.
“Dan Ashworth can sit between the owners in Saudi Arabia and Eddie Howe and be a sensible voice that says: ‘This was always going to come. This is a moment on a journey that was always going to happen after what we delivered last season.’
“It was always a big ask for them to be Champions League-ready and to continue to compete at the levels they did last season.
“Dan Ashworth is an important cog in the wheel over the next few weeks for Eddie Howe and the players to provide stability. I suspect the owners over in Saudi Arabia are looking at it thinking, ‘at what point do we want to step away from this approach and go for something different?’
“That moment was always going to come but Eddie has done a brilliant job and he’s right for Newcastle at this moment in time.”
‘Sunderland tie naughty!’
Newcastle make the short journey to face Sunderland at the Stadium of Light on Saturday with a chance to get back on track, but they have not beaten their local rivals since August 2011.
The Magpies have lost six of the nine meetings since and Neville insists they cannot afford another one, especially given what’s happened over the past month.
“The one thing going back to Sunderland is, Eddie Howe cannot lose that game. That’s it. That will just bring the fans on top.
“I think the fans are good right now with the players and the manager. There’s enough credit built up, but the Sunderland game is a little bit dicey. It’s a naughty little b*****! It’s the one game that Newcastle probably didn’t want.
“Newcastle probably don’t need to win the FA Cup. Of course, it’s brilliant if they go on and do it as they do need a trophy, but they need to get back on track.
“What’s going to get Eddie Howe into next season, with new players coming in and the ownership revitalised is pushing up the league and finishing in the top six. He’s going to be measured by that come the end of the season.”
January 6: Sunderland (A) – FA Cup, kick-off 12.45pm
January 13: Manchester City (H) – Premier League, kick-off 5.30pm
January 30: Aston Villa (A) – Premier League, kick-off 8.15pm
February 3: Luton (H) – Premier League, kick-off 3pm
February 10: Nottingham Forest (A) – Premier League, kick-off 5.30pm, live on Sky Sports
February 17: Bournemouth (H) – Premier League, kick-off 3pm