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 By Ian Darke

Newcastle are one hot mess as they flirt with relegation

Driving their fans to distraction, Newcastle United are again leading contenders for the "Most Frustrating Club of the Year" award.

It is a crying shame in one of the great traditional hotbeds of English football. This is the club which illuminated the Premier League stage in the 1990s with sizzling style and superb entertainers like Andy Cole, Les Ferdinand, Alan Shearer, Peter Beardsley, Tino Asprilla, and David Ginola.

They did not quite manage to win the title, but those teams will be remembered more than a few who did.

Back then managers like Kevin Keegan and Bobby Robson understood the Geordie fans -- and instinctively knew that the club belonged to the city and its football-mad fans. It was not uncommon for 2,000 of them to watch training.

Remember Keegan coming out onto the steps outside the ground to explain to angry supporters why the great goalscorer Andy Cole was being sold to Manchester United? How often do you see that?

Keegan's team were involved in what is widely regarded as the greatest Premier League game ever played, a heartbreaking 4-3 defeat at Liverpool in 1996. If only the club and city could have bottled that era and made it last forever.

Instead the modern Newcastle stand one point above the drop zone and are in danger of a second relegation in three years. They have not won a domestic trophy since the 1955 FA Cup. It is hard to imagine when they might win the next one.

At the root of the problem has been the troubled tenure of owner Mike Ashley, who has become a hated figure among most fans. They prayed that his proposed recent sale of the club to Amanda Staveley would end his troubled reign, but for the moment there is no deal.

That, in turn, means the team strengthening so obviously needed this month is not happening.

After promotion last summer, the only notable move was a £12m punt that Jacob Murphy could make the switch from Norwich in the Championship to the Premier League. So far Murphy, while speedy and promising, has been in and out of the team and scored once.

Then there is the underwhelming signing of Joselu, who had hardly ripped up trees at Stoke. The fee was £5m and the return so far is four goals -- good enough to make him joint top scorer with Ayoze Perez! Dwight Gayle, so prolific a level down, has only three goals. Matt Ritchie got 16 last season, but is yet to get off the mark this time.

It is a shocking fact that, in this era of rampant transfer-fee inflation, Newcastle's record signing remains Michael Owen for £16.5m in 2005. That, of course, was before Ashley took over.

In a rare interview, the sportswear tycoon made it clear he does not have the spending power to compete with the big guns.

Among his other moves has been a ban on certain local media outlets who dare to criticise the regime, and a pronouncement a few years back that the FA Cup was not on the club's agenda (perhaps that's why Newcastle go to Chelsea this Sunday seeking to make the last 16 for the first time in 12 years).

The fans' perfectly reasonable take is that if Ashley does not want to make Newcastle more competitive, he needs to make way for someone who will, especially given the huge money being pumped into every Premier League club by TV deals.

The staggering disconnect between owner and fans is in stark contrast to their love of manager Rafa Benitez. But for how much longer will this respected manager be prepared to stay in the North East if money for players continues to be so tight? He did a fine job in getting the club back to the Premier League, but he cannot turn water into wine at the top table.

The current team, with young Jamaal Lascelles an articulate and inspiring leader at the back, will fight very hard to retain top-flight status. Benitez might just pull it off.

But an injection of quality is desperately needed. Newcastle need that takeover and fast. Otherwise the "Loony Toon" gags will continue to undermine a famous club which should be doing so much better.

Ian Darke, who called games for the network during the 2010 and 2014 World Cups, is ESPN's lead soccer voice in the U.S. Reach him on Twitter @IanDarke.

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