Toon in need of a major clearout
It is, Alan Shearer said, the biggest game of his time at Newcastle. In his opinion, it is also the most significant of any of his players' careers at St James' Park. While he did not say as much, it is also the most important, and potentially the most costly, of owner Mike Ashley's two-year tenure on Tyneside.
Newcastle host Middlesbrough on Monday and the loser, according to Shearer, will be relegated. Players' reputations will be affected, but the club's standing and finances will take a greater hit. Go down and, while the shirts will remain black and white, Newcastle will be in the red.
Because, while it is easy to generate predictions of impending doom for troubled clubs, in Newcastle's case, there is a surfeit of reasons to be fearful. Salaries account for a dangerously high proportion of their turnover, but a £73m annual wage bill is ten times higher than those of many current Championship clubs.
A squad assembled at a cost in excess of £80m already have a combined value considerably below that. Were they to be relegated, much of that expenditure would have to be written off. It would be less of a firesale than a giveaway of damaged goods when Newcastle went up in smoke.
The majority are players with substantial CVs, but in irreversible decline. Michael Owen, Mark Viduka and Claudio Cacapa are out of contract but, ludicrously lucrative as the two forwards' deals are, that would still leave Newcastle with a workforce costing £60m (it is understood the club lacked the foresight to implement an automatic drop in wages in the event of demotion).
It is the footballing version of negative equity, where money-spinning contracts are worth far more than the players themselves. Like Leeds before them, Newcastle may have to subsidise rivals to take their players. Even established and reasonably successful Premier League clubs have not been as generous employers: Everton, Aston Villa and Tottenham all have a wage ceiling rather lower than Newcastle's.
Then there is the question of who would want such underachievers. Would-be buyers would be advised to note Shearer's recent team selections which, perhaps unintentionally, have provided a damning analysis of his charges. Fabricio Coloccini, after combining the performances of Jean-Alain Boumsong with the hair of Carlos Valderrama, was dropped after one game, Kevin Nolan after three and Owen after four. Two of the three January additions, Nolan and Ryan Taylor, could not even make the bench for his fourth match.
Even if Newcastle survive, Shearer - or any successor - may be lumbered with the bulk of a badly-bought squad. Go down and players who are assets neither on the football pitch or the balance sheet become still worse pieces of business.
Two of the cheaper recruits, Habib Beye and Sebastien Bassong, are qualified successes, and should attract attention. The pedigree of the two Argentinian internationals, Jonas Gutierrez and Coloccini, who has veered from excellent to execrable, offers the promise of employment elsewhere. Obafemi Martins is another expensive byword for inconsistency, but the mercurial Nigerian's best should ensure the chance of a contract elsewhere.
But what of the rest? Only a handful - such as Steve Harper, Steven Taylor and Nicky Butt - have displayed unquestioned commitment. Damien Duff has made a valiant attempt to be a left-back, but he receives £70,000 a week and, as a winger, he no longer has the dynamism to leave opposing defenders trailing in his wake. Some, including Alan Smith, Joey Barton and Nolan, seem to regard misjudged challenges as proof of loyalty to the cause, rather than of a simple inability to time tackles.
There are suggestions that Viduka will return to his native Australia in the summer, though he may find inactivity in the A-League is rather less profitable than it is in the Premier League. Owen presumably covets a club in the North West, though there is little evidence of interest from Manchester City, who are wealthy enough to cover his current wages. Rumours of a switch to Everton may suggest he could link up with Louis Saha on the treatment table.
However, David Moyes has forged a team noted for a consistent level of application that the injury-prone Owen has been unable to display on Tyneside. It is suggested, too, that despite his otherwise sound judgment, Moyes is an admirer of Smith. So, at various stages, were many managers, but Smith, like many of his colleagues, has only produced evidence of his degeneration as a player.
Yet Newcastle have repeatedly ignored the signs. Sir Bobby Robson, briefed by Jose Mourinho, warned United that Geremi had the legs of a 40-year-old. They gave him a three-year contract. Unless Sam Allardyce repeats the errors of his time on Tyneside and takes his more misguided buys, including Smith, Geremi and Jose Enrique, to Blackburn, Newcastle are likely to be lumbered with most of them.
If Bolton and Portsmouth do not renew interest in him and Allardyce does not sign him for a second time, at least Barton, suspended both by his club and the FA, may have provided grounds for dismissal among his many misdemeanours. But with his Newcastle appearances working out at around £195,000 each and the midfielder a pariah for many, it would not amount to the cheap option. Still, if Newcastle encounter the bleaker financial climate of the Championship, they will have at least a year to count the cost of mistakes made in their recent past.