Newcastle United face Stoke City tonight, bidding for their first Premier League win of the season.
Depending on the mood of the club's owner, Mike Ashley, it is either make-or-break time for Alan Pardew or it is all a big joke.
Newcastle are joint bottom of the table, which has not tickled the funny bone of many of their supporters. They have won just one of their last 13 games in the top flight and picked up 19 of the last 75 points available.
Little wonder, then, that a large proportion of them are desperate for change at some level within the club. In the summer Newcastle showed a suggestion of ambition in signing nine players (seven are available to play, six have played) but shied away from buying the centre-forward the fans felt the team needed or the central defender coveted by the manager.
In their last game in the Premier League, at St James' Park against Hull City, supporters held 'SackPardew.com' banners inside the stadium.
But it was difficult to gauge the level of anger given that stewards were confiscating many of the A4 sheets of paper bearing the same message as fans entered the ground.
It is, however, fair to say - and you must tread carefully with the sensitivity of those in the halls of power - that Newcastle's supporters are not completely happy with life.
To that end Ashley was prepared to be publicly quoted for the first time in six years last Thursday night when he said: "He (Pardew) has got one more game. If we lose against Stoke on Monday night then he's gone. I've had enough. What would you do?
"I've spent a lot of money on that club, it's cost me a lot. I won't put up with it any more. One more loss and he's over, finished."
Whether or not Ashley's comments were a joke - as his lawyers insist they were - they did not feel funny, certainly not for the man they struck the hardest.
Pardew had to digest the latest remarkable movings of the club he has been in charge of for almost four years on Friday, three days before a fairly important game. It did not feel like ideal preparation, nor did it feel as if the club's plight was being felt as acutely in Soho as it is on Tyneside.
Victory in the League Cup on Wednesday night - after extra-time against a Crystal Palace second IX - suggested support for the manager but it once more muddied the waters.
There is no care for cups at the club and just over the horizon is a seven-day stretch of three games against Tottenham (Premier League), Manchester City (League Cup) and Liverpool (Premier League). It is another treacherous path to tread.
There is an art to diplomacy that does not naturally suit the demonstrative style of the Newcastle boss. Pardew again steered clear of angering Ashley but it was revealing that he said of the comments: "They are what they are and unfortunately we have had those sort of headlines for two or three weeks."
That he has been damaged by the revelations, at least personally, is surely without question. All he can do is call on loyalty from his players, and he has done that ahead of tonight's trip to the Britannia Stadium.
The increasingly influential Fabricio Coloccini, the man Ashley would most likely turn to if there is a change in manager, and Cheick Tiote were signalled out for special praise by Pardew. "You do need big players at this football club," he said. "You do need to underline that they're big players at times as well as the manager. I think it's important for their stature as well. They're two very important players for us.
"They showed that on Wednesday night and last Saturday - that fight and that quality and getting that balance right. You can't fight your way to a Premier League win, you have to play. They've got that balance right.
"We obviously had a team fighting for his (Tiote's) services, but the finance was never really in place. I think the reality was that we were quite comfortable that he wasn't going to go anywhere." Pardew was being serious. Probably.
Stoke manager Mark Hughes believes a fit-again Stephen Ireland can provide the creative spark required to ignite the club's season. After five weeks out through injury, Ireland returned last Tuesday, playing the full 90 minutes of the 2-1 Capital One Cup win at Sunderland.
The midfielder is now in line to return tonight and will certainly help galvanise Stoke. "He had a setback with injury, a strange one in between his ribs. It was a shame because arguably in pre-season he was one of our best performers," said Hughes. "He had worked exceptionally hard during the summer to get right."
Hughes has no fresh injury concerns, with only Jonathan Walters a doubt with a calf problem.
(© Independent News Service)
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