Thursday, August 11, 2005

Room for improvement

Our Premiership campaign kicks off on Sunday against Arsenal. Here we look back on the comings and goings at St James's Park over the summer and assess our chances of improving on last season's horror show.

Paul: Looking back on the summer which seems to have flown by, it's clear that Souness has been firmly stamping his mark on the dressing room. Gone are noted gobshites Bellamy and Robert, taking with them Kluivert, O'Brien, Hughes, Butt and Ambrose from the first team. In their place we've had the promising signings of Emre and Scott Parker, and the fact that we've held on to Shay Given is something of a miracle. Unfortunately the numbers clearly don't add up, and we badly need to strengthen the team, both in terms of numbers and in terms of quality - with a striker and some decent left back cover clearly a priority.

We've already dropped out of Europe, which, given our small squad, could prove to be a blessing over the coming months, but still restricts the already limited chances of Shearer finally lifting some silverware. Perhaps a decent crack at the League Cup is something to hope for, but realistically we'll be doing well to finish in the top half come May, and a few key injuries could see us nervously battling it out with the Mackems just to stay in the division. If that does prove to be the case then I imagine Fat Fred will have already handed Souness his P45 and plunged us into further disarray.

We can only hope that we manage to bring in some more new faces before the end of August, and that for once we start the season well, thereby easing the pressure on Souness and allowing the team to find a rhythm and style to suite them. However, if we don't sign a decent striker, we could be scratching around for goals, and if we don't score enough our defence is unlikely to help us scrape too many one-nils. It could be a long and not hugely enjoyable season. I just hope I'm proved very very wrong.

Ben: After that unusually pessimistic assessment from Paul, I’d better don those rose-tinted glasses…

Scott Parker and Emre should prove to be excellent close-season signings. Parker can knit things together in the middle and give us the passing and vision that were so evidently absent every time Faye and the hapless Butt lined up alongside each other last season. Emre, meanwhile, has tricks and guile aplenty to unlock opposition defences – let’s just hope we find ourselves continually reaching for the ‘Turkish delight’ headline from the shelf.

Ah, right, now, hang on – no amount of rose-tinting can make what else has happened look good...

Temperamental but talented troublemakers Bellamy, Robert and Kluivert have been packed off to Blackburn, Portsmouth and Valencia respectively, so at least the dressing room should be a calmer happier place – but where are the goal-scoring replacements? Our current strike-force of Shearer (lacking mobility in his final season before retirement), Ameobi (a handful on his day but too often unable to hit a cow’s arse with a banjo) and Chopra (untried at the very top level) must rank among the weakest in the Premiership, a marked contrast to this stage last year.

Defensive reinforcements were desperately needed even before O’Brien and the versatile Hughes were allowed to leave, but who have we seen arrive? Craig Moore. Hardly a masterstroke – but then Souness is hardly a master. Expect our back line to be as porous as ever.

The return of Lee Clark is undoubtedly of greater benefit to the player than to the club, while Ambrose and Butt have also left and Jenas’s itchy feet are giving cause for concern – not to mention Given’s stated lack of interest in committing himself to life on Tyneside beyond next summer. The one player I’d like to have seen the back of, Bowyer, has his feet firmly under the table.

So, a top six finish remains very much a possibility rather than a probability, but even then only if we can tempt at least three top quality players (a striker and a defender for a start) to the club before the end of August – a job that will be all the harder without the attraction of European football (though the attraction of stacks of lucre remains powerful). Without reinforcements, we’re looking at another season of mid-table stagnation. At best.

As things stand, then, and with tough fixtures against Arsenal and Man Utd awaiting him in the first few games, Souness is rather more likely to win the sack race than any silverware.


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