Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Reality bites

Because someone's got to look on the dark side of life...

The scenes at St James's Park this lunchtime were incredible - thousands of fans, many of them wearing freshly-lettered number 10 shirts, packed into the Sir John Hall Stand to witness Michael Owen stepping onto the hallowed turf as a Newcastle player for the very first time. No matter how cynical you are - and believe me I very often am - the sense of euphoria and optimism was irresistible, about as far away from last Wednesday's post-Bolton feelings of utter despair as possible.

But what's needed now is a sense of proportion. A dose of reality. An acknowledgement that the things that are crooked cannot be set straight that easily. Our club is sick, and the signing of one player - even if that player is England's top striker - is no panacaea.

The weight of expectation already resting on Owen's shoulders, though understandable, is enormous. Every fan's hopes are pinned on him. It's unfair, far too much for one man to bear (I bet Luque is more relieved at Owen's arrival than anyone - he'll be able to settle in under much less pressure.) If anyone can deliver, Owen certainly can - but we've got to allow him time to acclimatise. Miracles rarely happen, and if they do they certainly don't happen overnight.

Inevitably, Owen's arrival has completely overshadowed the departure of Jermaine Jenas to Spurs. We may have been recompensed handsomely for a player who's been playing poorly for some time and who expressed his unhappiness on Tyneside, but, like Paul, I have a nagging feeling that his best is yet to come and that Spurs could just have pulled off a masterstroke in the long term. The deal also leaves us light in midfield - a worry given the injury concerns to Dyer, Emre and Bowyer.

Many clubs will have been envious of the signing of Owen, just as many will have envied Spurs for the capture of JJ. The one transfer that has really caught my eye is that of Wilfred Bouma from PSV to Aston Villa. An excellent Dutch international central defender for just £3.5m? Might I venture to suggest that Shepherd and Souness took their eye off the ball there, or at least that they were distracted by the Owen deal? They need to remember that other areas of the team need strengthening too.

Bouma would have been a great signing - not least because we might have lined up with Boum and Boum in the centre of defence and thereby acquired a new celebrity fan in the form of Basil Brush...

Owen: post-deal reaction

A perspective on the Owen deal from the club that missed out:

Kopblog - "At the end of the day I just think Newcastle wanted him more, they put their money on the table and got their man. If we truly wanted to re-sign Owen I don’t know why we left it so late before making our move and despite an apparent desperate scramble in the eleventh hour where all kinds of deals and offloading of players were being considered, I’ve never been convinced that Rafa really saw Owen as part of his plans".

A selection of posts on the Owen deal from other football blogs:

Cheer Up Alan Shearer - "It may be a marriage of convenience, but make no mistake about it: Souness and Shepherd have pulled a rabbit out of their hats here. At a single stroke, Newcastle's season could be turned around. They desperately need goals in their side, and Owen will surely provide those".

Chelsea Blog - "at Newcastle, playing off a Shearer or a Luque will be right up his alley and his acquisition may finally bring out the best in the very rich Newcastle midfield, if only injury will spare them. The signing of Parker and Emre particularly is a visionary move by Souness, but they’ll need others to pull their weight. If we really must be honest, Newcastle’s problem isn’t really that they do not have the players to take them higher; their problem is that not everyone is pulling their weight in that team".

Footballist - "Much respect to the Magpies for the all-out campaign - public and private - to grab Owen. Getting the £17m bid accepted by Real put a massive thorn in the side of any Liverpool manoeuvre for the player".

Out of the goldfish bowl

News is coming in that Jermaine Jenas has completed a move to Spurs for around £8 million. Undoubtedly a large chunk of this cash will have been earmarked to pay for Michael Owen, and it doesn't look like the worst bit of business we've ever done.

My only major concern is that the injuries to Dyer, Emre and Bowyer might leave us a bit short in midfield replacements. Whether we have time and money to bring in anyone else before midnight, I don't know – but it could be a frantic few hours on Tyneside if stories linking everyone's favourite Peruvian trumpeter with a return to the North East prove to be true.

Whilst undoubtedly a player of promise, who Robson famously described as a signing for his eventual successor, it's probably fair to say that JJ has rather plateaued of late. His early form showed us all why he had been described as our Patrick Vieira and he thoroughly deserved his Young Player Of The Year award. However, since then he endured a pretty shoddy couple of years, with his ego appearing to overtake his footballing ability and a regular place in the England squad baffling many of us who watched him play regularly.

Whether his career flourishes away from the goldfish bowl he described as his life on Tyneside only time will tell, but he must be able to learn from a player like Edgar Davids whom he memorably eclipsed when we played Juventus in the Champions' League three seasons ago.

However, if JJ decides he's happy with life, and rather than push himself settles into a position where he's simply content to pick up his wages, then Spurs have just paid a lot of money for a player who could go on to lead his country, but equally may end up as a player who never fulfilled his undoubted potential.

Still, I wish JJ all the best as he goes to warm the bench at Spurs, and thanks for the money – even if, like Jon Dahl Tomasson and several others before him, he goes on to achieve more than he ever would had he stayed.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Perfect 10?

Confirmation, then, that Michael Owen has passed his medical and is due to be unveiled as a Newcastle player at noon tomorrow, and will presumably take the vacant number 10 shirt.

Undoubtedly we've signed a player of quality, a proven goal scorer at both international and Premiership levels, someone who can turn a game in a split second, and has blistering pace.

Personally, this is the most exciting transfer we've made since we signed Shearer.

Whether he sticks about for as long, or scores as many goals under so many managers we shall have to wait and see - although without the local ties, and with a previously expressed desire to win major trophies, I can't imagine he'll stick around if we don’t show rapid signs of improvement. Stories abound that his contract features numerous get-out clauses, and to be honest I wouldn't blame him for that.

However, with him in the side it should create more space for Shearer, it once again gives us a long ball option (although hopefully not one we'll flog to death), whilst also giving opposing defenders far more to worry about.

Unlike some of our previous signings, he's a proven player, who we've paid big money for, but who still has a hunger for football and a settled home life, and should give us the edge we've lacked since Bellamy spat the dummy. Hopefully it'll also bring an end to our playing 4-5-1, which is possibly the most depressing formation in football.

Bring it on!

Feeling the strain

Newcastle 0 – 2 Manchester United

Hope sprung eternal at St James's Park for 45 minutes on Sunday, as a starting line up boosted by the returns from injury of Dyer and Emre and featuring new signing Albert Luque matched Man Utd for effort, work rate and creativity and showed there are positive signs for us to build a season upon.

Unfortunately, the departure of both Emre and Dyer to recurrences of their respective hamstring injuries and the loss of Bowyer in the second half to a suspected groin strain left us struggling to spark in the second half, and it was no surprise that we proceeded to concede two goals and once again fail to score.

The goals themselves both resulted from uncharacteristic errors by Jean-Alain Boumsong, who had arguably his worst ever game in a black and white shirt, firstly allowing a hopeful punt forward to bounce in front of him, and let Rooney in to calmly slot the ball past Given at the Leazes end, and later on Rooney was able to pull the ball back across the face of the goal, and with Boumsong missing the clearance, Van Horse Face notched a second.

The first half had started brightly, with new signing Albert Luque managing to find space in front of goal several times. Unfortunately the only time he really had the opportunity to slot the ball home he was comfortably offside, and otherwise his shots left Van der Sar untroubled. Nonetheless, there were clear signs of promise from the new man – who looked good on the ball, and skillful enough to get in behind defences when required. Provided he can get a couple of early goals under his belt to help him settle he should prove a real asset for the side.

Elsewhere, Parker again showed his class, and his strong display in front of Sven Goran Eriksson was surprisingly not enough to displace current club colleague Jermaine Jenas in the England squad. Nonetheless, a few more games like that and it must surely only be a matter of time before his name is being mentioned in connection with the England squad for 2006.

The loss of both Emre and Dyer to recurrences of their injuries is something of a worry, and while both passed fitness tests, it seems slightly strange that both subsequently broke down – either the fitness tests aren't rigid enough, or perhaps Souness should only have gambled on one of them. That said, if they passed the test, he’d argue there was no gamble at the time. Either way, their departures and the later loss of Bowyer left our midfield struggling valiantly but ultimately futilely against the visitors.

I still feel that if we could only field a fit team, and have a bit of luck in front of goal then we could have a decent season - the problem being that the longer the goal drought continues the bigger the challenge we'll have to mount a challenge for European football next season. Hopefully the break for the internationals will allow us to regroup and refocus for the challenges ahead.

Other reports: BBC,

Owen's signed!

Will post more on this when I get a moment - but this is the best news we've had in years.

He'd better pass the medical, that's all I'm saying.


Friday, August 26, 2005

A slice of Luque*

At last.

One of our countless dead-in-the-water transfer moves has come back to life, Albert Luque signing from Deportivo La Coruna for a fee of £9.5m.

Luque is just what we need - someone who can either score goals and provide width and creativity to the midfield. Given our chronic inability to find the net I imagine Souness will opt to play him as a striker against Manchester Buccaneers on Sunday, but he may well line up as a winger if we can get another top-drawer forward in.

Unlike a certain Mr Owen, our newest recruit has been making all the right enthusiastic noises about playing for the club: "I'm very happy. I am looking forward to playing with Alan Shearer. I'm excited. It's a great place to play. I'm looking forward to playing in front of the Newcastle fans".

Two questions. Does he really know what he's letting himself in for? And will he be able to cope with the unrealistic expectations of the fans (myself included) who are hoping he can be the answer to all our problems?

Just for a moment, though, let's focus on the positive and congratulate ourselves on a great addition to the squad. If he can inspire the current shower to victory over Ferguson's mob (there we go with the unrealistic expectations...), then he'll make himself an instant hero.

* Apologies - we'll just get all of these puns out of the way early, shall we?

Welcome to the club

A new face in the Newcastle dressing room, and some new faces on the B&W&RAO blogroll:

Bluedorset (Birmingham)
Exiled In Yorkshire (Nottm Forest)
Gable End Graffiti (Montrose)
Up The Saddlers (Walsall)

And an excellent unaffiliated football site: It's Up For Grabs Now.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

All white on the night

Bolton 2 - 0 Newcastle

Blankety blank - again. Fred: get out your chequebook and pen. NOW.

Just think what you could accomplish in the best part of 500 minutes. And now reflect on the fact that it's not long enough for one of our multi-millionaire "stars" - or "useless cunts" as they are more frequently called round these parts - to find the back of an opposition net in the Premiership.

The last player to achieve the feat - "achieve the feat"? That makes it sound on a par with climbing fucking Everest - was Shola Ameobi against the mighty Fulham, and we welcomed him back after suspension fervently hoping that he'd be the man to end the drought. But no - like the rest of his colleagues, he displayed a pathological fear of hitting the target.

Also brought into the side was Faye, ostensibly to toughen up the midfield, but of course the demotion of N'Zogbia and Milner following Saturday's snore-draw meant that we had no width whatsoever and consequently precious little service for the front two.

That our best opportunity came in the sixth minute speaks volumes about the performance. Bowyer swivelled neatly and his powerful volley beat Jussi Jaaskelainen only for ex Mag Gary Speed to head it off the line.

In the report of this fixture last year, I noted that "the taste of victory must have been all the sweeter for Speed, perhaps Bolton's star performer against the club which he served so well but which deemed him surplus to requirements in the summer". A bad case of deja vu, then. Not only did he foil Bowyer, he also had a vicious and goalbound inswinging corner knocked away from under the crossbar by Carr and played a key role in his side's decisive second goal. But more of that in a moment.

The Trotters dominated the first half, our players once again struggling to cope with their muscular and effective approach play. Taylor was booked on the ground on which he made his Premiership debut two seasons ago, and shortly afterwards Bolton were ahead. Nicky Hunt swung over a long cross and the Senegalese Spitter aka El-Hadji Diouf was one of several players queueing up to nod the ball into the net, Carr and Given too culpably statuesque.

The home side only had to wait for five minutes after half time to double their advantage. Diouf crossed, Speed got a flicked header to the ball and the supposedly unsettled Stelios Giannakopoulos couldn't miss the gaping net from a yard out. Replays suggested he was offside, but then our players deserved to know they were two goals worse than the opposition.

They continued to create chances, whereas after Bowyer's volley our only effort of note was a Shearer piledriver that Jaaskelainen showily fisted away. And this against a defence with a striker (Henrik Pedersen) playing the whole game at left back and first choice centre back Raidi Jaidi off the pitch injured since the 23rd minute...

Another abject defeat at the Reebok Stadium to chalk up with those of the last three seasons.

Right, that's all you're getting - I haven't got the strength to carry on, and neither, I suspect, have you.

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Real deal

As mentioned in the comments below, we've apparently now agreed a fee with Real Madrid for the permanent signing of Michael Owen. Reports from the club suggest it is in excess of the £15 million club record we paid for Alan Shearer.

That strikes me as the easy part.

The much harder task will be convincing Michael Owen that he not only wants to come here (because we're currently the only viable option for first team football in World Cup year) but that he wants to stick around for more than one season.

I suspect that it'll be a lot harder to persuade him of that.

Still, unlike our previous attempts to sign strikers this season it's nice to see we've agreed a fee with the club first, rather than agreeing a big fat contract with a player only to then fail to meet their club's asking price.

Loan star?

News from Spain that Michael Owen has finally realised that, whatever Sven says, a good season by Jermain Defoe is seriously going to undermine his England place. Aware that he is unlikely to play anything more than a cameo role at Madrid, Owen is now pushing for a return to Liverpool.

However, if the Reds don't come in for him (and Benitez is sounding pretty bloody minded on the fact that he doesn't see a new striker as a priority), then Owen will join Newcastle on loan for the season.

This would be a huge boost to our chances of doing anything this season, with Owen an outstanding striker with a hunger to succeed and score goals. He also has a stable home life, and is unlikely to spend his nights off attempting to get laid on the Quayside.

All we have to do now is hope that Liverpool don't come in for him.

Obviously this doesn't mean we don’t need further reinforcements, and our lack of width and depth up front are still problems which we need to resolve before the end of the month.

With only seven days to pull his finger out, Fat Fred better start writing some cheques.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Wanted: cutting edge

Newcastle 0 - 0 West Ham

A clean sheet and a first point of the season. Hooray!

Or, rather, not. We've now failed to score in 180 minutes of Premiership football this season and - more worrying still - we've not even looked that likely to register on the scoresheet. Given that our most recent opposition, newly promoted West Ham, counted Tomas 'here, help yourself to a goal' Repka amongst their ranks, that's got to be serious cause for concern.

No sooner has Dyer signed up to his new improved contract than he's picked up another injury, so out he went. Worse still, Emre's knock suffered during Turkey's friendly in Sofia on Wednesday kept him from taking part in proceedings. Milner and N'Zogbia stepped up from the bench, but with Ameobi and Chopra already ruled out (suspension and injury respectively), that left us looking appallingly blunt up front.

And so it proved. After a slow opening period in which the Hammers settled quicker, Bowyer, Milner, Jenas and N'Zogbia all tried their luck without success. At the other end Israeli international Yossi Benayoun was proving a handful, pulling the strings in the opposition midfield. Benayoun was interesting Souness before he made the switch to East London, and we were lacking precisely that sort of creativity.

The game petered out towards half-time, but within ten minutes of the second period it had been brought back to life, thanks to referee Dermot Gallagher. JJ, himself sinned against last week despite playing the ball, was brought down by West Ham left-back Paul Konchesky. After consulting with his assistant on the touchline, Gallagher reached for the red card, much to the disgust of Alan Pardew who felt Konchesky had made contact with ball as well as man. They say these things even themselves out over the course of the season - this one evened itself out in the space of a week.

What followed, however, underlined the difference between ourselves and Arsenal. Whereas last Sunday the Gunners piled on the pressure and eventually made us crack, we couldn't do the same to West Ham - the problem being that there was no-one to turn the screw, and no-one on the bench who could liven things up in attack.

As it was, Lee Clark came on for his first appearance for the club since leaving for Wearside in 1997 and before long saw a shot tipped round the post by Roy Carroll. Bowyer, Shearer and Jenas also had efforts that came to nothing, and a fairly miserable afternoon was summed up when Parker blasted over in injury time.

Not a good sign that just two games into the Premiership season the players were booed off the pitch, and it's important we keep things in perspective, but this result doesn't look good in any light. Beforehand I just couldn't see us failing to win, and thought we'd have too much for the Hammers, especially with a midfield including Bowyer, Parker and JJ, but I was proved wrong.

If nothing else, this should reinforce for the benefit of Messrs Souness and Shepherd that our squad is paper-thin, especially in the attacking department, and that we urgently need some high-quality signings. In short: get busy - and quick.

West Ham fans' perspectives: Parallax View, Upton Lark

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

We should be so Luque

At last, some news on the transfer front that we can genuinely get excited about: with deals for Owen, Anelka and Boa Morte seemingly dead in the water, we're hot on the trail of Spanish international Alberto Luque.

Luque, who currently plays for our Intertoto Cup foes Deportivo La Coruna, can operate up front or wide on the left. He's got great pace and a good eye for goal - and you don't get in the Spanish national side without having some serious quality about you.

I don't want to speak too soon, but the signs look encouraging - Deportivo haven't ruled out selling any of their players before the end of the month, and Luque has expressed an interest in playing in the Premiership in the past. If - and it's still a big if - Shepherd and Souness can pull this one off then for once I'll be happy to take my hat off to them.

Taylor tied down

Good news of a rather more concrete kind regarding Steven Taylor, who has signed a new four year deal with the club.

Taylor is one of only two players to have come through the Academy and youth team set-up who could currently be considered as a first team regular (the other being Ameobi). The England U21 defender has long been a talked-about prospect, but at the age of 19 he's already beginning to realise his potential.

Tall and strong, he's an excellent reader of the game and incredibly eager and committed in the tackle. On occasions that commitment spills over into recklessness, and he does pick up too many yellow cards for my liking, but with experience he can only improve. I for one am glad to see he's put pen to paper.

What goes around, comes around

Schadenfreude - isn't it great? At least it is when, for once, it's not our misfortunes that provoke the smirks.

It seems that that loveable scamp Craig Bellamy went off to join up with the Welsh national squad and picked up an injury in training. Bellamy's new boss Mark Hughes was less than impressed and berated Wales manager John Toshack and his medical team.

So well done to Toshack for pointing out the irony of the situation:

"'If we can just turn the clock back to the Italy game [in 2003] when the Newcastle people absolutely slated Mark Hughes about the Bellamy injury', said Toshack of the time Newcastle claimed Bellamy was not fit to play in Milan. 'I phoned Mark and told him 'don't waste your energy on this, don't let it worry you; you're perfectly within your rights, just send Newcastle a fax with the Fifa rules'. He [Hughes] thanked me for the call so now I'm a little bit surprised to receive the same kind of criticism from the Blackburn people that he received from the Newcastle people - strangely enough over the same player'".

And the best bit of the whole saga is that there's a good chance Bellamy won't be fit to face us at Ewood Park on 18th September.

New Bhoys

The latest additions to the B&W&RAO blogroll, a couple of Celtic blogs:

Celtic FC Blog
Lord Of The Wing

A fiery but out-of-his-depth Scot desperately trying to keep control over and get the best out of a bunch of talented but overpaid players who regularly run out in front of 50,000+ crowds? Sounds familiar...

Thursday, August 18, 2005

A mug's game?

We're all idiots. You, me, Paul, Danny, Dean, Dom, Pete, Inspector Sands, Swiss Toni, Lord Bargain and Flash...

Well, at least, that is, according to this Guardian feature.

And why? Because our passion for football induces us to abandon all reason and rationality, and allows ruthless clubs and leeches to make a fortune out of our gullibility.

All very well (if rather patronisingly) put, Mr Ingle, and it's certainly true that we're routinely ripped off and taken advantage of - but rationality has never had anything whatsoever to do with being a football fan. Who in their right mind would fulfil the stereotype of sort of lower-league fan you seem to idealise, travelling the length of the country to watch their team capitulate to a 5-0 defeat in the midst of a rainstorm?

Unfortunate as it is, as a genuine football supporter you check your brain in at the door whenever the beautiful game's concerned.

Pointless but not without pain

Come on, own up. Whose idea was it to schedule international friendlies only a few days after the first weekend of the Premiership season?

Of course, I can see how it might have suited Sven-Goran Eriksson and his fellow international managers - but how much has Eriksson really learnt about his squad from last night's 4-1 mauling at the hands of Denmark? Apart from the fact that Glen Johnson and David James shouldn't be allowed near an England shirt again, that is...

Thankfully, after Sunday's red card at Highbury - rescinded after the damage had been done - JJ's week didn't get any worse. A second half substitute for Steven Gerrard, he managed to play out all seven minutes of his time on the pitch without picking up an injury.

If only the same could be said of our one genuinely creative midfield force, Emre, who left the field after only 26 minutes of Turkey's match against Bulgaria, apparently clutching his groin. Just what we need.

Elsewhere, Boumsong and Given played the full matches for France and Republic of Ireland against Ivory Coast and Italy respectively, while Carr and Viana both saw some action too.

With Viana's proposed moves to Sporting Lisbon and Celta Vigo seemingly dead in the water, what price a return to the first team squad? He might have repeatedly expressed a desire to leave, but he's an undoubted talent and maybe, just maybe, this might be the season in which he finally settles in the more physical climate of the English game. It's improbable, though - he's still much more likely to be shipped out on loan (or even permanently) before the transfer window closes.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Bits 'n' pieces

More new football blogs of note:

Leeds United Life
Football Corner
Trent End Talk

A BBC article on cricket v football. It has to be said that, like Swiss Toni I'm not yet as into the new football season as I might be because of the ongoing Ashes series, which you hardly need me to tell you has been phenomenally exciting so far.

Special mention for the Sheffield Wednesday players who thought they'd cheer up the unfortunate Steve Claridge (on trial at the club after being booted out by Millwall) by presenting him with a bottle of bubbly affixed with a label reading "Manager Of The Month June 2005"...

Monday, August 15, 2005

Empty words

Nice to see that incompetent twat Steve Bennett has realised the error of his ways, and that JJ's red card has been reduced to a yellow.

I'm sure that'll really mean a lot to the player, as it allows him to play for us again before the transfer window closes. I'm equally sure that the letter of apology that he has written to the manager, players and club will go a long way towards rectifying his error on Sunday.

Course, it doesn't mean we get three points, and all our efforts on the pitch still yield no points. But he's really sorry he made a ridiculously over the top decision that cost us any chance of starting the season with anything other than a defeat.

Thanks for that Steve – maybe next time instead of apologising you just make the right decision in the first place, you useless bastard.

Outnumbered and outgunned

Arsenal 2 - 0 Newcastle

Barring an unfavourable cup draw, this was our final appearance at Highbury, and once again it proved to be an unhappy hunting ground as Newcastle were firstly reduced to ten men, and then hit with two late goals to give Arsenal a score that slightly flattered them.

Having started well, we looked to be competing well in midfield and really looking to take control with a high tempo pressing game that saw our midfield of Bowyer, Jenas, Parker and Emre all putting in good performances. Defensively we also looked in good shape, with Babayaro enjoying a decent day at left back and Taylor and Boumsong looking good as a central pairing.

Unfortunately, what was a fairly evenly matched contest was ruined when referee Steve Bennett gave JJ a straight red card for a tackle on Gilberto Silva. Silva took a poor first touch, and the ball was clearly there to be won when JJ slid in. Taking the ball cleanly with his lead leg, Jenas took the man with his trail leg. Apparently this was a dreadful tackle, as JJ was promptly shown a straight red card. Now, I'm not convinced it was a foul, but at worst it merited a yellow card – it was hardly a Steven Gerrard two-footed lunge – but unfortunately Bennett decided to try and stamp his authority on what had been a fairly even tempered match. Players from both sides were left stunned, and Sky picking up Souness and Thierry Henry chatting on the touchline – with both looking somewhat bemused by the decision.

A spot of reorganisation saw Kieron Dyer drop back into midfield and left Shearer to plough a lone furrow up front, and barring a set piece or storming piece of individual skill seemingly wrecked our chances of scoring a goal.

The second half saw us come under increasing pressure, as Arsenal exploited their one man advantage and began to pile forward. Nonetheless, our defence seemed to be coping well, with late blocks from Taylor and Parker as well as a couple of decent saves from Given doing enough to keep the gunners at bay.

Then, with ten minutes to go, up steps Steve Bennett again to award a penalty following fairly minimal contact between Charles N'Zogbia and Freddie Ljungberg. Although Shay got a hand to the penalty, Henry still managed to hit it with sufficient pace and accuracy to beat the Irishman.

Forced to now push forward it was almost inevitable that eighty minutes of good work would be completely undone, and sure enough Arsenal caught us on the counter attack, with Van Persie ultimately slipping in at the near post to slip the ball past Given.

2 - 0 then, and whilst we never really looked like testing Lehmann it still galls that all our hard work was undone by some absolutely terrible refereeing decisions, with the sending off ruling out almost any chance we had of getting something from the game.

On the positive note, there were promising displays from both Parker and Emre, and even Babayaro looked to have shaken off his summer malaise. However, our lack of a cutting edge up front remains a problem, and if Souness can't solve it before the end of August it will be a long slog through to January.

An Arsenal fan's view: East Lower

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

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.

View From The Away End

For a more dispassionate objective assessment of the club's close-season activity and our prospects for the forthcoming campaign, we turned to Danny of Bitter And Blue, Pete of the new-look Round And White, Dom of Mist Rolling In From The Trent..., Terry Venerables of Footballist, Swiss Toni of Cheer Up Alan Shearer and Watford fan Jez.

As you'll see, they range from the cautiously positive to the sharply pessimistic...

Danny: “Newcastle United. A club that can make my very own Manchester City appear a prototype for off-field stability and on-field success. Goings on off the field has ensured they remain front-page news, whilst on-field underachievement has led to constant speculation about managerial tenures on the back pages.

And true to type, this summer has been no different. Off field has seen the Bellamy saga drag on a while before he headed off to Blackburn. The signings of Nicky Butt and Patrick Kluivert were disastrous at best, and both have now left the club. Laurent Robert took his sniping with him to Portsmouth and with Bowyer on his way to Birmingham, suddenly the squad had a harmonious look to it. To solve the striker shortage, Souness then courted Nicolas Anelka – a player of undoubted talent but who has demanded his way out of every club he has been at.

Bowyer turned down a deal at Birmingham, fearing their fans’ reaction to him (I didn’t realise he was fans’ player of the year at Newcastle?) and then launched an attack at Freddie Shepherd, claiming he was being forced out. Robert also added his two-penneth over the managerial credentials of Souness which earned him a fine from the club, and which revealed that it was only a loan deal he had left on.

On the eve of the season, Jermaine Jenas signalled intent to leave, that he could not live in the goldfish bowl atmosphere around Newcastle. And here was me thinking the only goldfish bowls Newcastle players were accustomed to were the ones they drank out of…

The Newcastle board have often been criticised (and rightly so on many occasions) but one thing they have done more often than not is back the manager with a transfer kitty. This was evident as they backed Souness to bring in Scott Parker and Emre. Parker got lost somewhat in the system at Chelsea but he was undoubtedly a major factor in establishing Charlton and has plenty to prove (especially with the World Cup coming up). I am a close follower of Italian football and for me the signing of Emre could turn out to be a superb one. He is a small player, but very tough (think Gheorge Hagi) and his touch and vision are excellent.

One ‘signing’ that has also been made is that Kieron Dyer has penned a contract extension (or soon will). Forgive me, but I cannot see why they would offer him in the region of £60k a week when he has brought numerous off-field problems and not put together any sort of run of form together during his whole time at the club.

Souness is also still courting a striker and would love to snap up Michael Owen, but I doubt he wants to return to a side outside of the top four, if even at all. Defensive reinforcements are also necessary as a series of average players – Hughes, O’Brien etc are not top drawer.

From an outside perspective looking at the club, there doesn’t appear to be any real long-term structure or plan in place. I cannot see Souness being there in the long run, which means that they will be in the same position yet again a season or so down the line and I fear that Shearer will be thrown in far too early as a manager. The board appear to have this unhealthy desire for immediate success, whilst discarding everything else.

As the season is again upon us, there appears to be a demand for Champions’ League qualification. I can’t see it happening as the top three are set and I think Liverpool will show more focus on the title this season. With the additions that have been made to the squad I think a UEFA place is most definitely achievable as it looks like Newcastle, Spurs and Middlesbrough are the strongest of the non-top four sides. Souness will need a bit of luck with injuries so he can get a settled side in place and definitely needs to find some goals to go with Shearer’s guaranteed twenty. But most of all, they need to avoid the off-field distractions that have plagued the club the past few seasons.

Pete: “I think I should start this post off with some good news. Nicky Butt has left. It's actually very good news indeed, as it means Newcastle fans no longer have to put up with his dismal performances and with his loan move to Birmingham he also has (I'm praying here) little chance of playing in an England shirt ever again.

But that's about it as far as good news goes.

The summer signings have been so-so. Parker and Emre are not convincing buys in my book, although I admit I'm open to surprises. Parker will have to recapture his Charlton form (a while back now) to make his move a successful one though, while Emre smacks of Souness's apparent desperation for a ‘big(-ish) name’ player.

Signing ex-Rangers captain Craig Moore (world class eh?) is a positive step to correct defensive frailties, but this is also the same player sacked last season by Borussia Moenchengladbach for drinking. Hmmm. A man after Graeme's heart perhaps?

The return of Hugo Viana to pre-season training may fill the gap on the left wing left by Robert, but he remains another signing (along with Bowyer) who really needs to put in some consistently good

With Newcastle out of the Intertoto Cup, and Jenas making worrying noises, I'm guessing that Magpie fans will be glad to see the back of the summer break more than most other football fans.

Signing Owen would be real coup, but having a world class forward won't propel Newcastle into the top four if the midfield can't support him and the back four leak goals on a regular basis. After all, they've had Shearer for quite a while now. Nevertheless, the Toon Army will be demanding a replacement for Super Al on a daily basis now and Owen would certainly be the man for the job. However, if Man Utd really are in the market for the fifth choice Galatico as well, then his destination is a foregone conclusion.

It's not an ideal start to the season really. Sixth or seventh and good cup run is the best I can foresee, which is unlikely to keep Souness his job, but frankly that's a good thing.”

Dom: “I have to admit that I actually have a soft spot for a couple of Premiership teams and Newcastle are one of them (your first game opposition the other!). I don't know whether this stems from my irrational hatred of Sunderland and Middlesbrough or not, but it more likely originated from Psycho's testimonial which saw Keegan's entertainers field a full strength line-up and a large friendly Geordie following turn up at the City Ground.

I've been to St James’s once and it was great, which when you consider we'd lost 5-0 is a strange comment. We'd already been relegated it was last game of the season so we weren't too concerned by Asprilla's almost single-handed demolishing act – cheering every goal that went in and having some good banter with the home support. My first memory of Newcastle comes from the late 80s, again we'd been paired on the last day of the season this time at the City Ground, I can't remember the score, but I remember more than a couple of supporters climbing the floodlights!

That was then though, this is now - I don't need to tell you you're a huge club, you know. I don't need to tell you that but for some poor performances in recent finals your trophy cabinet would be filling up nicely. I can tell you however you've got to win something soon and to do it you need shot of Sourness.

I really did not understand his appointment. My friend Andy, a Blackburn supporter, celebrated like he'd won the lottery when Sourness left. His past record with Rangers et al may have been good – but what has he achieved lately? Bad tactical decisions that saw you limp out of the UEFA Cup and a poor position in the Premiership, any unrest caused by Bellamy and Bowyer in your dressing room he could probably achieve with his eyes closed – ask Dwight Yorke.

I look at the quality in your squad and know you should be doing better, Sourness has actually managed a couple of good signings this summer (Parker and Emre), but at the same time has managed a couple of bad decisions in the transfer market. I know the central midfield role only has two places, but letting Butt go out on loan, with JJ left as the only centre mid who can play the defensive mid role looks wrong – especially considering the rumours circulating about JJ's future. Another player I was surprised to see Sourness let go was Ambrose, he's still young and is still improving as a player and could have been an asset this season.

Sourness seems obsessed with landing a striker – if I were him I'd be reviewing the back four. In Given you have a great keeper, but the players in front of him are far from great. How Bramble is still a Newcastle player confuses me – I have no confidence in him as a defender and he doesn't appear to have much himself. Boumsong looks the part, but the arrival (in familiar Sourness style) of former Rangers thug Craig Moore won't strengthen your defence – he'll be too busy getting suspended to be helping the team.

There is still a nucleus of good players in your squad that with a little tweaking could become a great team, there is also the worry though that this team could disintegrate before achieving that greatness. If Sourness's team start off badly he'll inevitably face the chop and you'll have to suffer another wasted season – the problem is when you come to start again the next time Shearer really will be gone, another trophyless season and new contract or not Dyer won't want to stick around will he? Given may move on and JJ may have already jumped ship.

This season is now or never for Newcastle – I honestly believe that, I just wish you were in better hands then you might get the glory your support deserves. I can see you finishing higher than last season – possibly 8th and you having a good run in the Cups again – but Champions’ League football is only coming back to St James’s Park when you have a new manager I'm afraid.

Terry: “For too long Newcastle United’s football has had nothing to do with media interest in the club. Back in April, the Bowyer-Dyer incident shone a light on the need for radical personnel changes. It seemed inconceivable that both could stay on Tyneside. The fact that both would want to stick around wasn’t worth contemplating.

So what happens this summer? Well, we discover that you couldn’t shift Bowyer even if you painted him gold, shoved up Patrick Vieira up his arse and called him Michael Essien. Upshot: as we approach the 2005/06 season all media and neutrals will be awaiting the next set of baffling antics to come from St James’s Park – because it’s not just hothead Lee and glittering Kieron who are capable of jaw-dropping insanity. Did I hear talk of Nicolas Anelka and… Mark Viduka!!!

Although this sounds like some kind of awful comedy roadshow there are positive events that are worthy of attention. Newcastle made signings. In particular, Scott Parker and Emre both had other Toffee-flavoured European (!) options – but they chose Newcastle! And why? Assuming that there was more than money involved, at the heart of all the shit that has surrounded Newcastle United in previous months there is something of a belief in Souness and what the club can achieve – even in the short term.

For now, forget about not playing in Europe, forget about JJ being unsettled and pay attention to the likes of Bobby Robson arguing a very good case for Michael Owen joining the club. With two or three more top quality signings, Newcastle will again feel like a club who can achieve and with that it would seem like an odd club to feel unsettled at. For years, Manchester United fans laughed along to ‘Nobody likes us but we don’t care’ because that doesn’t matter when you’re winning trophies. In the same way that ‘what he
had to work with’ cost David O’Leary his job at Leeds, Souness will be regarded as facing an impossible job (though some would say that he created this for himself). With more signings to come and Souness showing that he can work with the personnel that he has at his disposal, it’s just possible that Geordies will soon be laughing along to ‘Everyone thinks we’re a joke but we don’t care’.

Realistic target for this 2005/06? Top six finish (a massive improvement from 2004/05’s 14th position). Will they achieve this? As long as it’s their football making the headlines, yes!”

Toni: “I sat down to last night to one of the most important tasks of the year: the selection of my fantasy football team. Over the years, I have made a few absolutely blinding selections. Your Matthew Le Tissiers and Thierry Henrys are all very well, but the selections that have given me the most satisfaction have been the ones who cost tuppence and came up trumps – your Claus Jensens, Claus Lundekvams, Rory Delaps and Stuart Downings. The players that you picked up from the bargain basement and who chipped in with precious points at crucial moments (although I like to put my selection of Silas down to temporary insanity).

Perhaps more than any other club, Newcastle Utd has a proud tradition of providing me with key players: Les Ferdinand, David Ginola, Phillipe Albert, Nolberto Solano, John Beresford, Rob Lee and, of course, Alan Shearer have all made regular appearances in my side as I lifted title after title in competition with my mates. As I looked at this year's player list though, the St James’s cupboard looks bare, and not a single player in the famous black and white stripes is going to make the cut. Goalkeeper? Not with that defence. Defenders? No chance. Midfield? Doesn't look like producing many goals. Wingers? What wingers? Strikers? What strikers? Michael Chopra?

I know that fantasy league form is not always the best guideline for judging a player's worth, but it strikes me that this it is a pretty sad indictment of the current Newcastle squad that I can't see a single player worth investing in (except possible JJ, but only then because he's likely to move on to a better side and is thus decent value). Is Graeme Souness the man to make something out of nothing? To rebuild the squad and bring exciting football back to Tyneside? Judging by his alienation of Craig Bellamy and Laurent Robert – no, I just can’t see it. Even if he had the talent, would he really be given the opportunity to do so by a chairman who seems to have all of the brains of a small piece of cheese? Doubtful.

I like Newcastle Utd. There's something about the passion of the fans and their long, patient wait for success that strikes a chord in this Wolves fan. I'm afraid to say that I think you are going to have to be patient a little longer yet. I predict a struggle to finish inside the top six of the Premiership and no joy in the cups. Sorry about that. I hope I'm wrong.

Jez: “New signings, takeover rumours, Shay Given’s apathy, Lee Bowyer not being able to find anyone to pay those ludicrous wages, Emre and Scott Parker coming along to suckle from the teats of the black and white cash cow. It must be close season at Newcastle United. It’s difficult for me to watch and I’m not even a fan. At least Blackburn and Manchester City are vying with Newcastle as people you wouldn’t want to share a hotel with at your work’s Christmas party.

I just don’t see Souness as the answer, but the lunatics have taken over the asylum. Here’s an idea for you: take a leaf out of AFC Wimbledon’s book, and even more so FC United of Manchester. Reclaim your magnificent heritage from the idiots in charge that are redistributing the money you spend in a fashion that would worry Michael Jackson. Start a new club, support it fully and just watch it rise with pride and passion. In a few years buy St James’s Park from the egotists and allow all fans to be shareholders. Go on, enjoy yourselves. You know why you should, because those running the club are laughing all the way to the bank.

Predicted position: what will it take for change, relegation?”

Thanks to Danny, Pete, Dom, Terry, Toni and Jez for their thoughts.

Prediction time

It’s neck-on-the-line time…

Paul’s predicted final positions:

1. Arsenal
2. Chelsea
3. Liverpool
4. Man Utd
5. Tottenham
6. Middlesbrough
7. Bolton
8. Aston Villa
9. Man City
10. Newcastle
11. Everton
12. Charlton
13. Birmingham
14. Fulham
15. Blackburn
16. West Brom
17. West Ham
18. Portsmouth
19. Sunderland
20. Wigan

Predictions by Swiss Toni, Kenny, Phill, Terry Venerables and Evan.

And the rest...

Ben’s club-by-club Premiership preview:

Even the absence of a below-par Patrick Vieira (as he was last season) will leave an enormous hole in midfield. It’s doubtful whether either Gilberto or the inexperienced duo of Matthieu Flamini or Cesc Fabregas can fill it, Edu also having left for the continent. Wenger has thus far failed to recruit a new ‘keeper – neither Jens Lehmann nor Manuel Almunia being up to the standards Gunners fans have every right to expect – and there have been mutterings of discontent from Robert Pires and even Thierry Henry. The latter’s departure would be inconceivable. The only real bright spot is the arrival of Alexander Hleb, who promises goals and creativity from midfield, but they could well be pipped by Liverpool for third place this time out.

Aston Villa
With Deadly Doug gripping the purse-strings tightly, David O’Blarney has done well to attract replacements of the calibre of Kevin Phillips, Aaron Hughes, Stuart Taylor and Patrick Berger, all at a cost of little more than £3m. Darius Vassell has moved on, but in Thomas Sorensen, Olof Mellberg, Gareth Barry and Juan Pablo Angel they have a decent backbone to the side. Much depends on whether Angel can rediscover his goal-scoring form – and whether Nobby Solano can maintain his – but don’t expect any great strides forwards.

Having firmly established Birmingham as a Premiership side, cauliflower-faced boss Steve Bruce will be hoping his summer signings can propel them towards Europe. His main concern has been firepower, with former loan stars Mikael Forssell and Walter Pandiani arriving from Chelsea and Deportivo La Coruna respectively for £3m each. In Matthew Upson they have a solid centre-back, and if David Dunn can stay fit and Jermaine Pennant can stay out of jail they could do well. Either way, relegation is unlikely – more’s the pity.

Mark Hughes steadied the ship after replacing Souness, and identified attack as the area which desperately needed improvement. Hence the signings of Shefki Kuqi and – much more significantly – Craig Bellamy, set to strike up the most irritating, aggressive and pea-brained partnership in the Premiership with fellow ankle-biter Paul Dickov. With Robbie Savage, David Thompson and Tugay also lining up in midfield, visitors to Ewood Park can expect to leave bruised and battered. Morgen Gamst Pedersen is a goal threat wide on the left, but it’s the flimsy defence that will continue to give their opposition hope.

A frustrating close-season for Sam Allardyce. Despite the prospect of a venture into Europe, players have hardly jumped at the chance to join the Trotters, and so Sam’s wheeling and dealing has been at a premium. El-Hadji Diouf – the most hated player in the Premiership? – has signed permanently, and the only other arrival of note is Jared Borgetti, a 31-year-old Mexican international striker who Allardyce freely admits is an utterly unknown quantity. They may not have lost any key members of the squad – though Stelios Giannakopoulos has been repeatedly linked with Liverpool – but could this be the year their progress finally stalls? I say that every season, though.

The pick of the arrivals at The Valley is undoubtedly England U21 striker Darren Bent, poached from Ipswich. Judging by the evidence of pre-season friendlies, Bent should give the Addicks a sharper cutting edge up front. After being consigned to a peripheral role at St James’s Park, Darren Ambrose will be keen to show off his skills and cement a first-team place alongside Danny Murphy and the on-loan Alexei Smertin in the Charlton midfield. Alan Curbishley has bought and loaned astutely, but, despite performing wonders at the club, could well be out of a job come May if his relatively big-money signings Dennis Rommedahl and Francis Jeffers continue to underperform and if he again fails to solve the recurring problem of the post-Christmas slump.

Jose Mourinho has added further jewels to his already enormous Stamford Bridge stash of riches, asking Roman Abramovich to reach down the back of his sofa to find the £29m necessary to bring Shaun Wright-Phillips and Asier Del Horno to west London. The squad hasn’t ballooned, though, with fringe players Mateja Kezman, Scott Parker, Mikael Forssell and Alexei Smertin all allowed to leave. Mourinho’s only problem is to decide who starts out of Duff, Robben and Wright-Phillips. Their worst enemy could potentially be themselves, if they get too complacent and arrogant, though Frank Lampard and John Terry will do well to maintain their incredible form. Everyone else: prepare to be bulldozed.

Like Sam Allardyce, David Moyes has discovered that European football doesn’t necessarily have top-class players crawling over each other to knock at your door. Both Scott Parker and Emre turned their noses up at the prospect of becoming Toffees, tempted instead to Tyneside by the Pied-Piper-like Fat Fred and his promise of cash. Lavishing £7m on Phil Neville and Simon Davies is unlikely to have appeased the Goodison Park faithful, though defender Per Koldrup could become a Premiership star. Last season’s achievements were founded upon an incredible work ethic but also upon the goals of Tim Cahill, who won’t be allowed the same freedom in the penalty area. A return to reality with a bump is on the cards.

How this side beat us 4-1 last season remains one of the greatest mysteries of our time – and, since the transfer window opened, they’ve lost two of their best players. Edwin van der Sar has joined Man Utd, leaving uncertainty hanging over the goalkeeping position, and Andy Cole has also made the switch to the North West, signing up with Man City. Heidar Helguson, a £1.3m capture from Watford, has been playing well above Championship level for years now, and so should make the transition without too much difficultly. If they can keep hold of Steed Malbranque and Luis Boa Morte until May then they could survive, but a season of struggle awaits.

Rafa Benitez made without a doubt the best signing of the summer when he persuaded Steven Gerrard to renege on his decision to leave Anfield and commit himself to a new deal. Seven goals in Champions’ League qualifiers from the skipper have only reaffirmed his worth to the club. Heroes of the European Cup triumph Vladimir Smicer and Igor Biscan have left, and Jerzy Dudek could well follow them out of the door, but there have been new faces aplenty for a significant financial outlay: Peter Crouch, Jose Reina, Mohamed Sissoko and Boudewijn Zenden. Benitez is now blessed with a glut of strikers and needs to decide on his first-choice pair, though defensively they look to be short of cover, and that could be the only impediment to their efforts to secure a top three finish.

Man City
Even before the departures of Shaun Wright-Phillips and Jon Macken, Stuart Pearce must have been eager to boost his strike-force. Cue the arrivals of Andy Cole from Fulham and Darius Vassell, who had stagnated at Villa. If Vassell can rediscover the form he’s displayed on occasion for England, he could prove to have been a snip at £2.5m. There’s a exciting crop of youngsters coming through the ranks and defensively Richard Dunne and Sylvain Distin have established a solid partnership, but it’s hard to see scoring contributions from midfielders other than Antoine Sibierski. Mid table beckons.

Man Utd
No-one was more pleased than me to see Fish-Eyed Ferguson and his boys wind up trophyless at the end of last season – the FA Cup Final in particular was hilarious – but, as much as I’d like it to, I wouldn’t bet on it happening again. For one thing, the hapless Roy Carroll has been packed off to West Ham and Timmy Tourettes relegated to the bench to make way for the calm and unflappable Edwin van der Sar, a steal at just £2m. For another, there’s no way that a side boasting forwards of the calibre of Ruud van Nistelrooy, Wayne Rooney, Alan Smith, Louis Saha, Cristiano Ronaldo, Paul Scholes and now Park Ji-Sung can fail to score so regularly again. The loss of Phil Neville and Kleberson is unlikely to have prompted any wailing and gnashing of teeth in the Reds’ heartlands of Kent and Sussex, not least because they received £6m in the process.

If Steve McLaren’s bright red cheeks are anything to go by, then he really is trying to model himself on former mentor Ferguson. Whether the sour-faced Scot would have shelled out £7.5m on a very rough diamond is questionable (though he did pay that much for Diego Forlan…), but Yakubu – fast, powerful and with an eye for goal – could prove to be an invaluable asset to Boro in the likely absence of either Jimmy-Floyd Hasselbaink or Mark ‘Lardbucket’ Viduka. If they can stay fit, players like Gareth Southgate, Ugo Ehiogu, Stewart Downing, Gaizka Mendieta and George Boateng have sufficient ability to keep Boro in contention for Europe for the third successive season, but the speed with which Zenden jumped ship to Liverpool should have alerted the more deluded Smoggies that they’re not a big club just yet.

Such is the number of former Newcastle players turning up on the south coast – Lomano Lua Lua, Laurent Robert, Andy O’Brien and Andy Griffin – that perhaps they should build a monorail link direct from Tyneside to Fratton Park. Of course, reconstructing Toon sides of old is hardly a sure-fire route to success. As well as Robert and O’Brien, Alain Perrin has added Colombian midfielder John Viafara and former Liverpool ‘keeper Sander Westerveld to his cosmopolitan squad. Up front they’ve lost Yakubu, Diomansy Kamara and Ricardo Fuller, and it’s anyone’s guess as to who Perrin will plump for. Lua Lua should start, but Vincent Pericard and Svetoslav Todorov have both just recovered from long-term injuries and new signings Azar Karadas and Collins Mbesuma are unknown quantities. They should have enough to survive again, though O’Brien might gift the opposition the odd goal.

I’d love to see the Mackems sent back down to the Championship with their tails between their legs, and it gives me great pleasure to report that I’ve seen nothing over the course of the summer to suggest that it won’t happen. Defensively they look vulnerable, Alan Stubbs unlikely to provide solidity on his own. In a midfield packed with lower league success stories who’ll be way out of their depth in the top flight, only Julio Arca and Tommy Miller stand out. Though new signing Jon Stead may well come good after stagnating at Blackburn, there’s going to be too much pressure to score goals for his shoulders – and those of loan signing Anthony Le Tallec – to bear.

How many players do Spurs need? Martin Jol’s going to have an enormous job on his hands keeping them all happy. Of course, securing the services of Edgar Davids is a major coup. Only two seasons ago Davids – an energetic and aggressive force – sparked the revival at Barcelona that culminated in last season’s league triumph, and he’ll be a fine example for the array of youthful talent Spurs have assembled: Andy Reid, Michael Dawson, Stephen Kelly, Reto Ziegler and summer signings Tom Huddlestone, Aaron Lennon, Teemu Taino and Wayne Routledge. Michael Carrick is a classy presence in a well-stocked midfield, Ledley King assured at the back and Paul Robinson an excellent ‘keeper. The four-man strike-force of Jermain Defoe, Robbie Keane, Fredi Kanoute and Mido gives Jol plenty of options, and a UEFA Cup place should be the least of their ambitions.

West Brom
Seven minutes from relegation last term, and it’ll be a close-run thing again. Chris Kirkland has been brought in from Liverpool to provide competition for Russell Hoult, but it’s to Zoltan Gera that many Baggies fans will turn in expectation. In Gera, West Brom unearthed a real gem and, along with the on-loan Kieran Richardson, he was key to their eventual survival. Richardson has resisted Bryan Robson’s pleas for him to return, so much will depend upon how quickly Richard Chaplow finds his feet in the Premiership and how regularly Robert Earnshaw finds the net – surely he’ll start more often this season?

West Ham
Israeli midfielder Yossi Benayoun is an intriguing prospect and should bring a little class to a West Ham midfield in which Nigel Reo-Coker is a rising star, while up front burly bruiser Marlon Harewood will ruffle a few feathers, though they lack a real regular goal threat which could prove fatal to their chances of survival. At the back talented youngster Anton Ferdinand and new arrivals from Cardiff James Collins and Danny Gabbidon should ensure that Tomas Repka doesn’t get much time on the pitch – no doubt to the great relief of Hammers fans everywhere. Of the three promoted managers Alan Pardew has the most to fear from a poor start to life in the top flight. Promotion through the play-offs perhaps only delayed the falling of the guillotine by a few months.

Unknown territory for the Latics, and there’s no doubt they’ll struggle. That said, Pascal Chimbonda and Stephane Henchoz should keep things relatively tight in defence, and, after a decent first season in the Premiership with Norwich, Damien Francis could shine again alongside curly-haired midfielder Jimmy Bullard, destined to become a much more familiar name. Keep an eye out for Ryan Taylor too – Wigan pipped several clubs, including Everton, to sign the Tranmere full-back. It’s the strikers, though, who hold the key to survival – if Paul Jewell can cling onto last season’s lethal double act Nathan Ellington and Jason Roberts, having already smashed the club record transfer fee for Henri Camara, and they can hit the ground running, then they’re in with a chance. A slim one, mind.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Coco no-no

Another one bites the dust.

This time, it's the deal to bring Inter's out-of-favour full-back Francesco Coco to St James's Park on loan. Coco played for around an hour in Saturday's 5-0 pre-season win against Yeading, but it seems as though terms couldn't be agreed. A shame, because with Babayaro in terrible form and Elliott having cocked up disastrously against Deportivo, we could do with a left-back.

One move that could be resurrected, though, is the deal for Nicolas Anelka. Apparently we're back in the hunt for the Incredible Sulk after Michael Owen unsurprisingly turned his nose up at the prospect of playing on Tyneside. The word "desperation" springs to mind - where are all these world-class players lining up to join, then, Fred?

In other news, we beat Bray Wanderers 7-1 in a friendly last night. Milner continued his good pre-season scoring form (Dubnica away, Deportivo home, Yeading away, Bray away), N'Zogbia and Ameobi bagged a couple (the latter having scored twice in the last minute against Yeading) and there were also goals for Dyer and Chopra. Parker, Emre, Given and Shearer didn't make the trip to Ireland but should all be in contention for Sunday's Premiership opener at Highbury.

Saturday, August 06, 2005

And another one!

Cheer Up Alan Shearer (tut, tut) is a brand new collaborative football blog written by a bunch of chaps based in B&W&RAO's home-from-home Nottingham, one of whom is a Manchester Buccaneers fan (Lord Bargain) - hence the name (tut, tut).

Also contributing is Swiss Toni, whose cheery online demeanour casts suspicion on his claim to be a Wolves fan.

Those whose blog exhibits such a flagrant disrespect for one of England's finest strikers don't deserve to be dignified with a link - but in this case we'll make an exception as it's really rather a good site. The level of incredulity at the fact that Phil Neville has 52 England caps has been duly noted and approved of.

Incidentally, the "Cheer up Alan Shearer" song just makes me think of 20th October 1996 when we dished out that 5-0 pasting to the Mancs. They were already 2-0 down, and the visiting supporters were baiting Shearer (who'd turned them down that summer, choosing us instead) when he popped up on the wing and delivered an inch-perfect cross for Sir Les to head in the third. Cue all the players running to mob Ferdinand, except Wor Al who wheeled away to celebrate animatedly on his own right in front of the away fans. A big "fuck you", basically. I laughed heartily.

Let's just steer clear of the comparing trophies issue now, shall we? That's just not playing fair.

Ships that didn't pass in the night

When was the last time you thought you spotted googly-eyed former Liverpool manager Gerard Houllier on the streets of Worcester, but it turned out it wasn't him after all?

More to the point, when was the last time that happened and you composed a poem about it?

Good work Phill. I imagine that after the horror of the Bewdley Whirlwind, the sighting of a Houllier lookalike would make front page news.

Friday, August 05, 2005

Mixed messages

How to make sense of the situation currently surrounding JJ? Is he happy at St James's, or isn't he?

Certainly, this BBC article does little to clarify matters. It's trailed on the BBC Football homepage under the headline "Souness confirms Jenas wants out" - perhaps what the fans have been expecting for some time.

However, the article contains no quotes to corroborate the assertion that this is the case. Not only is the headline of the article itself - "Souness reveals Jenas discontent" - much more ambiguous, but Souness's pronouncements say the precise opposite; namely, that he is for the most part happy: "I've spoken to the player's agent and he tells me that JJ is quite happy with things at the club. But he says JJ feels that it is like living in a goldfish bowl being a United player in Newcastle".

No doubt the truth will out - and in any case, there's a difference between being unhappy or dissatisfied and openly expressing a desire to move on.

If he does leave, though he's never fulfilled his enormous potential he'd be a great loss. The addition of Parker and Emre this summer has been a major step forwards, but selling JJ would be a definite step back.

While I could understand him jumping ship to fill Vieira's boots at Arsenal, I'd be mortified if he left for Spurs, as is rumoured - not only should we not be selling our most talented players to our closest Premiership rivals, but also what message does it send out about the state of the club if JJ is prepared to move sideways rather than to a side which challenges for honours every season?

Update: The BBC headline has been amended to read "Souness reveals Jenas discontent" on the homepage now. Still mixed messages though...

Thursday, August 04, 2005

We wuz Robbed

Newcastle 1 - 2 Deportivo La Coruna

(2 - 4 on aggregate)

So, European football is gone for this season, before the Premiership campaign has even kicked off, taking with it much of our bargaining power for attracting new players. What chance Michael Owen coming to St James's Park now? Less than zero?

And yet victory was firmly in our own hands. After last week's mostly dismal display in the Riazor I'll admit to being sceptical about our chances of overturning the one goal deficit. But we performed admirably on the night, and if it hadn't been for individual errors by Jean-Alain Boumsong and - even more glaringly - Robbie Elliott, then we could have been looking at playing Marseille for a place in the UEFA Cup.

Aware of the importance of getting through, Souness opted to bring in both Parker and Emre for their debuts, N'Zogbia and Birmingham-bound Butt dropping out. From what I could gather we looked to be playing Emre on the left and Bowyer on the right, though the real width was to be supplied by Milner, who flitted from flank to flank.

We started steadily but Deportivo had already taken the upper hand by the time we had our first strike on goal, Jose Molina saving fairly comfortably from Emre after clever play by Shearer. Deportivo had by far the best chance of the opening half hour, though, defender Joan Capdevila somehow contriving to sky the ball from point-blank range following a corner.

Deportivo were looking fluid and menacing in attack without creating too many chances, while for us Faye sensibly acknowledged his own limits by continually laying the ball to Parker and delegating passing responsibility to the new boy. The lack of width was a concern, though - both Emre and Bowyer appearing in central areas too often.

The game of cat and mouse sprang into life when Molina reacted brilliantly to tip Shearer's powerful header around the post, and from the resulting corner Shearer clattered into the 'keeper. Though he'd had his eyes on the ball all the way, the Spanish players were less than amused, and a bout of pushing and shoving ensued, Faye taking what looked like a powderpuff punch in the face from Argentinian midfielder Aldo Duscher (and this after the Senegalese player was blatantly held in the penalty area when awaiting a free-kick).

The raised temperature suited us more than Deportivo, and it wasn't long before we took the lead. Carr fed Faye, who was galloping down the right, and his pull-back was fired towards goal by Bowyer. Milner nipped in ahead of Molina to finish smartly, subsequent replays dispelling any suspicions that he might have been offside.

Had things stayed the same, we would have triumphed on the away goals rule - but we couldn't preserve our clean sheet even until half-time. Boumsong strode forwards to try and clear a Deportivo free-kick, but when he missed the ball it was headed into Jorge Andrade's path and the defender took advantage to lob Given and score against us for the second time in the tie.

Worse was to follow. After a dismal first period display in Spain, it took us barely a minute to get back undeservedly onto level terms. This time, just three minutes of the second half had elapsed when Elliott got his back-pass horribly wrong. Two forwards sniffed blood and, with Given stranded, it was left to Pedro Munitis to slide the ball into an empty net. And to think I regarded Babayaro's absence through injury as a blessing after his recent displays...

The goal left us needing three in reply, and Souness reacted by withdrawing Faye and throwing Ameobi on for his first appearance of the season. The second half settled into a pattern of sustained pressure from us and intermittent threat from Deportivo.

Shearer fired high and handsome on the volley when he should have done better and also had a low free-kick palmed away, Ameobi mishit a shot wide and saw another well saved by Molina, and substitute N'Zogbia also went close. As Souness lamented afterwards, if we'd had a sharper cutting edge we could have pulled it off.

Unluckiest of all, though, was Emre, whose viciously swerving left-footed free-kick struck the crossbar with Molina beaten. In vain perhaps, but it would have been a debut goal to remember.

Over the two games, there was no doubt about who is the better side. Deportivo passed the ball better and looked sharper on it, always with time and options. As disappointing as exiting Europe at this early stage is, there's no shame in defeat. A team that can bring on players of the calibre of Valeron and Luque would prove a difficult obstacle to any side.

The result aside, there are plenty of positives to be drawn from the performance. Not only did we play well for the first time this season, we put a very good team under duress for long periods and created a number of presentable opportunities. Debutants Parker and Emre played the full 90 minutes (the latter's replacement Brittain didn't get the chance to kick a ball). Parker looked neat and effective, but Emre stole the show with some eye-catching dribbling and passing. We've lacked someone who can unlock defences through skill, and he could be the answer.

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Bruce nicks in for Nicky

Following a nightmare first season on Tyneside, Nicky Butt has bailed out and joined Birmingham on a season-long loan. The Blues have also been given first option to sign Butt for £2m next summer.

It looked like such a good bit of business last year - just over £2m for an England international midfielder to give our fragile defence a bit of protection - and yet it all turned sour with a red card in Europe, a series of awful performances and, to cap it all, his disgraceful shunning of the fans at the end of the FA Cup semi-final. Butt's passing has been routinely atrocious, and his commitment to the cause questionable at very least.

So, good riddance Nicky. Of course, it's sod's law that he'll have a blinding season and propel Birmingham to a better finish than us, and we'll regret agreeing to let him go...

More new faces

The summer months are traditionally a time when clubs welcome a host of new faces - and, it seems, football blogs are no different.

Only days after A Matter Of Life And Death and Footballist were added to the B&W&RAO blogroll, Kopblog, Mist Rolling In From The Trent... and Bitter And Blue appear on the radar.

To be fair, Kopblog has been going for a while but somehow seems to have evaded our attention. Here's what Andy had to say on the possibility of Michael Owen landing up on Tyneside: "Michael would have no problems getting minutes on the pitch with the barcodes and the prospect of working under Graeme Souness wouldn’t be unattractive either… but Newcastle have been seriously sliding over the last 12 months and the lack of Champions' League football is a big no-no". A perfectly fair assessment, I think - aside from the bit about Souness, of course...

The two of us having lived in Nottingham for a combined total of eleven years, Forest blog Mist Rolling In From The Trent... is of particular interest. For what it's worth, Dom, Ian Breckin and Gary Holt look to be very good signings, and hanging onto Kris Commons could be the key to a quick return to the Championship.

Bitter And Blue is also new and well worth a read - as long as you overlook the strapline ("The blog for comment, opinion, views, news and tears on the only club that matter - Manchester City") and comments like this about the recent Joey Barton incident: "The club have acted well over this episode and it does send out a strong message to the players as a group that they will not tolerate these sort of incidents - after all we're not Newcastle United are we?"... You can't really argue with a post that begins "One way to ease the alleged £60 million debts at City is to keep hoping Joey Barton lands himself in hot water and continues to make generous donations to the MCFC fighting fund", can you?

Self-deprecating fans - that's what we like around these parts. Hubris? Let's leave that to others.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Clarkey comes home

Noises emanating from the Club seem to confirm that recent triallist, and one time YTS boy turned mainstay of the team, Lee Clark has returned home with a view to playing the odd game in the first team, a few more in the reserves, and getting his coaching badges in order to secure his future in the game when he finally hangs up his boots.

Always prepared to bust a gut for the club, Clark has always remained an ardent supporter, something which once cost him his job in his days representing the craphole down the road. Whilst he's unlikely to make too many starts in the centre midfield role that he called his own during the heady heights of the promotion season, he will bring a greater degree of depth to the squad, and his enthusiasm and love for the club should hopefully inspire some of the youngsters he encounters in the reserves.

From the player's perspective, it looks a decent bit of business, with Lee choosing to spend the latter days of his career playing for the club he loves, rather than slowly dropping down the league in a desperate attempt to delay retirement a la Rob Lee. Whilst from the club's, they get a loyal servant not afraid to slog it out at Kingston Park in the wind and rain of winter who genuinely cares about the direction we're heading in.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Given to fly?*

The good news: Shay Given has said he'll be staying for the forthcoming season and then reconsider his position next summer, when he'll only have a year of his current deal to run.

The bad news: "I have to say I am in no mad rush to sign a new contract at Newcastle" - words every Newcastle fan didn't want to hear, but was probably expecting all the same.

Of course, presumably the reason Shepherd and co have been slow to offer him a new deal, despite him being one of the best 'keepers in the league and only having two years left, is precisely because they don't think they'll be able to offer the terms that would convince him to stay, and might thereby precipitate his departure.

As has been said here before, we have no right to demand Given's loyalty. For the last few seasons he's performed miracles with negligible support from a defence seemingly bent on self-destruction. If he chooses to move on, then who could blame him? Let's face facts: he's more likely to win the honours he richly deserves elsewhere.

Despite what he's said, it still wouldn't surprise me if the brilliant Irishman was no longer with us by the time the transfer window closes at the end of the month, especially with Arsenal still in the hunt for a new 'keeper, but I'll be praying he'll give us another year of his career.

* Look, it's a Pearl Jam song, OK? I don't care if you've never heard of it - it makes for a damn good pun. Today Black & White & Read All Over, tomorrow subediting for the Currant Bun...