Friday, January 06, 2006

The only way is up?

Half the season down, half left to play, and it’s safe to say that it hasn’t been the happiest few months in the life of Newcastle United Football Club. Here we look back on the rollercoaster ride, and forwards to the undulating track that our rickety carriage is hurtling rapidly towards.

Ben: First, the positives from the first half of the season. This shouldn’t take long...

1. We beat the Mackems.

2. Shay Given. Consistently outstanding between the sticks, Given provided the platform for us to beat Arsenal, was the sole reason behind the point gleaned at Fratton Park and was instrumental in the win over the Mackems.

3. We beat the Mackems.

4. Scott Parker. Along with Given, our summer recruit has been little short of phenomenal, an inspirational leader-by-example regularly carrying his outfield colleagues.

5. Michael Owen. The diminutive striker has lived up to his billing, lethal in front of goal when given the chance. It’s just unfortunate that the service to him has been so poor, and that he’s been injured so frequently (the latest setback a hammer blow to our hopes). We didn’t need him to beat the Mackems, though.

6. We beat the Mackems.

7. Emre. Has looked quite useful when he’s been fit to play, endearing himself to the fans by scoring the corking free-kick that beat the Mackems.

8. We beat the Mackems.

I managed to stretch that out quite nicely, don’t you think?

So much for the silver linings – now for the clouds…

1. Kieron Dyer. I think I’m right in saying you could count the number of appearances he’s made for us thus far this term on one hand. The injury might not have been his fault, and he might have been left feeling suicidal as a result (something which he took pains to make clear to us all through the press), but at very least we have to question the wisdom of handing him an improved contract.

2. Albert Luque. Disinterested doesn’t quite do his moody slouch justice. All the more galling because we’ve just got rid of a moody left-w(h)inger from the continent. We know he’s got talent – he just needs a goal and a rocket up the arse, preferably both.

3. The defence – of course. Cue head-shaking, hair-pulling and fist-clenching. An absolute shambles. Boumsong without any semblance of form, Bramble without any semblance of an attention span, Elliott without any semblance of pace, Babayaro without any semblance of effort. Only the local lads Taylor and Ramage have emerged with any credit, generally keeping their heads while all those older and more experienced around them habitually lose theirs. How can we continue to get it so wrong?

4. Almost as worrying is our record of failing to score in eight of our eleven Premiership away matches so far, losing seven of those (and we would have lost the eighth to Pompey if it hadn’t been for Given). It’s as though once the first goal goes in, heads go down. Commitment, fight and self-belief have been conspicuous by their absence.

5. The Carling Cup defeat to Wigan’s reserves. The absolute nadir – though the Spurs away game came very close.

So, where do we go from here?

Well, perhaps the best signing we could make would be to somehow persuade Given that he should commit to extending his stay on Tyneside beyond the nearly nine years of sterling service he’s already given us. Quite frankly, judging by the noises Shay’s been making of late, that looks like being mission impossible. If you were him, wouldn’t you want to jump ship in the hope of winning something, anything? He must be sick to death of the high farce that plays out in front of him week in week out.

A commanding and consistent centre back is, of course and as ever, an absolute must. The two Deportivo players trailed by Rafa Benitez are an attractive proposition, but I suspect we might resume the pursuit of Man City’s Sylvain Distin. The left back position is also a real concern. It’s a shame we didn’t muscle in on the Hammers’ deal for Paul Konchesky in the summer. I’d like to think we could tempt Wayne Bridge to join, but it’s hard to see why he’d want to leave Chelski – unless, like Parker, he is prepared to forgo bench-warming duties and success-by-association for playing time and a sizeable wage packet.

Up front we have a similar problem. There’s no doubt we need a quality third striker for when either Shearer or Owen or both are out, Ameobi only very rarely cutting the mustard and Chopra having failed to justify his summer contract renewal, but who can we hope to attract, languishing as we are in the lower half of the table with half the season played? Robbie Keane will be unlikely to leave Spurs having regained his first team place, while Norwich and Crystal Palace will be more determined to keep Dean Ashton and Andy Johnson respectively now that they’ve forced their way back into the Championship promotion picture.

We need – dare I say it – a lightning-quick forward in the Bellamy mould. Rob Earnshaw has his compatriot’s pace but also his erratic finishing – and, in any case, would he be happy being out in the cold as soon as Messrs Shearer and Owen returned? I think not. One promising striker likely to move in the transfer window is Cardiff’s Cameron Jerome, but I think he’d be too raw for us and might do well at somewhere like Charlton, who’ve got the very best out of Darren Bent.

On their way out could be Chopra and Bowyer, the latter I would be glad to see the back of. I’d listen to offers for any of our defenders too, but any club foolish enough to submit a bid can never have seen any of them in action. That said, we managed to flog Andy O’Brien to Pompey in the summer, so there’s always hope…

A brief word on Souness. Yes, our injury situation has been appalling, possibly the worse I’ve ever known, and yes he’s never been able to field the side he so expensively assembled in the summer – but his motivational skills and tactical astuteness are non-existent. He should count himself very luck not to have been packed off down the Job Centre long before now.

There’s no way we should be in the mess we’re in given the calibre of players we have to call upon (at least if they’re all fit…), but the sad truth is we just as likely to have slipped a few places further than made up some ground on the UEFA Cup challengers come the end of the season.

Paul: Clearly any summary of our season so far has to tackle four questions – firstly, has Souness done a decent job with the resources available; secondly, should he be allowed to continue in the post; thirdly, how can we take things forward; and fourthly, how far can we go?

Dealing with the questions in turn:

Has Souness done a decent job so far?

I’m still not convinced he was the right man to replace Robson, but I think he’s done OK given the resources available to him. Scott Parker has been outstanding, and the signing of Owen was a major coup which I never thought would come off until the day he signed. However, Luque and Emre still have a lot of convincing to do, similarly players such as Faye, Babyaro and Boumsong need to do a lot more before they justify their wages. On the plus side, Souness has put his faith in the emerging talents of Taylor, Ramage and N’Zogbia (although whether that was a conscious decision or merely a case of lack of alternatives I’m not certain). So on the whole it’s a case of could do better for the vast majority of the squad. At times we’ve showed real flair and verve, but too often we’ve resorted to long balls humped upfield and lacked any sort of guile or ability to unlock defences.

However, I still feel that if he was able to pick from a fully fit squad then we will finally see the team Souness wants to put out rather than the now current situation of simply asking for eleven fit (or fairly fit) players.

Should Souness be allowed to stay?

On the basis that there simply isn’t a better option currently available the answer has to be yes. If we sack Souness now who do we get in to replace him? There are no decent coaches looking for work at present, and the prospect of our signing another mediocre one doesn’t really bare thinking about. Surely we are better off giving Souness the chance to lead us for the whole season in the vain hope he might one day get to pick the team he actually wants to play and reconsider our options in May when hopefully Martin O’Neill will be seeking gainful employment.

How do we improve?

Off the field we need to stop taking risks with injured players because they simply aren’t paying off and we’re only setting ourselves back further in the quest to field our best eleven players.

On the field, we need to organise our defence and in an ideal world pick up a pair of full backs who know what they are doing and a centre back who can organise a piss up in a brewery, let alone the three people stood next to him. The injuries to Owen and Ameobi together with Chopra’s failure to convince mean we also need a new striker, and with Shearer due to go in the summer now is the time to really look to boost our forward options. Who that should be, I’m not certain, but if we could meet the asking prices either Andy Johnson or Dean Ashton looked decent players last season when playing in the Premiership and both could prove solid signings. However, both look overpriced at present and it may be that better options exist elsewhere – Lee Trundle scoring for fun at Swansea is one option, however whether he has the ability to become a twenty goal a season Premiership striker is open to serious doubt.

How far can we go?

If we can get all our players fit and playing together there is no doubt we’re a top six side at least. Unfortunately the likelihood of that happening this season seems remote. Without Owen’s pace up front we simply fail to threaten opposition defences and struggle to score goals, particularly away from home. With some canny wheeling and dealing in the transfer window we might be able to strengthen the squad, in which case even a half decent run should be good for a top half finish. However, if we continue to be struck down by every injury under the sun we’ll struggle to field a team let alone beat opposing ones and then we could start to slide alarmingly down the table. If we do, then Souness won’t be around for long enough to see Owen play for us again and we’ll probably be looking for a new manager in Birmingham, whilst 52,000 people simultaneously reach for antidepressants.


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