Monday, January 30, 2006

Saints preserve us

The fifth round draw for the FA Cup has been pretty kind, and given Graeme Souness the chance to meet up with former paymaster Rupert Lowe, as we entertain Southampton at St James Park.

With the chance to play lower league opposition on home turf (and for once lower league opposition who aren't exactly excelling this season) this represents a good opportunity for us to make our way into the last eight of the competition.

Whether we take it or not remains to be seen.

Chop saves Souey from the chop

Cheltenham Town 0 - 2 Newcastle

It may have been a case of job done, but it was hardly convincing. Thanks to Michael Chopra and Scott Parker, Souness lives to fight another day - but the performance of the defence did little to suggest any desire to see the Scot remain in charge.

Souness was able to welcome Parker and Ameobi back from injury, the latter lining up on the left side of midfield in place of Luque, perhaps wisely left out given the nature of the contest. Chopra started up front alongside Shearer.

For forty minutes, the first half was something of a snoozefest. Shearer's overhead kick flew over the bar, the sprightly Chopra saw a shot brilliantly blocked and Ramage was denied a clear penalty when felled clumsily in the area. Lawrenson: never mind whether or not he'd lost control of the ball, it was a foul. At the other end, Bramble and particularly Boumsong were being given the run around by Cheltenham's muscular and pacy forward Kayode Odejayi, who could himself have won a spot kick when hauled turfwards by the clumsy Frenchman.

The game at last exploded into life four minutes before the break. Chopra it was who, scenting blood Shearer-like, nipped in ahead of a defender to nod the ball into an empty net after Babayaro's cross shot had looped off 'keeper Shane Higgs's legs - a classic poacher's goal.

Two minutes later it was two when the ball deflected off the onrushing Parker six yards out and bounced into the corner of the net. He may not have known much about his first strike for the club, but there's no Toon player who's more richly deserved to get on the scoresheet this season.

We knew there would be a concerted effort from Cheltenham to get back into the game at the beginning of the second half, and so it proved - though the way we allowed the League 2 side to dominate us was alarming to say the least. Stephen Guinan turned Bramble superbly but couldn't quite hit the target.

In a rare moment of respite, substitute N'Zogbia put in a low cross that went right across the mouth of the goal. Having equalled Jackie Milburn's record in the 3rd Round victory over Mansfield, Shearer was uncharacteristically slow in reacting to the cross, but had he got a touch it would have been the easiest goal of his Newcastle career. Perhaps he wants goal number 201 to be a 30 yard screamer.

Cheltenham then fashioned their best chance, Odejayi outmuscling Boumsong again and taking the ball round Given but blasting wide when it looked easier to score. That brought an end to the Cheltenham challenge, and we controlled the game relatively comfortably until the final whistle.

"Comfortable" wasn't really the word for the game as a whole, though, and the overall performance doesn't bode well for an upturn in our Premiership fortunes. We're through to the next round, though, and I guess that's ultimately what matters most - to us and to Souness.

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

Friday, January 27, 2006

Swede dreams

If reports are to be believed, Graeme Souness's future as Newcastle manager is hanging by a thread. A thread which will be cut should we lose to Cheltenham on Saturday in front of an expectant home crowd and the vulture-esque BBC cameras. However, I still maintain that we should keep Souness until the summer, if only because there is nobody better available at present, and come the end of the World Cup there will no doubt be a host of managers on the move.

On the subject of managers on the move in the summer, at least a couple of today's papers have put two and two together and linked us with part time manager and serial cheater Sven-Goran Eriksson, which makes a pleasant change from Fat Sam Allardyce.

As far as the possibility of Sven as manager, I for one would be happy to have him join us. Undoubtedly a name to attract players, his club record is excellent, and his pedigree as a manager isn't really in question. Of course, whether he'd want to come and manage us is open to serious debate, but as a man shown to be willing to do anything for the money (CDs, books, Nancy) he'd probably find a kindred spirit in Fat Freddie (they could slag off the News Of The World together), who would be willing to meet his salary demands (particular when we cut Shearer's salary from the wage bill at the end of the season).

Getting Sven would also play a huge part in persuading Owen et al to stay in the hope that things really will improve next year.

However, for this to happen we need to do several things.

1. Fat Fred needs to flex his chequebook in the direction of Sven
2. Fat Fred also needs to remain calm and think of the long term good as we limp towards the end of the season
3. We need to win on Saturday
4. Nobody bigger (e.g. Real Madrid) offers Sven a job

First step though is a win on Saturday. Without that, all bets are off.

Monday, January 23, 2006

How low can Sou go?

Newcastle 0 - 1 Blackburn

At Ewood Park last September, the stage was set for Graeme Souness's former club Blackburn, aided and abetted by his nemesis Craig Bellamy, to pile the pressure on a manager who had seen his side fail to win any of their first five Premiership games of the season, scoring only one goal in the process.

After an unpromising opening period, it proved to be something of a cakewalk. Shearer struck a belting free-kick, Owen notched his first for the club, N'Zogbia ran in a third and Souness breathed an enormous sigh of relief.

"The season starts here", we wrote.

Four months on, and nothing had changed (bar the fact that Bellamy's suspension ruled out his involvement - Souness should be thankful for such small mercies). We still went into Saturday's match an injury-struck goal-shy woefully underperforming side.

This time, though, there was no happy ending - just more misery.

Well, that and the distressingly familiar and rankling sense of injustice we've come to associate with the aftermath of our games this season, particularly those refereed by Howard Webb.

When we were last beaten by Blackburn, Paul Gallagher punched the ball into the net for a 1-0 St James's Park win. On Saturday it was the turn of winger Morten Gamst Pedersen - a player brought to Ewood Park by Souness, but whom the Scotsman wasn't around long enough to see the best of. Lucas 'The Thug' Neill's cross was nodded goalwards by giant Finnish striker Shefki Kuqi and Pedersen deftly applied the finish, appearing to push? pushing the ball over the line with both hands from point blank range.

Once again, then, Souness had a convenient excuse to bleat in the post-match interviews.

But, once again, that merely masked a multitude of failings. Our collective performance was listless, drab and without passion. (The same could be said of the crowd, though not of the angry mob gathered outside the ground in protest after the final whistle.)

Luque hit an early shot straight at Brad Friedel when well placed early on, but then did his customary vanishing act and was replaced by Irish winger Alan O'Brien just after the hour. Shearer, normally reliable in front of goal, missed a couple of presentable opportunities, while his strike partner Chopra, in for N'Zogbia, once again drew a blank. Bowyer at least carried the fight to Blackburn in the right way (for a change), but he too should have done better in front of goal.

At the other end, Given was forced into pulling off a splendid save to keep out a close-range effort from Paul Dickov. The odious little ankle-biter dislocated his shoulder later on and had to be replaced.

Time for a few home truths, I think.

Given aside, not a single player is in anything approaching form.

Our defence has long been shambolic, but we're looking very poor in front of goal too. Just two goals now in our last five Premiership matches, and both of those in the same game.

Our home form has been our salvation, our away record being little more than a catalogue of defeats, but now that seems to be deserting us.

There is no spirit in the side, the blame for which must at least in part be laid at Souness's door. The man couldn't inspire enthusiasm in Kriss Akabusi.

No matter how good we think we are, no matter how good our players think they are, no matter how much we paid for them, there are at present only three teams we could conceivably argue are performing worse than us: Middlesbrough, Portsmouth and Sunderland. (Incidentally, of course, the Mackems had the fillip of notching only their second Premiership win of the season on Saturday thanks to an own goal from Geordie and former Toon player Steve Watson - a fact I was reminded of several times in the company of a Mackem that night.)

Involvement in the scrap to avoid relegation is now looking a likelihood if not a certainty.

Can it get any worse? Of course - this is Newcastle Utd, after all. Saturday lunchtime's FA Cup match at Whaddon Road will be trial by television, the whole nation wanting us to fall flat on our faces. Given the respective statures of the two clubs, it should be like taking candy from a baby - but at present Cheltenham must be looking at us as the nappy-clad thumb-suckers. Fingers crossed that we aren't left bawling our eyes out at the final whistle.

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

[An observation from the Guardian report that had me cracking a wry smile: "Bramble said in advance, regarding criticism: 'I can see where the fans are coming from'. He was less good on opposing forwards".]

Thursday, January 19, 2006


So, we now know that our opponents in the Fourth Round of the FA Cup will be Cheltenham Town, following their replay win away to Chester City on Tuesday night.

Bearing this in mind, can I suggest that the expression "they just weren't at the races" may well recur in countless match reports? (Not here, though - our standards are, ahem, higher, as I'm sure you're well aware.) Let's just hope it doesn't refer to us...

Monday, January 16, 2006

Sheikhs, Swaps, Sulks and Sales

According to a fake sheikh that Sven's been chatting to, Michael Owen's unhappy and came to Newcastle for the money. Well, I’m also unhappy, and I pay to watch the buggers play. At least Owen gets paid for it, and when he is on the pitch he does his best. I just wish he’d get well soon.

Whilst Danny Murphy didn't play for Charlton at the weekend, Lee Bowyer did play for us. Charlton won their game, and we lost ours. Is it any wonder they want us to pay them to take Bowyer off our hands?

Also in the news is Nicholas Anelka, apparently he's keen to end his money spinning time in Turkey, and instead fancies taking the piss out of us by sulking at St James' whilst pocketing big bucks. Whilst he'd currently waltz in to our side, unless Fenerbahce are prepared to take Albert Luque in exchange there is absolutely no chance of that happening, because we simply lack the cash to pay for him.

Still, if one person's cunning money raising idea comes off maybe we'll be able to buy some new players… (Thanks to Pete Sampras (!) for the link.)

Cottage Dross

Fulham 1 - 0 Newcastle

A grim afternoon in London, on which we once again failed to score away from home and lost to pretty mediocre opposition.

In truth the game had little to recommend it as a spectacle, and to brand such tripe entertainment is quite frankly laughable.

The game itself featured little in the way of quality, with Given the busier of the two keepers without ever really looking stretched and the first half passed by with barely an attempt on goal worthy of the name. From our point of view the most notable occurrence was the loss of Stephen Carr to injury. Quite how serious a problem it is remains to be seen, but Souness certainly seemed pessimistic when later interviewed in front of the TV cameras.

However, by that time he'd also had to endure the second half, which whilst slightly livelier than the first ultimately finished in depressingly familiar fashion when our inability to score away from home was punished by Fulham. The home side swept forward after Boumsong had seen his header cleared from the line, and Collins John found himself with time and space to fire a shot across Given. The Irishman did well to palm the shot away, but was doubtless sickened to see it fall at the feet of recent substitute Steed Malbranque who shot into the empty net.

We nearly forced an equaliser, when Chopra worked his way clear inside the box, only to be foiled by debutant Niemi, whose parry fell nicely at the feet of Bowyer. Unfortunately, Bowyer was unable to beat the keeper, who flung himself to his left and blocked Bowyer’s shot.

I don't propose to dwell any further on the match, because it was pretty awful stuff. We once again failed to create much away from home, and as a result paid the price. A season which promised much more back on 31st August has now been ruined by a combination of bad luck, worse injuries and crap management. Whilst I still have some sympathy with Souness when he says that he'd be fielding a much stronger side if they weren't all injured, the fact remains that he has to do more with the limited resources he has. Of the promoted teams, only the hapless Mackems are below us in the league, and none of them paid 10 million quid for a player who looks like he can't be arsed.

If Souness's judgement can't be trusted to bring in the right players, and he can't get the best from them when they play, what's the point in him being in the job?

Reports (if you really are that masochistic): BBC, Guardian

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

New faces

A warm welcome to the B&W&RAO blogroll to Joys And Sorrows, a Birmingham City blog, and a more general site called The Soccer Forum.

Monday, January 09, 2006

The boy (double) ton good

Newcastle 1 - 0 Mansfield

One thing and one thing only will be remembered about Saturday's match - and it won't be our collective performance, once again shoddy and this against a side struggling in a league three tiers below our own.

No, on another turgid afternoon of football the only bright spark was provided, as so often is the case, by skipper Alan Shearer as he seized upon a clever backheel from Luque to drive the ball inside Kevin Pressman's right-hand post. It was a goal which not only crushed the hopes of a dynamic and courageous Mansfield side but also equalled Jackie Milburn's half-century-old record of 200 goals for the club. (Shearer's haul, incidentally, includes five past Pressman from one glorious afternoon against Sheffield Wednesday in 1999 that marked Sir Bobby's first game in charge.)

By the time Shearer struck in the 80th minute, we had been gradually building a head of steam, and the Stags eventually buckled under the pressure. The first half, though, had been theirs, teenage midfielder Giles Coke and former Newcastle trainee Adam Rundle comfortably outshining their more illustrious opponents. The yellow peril was real and ever-present, both Rundle and strike partner Allan Russell forcing Given into making decent stops, before the Irishman's belatedly clicked into first gear, Carr and Shearer going close.

Once the ball had hit the back of the net, Shearer had wheeled away hand aloft moving at a speed to which he is unaccustomed, and the sighs of relief had gone up all round the ground, he still had ten minutes in which to find the record-breaking goal. It didn't come, though, and if it had it would have been cruel on Mansfield and ridiculously flattering to us. Perhaps Saturday's game at Fulham will see Shearer surpass his idol, but he'll need to be more involved in proceedings than he was against the Stags.

Monday lunchtime's 4th Round draw pitched us against Cheltenham or Chester, the League Two sides having drawn 2-2 on Saturday. Both will go into the replay a week on Tuesday fully aware of the financial impact a meeting with us could have, as well as no doubt being intent upon getting the opportunity to upset a Premiership side, probably on TV. Of course, on paper we should run out comfortable winners whoever we face - but, as the old adage goes, football is played on grass not paper, or rather mud in the FA Cup. This is just the sort of tie in which our complacency (as shown up against Mansfield) and lack of professionalism could be punished.

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

BBC Links: Shearer's reaction to achieving the feat, The stats behind Shearer's record, Shearer's Toon career in pictures, Former Toon colleague and friend Robert Lee on Shearer

Turk two?

So, the transfer window has been flung open and, as expected, we're at the centre of countless stories and speculations.

Yesterday lunchtime came the revelation that (according to his agent, at least), Real Sociedad's Turkish international striker Nihat Kahveci is in negotiations with the club over linking up with compatriot Emre on Tyneside. Welcome news round these parts - Nihat is a proven international, wouldn't cost a great deal of money (around £2-3m) and, in Owen's absence, would probably fill the England striker's boots well as a quick and mobile strike partner for Shearer. The one concern, however, is whether he will be prepared to sign knowing that as soon as Owen regains fitness he'll drop out of the first team.

The other area that needed strengthening urgently was the defence (as ever). Our interest in Marseille's out-of-favour centre back Abdoulaye Meite has apparently waned owing to his participation in the African Nations Cup with Ivory Coast and the fact that Souness is ideally looking for a player accustomed to the Premiership who wouldn't need a period of time to bed in. So quite why we seem about to offer a contract to Yoann Lachor, who can't even get into the Lens side, is anybody's guess. The move has something of the Craig Moore about it, if you ask me...

Old year's honours list

(By rights, this should have been posted many moons ago.)

2005 may have been yet another trophyless season, but that's not to say we didn't manage to scoop a major honour.

Well, in the Guardian's Fiver Awards, at least, where Freddy Shepherd bagged the BAFTA (Bald And Fat Tyneside Arse) Award once again. Kieron Dyer and Lee Bowyer can count themselves unlucky to have narrrowly missed out to 'Arry Redknapp and Sir Clive Woodward in the Best Of Friends category.

The club the Fiver satirically refers to as Newcastle United Comedy Club featured prominently in several other awards too. The Lickspittle Of The Year award went to Sky Sports News presenter Jim White for his gushing brown-nosing comments to Souness and the Geordie faithful at the unveiling of Michael Owen, while the David Platt Award For Tactical Insight was won by the Chelsea scout who failed to identify Bramble as the weakest link in our back line. Had he not been guilty of this oversight, Bramble could have been forced into more than just the two fatal errors in the champions' 3-0 win...

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.

View From The Away End

So much for our thoughts – what have fans of rival clubs made of it all, and where do they see things heading? We asked Lord Bargain and Swiss Toni of Cheer Up Alan Shearer, Cameron of A Town Called Malice, Pete of Round And White, Danny of Bitter And Blue and Terry Venerables of Footballist for their views.

Lord Bargain: Well, we're half way through another Premiership season and Newcastle United Comedy Club spend another five months hitting headlines for pretty much everything other than the quality of their football. The season started shakily, with the euphoria surrounding Alan Shearer's decision to play on for a final season quickly dissapated by some limp early performances against Fulham and Bolton before an emphatic 3-0 win at Blackburn registered their first three points of the season. Struggling for goals and under pressure, Souness splashed £9.5million on sulky show pony Albert Luque and then played a game of chicken with the footballing world to secure the unquestionable world class talents of Michael Owen.

Performances improved a little after that, but unbelievable inconsistency and a weak reserve squad have seen Newcastle meander into an unimpressive and unthreatening mid-season position at the turn of the year. From what I have seen, the small bright spots this season have been the early performances of Owen (unsurprisingly), the emergence of raw but talented French winger Charles N'Zogbia, the steady midfield class of Scott Parker and some promising young defenders in Peter Ramage and Steven Taylor.

Other than that, it has been an unmitigated disaster. I'm never sure whether Newcastle are unlucky with injuries, or just use them as a more regular and whiney excuse than other teams. The splashing of £28million on a pair of strikers was arguably necessary, but then having to make do with filling up spaces in the team elsewhere with Lee Clark, Robbie Elliott, Amdy Faye and Titus Bramble was never going to worry their fellow European challengers, was it? Lee Bowyer is a player that deserves a life ban from football from simply being a spiteful, nasty piece of work, Rangers are laughing all the way to the bank with the £8million pocketed for Boumsong and Lord only knows how Souness thought that an unprolific Spaniard (often relegated to the bench behind Diego Tristan) would fare when taken out of the sunny shores of La Coruna and plonked in a wet December in the North East.

Surely Souness would have been wiser strengthening a larger number of positions with decent quality. Bearing in mind he could have presumably picked up Edgar Davids, Stephane Henchoz and Andy Cole for nowt, a sprinkling of Danny Murphy, Darren Bent, Simon Davies, Park Ji-Sung and Darius Vassell for relative buttons and then kept Jermaine Jenas and James Milner, things might have been very different.

I just don't get it. Huge crowds, passionate support and a decent transfer kitty and yet, on an average weekend, they are no better than your Wigan's, Charlton's and Manchester City's of this world, when they should be up there challenging with your Liverpool's, Tottenham's and Manchester United's. Why aren't they? Injuries? Maybe. Transfer policy? Probably. Manager? Almost certainly. Chairman and board? Pretty much. A cobbled selection of individuals miles less than the sum of their individual parts? Definitely.

Swiss Toni: I have just had to look at the Premiership table to remind myself of where Newcastle actually are in the league pecking order. In my head it could have gone either way: I remember the terrible start to the season, all those hopeless defensive errors, the seeming inability to score without Owen in the side, the defeats to Wigan and Everton… But I also remember that famous win against Arsenal, I remember Shay Given keeping you in games in spite of his hapless defensive colleagues. I recall that when he has played, Owen has scored a few goals, and that Mary Poppins himself is only one goal from equalling the club’s scoring record…

So I checked, and you’re 10th [this was written before the Spurs disaster and Boro near-catastrophe]. 11 points off the drop zone and nine from a Champions League Slot. That feels about right to me. Neither one thing nor the other – like the team.

Clearly the season could still go either way: more goals from Owen and Shearer and a push for Europe, or more clowning from Titus Bramble and a slump towards the drop. Actually, I think it will be a little of both and a mid-table finish. Souness has an unenviable job and one of the most idiotic chairmen in the league (and that’s saying something), but he has never really struck me as the right man for the job, and he will surely be sacked sooner rather than later, and certainly in the event of a failure to at least get into the UEFA Cup next season. The team is almost there: you have the makings of a fine midfield with Parker, Emre, Solano and the emerging N’Zogbia, Given is the best keeper in the Premiership and Owen will always score goals… But… You need a reliable replacement for Shearer (Ameobi is clearly not that man) and you need a defence worthy of the name.

Whatever happens, I’m sure it will be interesting. It usually is.

Cameron: As a Blackburn Rovers fan I have mixed feelings towards Graeme Souness and the job he’s doing at Newcastle. The situation he’s got at St James’s now is not entirely dissimilar from the one he had before jumping ship at Rovers, lest we forget only marginally before it was assumed he was about to get pushed.

There are similarities not just in the fact he’s once again perilously close to the sack, but in the crippling injury list which has decimated his side, Scott Parker the latest casualty of “appalling bad luck”. Bollocks to that, Newcastle’s players are dropping like flies in the same way Rovers players did in Souness’ time at Ewood, and I don’t believe you can keep on saying it’s down to Graeme’s arch enemy lady luck. Former Rovers players who left the club under Souness’s tenure spoke of archaic training methods and the faith he still places in the old five-a-sides that served him so well at Liverpool... in the eighties. Five-a-sides which Souness was actually banned by the players from playing in for being too “over-zealous” – on one occasion attempting to decapitate that “fucking playboy” (his words – and mine) Dwight Yorke. Add to this Mark Hughes lambasting his players as the most unfit in the Premiership shortly after taking over and you wonder if Newcastle’s injury crisis is a direct result of poor training.

Whether this is the case or not the one thing which is clear is Souness’s solution to the problem – throwing money at it. He’s always been a chequebook manager, and in fairness has already signed some decent players for Newcastle. Owen, Parker and Emre are three fine players, who should be in a team fighting for Europe and perhaps would be if they were fit. What Newcastle are crying out for though is any semblance of defence. In Given, you’ve got one of if not the best keeper in the league, and young Taylor at the back certainly seems to have potential. Talk of Newcastle transfers in this January window though allude to a move for Danny Murphy, exemplifying Souey’s fetish for midfielders, and again ignoring his team’s biggest weakness.

Newcastle’s season could go anywhere from here on in, unpredictability about the only thing you can bank on at St James’s. If the injury list eases, the club sign a centre half in January and don’t do anything daft like sacking the manager now then a top ten finish is a realistic outcome. As it stands though there’s talk of more midfielders joining the club who’ll probably get injured anyway, and according to the press Fat Fred’s got an itchy trigger finger. You lot are too much fun!

Pete: Back at the beginning of the season, I was of the opinion that Newcastle would struggle, although this might change if Owen did move to St James’s Park. At the time I was convinced that he would move to Man Utd (whoops), but otherwise my predictions have been fairly close.

Parker and Emre have yet to put in convincing performances consistently, although I have to admit that the former has played well at times (Magpie fans may disagree though), while Luque looked promising before his hamstring twanged, so the jury is still out in him.

Defensively, the team is as bad as before if not worse. If it wasn’t for Shay… well, United would be in a whole lot of bother. What happened to Craig Moore by the way? A defender with a bit of experience signed back in the summer, yet Souness bizarrely insists on persisting with the truly shambolic Titus Bramble. Is Moore injured or he really that bad a player?

So yes, if it weren’t for Owen and his goals, Newcastle’s season would look very different. As for the second half of the season; well I don’t expect matters to improve. Souness has grasped that Newcastle can currently only win by one way; and that is attack, attack, attack. Unfortunately, while this works against less organised teams such as West Ham or Sunderland, against teams that can actually defend, this method is useless. Hence the recent defeat against Liverpool.

If and when Souness realises this remains to be seen. I get the impression that even if Newcastle do sign the defender(s) they desperately need, as well as a creative midfielder and Big Al’s eventual replacement, there’s about as much chance of Graeme possessing the tactical nous to know what to do with them, as Sunderland have of avoiding relegation. See Magpie fans? There’s always a silver lining somewhere.

In August I finished my View From The Away End preview with: “Sixth or seventh and a good cup run is the best I can foresee, which is unlikely to keep Souness his job, but frankly that's a good thing”. I’m sticking to it.

Danny: Graeme Souness must have been looking forward to the game at Spurs on New Year’s Eve to finally put behind him the “annus horribilus” of 2005. And then the curse of the metatarsal struck. A lone bright spot of recent times - Michael Owen, now ruled out until around April and not a shred of sympathy from around the country as most view the news as a boost for England's World Cup chances as a fit and rested Owen will be back to the lead the line.

But what of Newcastle? Souness has hardly had the midas touch during his reign so far and perhaps inevitably the cries to replace him as manager are gathering momentum. Recent events have even led to Steve Harper wondering whether the club is cursed. It does seem that what can got wrong, will go wrong at Newcastle lately.

I do feel a degree of sympathy for Souness as he has undoubtedly brought in some quality to the club - namely Emre, Parker, Luque and Owen. But how many times have all four lined up in the same side at all this season, let alone had a substantial run in the side? And why are the club affected by so many injuries? Add those four names to existing talent such as Dyer, Shearer, Solano and Given and there is undoubtedly a basis for a decent side who should be in the mix for European football every season, yet again it is likely mid-table mediocrity is the ultimate end.

Souness has been backed to the hilt over the last year in the transfer market with only Chelsea spending more on players in the transfer market, and yet things clearly aren't going according to plan and there appears to be no more money available to replace Owen. The squad though appears very unbalanced with a lack of quality more than apparent in defence and in the squad positions which are vital to counter the threat of injuries. More worryingly, from the games I have seen Newcastle involved in, there appears to be a lack of cohesion, unity and spirit in the side and no amount of money being thrown at the problem will rectify it if those qualities are missing.

Has Souness got what it takes to achieve success at Newcastle? Ultimately I don't think so, and his appointment always smacked of a short-term move to try and bring some stability (and discipline) to the club. The fans are now beginning to get anxious and Freddie Shepherd may be getting a twitchy trigger finger as he looks for a way out of another messy situation the club are in.

What is needed at the club instead of a disciplinarian is a proven tactical coach to get a hold of the team and be given time to put his stamp and personality on the team. I can see the logic in appointing Souness when they did, as something drastic undoubtedly needed doing, but although it has only been a year or so since being appointed it is becoming more and more apparent that Souness will not be able to take the club forward and he is wearing the expression of a man who knows his days are numbered.

Terry : I was one of the folks in August who was grimacing at the desperation that seemed to be emanating from St James’s Park over the need for a forward. For a long time I couldn't imagine Michael Owen signing for what was looking like a very ugly and negative club. Whilst Bobby Robson's interjection wouldn't have been enough to single-handedly persuade young Michael, it was welcome. Sir Bobby said all that needed to be said. When Owen signed, it looked like a big positive statement that would surely raise a verve around St James's – amongst players, fans, media... At the very least, it diluted any sense of Newcastle as the nasty club of the North East. My feeling is that the scale of Souness's task in sorting out discipline and morale around the club hasn't been given the amount of press coverage that would have been justified.

Assessing the situation on Tyneside now, it's fair to say that things have improved (really, they have!) – this is despite elements of the Geordie faithful still sounding like some of the most impatient fans in football. A return to European football must surely be seen as a realistic target. Ditto a serious challenge for the FA Cup. Of course, the outcomes for much of this will depend on the shape of the squad... so what more to come in the transfer market? After all, the Geordies did spend big in the summer.

With Shearer determined to leave, Owen regularly crocked and there not looking like an obvious “physical” replacement up front, it wouldn't surprise me to see a move for Dean Ashton in January. That said, continuing questions over defence, pressure to retain quality in midfield (Bowyer to return to London?) and the desire for a settled squad will all need to be considered as priority issues. Besides, there's always the summer, and what would any August be without high jinx at St James's Park?

Predictions for the season:- Final position: 9th.
FA Cup: out in the Quarter-Finals.
Overall verdict: Clear signs of improvement, stick with it, and stick with Souness.

* * * * *

If only I could be as cautiously optimistic as Terry, eh?

Thanks to Lord Bargain, Swiss Toni, Cameron, Pete, Danny and Terry for their thoughts.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Clearing his desk?

Today's Guardian claims that Fat Fred's New Year's Resolution is to plunge the club into further chaos and sack the manager, with Academy director Glen Roeder a likely short term replacement before ex-mackem Fat Sam Allardyce brings his brand of long ball football to SJP.

Needless to say, I hope this is absolute bollocks.

Firstly, I really don't think sacking Souness would be a constructive step, if for no other reason than it will leave us scratching round for a manager in the middle of the season when most, if not all, of the good managers already have gainful employment.

Secondly, anyone who has seen Bolton play this season, or any season since they joined the Premiership will realise that Allardyce favours a team of cloggers, who lump long balls forward and who dive and cheat (and spit) their way to undeserved victories whilst employing the depressing 4-5-1 formation.

Thirdly, if Sven Goran Eriksson does decide to pack in the England job after the World Cup (or is politely asked to clear his desk in the event we fail to get out of the group stages) then Fat Sam will, in all probability, be fighting with Steve (doing his best to get the smoggies relegated) McClaren for the England job. In which case, we'd be left looking for another manager whilst probably saddled with a load of shit players brought in by Allardyce.

With a host of winnable fixtures on the horizon, surely we would be better off spending any money that changing the manager might cost on playing reinforcements, with Defence, Midfield and Attack all in need of strengthening, and the Treatment Room seemingly needing extending to meet the ever growing demand.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

New Year: same mistakes

Newcastle 2 – 2 Monsters of Smog

After one frustrated attempt to see Newcastle play this holiday it was something of a relief to get to St James Park yesterday and find that the game was due to go ahead. The news that Shay Given was fit to continue in goal was also a much needed boost following the loss of Owen for three months and an injury to Scott Parker ruling our player of the season so far out for good measure.

With Albert Luque coming in, and starting up front, in place of Owen it allowed Shola to keep his place on the left wing, keeping the fit again Charles N'Zogbia out of the starting eleven, whilst Lee Clark took Parker's place in the middle of the park.

With the visitors having also had last Wednesday's fixture postponed it meant that neither side had any benefit from playing one game less than the other over the festive period.

With the game underway, it was the visitors who enjoyed the better of the opening exchanges, with Robbie Elliott looking particularly exposed at left back – not because Shola wasn't working in front of him, but simply because whenever the ball came near him he looked shaky, and whenever Boro attacked he kept being caught out of position.

However, despite early superiority, it was Newcastle who should have opened the scoring, with a quick Solano free kick releasing Luque through on goal. A lunge from Schwarzer saw the Spaniard driven wide, and his shot from a tight angle only hit the side netting when he probably had enough time to steady himself and pick his spot.

The next real chance fell to Boro who again enjoyed plenty of time and space down their right hand side, and a decent cross was somehow spooned over the bar from two yards out by a lunging Mark Viduka. Perhaps he’d have done better if he'd not indulged in so many pies, but as it was his shot sailed high over the bar into the gleeful Leazes crowd.

Almost immediately afterwards, we broke forward, as Shola showed good skill, cutting in from his left wing berth to try and jink his way through the Boro defence only to be felled about 25 yards from goal. With Shearer and Solano standing over the ball it was somewhat surprising to see Alan eventually run over the ball and leave it for Nobby to curl a beautiful ball round the wall and into the net.

With half time following shortly afterwards it was a fairly content home crowd who clapped the team from the pitch, having got the better of a Boro side desperately seeking points.

Perhaps inevitably, our injury jinx struck again, and N'Zogbia came on for Ameobi whilst Babayaro replaced the quite frankly crap Robbie Elliott.

The second half saw Boro continue to huff and puff but in truth we looked relatively comfortable against them. That was until Titus decided to spread a bit of seasonal generosity their way. Having advanced with the ball at his feet, he promptly played a slide rule pass straight to the opposition, leaving himself out of position and our defence depressingly exposed. Needless to say, Boro took swift advantage, and Yakubu was ultimately given acres of time and space to side foot past Given to level the scores.

With a goal to their name, and a point in their grasp Boro again showed what a boring team they are, and lacking any great urgency or invention they didn't really seem to press on for a winner. Instead it was Newcastle who looked the more likely to score a second, with N'Zogbia having a strong impact on the left hand side.

Then disaster struck as we again lost possession in the Boro half, and allowed them to break forward quickly, releasing fat Eddie Murphy Hasselbaink (on as a sub for Yakubu to form what must be the fattest strike pairing in the country with Viduka) clean through to slot the ball under Given as Boumsong trundled in his wake with barely five minutes to go.

With the Smoggies now in full voice, and having the gall to describe their 2-1 advantage as "Easy" it was hardly surprising (if extremely irritating) to see people vote with their feet, and in the case of a sizeable portion of the Leazes to hear calls for "Souness Out".

In the dying minutes of injury time (time incurred due to shameless time wasting by Boro, which had begun in the first half when Schwarzer walked to the "wrong" side every time he had a goal kick to take) we launched one final hopeful ball forward and Southgate miscued his clearance out for a corner. With everyone (including Given) forward in what might have proved the final throw of the die for Souness, the ball was swung across only for Schwarzer to fail to clear his lines with a weak punch, and Lee Clark was able to shoot home from the edge of the box.

2-2 the scoreline, and, with barely time to restart the game before it ended, a draw was a fair reflection of an even match – neither side deserving a win (regardless of the drivel Steve McClaren was spouting on 'Match Of The Day'). The late goal not only silencing the gloating Smoggies but also the chants of "Souness Out" as frustration gave way to delight, as well as hopefully providing another valuable lesson on why you should never leave a football match early.

Taking the last three games as a whole, it's difficult to draw many positives from any of our festive fixtures. One point from three is simply not good enough. Whether it's enough to keep Souness in a job remains to be seen, but anything less than a convincing win at home to Mansfield on Saturday doesn't bear thinking about.

Other reports: BBC, Guardian