Tuesday, May 29, 2007

View From The Away End

With the close season now a fortnight old, it's high time we stopped blathering on ourselves and ran a View From The Away End feature - so we asked some of the regular VFTAE contributors for their objective perspectives on our season, on Roeder's departure and Allardyce's arrival, and on our likely activities over the summer.

El Tel (How-You-Say-It)

Newcastle United are a gorgeous and peculiar phenomenon. So often, they prove themselves to be so very newsworthy - players’ and executives’ indiscipline, the managerial not-so-merry-go-round and injuries upon injuries, but perhaps we’re on the brink of something bigger and brighter.

The 06/07 season never got going for Newcastle – and what felt like the reluctant recruitment of Glenn Roeder as manager ("Well he has done well as caretaker, so I guess he should be given the chance...") was maybe not the most confident of starts to this latest installment of the Geordie soap opera. Here, I have to acknowledge that I was disappointed and surprised that Roeder didn't deliver more. Looking ahead though - cos that's what we're meant to do, if we are to regard Sam Allardyce’s reign at Bolton as a marker of what might lie ahead for Newcastle, then there are at least as many reasons to be cheerful as there are to be gloomy.

Working with a fantastically unfashionable and uncultured football club, Allardyce sustained levels of team performance that often exceeded expectations - he led them to a domestic cup final and twice into Europe through league performance – all good. He also proved himself to be a shrewd practitioner in the transfer market – who could have predicted Lancashire landings for Djorkaeff, Campo, Okocha and Anelka. Based on available resources, Allardyce and Bolton produced – as did 'Panorama' – but I guess it would be uncouth to go there.

Put another way – Newcastle now have a manager who may well have had an office at Lancaster Gate, were it not for a low-brow accent, indiscrete agents and some probing reporters (I’m in no doubt that the FA had sniffed out potential trouble before Mr McLaren plodded into the England #1 job).

So, what now for Newcastle? A leader who will not only lead, but who will be seen and heard to lead (note the sharp exit of messrs Bramble, Moore, etc). His greatest challenges: keeping Mr Shepherd quiet, and keeping the lovers of "good football" satisfied – regardless of the results. Here, it is worth keeping in mind the most recent years of under-achievement.

What Newcastle United plc now have is the man in charge who they want and have wanted to be in charge.

Newcastle’s biggest summer signing will be a defender/midfielder – a leader who Allardyce will see as cut from the same mould as himself.

This time, there can be no excuses – and there won’t need to be.

Pete (Round And White)

So Newcastle fans... From an outsider's point of view 2006-2007 seemed like the usual story: a season that never really promised much after the first few weeks had passed. A manager whose ability was frequently questioned, eventually becoming a victim of Mr Shepherd, while Titus Bramble continued to patrol (if I may use the term loosely) the back four. Nevertheless, there were signs of hope throughout the season. Obefami Martins' form (while it lasted) showed that the team might have acquired a half-decent forward to partner Mickey Owen (more on him later), and Emre and a few others occasionally put in a good performance. And to cap it all, Big Sam turned up at the very end.

Could it be that Newcastle have signed a manager who can turn them round (no, really, I mean it) and make them a top seven club? Well, his first step was to sensibly not renew Bramble's contract, something Roeder et al failed to do and thereby presumably endearing himself to the Toon faithful (if not to opposition forwards).

So what's next? As so many have pointed out, the key thing is for a new back four to be in place by the beginning of the season and I've little doubt that this will happen. With the emphasis elsewhere, the midfield won't see many major purchases. It remains to be seen if one of the Big Four (I hate that term by the way) will cough up the suggested £9m for Owen. I can't really see that happening though. He may still be a class act, but remains too liable to injury for them to take the risk. So come August he'll be there, along with Martins and AN Other to fight it out upfront. I'd like to throw Viduka's name into the ring at this point...

The danger in my opinion is that Newcastle will become another "Bolton", for the most part playing effective, yet unattractive football. As a neutral, I still have a sneaking suspicion that the fans at St James' Park would still prefer the defensively naïve, but superb attacking football of Kevin Keegan's time there (am I right Ben?). Nevertheless, Sam's time at Bolton made them a "proper" team, who put in the graft, are a pain in the arse to play against and have deserved their league places in the last few seasons.

In short, this is just the sort of man that Newcastle have been crying out. He'll sort out the wheat from the chaff, bring in new players to provide the team with a backbone and make sure whoever is left is focused. I doubt it'll be pretty to start off with, but frankly, who cares. Bar the defence, Newcastle have some good players and should be in the top half of the table. Perhaps it's too early for predictions, but Newcastle, for the first time in years, you have a real chance of bettering yourselves.

Danny (Bitter And Blue)

Much like at City, the off-season now provides an opportunity to banish another season of disappointment, underachievement and false hope.

Probably more advanced than we are – in that you actually have a manager in place and new ownership set, there is hope that you could be heading in the right direction.

A nasty ownership battle will hopefully be avoided, but Fat Fred is seemingly ready to rise Lazarus-like off his sick bed to fend off all-comers but his position now appears to be untenable and I don’t see him lasting the summer.

Sam Allardyce for me is a good choice. He doesn’t seem to be too popular a choice with too many fans, but finally he will add some stability to the club long-term after having relatively short-term appointments in recent years. The issue of his sides being negative and dull is also over-blown a little, and his approach has always been to get the best out of an average Bolton side.

Player-wise, there is undoubted talent at Newcastle but this has been hampered by too many average players, and more crucially too much underachievement.

It will be interesting to see the pulling power of Allardyce now he will potentially have a big pot of cash to spend as opposed to scraping around for Bosmans and revitalising careers.

Michael Owen will continue to be the big headline over the summer as the concern over his commitment will always be under the spotlight. My own view is the club should probably cash in on him if the £9m fee is met as I don’t believe his heart has (or will ever) be at the club.

Prospects for next season? Early days I know but I would fully expect a comfortable top ten finish, and if Allardyce manages to strengthen in the right areas then a challenge to the UEFA places is a real possibility.

Special mention must go to Antoine Sibierski who was cast aside by Stuart Pearce but found favour and a supportive manager in Glenn Roeder to emerge as surely the best business in terms of performance against cost of any players last season.

* * * * *

Thanks to Tel, Pete and Danny for their thoughts, which make for very interesting reading - perhaps I should be re-evaluating my dismay at Allardyce's appointment then? Someone else who thinks Fat Sam could be the man to turn things around is former Toon striker Andy Hunt - thanks to Andy for pointing us in the direction of his thoughts on the appointment, which can be found here. We shall see...
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