Friday, August 29, 2008

Bad business

News from the BBC that Villa have finally got their man, with James Milner heading off to Brum in exchange for £10 million.

Now with Keegan hailing the player's quality after Wednesday's cup match, it can hardly have been his decision to flog Milner. Which means that someone else (Ashley, Llambias, Wise, whoever) has taken the view that rather than pay him a salary comparable to Steven Taylor, we're better served having some cash in the bank to spend on a replacement (who'll doubtless want big bucks) than fight to keep an established player.

The whole thing strikes me as a very bad piece of business, made worse by the fact that the transfer window closes on Monday night.

Whoever sanctioned this wants their head examining.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Jimmy riddle

No sooner had we enjoyed James Milner's man-of-the-match performance at the Ricoh Arena on Tuesday night than the news broke that he had handed in a transfer request the previous Wednesday.

Milner's representatives the PFA are suggesting that the club have broken a gentlemen's agreement to keep the matter quiet, but the most significant issue for the fans is trying to understand quite why he'd want to leave: he's in the side and playing well, King Kev's clearly a firm fan and it's not as though his rumoured suitors Villa can offer him Champions League football. Perhaps he hasn't forgiven the club for suggesting he was dispensable and looking to offload him a couple of seasons ago.

As a club spokesman pointed out, the fact remains that "we have yet to receive an offer for James that matches our valuation", but he also noted ominously: "However, should such an offer be received then the club will be reluctantly forced to consider it, given James's apparent desire to leave." That sort of offer is almost certain to come before the transfer window shuts - whether from Villa, Liverpool or someone else - and so it looks like it'll take some serious sweet-talking from Messrs Ashley and Keegan to get him to stay.

In other news, Michael Chopra has checked himself into the Sporting Chance Clinic with the backing of his club and manager. He may have turned to the dark side since leaving us for Cardiff, but I'm sure all fellow Geordies wish him well.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The late, late, late show

Coventry City 2 - 3 Newcastle Utd (aet)

What should have been a comfortable evening's run out at the Ricoh arena proved a real test of character for Newcastle last night, as Coventry forced our Carling Cup game into extra time thanks to an equalising goal in the fourth minute of added time, only for Michael Owen to once again score the winner and save us having to repeat the penalty experience we last endured/enjoyed at Watford in November '06.

Starting competitively, Chris Coleman's Coventry side looked eager to hustle and compete with a Newcastle side showing only a few changed from our victory over Bolton on Saturday. Duff and Martins were both sidelined through injury, whilst Taylor was given a rest on the bench. In to the side came Enrique, Geremi and debutant Bassong, with Milner partnering Gutierrez upfront.

After some early Coventry pressure, Newcastle's superior passing game started to carve out openings for the tireless Milner up front, and after 21 minutes, Gutierrez pass, and Milner's clever flick sent him through on goal. His cross was met by a combination of the onrushing N'Zogbia and defender Scott Dann taking the ball past one-time Ipswich keeper Andy Marshall.

A goal to the good, and with Milner in particular enjoying a fine night Newcastle took control of the game, and once Milner curled a fine second in to the goal the game looked almost dead and buried before half time. However, the cries of ole which greeted every pass became cries of anguish with seconds remaining in the half when Habib Beye got caught on the ball, and with our defence stretched, Clinton Morrison was able to lift the ball over the despairing Given's dive to give the home side a route back in to the match which they scarcely deserved.

The second half again saw Newcastle passing the ball well, with little threat coming from Coventry, save for the occasional long throw (or should I say freakishly long throw) from Aron Gunnarsson . However, with Coloccini and the impressive Bassong looking solid in the air, there appeared little threat, and with the signalled two minutes of added time played, Newcastle looked to have done enough to secure the win after a largely uneventful second period. However, with the referee deciding that he wanted to carry on well beyond the signalled two minutes, Coventry won a throw down the Newcastle left. Launching the ball into the box, Gunnarsson's throw was met by Dann to give the hosts a barely deserved chance to take the game into extra time.

With Keegan clearly fuming that the game had been able to carry on for so long, Newcastle were thankfully able to regroup and when Enrique won the ball on the half way line, his long range pass was brilliantly brought down by Owen (on for Geremi) before lifting it over the onrushing keeper to restore our lead.

Back came Coventry, almost snatching another goal at the end of the first period of extra time, only to see Elliott Ward's header rebound off the cross bar. However, that was their last chance, as we successfully retained possession thanks to some excellent passing to ensure our place in Saturday's third round draw.

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

Monday, August 25, 2008

Shay saves the day

Newcastle Utd 1 - 0 Bolton Wanderers

Two moments of class saw off a spirited Bolton side at St James Park on Saturday. The first, was a penalty save by Shay Given, which kept the scores level; the second was the games only goal, scored by the returning Michael Owen to guarantee our first home match of the season finished with us taking all three points.

With Keegan naming an unchanged team from the draw at Old Trafford last week, it meant home league debuts for Gutierrez, Guthrie and Coloccini. However, for all our spark and fight last week, the first half on Saturday was decidedly flat, with little being created to cause Bolton any problems, whilst the visitors reliance on human battering ram Kevin Davies left Coloccini and Taylor battered but largely untroubled.

Half time saw the departure of Damien Duff with a knee injury, which is expected to keep him out for the next couple of games, Keegan was forced to reshuffle the pack, Geremi coming on to play down the right, with Milner pushed upfront with Martins.

With some clear advice ringing in the players ears, the second half saw both teams seeking to press forward for a goal, and it was from one such attack that Bolton were awarded a penalty. Steven Taylor using his hand to block a cross (and managing to also block the follow up shot with his hand before the whistle was blown). Captain Kevin Nolan stepped up and fired his penalty low towards the corner of the Gallowgate net, only for Shay to produce a fine penalty save, kicking away the rebound to safety to preserve his clean sheet.

With the entire crowd inspired by the save,the enthusiasm flowed down on to the pitch, with Martins almost getting on the end of Geremi's right wing cross. Unfortunately, as well as heading wide, Martins also strained his groin and left the field with a limp. Keegan turning to the recovering Michael Owen to lead the line.

Needless to say, Owen's class told shortly afterwards, as he found space in the six yard box to nod home Geremi's cross to give us the lead, and announce his return to the first team in style. With Coloccini also going close, and Milner planting a decent header over the bar, Newcastle looked as though they might nick a second goal. However, it was Bolton who were pressing towards the end, with Taylor pulling off a good block to preserve our victory in the dying minutes.

Whilst it's far too early to get excited about our place in the top six, it's encouraging to see a second decent performance in a week, a clean sheet, and the return of Owen in goal scoring form. On the minus side, the loss of Martins and Duff will stretch our already thin squad further, and Owen's goal only serves to highlight his value to the club and why our failure to agree a new contract with him could prove an incredibly costly failing going forward.

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Double trouble

A very creditable draw at Old Trafford to open our 2008/9 Premier League campaign, the buzz of potential "wow signings" arriving before the transfer window closes - and yet who's still dominating the news?

Yes, you guessed it.

On Friday it was reported that Jamie Tandy, the Man City trainee whose face ASBO accidentally on purpose mistook for an ashtray, is taking legal action, having suffered a "major psychiatric deterioration".

And now Jordan Spencer, the Liverpudlian teenager whose face ASBO accidentally on purpose mistook for a punchbag, has also announced he's suing for damages.

When the FA levelled its extremely belated charge against ASBO for the Ousmane Dabo incident, the club was unsurprisingly indignant, expressing disappointment at being penalised for an offence committed long before ASBO pitched up at St James's Park, and certainly it's bizarre that the Tandy claim is only now being made, four years after the event. But in these cases he's going to be out on his own, and he's brought it all on himself. Just as well we pay him so well, eh?

One question - what's more likely to happen? ASBO staying off the front pages, or Shola Ameobi finally leaving Tyneside?

Distinctly un-wowed

According to reports emanating from the weekend, Mike Ashley mentioned to some corporate clients that we could expect a "wow-signing" before the transfer window closes.

The Chronicle is now suggesting that this won't be Javier Saviola, who is apparently staying at Real Madrid.

Now, am I the only one who has an uneasy feeling of deja vu? Is Mike Ashley in danger of morphing into Fat Fred, who memorably informed us that we'd be pleasantly surprised when Jonathan Woodgate was sold to Real Madrid, only for us to watch as we attempted to lure Wayne Rooney to St James' and he decided he'd rather go to Old Trafford, leaving Fat Fred with egg on his big fat face.

Let's hope this is merely a temporary aberration on Ashley's part, brought about by a little too much corporate hospitality, and not the start of a slippery slope. I don't know about you, but I'd be more wowed if we managed to add three quality players to give the squad some much needed depth rather than one blockbuster signing. We've been down that route too many times, and it inevitably gets us nowhere.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

First? Among equals!

Manchester Utd 1 - 1 Newcastle Utd

A point! A glorious, unexpected, thoroughly deserved point at Old Trafford - a place we haven't won at since 1972.

The start of the season is always an exciting time, at which (despite my pretty pessimistic comments) I always harbour the faintest belief that maybe, just maybe, this could be our year. For one weekend, all teams are equal, and having watched Sunday's match, you couldn't really tell which of the two teams were reigning Premiership and European Champions.

Unsurprisingly, the home team started the brighter, but after weathering the early storm, thanks to a couple of smart saves by Shay Given, we started to force our way forward. Debutant Gutierrez was involved in all our best attacking play, regularly abandoning his left wing berth to pop up all across the pitch and pose problems for Man Utd. What was perhaps even more encouraging was his willingness to track back and defend when needed.

It was Gutierrez who raced through only to be blocked off by Vidic, Mavis Riley deciding that he didn't have the bottle to test Man Utd's adherence to the FA's Respect Campaign, and simply ignoring our claims for a free kick.

However, a breakthrough came shortly afterwards, with Martins' powerful header giving us the lead from Guthrie's corner. Unfortunately, as Martins was somersaulting in jubilation, Steven Taylor was being helped off the pitch in need of treatment for an ankle injury.

With us temporarily down to ten men, Man Utd raised the pace, and Darren Fletcher did enough to get ahead of Charles N'Zogbia to meet Giggs' cross, and level the scores.

However, that goal aside, the team defended well, with Taylor and Coloccini forming what looks (at first glance) to be a very promising partnership. The Argentine looked strong and composed, and certainly showed enough to suggest that our defence might not be as paper-thin as it appeared at times last season.

The third debutant, Guthrie, also showed signs of promise in midfield. Constantly moving, his composure on the ball suggested that he could well develop into a very tidy player for us as the season progresses.

Now, before I get too carried away, it is worth bearing in mind that we've seen countless false dawns before, and you should never make too much of early season form. It may be cliched, but it's fair to say that the league isn't won in August. However, given my relatively pessimistic predictions for how our season would unfold, this game represented a very encouraging performance. We're still some way short of being the finished article, and our squad still looks worryingly thin in places, but this game at least showed that the new players we've bought in might just have a touch of class about them, and if we can add a couple more faces before the transfer window closes, this season might just be one which is full of promise.

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

Monday, August 18, 2008

Know your enemies

In which I (belatedly) cast an eye over our opposition for the forthcoming Premier League season...

* * * * *


If the Gunners were a confection, they'd be sweet and tasty but also brittle and soft-centred. Alexander Hleb - who took time to find his feet in north London but enjoyed an excellent season last term - has left for Barcelona and been replaced by another exciting young attacker, Marseille's French international Samir Nasri, while with Aaron Ramsey, Arsene Wenger has shown that the purchase of Theo Walcott wasn't a momentary aberration and he really isn't averse to snapping up young British talent. But, precocious though the Emirates Embyros are, they're still too easily bullied out of games, especially away from home, and the loss of both Gilberto and Mathieu Flamini will hardly help. A lot of pressure rests on Abu Diaby's shoulders if his side aren't to slip out of the top four.

Blog: East Lower

Aston Villa

Not so long ago, things didn't look too rosy for the side that finished in a very respectable 6th place last time out. Star defender Olof Mellberg had left for Juventus, and their only incomings of note were Brad Friedel, who, though solid, is very much in his twilight years, and Steve Sidwell, who finally realised what the rest of us knew last summer - that there was no way on earth he was ever going to get a game for Chelsea. Add to that the rumbling disquiet and destabilising effect of the long-running Gareth Barry situation. But, in the space of a week or so, everything turned around: they bought three-quarters of a solid-looking new back four (Luke Young, Nicky Shorey and Carlos Cuellar) and Barry inspired them to the brink of the UEFA Cup proper, his inclusion in the side likely to have snuffed out the possibility of a deal with Liverpool. 6th again would be gladly taken, though no doubt that, being Brummies, Villa fans would grumble about stagnation...

Blog: Aston Villa Blogs


What to do when your manager jumps ship? Simple: appoint another young, hungry former Man Utd teammate of his who's also had the benefit of Alex Ferguson's hairdryer. Paul Ince's reward for guiding Milton Keynes Dons out of League 2 is a shot at the big time, but his chance may have come prematurely. The appointments of Chris Hutchings and Sammy Lee last summer represented similarly risky leaps of faith on the part of Dave Whelan and Phil Gartside respectively, and they barely lasted until the clocks went back, while the self-styled Guv'nor may find the egos a little bit bigger and more threatening at this level. No adequate replacement has been found for David Bentley, and Paul Robinson is a man desperately trying to find his self-confidence, though when he does he may well drop it again. At least they're certain to have Santa Cruz come the end of the month - new signing Julio, that is, brother of Man City target Roque...


Having played the latter half of last season without a recognised striker (c'mon, Kevin Davies is just a battering ram in a white shirt whose scoring record is distinctly average), the Trotters decided to invest £10m in Toulouse's Johan Elmander - who lined up for Sweden in Euro 2008 on the wing... Fabrice Muamba has secured himself a quick return to the top flight, and with it a further opportunity to impress upon Arsenal what they let go and could now really do with. No doubt the new recruits will soon be indoctrinated into the Bolton style of play, better described as an eyesore than as football but which has kept them afloat like scum on a pond for several years now - but for how much longer?


Quite how Chelsea came so close to pipping Man Utd to the title is still a source of bafflement to me - even more so than the question of why, with Paulo Ferreira and Juliano Belletti already on the books, they were so desperate to spend £16.2m on another right back, Jose Bosingwa. Perhaps ex Portugal boss Luis Felipe Scolari simply couldn't bear to be separated from his former charges? And as if to prove it, Deco is the other key new import, likely to repay his very reasonable £8m price tag by unlocking opponents' defences in tight matches. Benchwarmers Sidwell and Tal Ben Haim have left, while John Obi Mikel has the job of rechristening the protective defensive midfield position after himself, now that Claude Makalele has gone to stud at PSG. The focus will probably be on Didier Drogba and Frank Lampard, the latter now the best paid player in the country, but the side's real driving force is Michael Essien.

Blog: Chelsea Blog


This campaign has "Toffees come unstuck" written all over it. Everton went into the close season on a high, having sealed fifth place on a shoestring budget and with the sort of honest hard graft and team spirit you can't buy. But it's unrealistic to expect the same again from the likes of Joleon Lescott and Mikel Arteta, and having sold Andy Johnson, their already small squad has shrunk further. David Moyes may still be talking up their chances of claiming fourth spot, but is discovering that, with only a couple of weeks of the transfer window left, available players are scarce and prices have risen. Moves for CSKA Moscow's Wagner Love and Sporting Lisbon's Joao Moutinho look to be dead in the water because they haven't got the same financial clout as Spurs, Man City, Villa or even ourselves. Of course, Moyes's increasing desperation could well be to our advantage. Need a striker, Dave? We've got someone answering to that description by the name of Smith - £5m OK with you?


This time last year I noted that Lawrie Sanchez had squandered £25m of Mohammed Al Fayed's money on a host of very average players and that when the owner "finally realises he's had his pockets picked, Sanchez is likely to receive his P45 shortly after". For once, I was right. This summer Fayed has again bankrolled a spending spree, but this time around the man dishing out the cash, Roy Hodgson, has been rather more astute. The signing of Andy Johnson was a coup, even if they were only capitalising on his desire to return to the capital, and he should be instrumental in keeping them up, while, alongside a fully fit Jimmy Bullard, Zoltan Gera could provide the necessary creative spark.

Blog: Craven Cottage Newsround


How galling it must be for Fat Sam to be out of work and see his former number two Phil Brown feted as Hull's saviour, having taken them from the lower reaches of the Championship to the virgin snow of the Premier League in less than two years? Of course, sides are queuing up to turn Hull's snow yellow, and signing defenders like Anthony Gardner and strikers like Marlon King is like shooting yourself in the foot with a rocket launcher. The Tigers have at least brought in George Boateng from Middlesbrough and Geovanni from Man City, experienced heads who will bolster the midfield, but like Derby's Steve Howard last year, Dean Windass - who spurned Leeds's advances for another shot at the top flight - is soon likely to discover the Premier League of 2008 isn't the place for lumbering square-jawed relics from the muddied battlegrounds of the 70s, no matter how much of a cult hero they are.


It's the same question every August: is this the year Liverpool find the consistency they need to challenge for the top? And come May it's the same answer: no. This year, though, could just be different. They'll still be overreliant on Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard (I imagine Reds fans wince every time either of them goes in for a 50-50) but, with the supporting cast arguably stronger and Javier Mascherano having really begun to prove his worth, they're probably the side most likely to deprive Chelsea of the runners-up spot. Much will hinge on Robbie Keane, who at over £20m looks to be absurdly overpriced and who I can't see being a better foil for Torres than the Big Man With A Good Touch. Or maybe it's just a force of habit with me to question the judgement of men proudly sporting goatees?

Blog: Kopblog

Man City

Funny how quickly people forget, but over the course of last season we were all seduced once again by Sven-Goran Eriksson and his softly-softly voice that seems to tip-toe around interviewers' questions, to the point that his unceremonious sacking left something of a sour taste in the mouth. Hastened by that 7-0 thrashing on Smogside on the last day of the season it may have been, but his dismissal was only marginally less ludicrous than that of Avram Grant. Former Man Utd favourite Mark Hughes has stepped into the breach, clearly relishing his opportunity at a bigger club, but, with a warrant out for the arrest of owner and friend of Amnesty International Thaksin Shinawatra, he may now be regretting leaving the relative stability of Blackburn behind. Key to his side's chances are Martin Petrov and particularly Elano maintaining their form beyond the autumn, and one of his expensive forwards - the latest being £18m Brazilian Jo - starting to score regularly.

Blog: Bitter & Blue

Man Utd

Despite being crowned champions in 2006/7, Man Utd went out and splashed millions of pounds (well, American dollars) on Nani, Anderson, Owen Hargreaves and Carlos Tevez and duly retained the title in what even this avowed Red Devils hater must admit was frequently spectacular style. Taggart may still be on the look-out for a regular goal-getting striker, but the complete lack of signings thus far suggests that this summer they've been content to rest on their laurels. Still, when you've got a midfielder who can contribute 42 goals in a single season, a Serbian defender fashioned out of solid rock and England's best striker operating as a utility forward, there's not too much to worry about. Another cakewalk to the trophy awaits, annoyingly.

Blog: When The Seagulls Follow The Trawler


It's one step forwards and two steps backwards for the Smogs, who've once again kept hold of Stewart Downing but at the same time lost the rest of their midfield and their only decent 'keeper. Didier Degard and Marvin Emnes are unknown quantities, and another disappointing season would surely see even Steve Gibson's patience tested to breaking point and Gareth Southgate looking for gainful employment. That said, Tuncay has a year's Premier League experience under his belt, and if Afonso Alves and Mido have less flubber under theirs and Dr Frankenstein's own central defensive partnership of Robert Huth and David Wheater can stay fit, then staying safe shouldn't be a problem.


A few years ago, it would have been almost unthinkable: Portsmouth kicking off their fifth consecutive season in the top flight as the FA Cup holders, looking forward to their first ever foray into European competition and armed with a potent pair of England strikers. OK, so their Cup success was scarcely merited (surely no other team has ever won despite being outplayed by every single one of their opponents?), and the UEFA Cup could prove more damaging than merely a distraction to a club with a small squad, but Nico Kranjcar gets better with every season and I've got a sneaking feeling that the inspired Little & Large pairing of Peter Crouch with Jermain Defoe really could prove to be the most lethal in the league. Oh they do like to be beside the seaside - for the moment, at least.

Blog: Pompey Gory


Roll up, roll up! Stoke in the Premier League - showing now, for one year only! Spunking £5.5m on Dave Kitson was the mark of a club seemingly hell-bent on relegation next May and administration in three years' time, but remarkably it still isn't their worst purchase of the summer. No, that would be Amady Faye, brought in from Charlton ostensibly to bring some steel to the midfield but more likely, on the evidence of his time at The Valley and on Tyneside, to bring aimless wanderings and a chronic inability to tackle without giving away a free kick (which raises the question: was Alan Smith his belated replacement?). Presumably another new boy, fellow Senegalese international and namesake Abdoulaye, a £2.25m signing from our ranks, has been signed to make him feel more at home.


I can't believe I'm about to say this, but Roy Keane has made some astute signings this summer. He may have come to Juande Ramos's aid by snapping up half his wares at the car boot sale, but it's worth recognising that even though they may not be good enough for the North Londoners' assault on fourth, the likes of Pascal Chimbonda and especially Steed Malbranque represent significant additions to the Mackems' squad. That said, they're still lumbered with a glut of no-mark forwards and a clunky defence that even we'd be embarrassed about. Cheers Keano for giving us even more reason to give El-Hadji Diouf a friendly welcome when he next comes to St James's Park. And cheers Younes Kaboul's agent for saying his client wouldn't join Sunderland "even if there was an earthquake", and then the player proving it by plumping for the club furthest away from Wearside...


After splashing the cash last summer, things didn't quite go to plan for Tony Soprano - will his replacement fare any better? He simply has to, surely. With Jonathan Woodgate a steadying influence at the back and Butterfingers Robinson packed off to Blackburn, their talented forwards should have the necessary platform to build on. Their fortunes hinge largely on how quickly Luka Modric - for my money, the signing of the summer - adapts to the English game. Having been screwed out of millions by Charlton for Darren Bent last year, they've done the same to Liverpool this, milking the Scousers for significantly more than Robbie Keane's actual worth. Still, that has left them a bit light in terms of out-and-out strikers, and with Dimitar Berbatov looking likely to sulk his way into a move to Old Trafford before the month is out, they won't want to be left with just corner-flag-botherer Bent.

Blog: Harry Hotspur

West Brom

Clearly too good for the Championship, are West Brom actually good enough for the Premier League? It's an intriguing question. Certainly they've made some decent signings, not least Scott Carson - though Baggies fans will be hoping that the presence of fellow newbies Abdoulaye Meite and the brilliantly named Gianni Zuiverloon in defence will mean he isn't constantly called into pulling off heroics. Tony Mowbray's biggest problem will be finding his best forward pairing and then hoping they can produce the goods at the highest level - something made more difficult by the fact that he allowed chief ammunition-provider Zoltan Gera to leave on a free.

West Ham

It's fair to say that West Ham didn't have the best of luck with their signings last season. Craig Bellamy got crocked early on, Julien Faubert got crocked early on and Kieron Dyer got crocked early on (don't say we didn't tell you so, Hammers fans - you've retired the number 6 shirt in honour of Bobby Moore, so why not just retire Dyer's number 7 while you're at it?), while Freddie Ljungberg was an expensive mistake whose contract has cost millions to terminate. Perhaps understandably, then, Alan Curbishley has been cautious in the transfer market this time around, their only major acquisition being Lazio's Swiss international Valon Behrami. In Robert Green, Matthew Upson, Mark Noble and Dean Ashton, there's a strong spine to the side, but a slide into the bottom half of the table looks likely.

Blog: Hammered


Is it just me, or is it appropriate that a team who play on a cabbage patch of a pitch now have a manager whose face looks like a cauliflower? The quality of the surface at the JJB hardly matters, of course, given that the ball spends most of its time in the air - perhaps that's just to fool home supporters into thinking they're watching rugby? Emile Heskey, bizarrely effective in England's ultimately doomed bid for Euro 2008 qualification last autumn, is the Latics' star man, whose partner looks set to be Egyptian Amr Zaki, on loan from Zamalek. In midfield, Jason Koumas and Antonio Valencia are mercurial and lightweight string-pullers, and Wilson Palacios and Paul Scharner the underrated workhorses. If I tip Daniel de Ridder as a hot prospect again, might he actually get some time on the pitch this season? And how many more times can Titus Shambles lose concentration and cost his side valuable points?

* * * * *

So, enough of my ramblings - to wrap up, here's how Paul thinks the table will end up looking:

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

Only time will tell, of course...

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Changing of the rear guard

Comings and goings in our defence this week, as the protracted purchase of Fabricio Coloccini from Deportivo was finally concluded. The long haired Argentinian takes Stephen Carr's now thankfully vacant (and no doubt well stretched) number 2 shirt.

Passing him in the doorway at St James Park is Abdoulaye Faye, who has now gone to Premiership new boys Stoke in exchange for £2.25 million. Faye joins Toon old boys Andy Griffen and Amdy Faye in the Potters squad, the latter having been signed from Charlton this week - something which has, unsurprisingly, seen much rejoicing in the massed ranks of the Charlton faithful.

Judging by the fact that Stoke lost to Bolton 3-1 today, any addition to their defence can't come soon enough.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Look to the future

High time we assessed the summer comings and goings at St James's Park and looked forward to our prospects for the season ahead, so without further ado...

Paul: After a pre-season that can, at best, be described as mixed (some promising signings but not enough to give us the creativity or depth the squad needs), Sunday sees us facing the joy of a trip to Old Trafford to start us on another slog in the exciting race to see who finishes fifth. Seriously, does anyone apart from Sky Sports presenters, and fans of Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal or Man Ure (and let's be honest, with the exception of Monkey Hanger Jeff Stelling, and Torquay fan Helen Chamberlain, those two phrases are pretty much synonomous) give a shit about who wins the league? It's not going to be us, so let's not bother ourselves with that.

In reality, I think we currently form part of the middle tier of Premier League teams, who aren't going to get relegated unless something goes badly awry, but unless the draw is as kind as Pompey's was last year, aren't going to win a trophy, and the limit of their ambitions is fifth. That isn't to say that fifth wouldn't represent a massive step forward for us, because it would, but equally it represents the sum of our ambitions for the season.

In truth, I suspect finishing that high is probably beyond our current squad, and without a few more bodies before the end of August, a bad run with injuries could see us worrying about how well the likes of Stoke and West Brom have adapted to life in the top flight.

However, if we can get the creative midfielder we've been tracking since Spurs gazumped our bid for Modric at the start of the summer, and can also add some depth to our defence - rumours of Stephen Warnock continue, but until some more players arrive, we're still going to be relying heavily on kids when the games start to take their toll - then we should be OK, and a top half finish is well within our grasp.

What happens in the next two weeks really will have a massive impact on our season. More new arrivals are required, and while the departure of Smith or N'Zogbia wouldn't be the biggest surprise, they should only be allowed to go if they are replaced, and our numbers are augmented. If we don't get more bodies then it's going to be a long slog through to New Year's Day, by which time all we'll have to look forward to in 2009 is worrying about survival.

Ben: Hmm, what tack to take this time around? Glass half-full, or glass half-empty? A bit of both, I think.

Assuming Fabricio Coloccini eventually does put pen to paper before the transfer window shuts (amazingly, the deal's still to be confirmed at the time of writing - it's fast becoming as tortuously protracted as Gareth Barry's), then we'll have landed the commanding central defender we've been looking for since Jonathan Woodgate hobbled off to the Bernabeu. Another uncompromising and rugged centre-back, Brian Kilcline, was King Kev's first signing in his first stint as manager, and it's obviously to be hoped that the Argentinian proves to be as much of a cornerstone.

With Carlos Cuellar having pitched up at Villa Park, the man likely to be tasked with helping Coloccini offer Messrs Given and Harper an unprecedented level of defensive protection is Steven Taylor, whose wrangling over the terms of a new contract came to a mutually satisfactory conclusion over the summer. If only the same could be said of Michael Owen - sadly, we don't seem to be any nearer persuading the man who more than anyone else kept us safe last year to stay on Tyneside.

As has been well-documented here, I'm not quite so concerned about ASBO sticking around - in fact, I'd go so far as to say that, given the chance, I'd gladly shove a rocket up the little runt's arse and fire him as far away as possible. Having served his time at Her Majesty's pleasure for assault, he's now admitted the FA's charge of violent conduct and is waiting to find out his punishment. Perhaps West Ham'll do us another favour and take the one remaining Borstal Boy off our hands?

Likewise, I wouldn't exactly go into mourning if Alan Smith was allowed to leave. Unfortunately, Keegan seems to feel differently and this, reportedly, is a point of friction with Mike Ashley - as is the owner's apparent willingness to contemplate flogging James Milner to Villa against the manager's wishes. Of course, if this was all just media mischief-making then it wouldn't come as much of a surprise, and I'd hope Ashley is savvy enough to realise, as most of us do, that someone with Keegan's invigorating enthusiasm and passion for the game is to be prized.

It may be that we do need to sell before we can buy big again, though, but Ashley did at least give Keegan sufficient financial backing to bring in Jonas Gutierrez from Real Mallorca, and all the signs from a disappointing pre-season campaign - deceptive though they very often are - are that Coloccini's compatriot will be a handy asset (once his registration is finally complete, that is...). The only other additions to the squad, Danny Guthrie and Sebastien Bassong, arrived without much fanfare and, unburdened with the weight of expectation, could just turn out to be a pleasant surprise.

With the acquisition of Spiderman, and with Milner, Damien Duff and Charles N'Zogbia all still on the books (for the time being, at least), our cup of wingers runneth over - but, as Paul mentions above, we remain short of a genuinely creative force through the centre of midfield. It was a role the now-departed Emre was supposed to fill, but he too often seemed to get bogged down in sideways passing. Luka Modric would have been ideal, but then he was never likely to choose us over a side with realistic ambitions of cracking the top four nut.

And so we come to predictions. Even erring on the side of caution, I'm quietly confident we can finish somewhere in the top half, possibly even as high as sixth - though only if we can get the right people in in the last two weeks of August and if Keegan can alight on a formation that makes the best use of the forwards at his disposal. The fact that some of our closest rivals - Everton, West Ham, Blackburn - have either trod water or even gone backwards over the summer should hopefully stand us in good stead. But, as ever, ultimately it comes down to us and how we perform - and of that there are no guarantees.

To come tomorrow: my thumbnail assessments of the 19 sides we'll be doing battle with over the course of the next ten months, and Paul's prediction for the final league table.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

In for a Portugeezer?

Four days to go until our season kicks off at Old Trafford, and the rumour mill is in full working order.

Both the Sun and the Gazzetta dello Sport are claming we've agreed a loan deal for Portuguese midfielder Tiago with an option to sign him permanently for around £8m. The former Chelsea man currently plays for Juventus, having also lined up for Lyon since leaving these shores in 2005. Despite arriving with quite a reputation and being a regular starter for his country, his one-year stay at Stamford Bridge wasn't particularly impressive. On the one hand, we need more creativity and flair in central midfield, but on the other he's failed to settle in England once before and seems to have serious commitment issues.

Next, the Rumour That Just Won't Die - James Milner to Villa - was back today in both the Daily Heil and the Ronnie Gill. As far as I'm aware, our winger's "long-term admirers" are still yet to make a firm approach for him - really, it's like being at a school disco and watching some bespectacled nerd sitting lustfully and nervously in the corner and downing can after can of coke in the hope they might be able to pluck up the courage to talk to the object of their affection. Hopefully, if it happens Milner will tell them to talk to the hand.

Meanwhile, Blackburn's Stephen Warnock has rubbished reports he's handed in a transfer request in a bid to force through a £4m move to Tyneside. That's not to say a deal won't happen, of course...

Premier League new boys Stoke - soon to be Premier League whipping boys Stoke - have apparently taken a fancy to Abdoulaye Faye. Rather bizarrely, the Potters have also recently taken our old boy Amady Faye on trial - perhaps Tony Pulis is facing up to the fact that his side are doomed and starting a collection as a hobby?

Around 12,000 fans turned up at St James's Park to see the open training session. A bit of a disappointment, all told: we already knew that Michael Owen, though present, wouldn't feature in the seven-a-side practice match, but it had been hoped Fabricio Coloccini would be unveiled, perhaps along with a couple of other signings.

One player who wasn't there was ASBO, otherwise engaged at Soho Square pleading guilty to the FA's charge of violent conduct over the Dabo incident.

Last but by no means least, from zero to hero: happy birthday Al! Celebrating by creosoting a fence, perhaps?

Out with the old, in with the new

With the new season imminent, it seems as good a time as any to clear out some of the dead wood from the sidebar and add a handful of new faces.

The following sites have been culled, all apparently abandoned and left floating around cyberspace like virtual Marie Celestes - if you're behind any of these and know otherwise, let us know.

All Things Footie
Blog FC
Celtic FC Blog
From The Doncaster Road End
Gamblog / QPR
Gamblog / England
Left Back
More Than Mind Games
Round & White
The Shelf
The Soccer Forum
Sunderland AFC Blog
Tartan Red On Tour
United Rant

A few sites have moved to pastures new:

Addick's Championship Diary (also renamed...)
EPL Talk
Following The Fulham
Harry Hotspur
Lord Of The Wing

And finally here are those new faces, all courtesy of the ever-reliable All Quiet In The East Stand, which has itself had a recent facelift:

Back The Boys (Reading)
Cardiff FC Blog (er, Cardiff)
Causa Laboris (Burnley)
Deepest Darkest (Charlton)
Saints 24-7 (Southampton)
To Be A Pilgrim (Plymouth)

If you've come across a good blog lately, give it a plug in the comments box and we'll check it out.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Perm-anent deal nearly done

STILL no official word on Coloccini, but judging by the fact that Mike Ashley, sat next to him at Saturday's friendly with Valencia, was wearing a new away shirt bearing his name, it's surely a done deal now. That said, King Kev, speaking after the game, commented: "I like his hair, it's like mine in the 70s, but I can't tell you any more than that". And there I was thinking he just had a thing for straggle-haired central defenders, Brian Kilcline and Darren Peacock being exhibits A and B...

If we want to land another long-term defensive target, Rangers centre back Carlos Cuellar, we're going to have to move fast. Given his imperious performances in last year's UEFA Cup, it was inevitable that there'd be a flurry of interest when he announced his desire to leave in the wake of the Gers' failure to qualify for Europe, and, seemingly hell-bent on buying an entirely new defence (following the signings of Luke Young and Nicky Shorey), Villa have stolen a march on us and the rest of the chasing pack by agreeing a £7.8m fee.

Also linked with us today have been Cuellar's teammate at Ibrox Allan McGregor (though why we'd want to spend £5m on a reserve 'keeper when we've already got Steve Harper and the fast-maturing Tim Krul is beyond me) and Fulham's Jimmy Bullard, whose contract negotiations have apparently broken down and who, it seems, doesn't hold any grudges against the St James's Park turf despite it being responsible for his long-term knee injury.

The Valencia match, our last friendly before the season kicks off at Old Trafford, gave us a much-needed boost, with Jonas Gutierrez playing a starring role and Damien Duff and James Milner scoring late on to turn the game on its head as our superior fitness told. Keegan was once again full of praise for Duff afterwards, but I wouldn't be surprised if the Bentley money currently burning a hole in Paul Ince's pocket didn't result in a bid for the Irishman's services before the transfer window shuts - and I wouldn't rule out us taking the money.

It's not been a particularly promising pre-season - though we can at least console ourselves with the fact that at least we're not Everton (problems with ground redevelopment, no signings and paper-thin squad so increasingly desperate) or, worse still, Man City (manager reportedly on the verge of quitting because of players potentially being sold without his say-so, owner arrogantly jumping bail and best described as being "to human rights what Brian Blessed is to whispering")...

Friday, August 08, 2008

Fond farewells

So, it's goodbye to Arthur Cox who - having brought King Kev to the club in 1982 and then come back to mentor his protegee when he returned as manager a decade later - has now left the club for the third time. And, if the speculation's to be believed, we could be bidding someone else a fond farewell before too long: Alan Smith.

Flush with cash from the surprising sale of Andrew Johnson to Fulham, David Moyes is apparently preparing to make a second bizarre move, turning to Smith as a replacement - presumably under the mistaken impression that he's a goalscorer. I'd be more than happy to see the back of him - he may be "a smashing lad", Kev, but that doesn't really count for much. We've seen precious little of his fabled work ethic, and it's a bit much praising his versatility, saying "he can play in a lot of positions", when he's equally shite in all of them. A fee of £2m would represent a substantial loss on what we shelled out for him last summer, but it would at least get his hefty salary off the wage bill. The question is: are Everton that desperate?

Meanwhile there's still no confirmation that Fabricio Coloccini has signed - another deal that can't be completed a moment too soon...

Wingers and a prayer?

Time for a quick round-up of our recent pre-season friendly action, but truth be told there's precious little good news to report.

In the wake of the 1-0 defeat to Doncaster Rovers, we slumped to two more carbon-copy losses in Mallorca Summer Cup, the first to Hertha Berlin and the second to the hosts, shorn of key strikers and looking utterly clueless in forward areas. Particularly poor was Alan Smith, who featured in both games but clearly had no idea he may well be in the shop window (see above). At least Jonas Gutierrez made his belated debut against the German side, performing effectively if not spectacularly, before sitting out the contest with his former club.

Wednesday's 2-2 draw at home to Champions League regulars PSV Eindhoven was a marked improvement, with Steven Taylor and Danny Guthrie putting us two up after just eight minutes before our opponents recovered themselves to draw level. While last season Keegan's hand was forced into playing three strikers and no wingers, a formation which was rightly hailed as the key to keeping us safe, against PSV circumstances meant we lined up with no strikers and six midfielders, three of whom were wingers - Damien Duff and a particularly lively James Milner leading the line, with only Gutierrez in his natural position.

Pre-season fixtures are traditionally a time to experiment with players and formations, but trying to guess the line-up for our opening fixture at Old Trafford in just over a week's time - or even for tomorrow's final friendly at home to Valencia - is impossible...

Dream team

Tonight I went through something that's been a pre-season ritual for a few years now: picking a team to compete against the other half of Black & White & Read All Over and others in a Daily Torygraph fantasy football superleague.

As ever, I've stuck to my own three self-imposed principles. The first two? No one from Man Utd, the Smogs or the Mackems (as if the latter would ever have any players you'd want to choose anyway), and a minimum of two of our own players. Alan Shearer always used to be the first name on the teamsheet, but since his retirement the decisions have been harder.

Last year I had a rush of blood to the head and chose ASBO, with Obafemi Martins up front. This year I'm pinning my hopes on Little Saint Mick continuing where he left off at the end of last season (oh to have Fernando Torres alongside him in real life, too...) and the wild card that is Jonas Gutierrez, who at £3.5m is our costliest midfielder.

You may be wondering what the third principle is - well, it's that under no circumstances whatsoever should one of the Newcastle players in question be a defender (or Shay Given, for that matter). Tellingly, our most popular defender in the Torygraph's stats is Steven Taylor, currently picked by only 0.49% of participants. Just to put that into context, Andy O'Brien is on 0.68%. Worse still, Titus Shambles (0.31%) has been selected more often than both Abdoulaye Faye and Claudio Cacapa put together (0.15% and 0.14% respectively). Not just us who has little faith in the resilience of our back line, then...

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

A Month Of Saturdays: July 2008

It was quite fitting in a month when the papers and internet were abuzz with talk of the Caped Crusader's return to the silver screen in 'The Dark Knight' that Kevin Keegan should come to the conclusion our squad could do with a superhero and duly make Spiderman our first major signing of the summer.

An Argentinian winger bought from Real Mallorca for an undisclosed fee rumoured to be anything up to around £10m, Spidey - Jonas Gutierrez to his parents - has earned his nickname by virtue of celebrating his rare goals in the Spanish league by whipping a mask out of his socks. Rather unusually in these days of endless media speculation, the move seemed to come out of the blue - an irony that there was precious little on the web to suggest Spiderman's arrival was imminent, perhaps?

The move prompted the BBC website to trot out a piece assessing how our previous South American imports had fared - it's a wonder Julio Geordio didn't feature. Fingers crossed Gutierrez is more Robledo and Nobby than Cordone or, worse still, Fumaca...

But, just as in 'The Dark Knight' Batman was upstaged by the villain of the piece, a deranged lunatic who seems to enjoy causing chaos just for kicks, so was Spiderman overshadowed by our very own one-man tornado of trouble. The player known round these parts as ASBO or latterly Porridge - Joseph Anthony Barton to his parents and the law courts - earned his nicknames by virtue of being a vicious little toerag who spent most of the month behind bars following his conviction for assault.

While pleasuring Her Majesty in Strangeways (not an image you wanted, I suspect), Barton received a further four month suspended sentence for his attack on former Man City team-mate Ousmane Dabo. Things didn't get much better for him when he was once again at large, either: though Keegan disappointingly pledged "to give him another chance and back him", within two days of his release he'd lost his £40,000 boot sponsorship deal with Nike and been charged by the FA for the Dabo incident.

Deliberately sidelining him when he's on £60,000 a week would, I admit, be cutting off our nose to spite our face - but then why not sack him to get him off the wage bill altogether? C'mon Mike - give him a canoe, point him in the direction of Panama and tell him to do the decent thing.

Amidst all the brouhaha surrounding Barton, it may have escaped the casual observer's attention that Gutierrez wasn't the only new face at St James's in July. At first sight, neither hardworking but essentially prosaic Liverpool midfielder Danny Guthrie nor the similarly unproven Metz central defender Sebastien Bassong exactly fit the bill of what we need, but let's just hope they turn out to be quite the dynamic duo.

Gutierrez's arrival inevitably resulted in speculation about the futures of our other three first team wingers. You suspect it wouldn't take much (a firm bid from Arsenal, for instance) to have Charles N'Zogbia forgetting all about professing to be perfectly happy on Tyneside, while when the summer's most tediously drawn-out transfer - Gareth Barry to Liverpool - finally goes through, the Milner-to-Villa rumours are likely to follow soon after. Damien Duff, for his part, briefly hinted he might rise to the challenge posed by the newcomer by scoring a hat-trick in a friendly against the Monkey Hangers, but seems to have been lazily content to bask in the glow of Keegan's post-match praise ever since. A (Blackburn) Rovers return may yet be on the cards.

Still, at least he found the back of the net. If our pre-season preparations have been characterised by anything, it's by a conspicuous lack of strikers. Of the "big three" who helped fire us to safety last season just when things were looking sticky, the biggest (Mark Viduka) has been injured, the most unpredictable (Obafemi Martins) back in Nigeria following the death of his mother, and the most prolific (Michael Owen) both struggling for fitness and embroiled in contract intrigue. Negotiations have dragged on into August without a resolution in sight.

One of the most persistent rumours of the month was that, barely a year after taking charge, Mike Ashley was ready to sell up - rumours he and the club have repeatedly sought to quash, sometimes with wry good humour. Meanwhile Fat Fred was trying to get back into football, but ultimately found himself frustrated in his attempt to buy a controlling share in Real Mallorca. No wonder Spiderman was so keen to get away - that would have been a dark night indeed...

Monday, August 04, 2008

Reinforcing our rear guard

After waiting all summer for some defensive reinforcements, it now appears that we have two new arrivals to get excited about.

The first is Sebastien Bassong, who has joined us after a brief spell on trial, from our old UEFA Cup foes Metz. He’s young, left footed, and plays centre-half, and from the quotes appearing in the press, is prepared to work hard to earn a place in the first team. Precisely the sort of player who will bring increasing depth, and hopefully greater competition and improved standards, to our first team.

The second, after much to-ing and fro-ing would appear to be Fabricio Coloccini, with reports now emanating to suggest that a fee has been agreed with Deportivo for the Argentine’s services. Keegan seems suitably pleased, and if he can follow in the footsteps of some of his compatriots in terms of taking to the Premiership, then we could well have acquired the tough tackling defensive colossus we’ve been craving (no pressure!).

Having said that, quotes by Keegan suggesting that "He’s played for Argentina – and not many bad players play for Argentina" rather imply that he wasn’t watching Newcastle when Christian Bassedas was singularly underwhelming us with performances in midfield, and makes me worry as to how many of Coloccini's performances he's actually witnessed.

What we do still need, and our performances in pre-season have only underlined this fact, is a creative central midfielder, something the club have reportedly acknowledged, if the Chronicle’s comment about Per Ciljan Skjelbred is to be believed.

I’ll be honest, he isn’t a player I know a great deal about, although, a quick read of the player’s Wikipedia entry makes me wonder whether the player’s agent might have written it…

Friday, August 01, 2008

Sweet FA

The ASBO saga just runs and runs, doesn't it?

Released from chokey on Tuesday to be assured he still had a future on Tyneside, yesterday he discovered Nike were cancelling his £40,000 boot sponsorship deal. Oh the ignominy of having a company with an appalling record in terms of labour conditions taking the moral high ground and looking down on you judgementally...

Then the saga lurched into yet another round today, with the news that the FA have now charged him for the assault on Ousmane Dabo. The courts gave him a four month suspended sentence, but it seems further footballing punishment in terms of a ban and/or fine could follow.

Understandably, noses have been put out of joint at St James's Park, with a club statement reading: "The club has sought clarification from the Football Association as to why this decision has been reached now, given the incident occurred nearly 15 months ago". And when he was in the employ of another club, it might have added. The FA are claiming they couldn't do anything until the criminal proceedings were wrapped up, but then they rarely move fast on anything.

But to be honest, I'm happy at the prospect - the more time ASBO's forcibly sidelined and unable to play for us the better.