Monday, May 10, 2010

Bargain hunt

With our successful Championship winning season already confined to the history books, the challenge now for Chris Hughton is how to move the squad forward and prepare for the forthcoming Premier League season (which lest we forget starts in 96 days).

Off the pitch, as January showed, and the latest club statement backs up, it looks like Jabba is finally learning his lesson, and keeping his head down and running the club on a sounder (i.e. less reckless) basis than his predecessor, whilst also returning to life as the reclusive business man who bought the club three years ago. If the figures permit, then a bit of sensible investment to freshen the squad and a sprinkling of some more quality (without a return to the days of star signings and terrible team spirit) should be enough to keep us afloat in the Premier League - something which clubs like Wolves, Stoke and Birmingham have demonstrated is eminently possible in recent seasons.

I actually find it reassuring to see that we now have a five-year plan to bring the deficit down and run the club at break-even. To be honest, I can't help feeling that's how every football club should be run, and the reality is that this has needed to happen for a long time.

Of course, the question of available funds is an interesting one. The statement says that "there is no plan for new capital outlay on players". That's not the same as saying we won't be making any signings, but does suggest (and it is only a suggestion, because the sentence merely highlights there is "no plan") that any signings will presumably need to be funded from income (either player sales, or possibly revenue from Sky, shirt sales, season tickets, etc.) or be free transfers.

All of which translates to the club saying Jabba isn't going to splash his personal cash a la Roman Abramovich or put us in hock with a massive loan from the bank to buy a injury-prone striker from Real Madrid. Quelle surprise. To be fair, I don't think any of us anticipated, or wanted, a summer of marquee signings anyway.

However, it may be that Chris Hughton has, or can generate, a small pot of cash to play with - or has to make do with free transfers and loans. Either way, I'm assuming there is, or will at some point be, some new faces arriving and I now turn to look at which areas need strengthening (and for that matter, which players might be moved on to generate some more cash).

Goalkeeper

The challenge here is that caused by an embarrassment of riches - with Steve Harper, Tim Krul and Fraser Forster all representing assets worth preserving. Harper, as the elder statesman, undoubtedly proved his worth both on and off the pitch last season, and with relatively few games under his belt, could well be expected to display an impressive degree of longevity between the posts. He will surely start the new season as the man in possession of the gloves.

Behind him stand the imposing figures of Krul and Forster - both young, both talented and highly rated and both hoping for their chance to shine. The question is how to keep everyone happy? Whilst Forster enjoyed a league-winning season of his own on loan at Norwich, it remains to be seen whether he is given an opportunity to go back there, or alternatively whether further suitors come calling for him, or for Krul (who has previously enjoyed loan spells north of the border).

What is undoubtedly clear is that, even if one of the two youngsters is allowed out on loan, we shouldn't contemplate selling either of them.

Defence

The first and undoubtedly biggest question facing Hughton is what to do with Steven Taylor. With the player only having one year left on his contract, it's a case of sign him up for a longer stay or sell him now rather than risk him leaving on the cheap in January or for nothing next year. If Taylor is willing to stay, then that presumably answers the question of whether he can stand to play alongside Bigger Lad - all good. If he won't sign a contract, or if he insists on one of them leaving, then it will presumably be farewell to our number 27. Then we'll need to find some cover (albeit we should get a decent amount of cash for the player, even in these austere times).

Regardless of whether or not Taylor stays, of our remaining defenders it seems to me that the only ones we should definitely keep are Enrique, Coloccini and Williamson. Enrique has proven to be a class above anything in the Championship, and with the added experience, will I'm sure be comfortable in the top flight. Coloccini too looked a step above those around him last season, and should hopefully have learned a great deal about the physicality of English football. Of course, if a good offer came in for our Argentine centre-half, then I'm sure it would be considered, but chances are he'll stay. Williamson looked a shrewd purchase in January, and he's settled nicely into the team, and deserves the chance he never got at Pompey of experiencing the Premier League.

Danny Simpson is another who I am sure will be with us as the season starts. Now much as I like the player, and his commitment and versatility have both proved their worth since he arrived on loan from Old Trafford, there nonetheless remain some question marks over his ability to hack it at the top. However, he's the man in possession, and if nothing else provides good cover, so should stay.

However, beyond the five mentioned above, resources remain stretched at the back. Fitz Hall has now gone back to QPR, and apart from Tamas Kadar and Ryan Taylor, we're struggling for numbers. Kadar, to me, looks like a player who would benefit hugely from a season on loan in the Championship, and, whilst Ryan Taylor remains game, he is very much one for the bench rather than a certain starter (in defence or midfield).

The reality is that the squad still lacks sufficient full-back cover, and a decent right-back looks to me to be a priority, but with our retaining Simpson (and probably Ryan Taylor) as cover for both full-back positions. If Steven Taylor goes then a centre-half becomes an essential, and even if he stays, a further centre-half remains fairly high up the wish list (particularly if Kadar is allowed out on loan).

If the financial position doesn't allow the purchase of a further centre-half, then we'll presumably look to keep Kadar, and/or pick up cover on loan when necessary (much as we did last season with Fitz Hall and Patrick Van Aanholt).

Midfield

With Spidermag and Routledge down the flanks, our first team looks like one which will cause problems for most Premier League defences, particularly as both are now capable of hitting a decent cross. Beyond them, we've got players like Guthrie, ASBO, Ryan Taylor and potentially Peter Lovenkrands who can do a job, or Kazenga LuaLua (who to me would benefit from a further loan period away this season). Fabrice Pancrate has now gone, but his limited involvement shows that he's not really been required, so unless anyone further departs, I don't expect to see us signing wingers this summer.

In the centre, Nicky Butt's retirement creates an opening in the squad (and presumably frees up some slack in the wage bill), and whilst we still have Guthrie, Smith, Nolan and ASBO available, there's a strong argument for adding at least one extra body to give competition for places. Ideally, we'd add a combative ball winner to the mix to sure up our midfield and cover the defence. Smith might have been adept at doing that job in the Championship, but we've no cover if he gets injured (and I'm not convinced he's all that great in the position, anyway).

On the front foot, Nolan and ASBO have both previously demonstrated their ability to play in the Premiership, whilst Guthrie's form and improvement suggests that he could soon mature into the player Keegan thought he could become two years ago when he signed him. Added to all that is the young talent of Haris Vuckic, who is tipped for big things and should get more game time next season (and is one of the few youngsters I don't think we should send out on loan next season).

Attack

If history has taught us anything it is that prolific scorers in the Championship are not always capable of making the step up. Think Robert Earnshaw, Sylvain Ebanks-Blake and Michael Chopra.

At Championship level Bigger Lad and Peter Lovenkrands have shown a terrific ability to get goals and establish themselves as our first choice pairing - but will they be able to transfer that form to the next level and score the goals which will keep us up?

Having seen his star rise brightly, Bigger Lad deserves his chance to try and fill the boots of our former Number 9s (even if he doesn't inherit that particular shirt number this summer). With his aerial prowess, and some good crosses/dead ball delivery, he should prove a handful whoever he's up against, and for that reason is definitely one to keep (particularly if he can learn to kick with his right foot).

Under Glenn Roeder, Big Lad showed that he could be a goalscorer in the Premier League, and JFK saw him as the spiritual successor to John Fashanu (Awooga!), so, as understudy to Bigger Lad, he will probably also stay - although a good offer from a Championship side needing a striker to get them promoted (e.g. Swansea) should not be rebuffed out of hand.

Lovenkrands' pace, versatility and eye for goal should also see the Dane remain, but beyond those three the picture is far from clear.

Whilst last season was a great one for Bigger Lad's development, Nile Ranger saw his chances become increasingly limited as the season wore on, and like the players mentioned above would, for me, benefit greatly from first-team football at a lower level on loan.

Which leaves Leon Best. Signed from Coventry in January, Best's failure to score is probably playing on his mind more than it is on most, and there has to be a serious question mark as to whether he can cut it in the Premier League. I hope he proves me wrong, but I've yet to see anything in him to suggest that we shouldn't look to move him on this summer. Like Shola, I'm sure once he finds his feet he'll score goals in the Championship, as he proved at Coventry before we signed him, but I seriously doubt he's going to give Premier League defenders too many headaches.

In any event, if we're to stay up we're going to need to score goals and if we can find one then a "proven Premier League striker" should be snapped up - ideally one with pace who can dovetail with Bigger Lad.


In a nutshell I'd like to see us sign: a full-back, a centre-back, a defensive midfielder and a striker.

As to who we sign, looking at the teams coming down, Jamie O'Hara has stood out for Pompey in a losing cause (albeit himself a loanee from Spurs), and on the subject of Spurs loanees, Robbie Keane may well be available after his stint at Celtic. Whether Chris Hughton can use his Spurs connections to do a deal on the pair remains to be seen (not least because of the likely costs of the pair, and the fact that Spurs' increased fixture list as a result of their European participation might see them happy to retain an inflated squad), but both would add some quality to our squad.

Realistically, if we are to entertain thoughts of signing one or both of them on a permanent basis I'd expect Steven Taylor to be sold to raise the cash (in the same way that Gullit had to sell Steve Watson).

There's also been some mention in the press of Hull's Jimmy Bullard - who might be a decent addition but can hardly be said to have age on his side, and his fitness record at Hull has seemed somewhat patchy.

Alternatively, Pompey's Tal Ben Haim or Papa Bouba Diop might be solid acquisitions (and with the administrator still in place, might be available for comparatively small sums).

However, with a World Cup approaching, perhaps we can look to Ol' Cauliflower Face's example and look to some of the smaller nations for their shining lights. Whichever way they go though, the suspicion is that on a relatively tight wage structure, and presumably with limit scouting resources, it's going to be a busy summer for Hughton and team. Even if we keep the changes to a relative minimum, the reality is that we need to increase the competition for places in certain areas, and add greater quality wherever possible, without returning to the dark days of marquee signings and no concept of team-building. Thankfully, Fat Fred has gone, and for all his failings Jabba doesn't look like repeating that particular error of judgement.

On that subject, I welcome the club commitment that the board will not be providing copy for the media. How long have we yearned for those days? We'll have to wait and see if Llambiarse can restrain himself, but from my perspective a departure from the days when the director's comments made us a laughing stock can only be a good thing.

Chris Hughton may not be the most flamboyant man in the world, but for now at least he looks to have his head screwed on. His challenge is whether he can show the club as being sufficiently alluring to attract the players he wants to bolster the squad, without buggering the team spirit which has proved so beneficial in our swift return to the top flight.

As Wigan and Stoke demonstrated yesterday, the gulf to the top of the Premiership is a wide one. However, our top priority for next season is 17th or better. We don't have to beat Chelsea home and away to do that, but we do need to ensure that we can take points off the clubs in the bottom half of the league. A win is still only worth three points, whoever it comes against. You can read the club statement as an exercise in pissing on our chips before any of us get at all excited about next season. Or you can read it as a pragmatic approach to show that at long last we're moving towards a position of financial recovery.

It's a little bit like the state of the nation. It isn't going to be pretty, but for the state of the finances belt-tightening is still a necessary evil. It's a pretty bitter pill to have to swallow, but if it rights the ship financially, and if (and it's a really big IF) we can stay up next year, then we might just be back on track.

For now though, we can only wish Chris Hughton well, as he scrambles through the bargain bins looking to bolster the squad this summer.
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2 Comments:

Blogger Mr Lonely said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

9:33 pm  
Blogger Ben said...

The whole debate over what exactly "no new capital outlay" means just goes to show that the statement supposedly clarifying our position has actually had the opposite effect. Typical Newcastle: even when the hierarchy attempt to make themselves clear they manage to confuse and confound.

The bottom line, as far as I'm concerned, is that we need four or five quality additions to the squad (and that's without losing anyone) to be able to stand a good chance of not making an immediate return to the Championship. I doubt very much that we can fulfil all our needs through free transfers, so money will have to be found from somewhere and spent wisely.

I'm all for the club operating within its means and promoting local talent, but it's worth stressing that relegation would be a financial cataclysm in itself so speculating to accumulate (within reason) would seem to me to be the prudent thing for the long-term health of the club.

2:02 am  

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