Friday, May 27, 2011

View from the Home End: looking forwards

A second season of top-flight football successfully secured - though not without a few thrills and spills along the way - and we now find ourselves at a crossroads: do we invest in new players who can help us to push on towards a top-ten finish next season, or do we keep the purse-strings tight and the bank manager happy but run a greater risk of relegation?

As Paul pointed out in his end-of-season review, for a variety of reasons twelfth place was essentially achieved with the addition of just one player to the squad which lifted last season's Championship trophy: Mr T. Might that fact make Jabba less inclined to get out the chequebook, despite Alan Pardew's pleas for players? I'd agree with the manager that the current squad has, by and large, done a sterling job, but in football (as in most things) if you stand still for too long, you'll soon find yourself going backwards. With all those around us likely to improve their squads, we surely can't gamble on lightning striking twice.

Certainly Pardew doesn't think so, underlining our need for quality, particularly in creative areas. While he'll be able to welcome Hatem Ben Arfa back in pre-season, this also explains our attempts to woo the Zog back to Tyneside. It'll be interesting to see what happens if (or, more likely, when) someone tries to prise Adel Taarabt away from newly promoted QPR, but one player who should definitely be on our radar in this respect is Niko Kranjcar. The midfielder has found himself in the shadow of fellow Croatian Luka Modric at Spurs, and out of favour with his manager - so the prospect of regular first-team football would, you hope, appeal. Kranjcar's team-mate David Bentley is probably also available for a knock-down fee, but he didn't exactly pull up any trees when handed a great opportunity to kickstart his career at Birmingham.

We could also perhaps take a serious look at another Spurs player, Jermain Defoe, who has been forced out of regular action by 'Appy 'Arry's determination to construct his team around Rafael van der Vaart. A proportion of the Rocky cash has to be invested in a new striker, but we don't necessarily need someone in the same mould - in Big Lad and Leon Best we already have target men, albeit markedly less effective ones. What we could actually use is a quick, nippy, goal-getting striker in the mould of Andy Cole, ex-Mackem Darren Bent and two of this season's surprise hits, Javier Hernandez and Peter Odemwingie, to contribute 15 a season. Defoe would fit the bill perfectly, though he wouldn't come as cheap as Jabba would like. Reading's Shane Long, with whom we've been linked, would be a cheaper alternative, but the Irishman is as yet untried at Premier League level and might prefer to stay with the Royals if they win promotion by beating Swansea in Monday's play-off final.

If that does come to pass, then we could do worse than look at one or two Swans players - Scott Sinclair and Ashley Williams in particular. Staying in South Wales, it won't have escaped the club's attention that Cardiff striker Jay Bothroyd (who could perhaps do a passable impression of Rocky) has been released, along with winger Chris Burke, in the wake of their play-off exit.

As ever, the vultures will be circling around the three relegated clubs, and we shouldn't be any exception (even if we do appear to be focusing our scouting efforts on France and the Netherlands in the hope of picking up quality imports on the cheap). On the one hand, it might look like cheap opportunism, kicking West Ham, Birmingham and Blackpool while they're down - but in actual fact, their predicament is such that all three will be grateful just to get some of their highest earners and most profitable assets sold, even if that's for less than they might have liked. The cream of the crop - namely Scott Parker and Charlie Adam - are out of our reach, while given our relative riches between the sticks, it would be wasteful to splash out on either Rob Green or Ben Foster, decent 'keepers though they are.

The Hammers have a few players who might expect to find Premier League homes for next season - Demba Ba, Thomas Hitzlsperger, Mark Noble, Frederic Piquionne, Carlton Cole. Personally, though, I'd hope we might train our attention on Birmingham centre-back Roger Johnson (ahead of Matthew Upson). Steven Taylor has probably played himself into a starting position for the opening fixture of the new season, partnering Sideshow Bob ahead of Mike Williamson, but another commanding and assured defender (albeit one who's not enjoyed the best of campaigns, deprived of regular companion Scott Dann) would be a useful addition. There's a chance we'll follow up our interest in free agent Sebastien Larsson, too. Just as long as we don't have to welcome Stephen Carr or Lee Bowyer - or Kieron Dyer, for that matter - back to St James' Park...

So much for strengthening the squad - it's worth pointing out that just keeping hold of what we've already got will be a potentially more significant challenge. Bids seem imminent for Jose Enrique, while the more admirers Mr T amasses the more savvy (if cynical) getting him to sign a six-and-a-half-year deal in February seems. And now ASBO has dropped the bombshell that contract negotiations have broken down, so we can expect him either to leave on a free or (more likely) in a cut-price deal this summer.

I don't accept the argument that, in view of Rocky's sale, we're now a selling club - that was a truly exceptional case in which we managed to drive the fee up to a level which no club could have sensibly refused. However, if any of this trio are allowed to leave without much of a fight, then I'll be joining Enrique and ASBO in questioning the club's ambition. I don't think we could begrudge Enrique or Mr T a move to a top-six side - both have been tremendous this season - but that doesn't mean I wouldn't be deeply disappointed to see it happen. By contrast, it would be no great loss if the likes of Ryan Taylor and James Perch followed Shefki Kuqi and Sol Campbell out of the door.

In addition to trying to bring in reinforcements without losing the current foundations and load-bearing pillars of the team, Pardew also faces a very difficult decision as regards which 'keeper should be Steve Harper's understudy and which should go out on loan. The later stages of the Chelsea game indicated that we have sufficient talented, young outfield players to be optimistic about the future, but they would all benefit from regular game-time for a lower league outfit. Pardew agrees, so it's really just a question of destination. The general destination of the club may depend on them in the long term, but in the short it's down to Jabba.




Anonymous PJ said...

I think it's far better to get another good season out of Barton than sell him for a measly 2-3mil. Could help us be much further up the table & we don't need the cash (for now). Also think we should take Ireland (free agent) back if not injured, his quality is undeniable. Niko's a good call but he'll be taken by Villa/Everton before we get a shot & we need strikers more desperately. Shudder when I hear mentions of Gervinho - another high priced french failure in the offing!

8:43 a.m.  

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