Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Best buys and fantastic flops

Over the past decade legions of players have come and gone - some making a significant impression and carving out a lasting place for themselves in our hearts, others whose departures were cause for street parties. Here we salute ten of our best signings during that period, and shake our fist at five of the worst.

Ten of the best

Tim Krul

Poor Steve Harper. No sooner had the perennial benchwarmer seen Shay Given finally crack and move to Man City, than the place between the sticks that he'd waited so long and so patiently for was under threat from some upstart young kid from the Netherlands.

Of the decision to award the 17-year-old Tim Krul a three-year contract in July 2005, I commented that it "suggests he's a fine prospect - though, of course, astute judgement isn't always something you associate with Souness and Shepherd". But even a stopped clock tells the right time twice a day, and sure enough a stunning debut against Palermo in the Europa League vindicated the club's faith.

It was to be a few years before he established himself as our first-choice 'keeper, but he's now a vital component of the team, as important on some occasions as our strikers - just recall his sensational performance in last season's visit to White Hart Lane. If only all our youthful recruits and Academy graduates went on to be such an unmitigated success... (Ben)

Nobby Solano (aka Everyone's Favourite Peruvian Trumpet-Playing Love Rat)

I love Nobby. I loved him the first time he played for us - all those magnificent curling balls with the outside of his right foot. His energy, his enthusiasm, his creative guile. I was absolutely gutted when Sir Bobby allowed him to go to Villa.

So when Grim Sourness brought him back on deadline day in 2005, notionally to provide a steady supply to Little Saint Mick, it was no surprise that he once again became a fixture in the side. As his career began to wane, he also turned himself into a reliable right-back.

I love Nobby for his trumpet playing, for his warm smile, for that fact that as a national hero. Am I jealous that the other half of this blog even got to shake his hand? Yes, I bloody well am. (Paul)

Antoine Sibierski

When Antoine Sibierski crept through the door in 2006, it's fair to say we were underwhelmed, unable to comprehend how and where the Frenchman would fit into our side. He looked like the footballing equivalent of an encounter in a nightclub at five minutes to 2am, with Glenn Roeder desperately grabbing the only person available after everyone else had made off with superficially more appealing options.

However, what we found was a player who stepped up to the plate in impressive fashion, scoring regularly as we enjoyed a Europa Cup run and endearing himself to us all with his hard running and commitment.  When he left a year later, he did so with little fanfare, but with our full respect. (Paul)

Fabriccio Coloccini (aka Sideshow Bob)

When Sideshow Bob made his competitive debut for us, as Kevin Keegan oversaw a creditable draw at Old Trafford (which what was probably the high point of the disastrous 2008/09 season), I described him as looking "strong and composed".

In fact, as the season wore on, our Argentinian centre-half struggled. He looked out of his depth and was part of a defence which struggled for consistency. Earmarked for departure by Shearer, it was something of a surprise that he was still with us when our season in the Championship began, but along with Jose Enrique, both players blossomed that season, their superior class and composure allowing them to grow and settle in English football, which meant that when we stormed back in to the Premier League both were able to soar.  While Enrique flew the coop, Sideshow Bob remains, and despite some off-field difficulties, he has remained loyal to the club (way more than many of his peers would have done in the circumstances).

While he may not be quite as good as Jonathan Woodgate (and that's a pub argument that can fill a evening in itself), his fitness record and longevity see him rightly hailed as one of the finest defenders to ever play centre-half for us. (Paul)

Cheik Tiote (aka Mr T)

Not only was Mr T a significant upgrade on Alan Smith, he was exactly half the price. The Ivorian signed from FC Twente for the bargain fee of £3.5m in August 2010 and, together with Sideshow Bob, ensured our newly promoted side had some serious backbone and never flirted with the prospect of returning back to the Championship.

His lust for a crunching tackle has regularly earned him a special place in referees' notebooks - he notched up an incredible 25 bookings in 50 league games over his first two seasons at the club, and received red cards against the Mackems and (more costly) Stevenage - but, when correctly channelled, that aggression has been instrumental in breaking up opposition attacks and driving us forwards.

His fierce commitment to the cause has endeared him to the Toon faithful, even if his habit of pirouetting in possession on the edge of his own area regularly has our hearts in our mouths. In 2012/13, he didn't enjoy the best of campaigns, but then who of our players did? Anyone who can both seal the most extraordinary comeback in Premier League history and help the disabled to walk for the first time is clearly capable of being a miracle worker. (Ben)

James Perch (aka Perchinho)

There was a time when we regularly bemoaned Perchinho's name appearing on a Newcastle team sheet.  Bookings in the first five consecutive Premier League games he played (a league record) only gave weight to the belief that he was out of his depth.

But he kept plugging away, working hard in training and as a result became a player we could all appreciate. Perchinho knew he wasn't the most creative player on the park, but equally he knew his role was a key one within the team. Whether at right-back, centre-back or in midfield, he always gave the best performance he could manage, and in that sense he was an easy player to relate to. He's the journeyman player who worked hard and made his way to the top - not through outrageous flair, but sheer bloodymindedness and hard graft. He's you, or me, if only we'd been spotted when we were younger. As such, when he left, it was with our best wishes and thanks for a job done as well as we could have done, in his position. (Paul)

Hatem Ben Arfa (aka HBA)

First there was David Ginola, then Laurent Robert, and then, in August 2010 (initially on loan), HBA. All Gallic geniuses who could be frustratingly inconsistent, temperamental, lazy and sulky but who were blessed with sublime skill and outrageous ability. And HBA arguably has the most sublime skill and most outrageous ability of the lot.

A wonderful winner at Goodison Park on his first start for the club promised much, but then Nigel de Jong intervened and it wasn't until the following season, a permanent deal having been struck in January 2011, that we were able to see him in action again. His form over the second half of that campaign was nothing short of electrifying, and he scored two of the most sensational goals I've ever had the pleasure to witness, first against Blackburn in an FA Cup tie and later against Bolton in a routine home league win.

HBA has never quite reached those levels again since then, but he remains an exceptionally talented footballer. Unfairly scapegoated and sidelined by a manager who, like many before him, has found his psychological fragility difficult to engage with, HBA looks set to leave St James' Park this summer - the place will be much the poorer without him. (Ben)

Yohan Cabaye (aka Dreamboat)

You don't know what you've got until it's gone, they say. And they're certainly right when it comes to Dreamboat, whose absence was keenly felt from the moment he left to join PSG in January.

Rewind two and a half years. The internationally capped captain of the recently crowned French double winners available for under £4.5m - surely it was too good to be true? Not so, as was subsequently proven by a campaign in which he was instrumental in us so very nearly claiming a Champions League spot. The following season was more of a struggle in terms of form and fitness, but by the time of his departure he had once again reasserted himself as the man who made us tick, a complete midfielder who could do pretty much everything - score a goal, pick a pass, win a tackle - all the while looking rogueishly handsome.

Two goals and a man-of-the-match-winning performance at Upton Park was a fine way to sign off, though the winner at Old Trafford and another superb display at Selhurst Park are also still fresh in the memory as we continue to rue his loss and the damage it inflicted on our season. (Ben)

Demba Ba

Deadline day in August 2011, and Paul voiced the frustration and anger felt by ourselves and thousands of fans that, seven months after flogging Rocky to Liverpool, we still hadn't secured a replacement. As it turned out, we had, a couple of months earlier.

Demba Ba may have arrived (on HBA's recommendation) to little fanfare and for no fee, but he soon set about proving his value. Not only did he plunder a total of 29 goals in 54 appearances for the club, including hat-tricks against Blackburn and Stoke, the latter having rejected him on medical grounds; he also proved accommodating when Papiss Cisse's arrival in January 2012 necessitated a change of formation.

As with Dreamboat, Ba's departure (in January 2013, to Chelsea, after 'Appy 'Arry had made public the existence of a release clause in his contract) wrecked our campaign, but I don't think we could seriously begrudge him a move to a side with realistic trophy ambitions. The only people who could be legitimately aggrieved at his decision were those local shopkeepers who'd bought tons of strawberry syrup to sell to fans wanting to emulate their hero, and whoever thought it would be wise to use him as the face of January in the official 2013 club calendar... (Ben)

Loic Remy

A French-born striker who impressed with a London club but who couldn't quite single-handedly save them from relegation? For Demba Ba, read Loic Remy. We've had some duff loan forwards over the last decade - Shefki Kuqi, Giuseppe Rossi (now a mainstay of the Italian national squad) and most recently Luuk de Jong - but Remy certainly doesn't fall into that category.

After snubbing us in January 2013 in preference for a higher salary at Loftus Road, we argued that he had some work to do to win the fans' forgiveness upon signing the following August  - but he did so in some style, scoring 14 times, including five in a four-game spell in September/October and a further three in three in November. Our second-half-of-the-season slump (and chronic inability to score) coincided not only with Dreamboat's departure but with Remy's struggles with injury and suspension. How our season might have turned out without him doesn't bear thinking about.

Any player who arrives at St James' Park with a rape charge hanging over him (subsequently dropped) and who is involved in a motoring incident within a couple of months of being on Tyneside would seem tailor-made for us, but sadly it looks as though the man named as NUST's Player of the Year will be plying his trade elsewhere next season. (Ben)

Five of the worst

Jean-Alain Boumsong

Believe it or not, Jean-Alain Boumsong made a reasonable enough start to his Newcastle career upon arrival in January 2005. Indeed, he was arguably the only player to emerge from the wreckage of our heavy FA Cup semi-final defeat that year with any credit; his slip may have gifted Man Utd a lead from which they never looked back, but at times he was like King Canute in the face of a red-shirted tide.

2005/6 was a very different story, though, and before long he was making Titus Bramble look like Mr Reliable and prompting comparisons to Marcelino, arguably the most humiliating thing that can happen to any Newcastle player, despite inexplicably continuing to feature in the French squad.

What made matters worse was that Souness had shelled out £8m for a player who had cost Rangers nothing just six months earlier, and when - to our disbelief - Italian giants Juventus swooped for him, it represented a £4.7m loss over the course of just a year and a half. We weren't the only ones to smell something fishy about the original deal - Lord Stevens did too... (Ben)

Michael Owen (aka Little Saint Mick)

I was seriously deliberating whether Little Saint Mick should feature in the "ten of the best" list. After all, at the time (August 2005), bringing England's top striker back to the country from Real Madrid when he should have been at the peak of his abilities looked like a major coup, even for a record fee - and it wasn't just Fat Fred, Souness or Newcastle fans who felt that way. Indeed there were promising signs early in that first season: a 3-0 win at West Brom that suggested he could replicate his old England partnership with Wor Al; a pre-Christmas hat-trick at Upton Park.

But then, at White Hart Lane, came the injury that was to rule him out for the rest of the domestic season, a 28-minute cameo against Birmingham in the penultimate game aside. Much worse was to follow, though. Desperate to play in that summer's World Cup in Germany, he later admitted he was willing to put country before club and take a gamble on his fitness that backfired in spectacular fashion when he sustained anterior cruciate knee ligament damage against Sweden.

We were left to "pick up the pieces", as Fat Fred put it, and Owen was never quite the same again. He managed just 79 appearances over the course of four seasons (albeit scoring 30 goals in the process), drawing a huge salary all the while, before slinking off to the Man Utd bench in 2009 after our relegation and the expiry of his contract. What really rankles is the way he's not only failed to comprehend the root of the fans' disgruntlement but has sought to belittle, mock and patronise us at every opportunity - most recently this February. Things couldn't have turned much more sour. (Ben)

Albert Luque

Like Little Saint Mick, Albert Luque was one of a raft of signings in the summer of 2005, checking in four days before the former Real Madrid man and Nobby Solano but after Scott Parker and Emre had already got their feet under the table. Like our other acquisition from la Liga, he arrived at a good age, with a considerable reputation and for a hefty premium. And like Little Saint Mick, he too turned out to be an absolute unmitigated disaster.

The reasons for the failure of another signing scrutinised by Lord Stevens are less immediately apparent. Perhaps it was homesickness and an inability to settle in the region; perhaps it was an uncertainty over his best position (wide on the left, behind the strikers, or up front?); most likely, it was an apparent refusal to show any kind of effort or application.

After spurning numerous chances for redemption, he finally ambled off to Ajax in August 2007, leaving only fleeting positive memories: the winner in the Palermo game in which Tim Krul made his debut; the final goal in Wor Al's final match, against the Mackems; and opening the scoring in the great man's testimonial a month later. No one on Tyneside would be prepared to give Luque a testimonial of any kind. (Ben)

Sol Campbell

What's that lumbering over the hill? It's Sol Campbell (or a pale shadow of his former self) looking for one last pay day. In hindsight, we have only ourselves to blame. In our desperation to add an experienced defender to the squad ahead of our return to the top flight, we were seduced by the availability of a one-time England centre-back whom we'd pursued on several occasions previously. For the player's part, the motivation behind finally agreeing to move to Tyneside was both money and, it seems, the influence of his new Geordie bride.

The alarm bells should have been sounded by the fact that he had walked out on fellow Magpies Notts County after just one game, and his commitment to our cause was equally questionable from the very beginning, when he turned up for pre-season training looking like he'd eaten the entire contents of Greggs.

Thankfully Chris Hughton had only signed him on a one-year deal and for no transfer fee - but the £35,000 a week he trousered for doing next to nothing still smarts. We've had other flops who've cost us more, and over a longer period of time, but probably no others who've prompted a fundamental shift in transfer policy. (Ben)

Nile Ranger (aka the Lone Ranger)

The thing that still pisses me off about the Lone Ranger is that he has all this talent, and yet he wasted his time at Newcastle, and continues to waste it after his departure, by being a dick.

Whether it was getting dropped due to his lack of punctuality, writing his name in £20 notes or being prosecuted for a selection of deeply unpleasant misdemeanours, his was the cautionary tale you show to your kids and say: "Whatever he does, do the opposite..."

Since leaving Newcastle he's gone on to fulfil the depressing trajectory which we foresaw. Dropping down the leagues, continuing to come into contact with the law, getting his name tattooed on his own face - it's a sad and sorry saga, which looks like only ever having one end. (Paul)

* * * * *

Update: In compiling the "five of the worst" above, we appear to have forgotten about both striker the Xisco Kid, who cost us £5.7m per goal (or, in other words, £5.7m), and Ignacio Gonzalez, the midfielder brought in on loan at the same time, whose signing proved to be the straw that broke King Kev's back and was (it transpired) an attempt to curry favour with South American agents. But who could blame us for wanting to do that?

For the record, other players we considered featuring included Celestine Babayaro, Alan Smith, David Rozenhal, Joey Barton, Cacapa, Dan Gosling, Shefki Kuqi, Romain Amalfitano and Luuk de Jong.

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