Friday, May 20, 2005

Look back in anger ... and look forwards in trepidation

Oh, do we have to?

OK then, here it is, about as enjoyable a read as Patrick Kielty's autobiography: our assessments of the season, and a look forward to what the summer might bring...

Paul: Right, well what was a pretty dismal season has thankfully now passed into history. Looking back, it's hard to find many positives to take out of the season, but for the sake of balance, I'll try.

Selling Jonathan Woodgate to Real Madrid looked a terrible plan back in August, but seeing as he hasn't played a game of football since, and we got good money for him, I suppose that (grudgingly) I'll give credit to Freddie for taking the money and doing a very shrewd bit of business.

The fact that we then ultimately used the money to sign a player who shows real promise and has actually played consecutive games for us (Boumsong) is also a positive, and his partnership with a newly rejuvenated Titus promises to give us a bit more defensive solidity next season. Couple this with the emergence of Steven Taylor and latterly Peter Ramage from the reserves, and despite our terrible defensive record before Boumsong arrived, I think there are enough positives to look forward to next season with a bit more confidence in our defence. Of course, we could do to add another quality centre-half into the mix, because one thing we have learnt this season is that Andy O'Brien, committed tryer though he undoubtedly is, simply lacks the quality to take us to where we want to be.

The other worry is that with Harper seemingly out of contract in the summer, and Given currently much better than his teammates I wouldn't be surprised to see us start next season with a complete new roster of keepers. Losing Shay (if he goes) would be a real blow, but I wish him every success wherever he is next season, and salute his efforts behind what at times has been a real a bunch of wasters this season.

In midfield, Souness at least managed to spark a bit of a return to form in Jenas (at least before Christmas) and Dyer has finally started scoring with more regularity. The emergence of N'Zogbia is promising, and after an indifferent season Milner has started to raise his performance level, which is good. Whether Ambrose has done enough to stay remains to be seen, but at least there are some signs of new growth coming through.

Upfront, the only positive that I can see is the decision by Shearer to stay for one final year. That said, whether he's made the right decision is one which we'll only be able to answer in twelve months time, but it was noticeable that his performance level seemed to drop once he'd committed to next year. Whether he was saving something to sustain him for one final last hurrah remains to be seen.

Off the pitch, I'm still relatively happy with the appointment of Souness. I fail to see how he could have handled the off-field difficulties any differently and his signings have been decent enough so far. Granted Babyaro has looked a bit slack at times, but hopefully with a decent pre-season under his belt he will hopefully show more promise. It's also worth noting that Bernard has done absolutely sod all since he left.

On the down side, a season that started with so much hope and expectation rapidly descended into farce, and never recovered. The farcical chase for Rooney, when clearly a defender was a much higher priority, and the appallingly timed and handled sacking of Bobby (which ultimatly scuppered the Rooney deal) both left a bad taste in the mouth. Similarly, Freddie Shepherd's insistence on turning himself into the new Peter Ridsdale and giving out quotes to every Fleet Street hack makes me sick to the stomach.

Defensively, we were shocking in the early part of the season, and players like Elliott and O'Brien aren’t of the calibre of players we need if we are to return to challenging at the top of the league, and the sale of Woodgate (good business though it proved) was obviously carried out with no contingency in mind - a terrible footballing decision.

In midfield, Dyer's refusal to play wide right against Boro, and the ensuing Bellamy debacle both stemmed form the mystifying sale of Nobby 18 months ago. The signing of Butt has proved a poor move, with the player obviously not interested in doing anything except lining his wallet. Up until we entertained Villa I would have mentioned Bowyer's return to form as a positive, but his punch-up with Dyer left me absolutely sickened and filled with contempt.

Up front, we've lost our biggest threat to opposing teams (although in terms of dressing room harmony Craig was also probably the biggest threat to that too), which is something of a blow. Kluivert - the most technically gifted player I have ever seen in black and white - proved a dead loss, and Ameobi once again flattered to deceive.

Overall, it's interesting to note that the two players who Bobby didn't want (Kluivert and Butt) clearly haven't performed. Hopefully that'll teach the chairman to mind his own business on the player front, but I doubt it.

As a way of taking things forward, Souness has already said that he'd like to add four or five quality players, and both Robert and Kluivert have said they are leaving. Realistically, we could also do with clearing out Bowyer, Bellamy, Viana, O'Brien and, unless something spectacular happens or there are circumstances that have undermined him this season, Nicky Butt.

In terms of players I'd like to see us sign, I'd love to see us sign Owen, Defoe and William Gallas. However, I don't think we have a cat in hell's chance of convincing any of them to trade what they have for a chance to win the Intertoto Cup.

More realistically, players like Robert Earnshaw, Andy Johnson, Dean Ashton, Wayne Routledge, Scott Parker and potentially Danny Gabbidon may be available, and despite our obvious troubles this season would probably all still welcome the chance to play in front of 52,000 screaming Geordies.

It could well be a long summer, but if we finally have some good luck (and can find people foolish enough to give us money for the lazy troublemakers) we may be able to invest wisely and really bolster the squad ahead of next season. Failure to improve the playing staff will leave us worrying more about getting 40 points than anything else, and that simply isn't good enough.

Ben: And it all started so promisingly too. Well, at least up until Dyer refused to play on the right against Boro on the opening day of the season.

Before that, I think we had good reason to feel optimistic. I felt we'd made four very good summer signings - an extraordinarily talented if occasionally wayward striker (Kluivert), the Spurs captain and full-back (Carr), England's holding midfielder (Butt) and one of the most promising young English prospects around (Milner).

As it turned out, Kluivert, despite scoring a few important goals, strode around lackadaisically, lining his pockets with our cash and his stomach with Greggs sausage rolls; Milner proved utterly incapable of shooting or scoring; Carr looked worryingly out of his depth; and the less said about Butt the better.

No, arguably the player most influential on our season was actually someone sold in the summer. When Yeats wrote "Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold", I doubt it was in reference to Gary Speed, but it might as well have been. Without the Welshman - professional, level-headed, solid, consistent - in the centre of midfield and at the centre of the club, things really have fallen apart, with dressing room squabbles, mouthing off in the press and spineless, gutless performances on the pitch a routine occurrence. Meanwhile, Speed has the prospect of the UEFA Cup to look forward to with Bolton, who finished eight places higher than the club that deemed him too old to deserve a new contract.

Perhaps this is overstating the case, but the situation is hardly going to be helped by the sale of Hughes, one of the few young players to understand the value of silence and professionalism, and the increasingly likely loss of Given to either Man Utd or Arsenal.

If a bid comes in for Given, then as painful as losing him might be, no Newcastle fan should begrudge him a move. He's performed wonders for this club over the last eight years, often singlehandedly preserving leads or securing points because the defence supposedly offering him protection hasn't been worthy of the name. He owes us nothing, and should feel perfectly within his rights to leave in the hope of winning the honours he is good enough to achieve and certainly deserves.

I still maintain we have a talented squad, but it's a squad stuffed full of arrogant, underperforming wasters and a major clearout is what's needed. For a start, Bowyer should be sold without any hesitation - the Villa incident was completely unacceptable. Robert too - a player who has brought me as much pleasure as frustration over the last four years - has to go for the good of the club.

Souness has already gone on record to say that Bellamy can never play for him again, and hopefully we'll get a decent amount for him - but the problem is that everyone knows we're desperate to sell, so will think they can get away with pathetic bids that come nowhere near to matching his true valuation. Without Bellamy's lightning pace up front, we look decidedly ordinary.

Kluivert having already packed his bags, we're left in desperate need of strikers and, as much as I'd like to see us sign players of the calibre of Michael Owen, with Shepherd and Souness at the helm and with the club in the parlous state it is currently we don't stand a chance. Expect Souness to go after the likes of Andy Johnson, Robbie Earnshaw, Dean Ashton, Louis Boa Morte and Peter Crouch, especially if he misses out on Robbie Keane.

In midfield we need someone with passion, stamina and commitment - Faye has hardly impressed much more than Butt - as well as someone with creativity and goalscoring prowess. Juventus's Olivier Kapo, with whom we've been linked, would be a decent signing, as would Steed Malbranque. Defensively we look short-staffed, particularly following Hughes's departure. Although Boumsong has looked quite sound so far, and Bramble mutated into a decent player towards the end of the season, another quality central defender is a must, and we could also do with better cover in both full back positions.

Of course, depending on transfer activity, by the time the beginning of the new season comes around most of us will no doubt have rediscovered that giddy optimism that usually fades within the first few weeks. But if the 2003/2004 season (5th place and UEFA Cup qualification, UEFA Cup semi-final) was deemed a disappointment, then what does that make the season we've just witnessed? For now I'm decidedly depressed about our prospects.


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