Friday, January 06, 2006

View From The Away End

So much for our thoughts – what have fans of rival clubs made of it all, and where do they see things heading? We asked Lord Bargain and Swiss Toni of Cheer Up Alan Shearer, Cameron of A Town Called Malice, Pete of Round And White, Danny of Bitter And Blue and Terry Venerables of Footballist for their views.

Lord Bargain: Well, we're half way through another Premiership season and Newcastle United Comedy Club spend another five months hitting headlines for pretty much everything other than the quality of their football. The season started shakily, with the euphoria surrounding Alan Shearer's decision to play on for a final season quickly dissapated by some limp early performances against Fulham and Bolton before an emphatic 3-0 win at Blackburn registered their first three points of the season. Struggling for goals and under pressure, Souness splashed £9.5million on sulky show pony Albert Luque and then played a game of chicken with the footballing world to secure the unquestionable world class talents of Michael Owen.

Performances improved a little after that, but unbelievable inconsistency and a weak reserve squad have seen Newcastle meander into an unimpressive and unthreatening mid-season position at the turn of the year. From what I have seen, the small bright spots this season have been the early performances of Owen (unsurprisingly), the emergence of raw but talented French winger Charles N'Zogbia, the steady midfield class of Scott Parker and some promising young defenders in Peter Ramage and Steven Taylor.

Other than that, it has been an unmitigated disaster. I'm never sure whether Newcastle are unlucky with injuries, or just use them as a more regular and whiney excuse than other teams. The splashing of £28million on a pair of strikers was arguably necessary, but then having to make do with filling up spaces in the team elsewhere with Lee Clark, Robbie Elliott, Amdy Faye and Titus Bramble was never going to worry their fellow European challengers, was it? Lee Bowyer is a player that deserves a life ban from football from simply being a spiteful, nasty piece of work, Rangers are laughing all the way to the bank with the £8million pocketed for Boumsong and Lord only knows how Souness thought that an unprolific Spaniard (often relegated to the bench behind Diego Tristan) would fare when taken out of the sunny shores of La Coruna and plonked in a wet December in the North East.

Surely Souness would have been wiser strengthening a larger number of positions with decent quality. Bearing in mind he could have presumably picked up Edgar Davids, Stephane Henchoz and Andy Cole for nowt, a sprinkling of Danny Murphy, Darren Bent, Simon Davies, Park Ji-Sung and Darius Vassell for relative buttons and then kept Jermaine Jenas and James Milner, things might have been very different.

I just don't get it. Huge crowds, passionate support and a decent transfer kitty and yet, on an average weekend, they are no better than your Wigan's, Charlton's and Manchester City's of this world, when they should be up there challenging with your Liverpool's, Tottenham's and Manchester United's. Why aren't they? Injuries? Maybe. Transfer policy? Probably. Manager? Almost certainly. Chairman and board? Pretty much. A cobbled selection of individuals miles less than the sum of their individual parts? Definitely.

Swiss Toni: I have just had to look at the Premiership table to remind myself of where Newcastle actually are in the league pecking order. In my head it could have gone either way: I remember the terrible start to the season, all those hopeless defensive errors, the seeming inability to score without Owen in the side, the defeats to Wigan and Everton… But I also remember that famous win against Arsenal, I remember Shay Given keeping you in games in spite of his hapless defensive colleagues. I recall that when he has played, Owen has scored a few goals, and that Mary Poppins himself is only one goal from equalling the club’s scoring record…

So I checked, and you’re 10th [this was written before the Spurs disaster and Boro near-catastrophe]. 11 points off the drop zone and nine from a Champions League Slot. That feels about right to me. Neither one thing nor the other – like the team.

Clearly the season could still go either way: more goals from Owen and Shearer and a push for Europe, or more clowning from Titus Bramble and a slump towards the drop. Actually, I think it will be a little of both and a mid-table finish. Souness has an unenviable job and one of the most idiotic chairmen in the league (and that’s saying something), but he has never really struck me as the right man for the job, and he will surely be sacked sooner rather than later, and certainly in the event of a failure to at least get into the UEFA Cup next season. The team is almost there: you have the makings of a fine midfield with Parker, Emre, Solano and the emerging N’Zogbia, Given is the best keeper in the Premiership and Owen will always score goals… But… You need a reliable replacement for Shearer (Ameobi is clearly not that man) and you need a defence worthy of the name.

Whatever happens, I’m sure it will be interesting. It usually is.

Cameron: As a Blackburn Rovers fan I have mixed feelings towards Graeme Souness and the job he’s doing at Newcastle. The situation he’s got at St James’s now is not entirely dissimilar from the one he had before jumping ship at Rovers, lest we forget only marginally before it was assumed he was about to get pushed.

There are similarities not just in the fact he’s once again perilously close to the sack, but in the crippling injury list which has decimated his side, Scott Parker the latest casualty of “appalling bad luck”. Bollocks to that, Newcastle’s players are dropping like flies in the same way Rovers players did in Souness’ time at Ewood, and I don’t believe you can keep on saying it’s down to Graeme’s arch enemy lady luck. Former Rovers players who left the club under Souness’s tenure spoke of archaic training methods and the faith he still places in the old five-a-sides that served him so well at Liverpool... in the eighties. Five-a-sides which Souness was actually banned by the players from playing in for being too “over-zealous” – on one occasion attempting to decapitate that “fucking playboy” (his words – and mine) Dwight Yorke. Add to this Mark Hughes lambasting his players as the most unfit in the Premiership shortly after taking over and you wonder if Newcastle’s injury crisis is a direct result of poor training.

Whether this is the case or not the one thing which is clear is Souness’s solution to the problem – throwing money at it. He’s always been a chequebook manager, and in fairness has already signed some decent players for Newcastle. Owen, Parker and Emre are three fine players, who should be in a team fighting for Europe and perhaps would be if they were fit. What Newcastle are crying out for though is any semblance of defence. In Given, you’ve got one of if not the best keeper in the league, and young Taylor at the back certainly seems to have potential. Talk of Newcastle transfers in this January window though allude to a move for Danny Murphy, exemplifying Souey’s fetish for midfielders, and again ignoring his team’s biggest weakness.

Newcastle’s season could go anywhere from here on in, unpredictability about the only thing you can bank on at St James’s. If the injury list eases, the club sign a centre half in January and don’t do anything daft like sacking the manager now then a top ten finish is a realistic outcome. As it stands though there’s talk of more midfielders joining the club who’ll probably get injured anyway, and according to the press Fat Fred’s got an itchy trigger finger. You lot are too much fun!

Pete: Back at the beginning of the season, I was of the opinion that Newcastle would struggle, although this might change if Owen did move to St James’s Park. At the time I was convinced that he would move to Man Utd (whoops), but otherwise my predictions have been fairly close.

Parker and Emre have yet to put in convincing performances consistently, although I have to admit that the former has played well at times (Magpie fans may disagree though), while Luque looked promising before his hamstring twanged, so the jury is still out in him.

Defensively, the team is as bad as before if not worse. If it wasn’t for Shay… well, United would be in a whole lot of bother. What happened to Craig Moore by the way? A defender with a bit of experience signed back in the summer, yet Souness bizarrely insists on persisting with the truly shambolic Titus Bramble. Is Moore injured or he really that bad a player?

So yes, if it weren’t for Owen and his goals, Newcastle’s season would look very different. As for the second half of the season; well I don’t expect matters to improve. Souness has grasped that Newcastle can currently only win by one way; and that is attack, attack, attack. Unfortunately, while this works against less organised teams such as West Ham or Sunderland, against teams that can actually defend, this method is useless. Hence the recent defeat against Liverpool.

If and when Souness realises this remains to be seen. I get the impression that even if Newcastle do sign the defender(s) they desperately need, as well as a creative midfielder and Big Al’s eventual replacement, there’s about as much chance of Graeme possessing the tactical nous to know what to do with them, as Sunderland have of avoiding relegation. See Magpie fans? There’s always a silver lining somewhere.

In August I finished my View From The Away End preview with: “Sixth or seventh and a good cup run is the best I can foresee, which is unlikely to keep Souness his job, but frankly that's a good thing”. I’m sticking to it.

Danny: Graeme Souness must have been looking forward to the game at Spurs on New Year’s Eve to finally put behind him the “annus horribilus” of 2005. And then the curse of the metatarsal struck. A lone bright spot of recent times - Michael Owen, now ruled out until around April and not a shred of sympathy from around the country as most view the news as a boost for England's World Cup chances as a fit and rested Owen will be back to the lead the line.

But what of Newcastle? Souness has hardly had the midas touch during his reign so far and perhaps inevitably the cries to replace him as manager are gathering momentum. Recent events have even led to Steve Harper wondering whether the club is cursed. It does seem that what can got wrong, will go wrong at Newcastle lately.

I do feel a degree of sympathy for Souness as he has undoubtedly brought in some quality to the club - namely Emre, Parker, Luque and Owen. But how many times have all four lined up in the same side at all this season, let alone had a substantial run in the side? And why are the club affected by so many injuries? Add those four names to existing talent such as Dyer, Shearer, Solano and Given and there is undoubtedly a basis for a decent side who should be in the mix for European football every season, yet again it is likely mid-table mediocrity is the ultimate end.

Souness has been backed to the hilt over the last year in the transfer market with only Chelsea spending more on players in the transfer market, and yet things clearly aren't going according to plan and there appears to be no more money available to replace Owen. The squad though appears very unbalanced with a lack of quality more than apparent in defence and in the squad positions which are vital to counter the threat of injuries. More worryingly, from the games I have seen Newcastle involved in, there appears to be a lack of cohesion, unity and spirit in the side and no amount of money being thrown at the problem will rectify it if those qualities are missing.

Has Souness got what it takes to achieve success at Newcastle? Ultimately I don't think so, and his appointment always smacked of a short-term move to try and bring some stability (and discipline) to the club. The fans are now beginning to get anxious and Freddie Shepherd may be getting a twitchy trigger finger as he looks for a way out of another messy situation the club are in.

What is needed at the club instead of a disciplinarian is a proven tactical coach to get a hold of the team and be given time to put his stamp and personality on the team. I can see the logic in appointing Souness when they did, as something drastic undoubtedly needed doing, but although it has only been a year or so since being appointed it is becoming more and more apparent that Souness will not be able to take the club forward and he is wearing the expression of a man who knows his days are numbered.

Terry : I was one of the folks in August who was grimacing at the desperation that seemed to be emanating from St James’s Park over the need for a forward. For a long time I couldn't imagine Michael Owen signing for what was looking like a very ugly and negative club. Whilst Bobby Robson's interjection wouldn't have been enough to single-handedly persuade young Michael, it was welcome. Sir Bobby said all that needed to be said. When Owen signed, it looked like a big positive statement that would surely raise a verve around St James's – amongst players, fans, media... At the very least, it diluted any sense of Newcastle as the nasty club of the North East. My feeling is that the scale of Souness's task in sorting out discipline and morale around the club hasn't been given the amount of press coverage that would have been justified.

Assessing the situation on Tyneside now, it's fair to say that things have improved (really, they have!) – this is despite elements of the Geordie faithful still sounding like some of the most impatient fans in football. A return to European football must surely be seen as a realistic target. Ditto a serious challenge for the FA Cup. Of course, the outcomes for much of this will depend on the shape of the squad... so what more to come in the transfer market? After all, the Geordies did spend big in the summer.

With Shearer determined to leave, Owen regularly crocked and there not looking like an obvious “physical” replacement up front, it wouldn't surprise me to see a move for Dean Ashton in January. That said, continuing questions over defence, pressure to retain quality in midfield (Bowyer to return to London?) and the desire for a settled squad will all need to be considered as priority issues. Besides, there's always the summer, and what would any August be without high jinx at St James's Park?

Predictions for the season:- Final position: 9th.
FA Cup: out in the Quarter-Finals.
Overall verdict: Clear signs of improvement, stick with it, and stick with Souness.

* * * * *

If only I could be as cautiously optimistic as Terry, eh?

Thanks to Lord Bargain, Swiss Toni, Cameron, Pete, Danny and Terry for their thoughts.


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