Sunday, 31 January 2016

Newcastle United’s Ambition Driven by Fear

Jonjo Shelvey is the first England international Newcastle United have bought since Alan Smith in 2007. Nine years since one of the world’s biggest clubs paid out for one of the country’s best players.

Rob Lee once said that the only way Roy Hodgson would come to St James’ Park would be if he were French. Perhaps more criminally than Newcastle’s lack of domestic investment, Shelvey is the first player deemed to be a direct replacement for a certain Yohan Cabaye; a Frenchman who departed 2 years ago.

A player who can make Newcastle tick, as demonstrated on a brilliant debut against West Ham, Shelvey’s signing has been celebrated in the North East. Andros Townsend soon followed last week in another big money deal, and £21 million is suddenly on the table for Saido Berahino; a deal which would smash Michael Owen’s transfer record from over a decade ago.
An English player? Steve McClaren was delighted with the addition of Shelvey

It is a far cry from the questionable and incredibly frustrating transfer policy Newcastle have adopted since Graham Carr’s cut-price capture of Cabaye in 2011. So why only now has the club changed its stance?

Steve McClaren’s influence on the newly formed board means targeting players with more Premier League experience will be a regular occurrence. It is obvious that Shelvey and Townsend were McClaren signings and that Henri Saivet, like Florian Thauvin before him, was another arrival from Graham Carr’s French conveyor belt.

The club’s reluctance to shake off their continental recruitment policy has heavily contributed to a slow demise in the Premier League since finishing 5th in 2011/12. As far as Mike Ashley’s approval of big money deals for England internationals goes, it’s a green light driven by fear.

The Newcastle owner came out of public hiding for a timely pre-match interview before the final day victory over West Ham last season. A last-ditch throw of the dice from a man who realised that an unthinkable relegation was firmly on the cards. A speech to stir players and fans alike before a crucial game, Ashley promised a summer of big signings and renewed ambition.

Indeed the signings of Georginio Wijnaldum, Aleksandar Mitrovic, and Chancel Mbemba were impressive and welcome, but a preference for a Thauvin over a Townsend had sections of supporters questioning the additions Premier League know-how. Had Newcastle not been sitting so perilously to the drop going into this transfer window, and had been hovering around the top 8 as targeted, there is no doubt that the owner would be reluctant to spend on the likes of Shelvey when he could wait until the summer.
50/50: Wijnaldum and Thauvin's fortunes show the gamble in Newcastle's transfer policy

Financially for Ashley, relegation would be disastrous. He knows that spending the money know is just a mere fraction in comparison to the reward of next season’s TV money if the club stay in the league. He fears the drop, so he is spending big to avoid it. The club can claim ambition, a new approach, but in reality the owner doesn’t want to lose a lucrative place in England’s top league.

Go back to the Championship season of 2009/10. Newcastle were going well towards a return to the Premier League going into the January transfer window. But with nothing near guaranteed, Ashley made the signings that ensured the squad would get well over the line. The “risk” of spending on transfers was worth it for Ashley. Not getting promoted was simply not an option financially.

A 5th placed finish and the Europa League would surely be enough for most clubs to recognise the need to kick on and strengthen with acquisitions. Yet Ashley stood still and needed to fast track a clutch of signings in the January of 2013 to shake up a squad in freefall. Moussa Sissoko and Yoan Gouffran were supposed to be post-season free transfers, and the club used that as an excuse to explain why only a loan signing of Loic Remy was bank-rolled ahead of 2013/14.
French Revolution: January 2013 brought a French influx to avoid the drop

Newcastle were going very well indeed in January 2014 when Cabaye was sold to Paris St Germain. No danger of the drop so no need to spend was the attitude, but the playing and coaching staff imploded and finished meekly once again.

Signings were promised and made as the club recognised that the lack of action in the wake of Cabaye’s departure had threatened their future as a top flight side. Eventually paying dividends, the club’s hierarchy failed to act in different sense in January 2015 as Alan Pardew walked out to take charge at Crystal Palace. Once again in no apparent danger, John Carver was left in charge until the end of the season and we all know how that went.

The point is this; if Newcastle United are “safe” in the bosom of the Premier League table then the hand will stay firmly in the pocket as quite frankly the target is met. The club can dress it up as ambition and come out and make impassioned declarations, but the actions are driven by fear of loss by a single-minded owner.
Would Andros Townsend have been signed if Newcastle were in a better predicament?

In the current Premier League climate, with vast amounts of money available to each and every club, the likes of Leicester, Stoke City, West Ham, and Southampton have seized an opportunity to kick on as aspiring football clubs. They have done things in the right way in all departments, moved with the times. There has been no standing still but genuine ambition to reach greater heights in a now very open Premier League.

A club of Newcastle United’s magnitude should be right up there, but 21 points and 18th in the league tells you how it really is.

Newcastle United’s image as a “stepping stone” club for aspiring European internationals needs to be firmly quashed. It has been a policy that has slowly diseased a club that is sinking year on year closer to an inevitable drop. It is no coincidence that Newcastle have struggled for goals when the burden has been placed on a 21 year old Mitrovic, who has a potentially high sell on value in the next 5 years, rather than a nailed on Premier League goal getter like 27 year old Charlie Austin.
Stepping stone: Newcastle's stepping stone mentality has been a slow disease

An unwillingness to pay that bit more for guaranteed, proven results and take risks on players that may or (more often) may not pay off has ultimately now left Mike Ashley and Lee Charnley needing to take risks the other way round. They seem to only learn when mistake after mistake is made.

But with Newcastle only serving to consistently lose games in the Premier League and stay firmly in the relegation mire, too many mistakes may well have been made. There is no doubt, with a minimum of 5 wins needed from the remaining 15 games, that Newcastle are not showing enough to suggest they will definitely stay up this time.

Yes, Ashley may well be bringing in impressive signings with a Premier League blueprint now, but it could be too little too late for Newcastle United.

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

Monday night's defeat at West Ham United was described as a "wake up call" by Steve McClaren. For Newcastle United supporters it was like waking up in a time where the team was managed by John Carver.

For all the positivity amongst a mixed bag of results so far this season, the 2-0 reverse very much felt like a couple of steps back having seemingly taken a step forward. It was a stark reminder that, despite an excellent recruitment drive this summer, Newcastle still have an awful lot of work to do to improve on the last couple of seasons.
Lots to ponder: Steve McClaren has work to do to improve United fortunes

This was not a performance that suggested that the club has kicked on from the woes of the previous regime, and it was an all too familiar sinking feeling as the goals went in and the final whistle blew at the Boleyn Ground.

"Gutless" was a term widely used to describe Newcastle's performance in its aftermath and it is hard to argue. Unfortunately and worryingly, without ever making it an excuse, as soon as I heard the team were stuck in London traffic I was quick to assume that a lot of the players wouldn't fancy it out there once the game kicked off.

Andy Cole gave his view that the side is full of "expensive foreign talent" who do not know what it means to the supporters to wear the shirt. Before the game, having seen West Ham's line up, I was quick to remark on Twitter that Florian Thauvin had the opportunity to give James Tomkins a nightmare evening down the left side. A big Centre Half operating out of position against an exciting winger should fear the worst yet it turned out to be a stroll in the park for Tomkins.
Lone ranger: Janmaat provided Newcastle's only threat on Monday

Thauvin turned in an eye-catching performance in the League Cup however, like Sissoko, Cisse, and Anita, didn't turn up on a Monday night in East London. It was a frighteningly Remy Cabella-esque performance by the Frenchman, who exchanged ways with last season's flop. This backs up Cole's point that for all the international talent, you've got to dig in and attempt to put in a performance every time you play in the Premier League.

Newcastle United have spent too long carrying mediocre foreign players who can't be trusted to provide any sort of consistency. Steve McClaren has his work cut out to improve this.

A major problem for United since the departure of Yohan Cabaye and the isolation of Hatem Ben Arfa has been a severe lack of quality and creativity in midfield. It seemed like every time Chancel Mbemba brought the ball out of the defence there was absolutely nobody showing for the ball in the middle of the park; nobody coming to take control of such a key area. Mbemba's frustration was apparent as he once again resorted to playing it long.

Gary Neville gave a damning assessment of the midfield, highlighting how they were neither protecting the back four nor supporting the attack. The final ball, as it has been since Cabaye left for Paris, was weak and ineffective, even suicidal; as yet another embarrassing set piece led to the killer second goal for the Hammers.

There is no risk taking. As Neville said the front three hardly covered themselves in glory but there was a chronic lack of support, probing, and adventure. Aimless cross after aimless cross made its way towards the vicinity of the West Ham penalty area with an alarming lack of quality. Other than the right back Janmaat, who in one game registered nearly all of the season’s shots on target thus far, there was no endeavour to really breach and get beyond the opposition.

It was frighteningly resemblant of early last season, particularly another miserable Monday night game at Stoke City where the team wouldn't have scored if they had played all night.

McClaren's set up with two holding midfielders and one striker is not providing the desired platform for the team to achieve results and the head coach must surely be plotting changes for the upcoming game against Watford. Only when Siem De Jong came on and Wijnaldum dropped deeper to link up with his compatriot did Newcastle look anything remotely like a threat.
Box to box: Wijnaldum must be utilised better to improve chances of goals

De Jong's gradual inclusion is probably right, taking into account his horrendous fortune with injury last season. Hopefully this will lead to him starting regularly, as he looks like he has the quality to play in the position that Wijnaldum is currently occupying.

From what I have seen of Newcastle's biggest summer signing, Gini Wijnaldum looks far more effective when he plays deeper than the Number 10 role. Strong on the ball and composed in possession, Wijnaldum has the quality to hurt opposition from the centre of the pitch. Also, rather than hoping to run onto crosses, passes and knock downs, he can be the man providing the quality for the likes of De Jong and co further forward. McClaren talked of him being a box-to-box player so is it time to implement that? I think so.

Criticism of Papiss Cisse on the back of Monday's game is largely unfair. We all know where Cisse's strengths lie and how he relies on service to provide the goods. Just look at last season, where sometimes the only balls of quality provided (usually from Janmaat) led to Cisse goals. He is not a player who can work in isolation and hold up the ball and link play as he was expected to at Upton Park. Yes he was poor on the ball but he only ever got it with his back to goal well outside of the penalty area.

As Alan Shearer said, Newcastle would have fared the same playing with 10 men but that is more the fault of Newcastle's set up and lack of build-up play than Cisse's alone.

There will be calls for Ayoze Perez's inclusion this weekend, and it is hard to argue. His cameo on Monday, as with De Jong's, brought much needed quality and composure that the side has been lacking. He is a fantastic outlet for maintaining possession and bringing teammates into play. I certainly wouldn't be surprised to see a linkup between the two substitutes from the start, which will perhaps allow Newcastle to muster more quality attempts on goal.
Change: Calls have been made to start De Jong and Perez against Watford

It is a given that Saturday is a must win game, particularly with the fixtures that follow. If Newcastle want to keep themselves away from a relegation battle this season, they simply have to be winning a game against newly-promoted Watford. As with last season with the victory over Leicester at the seventh attempt, we all know that one win can kick start a good run. Who thought that Newcastle would go on to register the victories that they did after that first win?

It is far too early in the season to be panicking, just look at Chelsea. But it is also important that the early problems are addressed and are not ignored. McClaren has himself expressed everybody's reservations and openly admitted the need to improve. If the solution is not found then indeed it will be a tough season, but there must be confidence that the club can make the improvements necessary.

One win in the Premier League under the new regime can give Newcastle United the stride forward needed to escape the perils of the past few seasons. Without adapting the current structure on the field however, the goals, clean sheets, and victories will continue to be hard to come by.

Monday, 7 September 2015

Unwanted: Mitrovic must shake off unfair reputation

I've watched it time and again and my opinion hasn't changed since the live incident: Aleksandar Mitrovic was unfortunate to be sent off against Arsenal at St James' Park.

His eyes firmly fixed on the ball, the big striker attempted to trap the ball on its way down but it was nicked away by Francis Coquelin. A split second incident, ultimately the theft of the ball meant that there was no other outcome than Mitrovic landing on the midfielder's ankle.

Eyes on the ball: Mitrovic unfortunate to be shown red

He challenged for the ball and missed out. Mistimed, yes. Intentional? Not for me. It was certainly a physical challenge but Mitrovic is a big, physical player and last time I looked football was a contact sport.

Now I'm not saying I'm an advocate for two footed challenges, elbows, and lunges but this was none of them. Unfortunately modern football dictates that any sort of challenge can run the risk of caution and it is going to come to a point where players are not competing for the ball in fear of such reprimand.

I agree that the referee's job is difficult, having to make a lot of decisions in a split second in a high pressured arena and I understand that this can lead to poor decisions being made. But there is no doubt in my mind that Mitrovic's "reputation" came into play when Andre Marriner was making his mind up about which card to produce.

The enthusiastic frontman has certainly done himself no favours in his initial forays in Newcastle colours with his rash bookings against Southampton and Swansea in the season's opening exchanges. His early indiscipline was gold-dust for pundits and the media who thrive on absolutely anything to fuel their sensationalism.

Unwanted attention: Striker has brought trouble to his own door at times

He can deny it all he wants but Andre Marriner was instantly reminded of Mitrovic's indiscretions as soon as that challenge was made. Would he have made the same decision if it was Santi Carzola or Alexis Sanchez making that challenge on a Newcastle player?

He almost proved that he wouldn't have made that decision with almost any other player, booking Moussa Sissoko minutes before with what looked in my view a naughtier challenge. That is what is frustrating with Premier League officiating; consistency. Week in, week out we are seeing a lack of consistency throughout the game - referees failing to keep controversy from their door.

If Mitrovic's was a red then so was Sissoko's. If Sissoko's was a yellow then surely Mitrovic's should have followed suit. In commentary Chris Waddle aired his annoyance at both decisions, particularly Sissoko's; which he said shouldn't have been a booking. Another frustrating yellow card in a physical game far removed from when Waddle played. Both challenges were players attempting to tackle or control the ball in what should be a physical contest, yet both yielded different consequences.

The problem with modern day football is the fact that incidents can be analysed and scrutinised from every angle in every motion. The more you look at a tackle the more it can make you think it is worse than it actually was: Pundits and analysts looking to boost ratings and sell newspapers with "headlines" which dominate all week along ahead of Premier League fixtures. They will disagree of course but in my book they have the potential to influence an official's mind-set going into games.

People who may oppose need only look at how the weekend panned out as a whole. Do you think that if there wasn't a red card in the early kick off for "dangerous play" that there would have been a total of 6 red cards issued? There is no way that every official in the top league that weekend didn't see or hear about Mitrovic's sending off and its circumstances before they set out to work in the afternoon.

Controversial thinking maybe, but look at the horrendous decision to send off Mark Noble at Anfield. Whenever there seems to be a red card for a dangerous tackle or incident, there seems to be a spate of cards that follow. Some referees are driven by fear that they will make the incorrect decision, and do nothing but steer themselves towards actually doing it. Expect to see more contentious reds in the coming games.

Baffling: Refereeing decisions continue to dominate the Premier League

What can be done to help? Every weekend seems to be dominated by a debatable refereeing decision. I am largely sceptical about video technology being introduced, as I think once it is in place where would you draw the line? It could become something that completely dominates the sport and makes football become a game different to what we know now.

One use would be in the case of red cards. The appeal system in cricket could be utilised, with the fourth official using video technology to agree with, or overturn a straight red card. A team reduced to ten men could have the player restored soon after if the decision was deemed wrong. It wouldn't really interrupt the flow of the game anyway, but as I said before where would you draw the line with the technology once it was in use?

Regardless of the controversy, Aleksandar Mitrovic has a problem he needs to deal with. Rightly or wrongly he has very quickly got a reputation for reasons he would rather avoid. Steve McClaren, Tim Krul, and Malcolm Macdonald to name a few have all expressed the need for the Serbian to "channel" his enthusiasm. There is nothing wrong with the player's will to compete and win for his team, to impress the Geordie faithful - it is to be admired. But in a modern game where any mistimed tackle or jump can result in suspension, he does need to manage his control.

It is fair to say Alan Shearer would have been far more penalised in 2015 than he was ten to twenty years previous, another physical centre forward who Mitrovic aspires to emulate on Tyneside.

Game has moved on: Alan Shearer would have faced more discipline in this age of football

Taking the aggression out of his game would likely reduce the impact of Mitrovic; ultimately Newcastle have bought a physical player who is at his best when he is 100% challenging for every ball. It may well be the case that the club and player will have to take a few more bumps and bruises and negative decisions along with the great things we hope for him to do.

Frustration: Nothing has gone right for McClaren and Mitrovic so far

What is clear for now however is that his indiscipline is already starting to irk his Manager and team-mates. Mitrovic already has a lot of work to do on his return. 

Thursday, 6 August 2015

The Club that we Deserve

"It’s your money; it’s the money you've spent. It’s the money you've spent on your replica shirts, home and away. It's the money you've spent on your season tickets and your bonds, and your platinum clubs, and the programmes, and the black and white magazines and I see it as my job, and it’s a privilege to have the job, of reinvesting that money. You put it in and I put it into the team so that when you come to watch the product on the park here it’s the very, very best that we feel we can provide. Because that's what you deserve."

30th July 1996. The words of Kevin Keegan rang around St James' Park; an entire Geordie nation hanging on every word. Newcastle United had just smashed all football transfer records by acquiring Alan Shearer from Blackburn Rovers for a staggering £15m. 

Ambition: The world stood still when Shearer came home in 1996

Nervous excitement in his voice, Keegan announced Newcastle as a serious force to be reckoned with. A sensational statement of intent had been made by the club and the chairman Sir John Hall, who had, with Keegan, assembled a tremendous squad of players in just four years. Hall spoke passionately about the plans for a new 60,000 seater stadium, as Newcastle's rise had seemingly outgrown its capacity of that time, and a major investment in soccer academies to secure the next generation of Alan Shearer's. 

My word the club was going places and Alan Shearer was surely the cherry on top of the icing on a very, very sweet cake. The ambition was staggering, yet was playing out in front of our eyes. The club made it very clear it was all about the fans. We put the money into the club; we wanted Shearer so we got Shearer. We deserved it, said Keegan. 

19 years on and Newcastle United seemingly couldn't be further from that level of ambition. Another lacklustre season under the stewardship of owner Mike Ashley; with more of supporter’s money apparently going in his back pocket. The replica shirts, the season tickets, and programmes all funding the Sports Direct Empire while the reputation of club tumbled further into laughing stock territory. The product on the pitch was definitely not very best, the next generation of Geordie superstars nowhere to be seen. 
Who would have thought? Shearer can only look on as Newcastle tumbled in 2009

It would have been inconceivable back then to imagine that less than 15 years on from Shearer's signing, the £15m marquee man would be failing from the Manager's dugout to prevent his beloved United from relegation from the Premier League. It has been sad to watch the record goalscorer rightly lambast the club as it flirted with the brink again last season.

There are no homecoming heroes in modern day football anymore; no World Class stars at the peak of their powers snubbing champions to play in front of their own people. Players are commodities bought and sold for ambition-driven businesses, and in a summer where Manchester City have paid £49m for a frankly unproven Raheem Sterling, it is even more inconceivable that a club of Newcastle's size have just completed their third and fourth most expensive signings in history - for less than they paid for Shearer in 1996. 
Third most expensive player: Gini Wijnaldum arrived for £14.5m

Only Michael Owen in 2005 has cost more than Shearer, and at the time that was also a major, major signing; another show of ambition from the previous regime to Ashley. Regardless of fees however, has the summer arrivals of Wijnaldum, Mitrovic, and Mbemba truly indicated that Mike Ashley has turned a corner?

Many were sceptical about his pre-West Ham speech, many were optimistic. But the acquisitions of three highly thought of players has caught everyone by surprise. A young, athletic, powerful centre half to hopefully end Mike Williamson's continued involvement and a creative, goal scoring midfielder have got optimism rising.

But it is Aleksandar Mitrovic that has got tongues wagging most. As the boring Charlie Austin "saga" refuses to go away, people may be overlooking the fact that Newcastle could have a serious, serious frontman on their hands in Mitrovic. 

Considered one of Europe's hottest properties, it is surprising that Newcastle have managed to pull off his signature; particularly after his impressive foray in last season's Champions League. What's more surprising is that Ashley has sanctioned such an ambitious signing, shortly after securing the Dutch international and PSV skipper Wijnaldum. 
Burgeoning: Mitrovic's impressive Champions League exploits make his signing a real coup

Mitrovic is not a homecoming hero, but he is a lad who openly supports Newcastle and considers Shearer is hero and that is as good as it gets in this day and age. If he puts the ball in the back of the net on a regular basis, then wow. 

Newcastle's hierarchy must have done something right in their pitch to these ambitious players, hopefully it’s not the "stepping stone" idea that has left fans frustrated in recent times. Hopefully it is about climbing the league, challenging for trophies, giving the club the stage it should be on more regularly. This could be the sign of positive times to come. 

Should more players be added? Possibly, but Steve McClaren's measured approach is correct; only the right players will do. If they are not there then others should not be signed for signings sake. Newcastle have shown infrequently that they do have good players already on the books, but it was the preparation and management of these players under Pardew and Carver that saw us lacking. 

McClaren has spoken openly about defending from the front and shoring up at the back, about revamping set piece approaches, improving discipline, and eradicating the dreadful injury record. He is changing the culture of the team, who is to say he can't be the man who will get the best out of Cabella, Coloccini, and Anita, and take Moussa Sissoko to the next level? 
Quality is there: Keeping the likes of Siem De Jong fit can improve fortunes on the pitch

Improvements across the board, along with these new signings, can be just what Newcastle United need to kick on in 2015/16. Keeping players fit is crucial, particularly De Jong and Rolando Aarons. The proof will be in the pudding, especially when it comes to the cup competitions; where we will see if the club really has turned a corner and truly is showing vastly improved ambition. 

It is a far cry from the days of Hall, Keegan, and Alan Shearer. But nonetheless it is a step in the right direction. As the season approaches we once again wait with bated breath as the Newcastle United rollercoaster prepares to take off. Are we ready? Can Newcastle United be the club that we deserve?

Saturday, 13 June 2015

Carver Axe Another Step on Road to Recovery

Steve McClaren's arrival as Newcastle United Head Coach and his addition to the new-look club board has created a large sense of optimism on Tyneside.

McClaren's high standing within the game, passion for the region, and the club's willingness to increase the Head Coach's influence are positive steps on the walk away from the misery of recent years. 
New era: Steve McClaren's arrival ended the Pardew era at Newcastle United

But perhaps a more poignant step was the dismissal of beleaguered coaches John Carver and Steve Stone. A few months ago it would have been unthinkable for Mike Ashley to pay out 10 years worth of contract to remove members of staff and it was widely thought, that unlike Patrick Vieira or Michael Laudrup, Steve McClaren would be more than willing to work alongside the current backroom staff - thus saving the owner some more pennies. 

Yet the former Middlesbrough Manager outlined his demands and prior to his appointment came the surprising yet welcome news of the coaching reshuffle. Ashley's Carver gamble had failed to pay off, and for Newcastle to truly move forward on the pitch anyone with a brain could see that the interim had to be out. 

However merely having a brain hasn't served Newcastle United well in recent times and it was expected that Ashley would continue his low-cost empire with Carver stepping back into his assistant manager post and Steve Stone continuing to put the cones out. 

Newcastle's inadequacies on the field of play have largely been down to poor tactics, selection, and training ground preparations. The player's had long stopped responding to Carver and Stone, almost as soon as Alan Pardew departed the club. Negativity seared through the club like a disease, and the players were carrying the ailment each and every week.

Unresponsive: Newcastle players failed spectacularly under John Carver

Of course, as Carver stated numerous times, you can only work with what you are given but he was given a half decent squad of players who had beaten Chelsea, Liverpool, and Manchester City under his predecessor and were looking up rather than down at the turn of the year. 

The be all and end all is that John Carver was simply not good enough; he was found wanting big time and Newcastle United almost paid the ultimate price. Sympathy for the Geordie who loved the club soon went out the window with the whimpering in the derby and clueless displays at Everton, Leicester, QPR, and at St James' Park. 

Ridiculous interviews and statements, turning on the players and playing the weekly Sir Bobby Robson card was bringing more shame on Toon fans already embarrassed enough. It was a case of "careful what you wish for" for those Newcastle fans delighted with Pardew's exit. 

Not good enough: John Carver simply didn't have what it took to succeed as Head Coach

The demise was spectacular but Newcastle survived and the club got their man at last in McClaren. Carver staying on would have kept that lingering failing around the players; who can now move out of the dark shadows under the new regime. Steve McClaren can now fully put his own stamp on the place, and quickly stated his intent to investigate the horrendous injury situation.

The new Head Coach knows the area, knows what the fans want and expect, and hopes to bring some good times back to St James' Park. It was positive to see him added to the board of directors and hopefully he can work with Graham Carr to recruit some quality for the first team. Lee Charnley's cringe-worthy declaration that Newcastle United would now essentially "try" to win at football was another positive notion on the back of Mike Ashley's pre-West Ham statement of intent.

All we want is a club that tries, that replicates the passion of those that arrive in droves at the 52,000 seater stadium every other week. The hierarchy are certainly now making the right noises, but as ever we will believe it when we see it. One thing for certain is that Steve McClaren is determined to deliver on his part in a job he has coveted since Steve Gibson pulled the plug on it in 2004.

Road to recovery: Newcastle can now move on under the new regime

With Carver and Stone now out of the picture, Newcastle can shake off the last of the Alan Pardew era and start the long road to recovery.

Friday, 5 June 2015

The Leopard Won't Change His Spots

Mike Ashley's treatment of Ryan Taylor and Jonas Gutierrez, not even 7 days after the latter had almost single-handedly dragged Newcastle United over the Premier League safety line, was a stark reminder of the shame of life on Tyneside under the owner.

Having a laugh: Ashley's latest exploits have supporters reeling again

Many had been left feeling optimistic of a brighter Mike Ashley/Newcastle United relationship following the Londoner's out-of-the-blue interview to Sky Sports before the 2-0 win over West Ham on "Survival Sunday". Ashley spoke of his regret and admitted his blame, promising fans a new intent to "win something" and punch above weight.

But the sceptics were right to be sceptical of his remarkable appearance and words of encouragement, as he quickly reminded us all of his distasteful capabilities by instructing his outgoing interim Manager to relieve two professionals of their jobs in one telephone call.

Two men who have for over 6 years served the black and white cause with great pride and won their place in Geordie folklore through individual and collective effort and achievement. Two men hugely popular with supporters, players, and staff dropped by the club with the greatest disrespect.

The messenger: Carver uncomfortably delivered release news to the players

The decision to release the two out-of-contract players was realistic and largely accepted, but the manner in which the news was delivered was quite unbelievable. Ryan Taylor had unfortunately shown little in the latter stages of the season to suggest that he can play at the level required but this is a man who is a consummate professional with great affection for Newcastle fans, and gave 100% whenever he pulled on the shirt.

As for Jonas, anyone who witnessed the final game of the season at St James Park can see the mutual love between player and supporters. Gutierrez, finally restored to the left of midfield, took the game to West Ham and created a fairytale ending on the pitch. For me, he had shown enough beforehand to warrant an extended stay on Tyneside in a threadbare squad.

Gutierrez's return to the playing field was the most remarkable and emotional story of the Premier League season, and huge credit to Ryan Taylor for overcoming awful injuries. Fans will never forget "over the wall" and spectacular goals from Taylor; Jonas' debut, spiderman, his character, fun, and those runs down the left. Their loyalty and commitment to the cause; promotion, consolidation, 5th place. A heroic finale for the Argentine. 

Hero: Gutierrez's final day exploits was a fairytale ending at St James' Park

Jonas was very accepting of his release, suggesting long before the season's completion. The poor way in which the club handled his illness was the beginning of the end and his celebration following his goal told us all we needed to know about how he feels about Newcastle's hierarchy. Would it surprise you if Ashley and Lee Charnley's method of release was stubbornness against the Argentine? Not a nice though but certainly believable. 

For this is something Newcastle United fans have long been used to; negativity and embarrassment around every corner, Mike Ashley somehow finding ways to keep the club in the headlines for the wrong reasons.

The club we love is used as an advertising platform for a budget retail company, sponsored by pay-day lenders, and ran by a man who openly admitted to lying to supporters, humiliated Club legends, and renamed a historic stadium to that of a shop that sells Donnay socks. As you know, I could go on.

The point is, that despite the positivity that may have been felt regarding Ashley's interview, he is still Mike Ashley. For the past 8 years we have endured the torment that comes as the territory of his ownership. How could we feasibly trust what he has said? The treatment of these players just compounds the mistrust.

Cult heroes: Gutierrez and Taylor have long-endeared themselves to supporters

What made the whole thing more ridiculous was the supposedly made up interview attributed to Fabricio Coloccini. As if the club thought that Jonas' best mate wouldn't let on that he didn't say what was printed on the official website. We only laugh because we are sick of crying.

Dennis Wise, Joe Kinnear (twice), Wonga, Sports Direct Arena, selling players with no replacements, selling Manager's with no replacement, lying to fans, Keegangate, and now this - things of these ilk cannot rear their head if Mike Ashley wants to reclaim any faith and integrity and show the ambition that has never been there. 

Challenging in the top half, going for trophies - it's a far cry from what we have become accustomed to at St James' Park. If the last few years of turmoil have been the building of an underbelly then why has it taken our esteemed leader until the lowest point to show that he can actually speak? Fans would have been ever so slightly more understanding if the club would just communicate and let us know what was going on from time to time!

Increased ambition: Can Charnley and Ashley put words into action?

If the club is to bolt the horse and punch above the weight then, as our wise Interim would often say, the proof will be in the pudding. I would love to believe that the intention is there, but this is Mike Ashley's Newcastle United we are talking about and anything could happen. 

To Ryan Taylor and Jonas Gutierrez, thank you. 

Monday, 23 February 2015

On the Road to Nowhere

"It hurts me to say this, but Newcastle United are a club going nowhere"

Undoubtedly the thoughts and feelings of every Newcastle fan right about now, but it’s a particularly stinging assessment when it comes from Kevin Keegan. Alan Shearer branded United "pathetic"; two of Newcastle's three most important figures of the modern age despairing at current events on Tyneside. I wouldn't want to know what Sir Bobby would think.

Pathetic: Newcastle have been lambasted for their recent defeat at Manchester City

For as Newcastle once again rolled over for a Premier League opposition, it was further evidence that indeed the club is indeed going nowhere. Neither up nor down, Saturday's "showing" alarmingly indicated that the coaching and playing staff may actually share Mike Ashley's non-ambition.

It would take a monumental shift for Newcastle to go down this season, and probably a monumental shift to finish any higher than 11th. Safe in the warm arms of the Premier League, with its mega TV packages, advertising exposure and sponsorship deals. The 19th richest club in the world off the field, but on it a million miles away from their Top 20 counterparts. 

The owner's indifference to on-field success is seeping onto the pitch like poison. Fans and local press are often accused of being too nostalgic, harking back to days of Keegan, Shearer, and Robson. But what else is there to hold onto? We had the ambition of champions, the passion of the fans was replicated on the pitch and in the dugout. Now our heroes are despairing alongside us.
No ambition? Newcastle are stood still under Mike Ashley

I don't think I've written an article that hasn't referenced the Magpies 5th place finish in 2012. But that is my most recent nostalgia, the last ounce of ambition shown - that flickering hope of competing once again in the higher echelons of England. Newcastle's failure to even attempt to capitalise on that impressive campaign is scandalous. The 19th richest club in the world with the Premier League's third biggest stadium shouldn't be finishing any lower than 8th in any season. 

Newcastle's unexpected rise only served to tighten Mike Ashley's grip on their league stability, and fast-tracked the commercial success the owner now enjoys. The club was winning admirers for recruiting Graham Carr's spotted talent in a thrifty manner, but the insistence in only operating in this manner has begun to prove as problematic as it was positive. 

Players being bought young to be sold for profit later on is a well-documented problem in itself, but too often since the "French Revolution" in January 2013 have Newcastle United players succumbed to embarrassing hammering's both home and away. Since the rude awakening of that 6-0 defeat at home to Liverpool, Newcastle have lost by three goals or more to Sunderland, Man City (twice), Swansea, Chelsea, Spurs (twice), Everton, Manchester United, Southampton (twice) and Arsenal (twice). 
Down and out: Too often have Newcastle deflated home fans

None of those defeats have been valiant efforts, all carrying the gutless undertones that were so blatantly on show at the Etihad last time out. All carried the negative, care-free body language that followed every Man City goal. All riddled with individual errors like that of Vurnon Anita, all performed by players lacking passion and desire. Most crucially, all managed by the same management and coaching team

Alan Pardew's departure has only allowed John Carver to carry on over-seeing a wretched 12 months at St James Park. Players continue to lie down when they don't fancy it, offer nothing when falling behind. The only difference is that United would have probably held on to beat Burnley and Stoke under Pardew. Already a miserable situation, Newcastle are now being led by a less suitable Head Coach who's post-match interviews are even more frustrating than his predecessor. 
No answers: Carver has struggled to justify a future as Head Coach

King Kev reckons that Carver won't be in charge going into next season, and fans can only hope so. For fortunes to change on the field, the club needs an overhaul of management and coaching. While they're at it they should hire a new physio team too. United have lost their identity, and only a fresh approach to tactics and team selection can change the prospects on match-day. We all pray for De Boer or Garde, but who would be surprised if Ashley opted for his most cost-effective option?

What has been really telling in recent times is the squad's lack of leadership; compounded as two of Newcastle's substitutes were sent out to apologise for the latest drubbing. Our Club Captain, whose voice I've never heard interviewed, was once again part of a lacklustre defeat, once again absent from the inquest. The side have nobody to galvanise them; Colback was stupid, Sissoko tried to force the initiative but was quick to sulk. How long before Krul gets sick of picking the ball out of the net?
Prize asset: How long before another Newcastle star is moved on?

Coloccini, Gouffran, Williamson, Anita, Sissoko. All part of the sides turned over too often. Cisse is starved of quality service. The Newcastle coaching set up has for too long preferred to continue with these players, continue with the same hapless tactical approach. The win over Liverpool in November was Newcastle's best display this season. Now the likes of Abeid and Obertan can't get a look in despite being fit for a good few weeks; Carver happy to stick with the frustrating Gouffran and Anita. 

The season is not over until that final day. There are league positions to fight for, a derby to win, impressions to make. If Newcastle are looking to bring in a fresh Head Coach then these players should be fighting for their futures. Krul, Sissoko, and Perez are by far the club's prized assets; but how long before these assets are cashed in? Abeid, Aarons, Ameobi, and Obertan should be given the opportunity to flourish between now and May; Ryan Taylor too. 
Something to play for: United need to utilise the returning Aarons

If the owner opts to ignore the blatant need for new Management structure next season, I dread to think of the direction Newcastle United might head. A continual orbit around mid-table mediocrity, an occasional flirtation with the trap-door. Moments of promise forever dashed, that nagging reminder of the suffering of this great football club. Sleeping giants.

A fresh impetus in the dugout is needed to awaken Newcastle on the field. If Charnley and Ashley have the ambition we all doubt, they will give the club what it needs. What is really needed of course is a fresh impetus from top to bottom, but that's not going to happen any time soon. The least the owner can do is give the fans something to be proud of on the pitch while he continues to cash in.

But hey John Carver is cheap and available, so what do I know?