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Saturday, 7 August 2010

Let's All Have A Xisco

Magic Spongers’ new boy Alex Bingle looks at returning Premier League big boys Newcastle United in the sort of new-boy-on-returning-big-boy encounter normally reserved for sprog-bashing day at boarding school.

The Toon Army; football’s believers, the legion of dreamers. It started again with Kevin Keegan’s revolution and is yet to abate. They are one of the biggest clubs in England: big stadium, big support and (until recently) big money signings. You can’t really argue that Newcastle United are not a major player in Premier League folklore unless, of course, you move in Mackem-biased football fraternities. Counting the likes of Andy Cole, Les Ferdinand, Peter Beardsley, David Ginola and Alan Shearer among their alumni and with a passionate fan base and atmosphere to match, St. James’ Park will still be an intimidating venue this season.

However, every footballing fairytale has its flip-side and on a May afternoon at Villa Park in 2009, a group of fairly decent footballers left the Premier League in a manner undeserving of their loyal support. And if you look at the team that succumbed with barely a whimper at Aston Villa, it isn’t all that bad:
Harper, Coloccini, Steven Taylor, Edgar, Duff, Guthrie, Nolan, Butt, Lovenkrands, Viduka, Martins. Subs: Krul, Jose Enrique, Owen, Smith, Gutierrez, Ameobi, Ryan Taylor.

This is not a team you would expect to be relegated from the Premier League. Nevertheless, give or take a few, well-known managerial legend Chris Who-ton managed to retain the core of Newcastle’s squad for the Championship season. This is the side that started the first game of last season’s successful Championship term:

Harper, Coloccini, Enrique, Steven Taylor, Ryan Taylor, Nolan, Duff, Gutierrez, Smith, Ameobi, Carroll, Subs: Krul, Kadar, Barton, Geremi, LuaLua, Xisco, Ranger

Their core set of experienced Premier League players (Harper, Nolan, Smith, Barton, Butt) mixed in with some decent young locals (Taylor and Carroll) and with a bit of added Argentina (Coloccini and Gutierrez) made for a bunch of players still capable of plying their trade at the top level. They would not have been blamed for jumping ship after the drop like Martins and Owen did. Others, like Milner and N’Zogbia, already had their crystal balls out and made very shrewd decisions on their careers before the impending disaster of relegation. But the other established players stayed and with Hughton, navigated fairly seamlessly out of the Championship at the first attempt.

What of Newcastle’s return to the Premier League then? A Geordie friend of mine assures me that the Barcode faithful don’t wish to see any more washed-out mercenaries (Patrick Kluivert) or sexy-sounding footballers that turn out to be bigger chumps than Kluivert (Xisco, I’m talking about you), but this does not explain the slightly worrying lack of transfer activity at St. James’s Park. Maybe Newcastle no longer have that ‘big team’ pull? Sol Campbell (fat?) and Dan Gosling (injured) may prove astute signings, irrespective of the timing of their moves, but barring some late transfer activity Newcastle go into the new season with pretty much the same squad that won promotion from the Championship.

I will stand by my feeling that Newcastle will be comfortable in the Premier League, but somebody (Rob) pointed out that despite signing two Premier League players on the cheap, they are no stronger - and haven’t been allowed to strengthen – as the new season approaches. The release of Nicky Butt has, if anything, weakened the squad. However, I remember making that same point about Wolves last season. Mick McCarthy’s respective teams from the last day of their successful Championship promotion season 2008-2009 and the opening day fixture in last season’s Premier League campaign are also very similar:

Final Championship v. Doncaster: Hennessey, Foley, Ward, Stearman, Craddock, Berra, Edwards, Henry, Ebanks-Blake, Keogh, Jarvis. Subs: Vokes, Elokobi, Hemmings, Collins, Hill.

Opening Premier League v West Ham: Hennessey, Foley, Ward, Milijas, Henry, Craddock, Mancienne, Halford, Ebanks-Blake, Keogh, Jarvis. Subs: Vokes, Edwards, Stearman, Elokobi, Hahnemann, David Jones, Surman.

Bar the addition of Mancienne (on loan) and Milijas, the team is hardly any different. Kevin Doyle was another successful signing, although he didn’t feature early on in the campaign due to injury. That said, it is extremely dangerous for promoted teams to stick with the players that got them promoted – Blackpool could turn out to be a tragic case in point, no matter Ian Holloway’s travails in the transfer market. Wolves’ Premier League survival was all the more impressive given that none of their squad had a large amount of top-flight experience and even now, most people would struggle to name you five Wolves players when pressed. However, they proved a hard team to break down and – while it may not have been the glitz and glamour regularly demanded by Premier League audiences – they survived quite comfortably in the end.

The Geordie faithful may be more demanding of ‘sexy’ football but I for one feel they have the calibre to be comfortably in the league come May 2011. A goalscorer is most definitely required though, and I still half expect Shearer to be tempted out of retirement if one can’t be found before the transfer window shuts. Who knows, mind you, how Newcastle’s squad will respond to the pressure if dragged into another relegation battle. If you offered a 17th place finish to a Newcastle fan right now, they’d probably bite your arm off. Alex Bingle

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