After a season of relative procession by the frantic standards of the Coca-Cola Championship, Newcastle United go into the final game of the season safe in the knowledge that they will regain their place among England’s footballing elite next term. With the preparations undoubtedly already being made for a summer of transfer activity, the question of how the Magpies are braced for the rigours of the Premiership is particularly pressing. A championship-winning campaign may well have been the solution to the never-ending turmoil in the North-East.
Promoted in a wave of euphoria, Newcastle managed to steer relatively clear of the disarray that has followed them since the departure of Sir Bobby Robson six years ago. Manager Chris Hughton has benefited from the maintenance of a squad which was, by and large, far too strong for the Championship from the outset, and the spine of the team stands up to scrutiny when compared with many of the Premiership’s bottom-half. Steve Harper is a goalkeeper of enormous calibre, who has seemingly suffered for ten years in the shadows of Shay Given’s brilliance. After the latter’s move to Manchester City, Harper filled the gap comfortably and it is unfortunate that the Magpies found themselves playing in the second tier during World Cup year. When England’s limited options are observed, Harper can consider himself unfortunate to have missed out on the opportunity to stake his claim for the national team.
Whilst being regarded slightly more favourably than is realistic, undoubtedly stemming from his ‘local boy’ nature, Steven Taylor is a solid, if limited, central defender who has added a degree of reliability to the infamous shambles at the heart of Newcastle’s defence. Fabricio Coloccini remains nervy, however, and a partner for Taylor should be near the top of Hughton’s wish-list. A move for Joseph Yobo has been mentioned – whether David Moyes would be willing to let the Nigerian leave is debatable, but the strong Nigerian would prove an outstanding signing.
The addition of Wayne Routledge has given the midfield some genuine pace, something Newcastle have been lacking since the departure of Kieron Dyer. A prodigy during Crystal Palace’s ultimately unsuccessful 04/05 Premiership campaign, his move to Spurs was ill-timed and ill-advised. Routledge’s career subsequently seemed to stall, but an added maturity to his game has given him another shot at the big time. His marvellous goal against Plymouth recently displayed that his acceleration and poise has remained, and he could very well be key to Newcastle’s chances next term.
The centre of the park, despite a number of options, needs undoubted investment. A serious lack of creativity was one of the major reasons for the side’s ultimate relegation last season, and they remain as gritty and defensive as ever. Kevin Nolan is a classic midfield-breaker, but whilst his form has returned this term his ability to perform in the Premiership deserted him following his move from Bolton. Alan Smith is committed and a fan favourite, but his eye for a pass has never been his strong point whilst Joey Barton’s time is surely up, a career of massive potential ruined by an idiotic attitude and a refusal to grow up.
Hull’s relegation has effectively put Jimmy Bullard up for sale, with the Tigers in desperate need to recoup some of the £5m they splashed out in January ’09. Bullard’s fitness is not reliable, but his creative spark and cult-hero status would suit Newcastle down to the ground. His wages, a reported £45,000 per week, would need to be slashed but surely he would be willing to make the sacrifice for a prolonged top-flight career. Similarly, a move for Portsmouth loanee Jamie O’Hara, either temporarily or permanently, would give the midfield a real zest and vigour.
It has been said this season that Wolves have proven that you don’t need to score goals to stay up. Whilst that may be partially true, though statistics never tell the whole tale, that doesn’t mean a top-quality striker isn’t the key for survival. If rankings were made of the best performing strikers in the league this year, Kevin Doyle would be in the top 6 – his work-rate and movement has been the difference between 16th and 19th. Andy Carroll has scored his fair share of goals in the second-tier, and looks a good prospect, but Newcastle badly need a nimble, agile partner for the big Geordie. Peter Lovenkrands is not Premiership class, whilst Leon Best is barely Championship quality. Jermaine Beckford has been mentioned, but a hit-and-miss prima-donna will not help Newcastle’s cause. Following Burnley’s relegation, the availability of Steven Fletcher should be investigated, whilst a loan option for Robbie Keane may not be as ridiculous as it appears given Harry Redknapp’s desire to keep on Eidur Gudjohnsen. Fletcher has proven a handful this term, whilst Keane has so much experience it’s hard to believe he’s only 29 – perhaps not the player of 2006, but top-drawer nonetheless.
Mike Ashley seems to be happy to keep the club on, for now, which means he must surely invest in the playing staff. Whether Hughton is ready for the job at hand or not is debatable – most would probably say no – but he deserves a shot with a clean slate and a sizeable budget. Newcastle were not good enough to stay up in 08/09, and their squad is worse than it was on that fateful day at Villa Park. However, the base of a mid-table side remains, and it can only be a matter of time before the club rises up the table. The infrastructure is there and the fans are there, but they have been let down in the past by poor transfer dealings. It’s now Hughton’s chance to banish the memories of Xisco, Cacapa and Geremi and to create a new era at Newcastle United.
Written By James Aldridge