Monday, 26 September 2011

Can’t Ba Me Love – Newcastle’s Surprising Start Continues

A month is a long time in football. On August 26th, there was mass teeth-knashing on Tyneside, as a disappointing transfer window was creaking to a close for Newcastle and their much-maligned owner Mike Ashley. As a fan of the club, I try to keep my articles on their fortunes to a minimum, preferring to try and broaden my horizons a bit with the fortunes of other clubs. But I feel I can make an exception, as the Magpies currently sit pretty nestled amongst the leading lights in fourth place. As this probably won’t last much longer, now is as good a time as any to cash in on such unexpected success.

Due to the hush-hush nature of much of Mike Ashley’s transfer dealings, it is not appropriate to place a figure on how much was spent this summer. One thing is for certain though – it was nowhere near the total fee recouped by the sales of Carroll, Nolan and Enrique. At the time, many fans, myself included, were quite dismayed at this, and arguably with good reason. Jose Enrique was replaced with an unproven, injury prone right-footed left-back in Davide Santon. I eagerly await his debut, and hope he is the real deal. As I type this however, he remains on the sidelines, leaving the square Ryan Taylor-shaped peg to fit into the roundest of holes. The centre of defence is one injury or suspension away from being filled by James Perch, who is barely Championship standard. For now though, the side are getting away with it.

A key reason for the defence remaining largely solid so far is the sheer talent of those in the centre of the midfield. Check Tiote and Yohan Cabaye provide the ideal balance of poise in possession and biting tackles – as long as these two remain fit, points will be picked up, as they are providing chance after chance for an often mediocre strike force. On the wings, there is the work-rate of Jonas and the pace of Obertan. While the latter often flatters to deceive, like so many of his predecessors on the right wing, he at least worries defences. In addition to this, manager Alan Pardew is beginning to welcome Marveaux and Ben Arfa into the side, giving even further competition for places ( surely the most important component for a successful side ).

Up front, the numbers are there, but is the quality? At the beginning of the month, there were serious doubts. There probably still are. The bare facts however, tell us that both Demba Ba and Leon Best have three Premier League goals to their name. Alan Pardew seems to have turned his much-regretted lack of January purchases to his advantage. Think of it this way, if you were a footballer who was constantly being questioned, with lists of bigger names being suggested to replace you, it would act as a serious motivation to prove those nay-sayers wrong. Everyone (apart from the disgraceful gun-toting drink-driving Nile Ranger) has grabbed the opportunities to get themselves on the scoresheet, and with such a currently dominant midfield, there are plenty of those. Demba Ba in particular was a revelation against Blackburn, with a dynamic hat-trick to evoke memories of the great Tino Asprilla. Keep that up, with Ben Arfa soon to be supplying the bullets, and yet more progress can be made.

In the next five games, only Spurs at home represents a truly formidable opposition, and Newcastle could yet find themselves firmly entrenched in the top six by the time stiffer challenges arise. Mike Ashley is well known as a gambler – could his ownership of Newcastle finally be about to reach a turning point as a result of a gamble? He risked everything by not signing his manager a new striker – yet Alan Pardew’s reputation is only gaining more credibility by maximising what he has. Top ten would still represent a considerable step forward for the Magpies, but another point or three at Wolves will have people toying with the possibility of more.

Thursday, 22 September 2011

Michael Owen – A Tale Of What Could Have Been

Michael Owen fired us a reminder of his capabilities this week with an impressive brace of goals at Elland Road to see off an admittedly lacklustre Leeds. His record of 11 goals in 12 starts is typical of the man. What is probably airbrushed aside from these statistics is that most of those goals have come against less than solid defences – when Sir Alex Ferguson feels he can risk fielding a striker who can ressemble a passenger more often than not.

Sadly, the former England great has been on the slide ever since he left Anfield in 2004. At Real Madrid he quickly realised that his opportunities would be limited, and a year down the line he was seemingly begging for a return to his natural home of Liverpool. Instead he got Newcastle. For a man who takes great pride in his PR, and diplomacy skills, such open courting of his former employers did not exactly endear him to his new Geordie “fanbase”. His unveiling probably marked the height of Newcastle’s previous trophy signing culture. Twenty thousand screaming work-skippers hailed his arrival, many of these blissfully ignorant of where his true heart lay, lapping up the cringingly forced “Howay the lads” sound bites. Rarely would Michael Owen feel such love again.

Before long, it became clear to many that Owen’s true ambitions lay at international level. In the early days of his St James’ Park stay, he was still considered an automatic choice for the national team, and he would often give the impression of a man unwilling to bust a gut for his club – saving himself for the “bigger” world stage that Newcastle could not offer him. Despite this, his goal ratio (aside from his final season, where his listless “captain” performances undoubtedly contributed to relegation for his side) was extremely respectable.

So in the summer of 2009, his Newcastle contract had run down, and his half-hearted statements professing his loyalty and willingness to stay were quickly forgotten, and the man became a free agent. His time at Newcastle is one that Owen will surely regret for the rest of his life. While he had already lost some of his pace by this stage, he was still a top-class finisher, and for him to spend the second half of his twenties (the generally accepted peak of a player’s power) at the Toon hinted at ambition being sacrificed for a fat pay cheque. Not once during his time in the North East did a top six finish look likely.

His PR machine soon kicked into overdrive, with his infamous brochure ending up online over the summer. By this stage, Michael Owen was a pale shadow of his former self, and such a desperate move made his eventual arrival at Manchester United all the more surprising. His current situation is one that everyone is happy with. His previous undying love for Liverpool can easily be swept aside by playing for a club of Man United’s stature, and he is still getting top level European football, at least on paper. But for a player of such potential, surely being fifth choice striker at Old Trafford is a failure? His last-minute winner against Man City in his first season will earn him endless goodwill from supporters, but that substitute appearance remains his one meaningful contribution to the first-choice Man United team.

Then again, had he been unhappy with this state of affairs a new contract would not have been signed this summer. Perhaps he realises he can do no better, and is content to slowly wind the clock down on his career – earning good money and adding another glittering club to his increasingly flattering CV.

By Gerard Walton

Monday, 19 September 2011

The Best and Worst the Premier League Has to Offer

The first of this season's Sky-branded Grand Slam Sundays gave us thrills and spills of the highest order - some top quality finishing, and some top quality grimacing. And that was only at Old Trafford. Wayne Rooney enhanced his solid gold reputation with a decent finish, before doing his best John Terry impression at the other end. I can only hope that Terry bit his tongue afterwards, as he knows all too well the pain of such a slip. Rooney's main consolation can come in the fact that the result was not influenced one iota by his unfortunate few seconds.

Fernando Torres scored a goal that was undoubtedly more impressive than Wayne's, but the memory of that, and an all-round very good performance will be airbrushed aside to focus on what will surely be the miss of the season. Even more heartbreakingly for the £50m Spaniard, he had fashioned that open goal opportunity himself, with some deft footwork to leave the keeper for dead. Unlike Rooney's miss however, it proved ultimately costly, with the deficit remaining two, and a possible grandstand finish ruled out. As I remarked shortly afterwards though, in the beer-fuelled hilarity that ensued, the lack of a close finish was more than compensated for by the sheer "I can't believe what I just witnessed" that filled the remaining few minutes.

In all seriousness, Chelsea gave a good account of themselves. The only thing that seperated the two sides was a slightly more clinical United attack, and a Chelsea defence slightly lacking in pace. I am not including Berbatov in this 'clinical' attack, as he squandered a far-post opportunity that in any other match would have been the worst piece of finishing. The Bulgarian smacks of a man who knows that his time as a regular starter has come and gone, with Rooney and Hernandez ushering in a more energetic age.

Before this memorable Old Trafford encounter came a shockingly one-sided 4-0 win for Spurs against a disappointing Liverpool side. If the late afternoon kick-off showed us the best and worst attacking, the White Hart Lane bonanza showed the best and worst midfield displays on offer. Somewhat predictably Luka Modric was at the heart of most of Tottenham's good work - the crowning glory being a stunningly powerful yet beautiful strike in the first ten minutes. For him not to be awarded man of the match ahead of Adebayor was somewhat surprising - the Togolese striker had not yet scored his admittedly impressive second goal - but Modric and Parker showed evidence of a bourgening and effective partnership in the Spurs engine room.

The worst performance of the afternoon came from Jordan Henderson. It wasn't that he did anything particularly wrong - more that he just didn't do anything. Peripheral would not describe his display. I turned to my friend after about 35 minutes having heard Henderson's name, and the shared reaction was "I didn't know he was playing". After a quick online check on my phone, sure enough, the £20m man was in the starting 11. In name, but seemingly not in body. So much so, that I would argue Liverpool ended the match with eight and not nine men. Dalglish either needs Gerrard back fit as soon as possible, or Henderson to justify his price tag.

Monday, 12 September 2011

Sports News Round-Up

The last week has been a fantastic one for sport - so much so that I will not focus solely on football this time. And not just because Newcastle United are yet to play. But there has nonetheless been some noteworthy Premier League action.

I will start my analysis with arguably the best and most polished performance of the weekend - Manchester City. United fans may disagree (admittedly 5-0 at Bolton is more impressive on paper) but some of the skills on display at Eastlands were enough to banish any memories of Mancini's dour football of the past. He has been right to start at the back. With the likes of Nasri and Aguero he now has built a complete side, on a rock solid foundation of Hart, Kompany, Richards, Clichy etc. Nasri and Silva look set to tear the league to shreds on current form, and Aguero is proving to be almost a snip at £30m, if that is possible. While tougher challenges lie ahead (a quick look at the fixture list reveals December to particularly treacherous) City have a golden opportunity to set an early pace.

Or at least they would, if their great rivals from Old Trafford weren't intent on matching anything they do with brutal authority. Wayne Rooney in particular seems determined to outshine the likes of Aguero and Dzeko, and two successive hat-tricks certainly grab his share of the headlines. However, we have seen before how Rooney can tend to drift in and out of form, and it will be interesting to see whether his goalscoring run can be sustained over the entire season.

In the meantime, Arsenal took a first babystep towards potential recovery, although the nature of their incredibly fortunate winner would suggest that a cutting edge remains absent. Improvement is needed.

One story that may have slipped under the radar slightly is the continuing woeful form of Sunderland. I will not turn down this rare opportunity to gloat at a rival's misfortune, and Asamoah Gyan's deplorable conduct had Steve Bruce spitting feathers in his MOTD interview. And this is before you scratch the surface of their defeat to Chelsea. What I will say is that I have rarely seen such blatant disrespect shown to a club. Sunderland paid a club record £13m to sign the Ghanian international, and undoubtedly a decent wage, and for Gyan to seek pastures new after half a good season is not a move that will attract the attention of any ambitious club worth their salt come next summer.


I previously promised I would hold back on any US Open commentary until Murray had made his inevitable semi-final exit, and so here it is - I will stick my neck out and say that Andy Murray will never win a Grand Slam. Federer, Djokovic, and Nadal are all streets ahead of him, particularly in majors. The likelihood of all 3 being off their game in the same tournament is slim. Djokovic is the current best player in the world, but the way the seedings are structured at present Murray cannot even get past Nadal to earn his own shot at the Serb. For the Scot to have any hope in the mental department, which is undoubtedly where is biggest issue lies, he must stick to the plan he claims to have to beat a fully fit Nadal. Worryingly, Novak canned Murray in Australia, on the one occasion Murray fought his way through the draw.

The final itself, Nadal vs Djokovic, promises to be a match to remember. Even the Serb's epic semi-final comeback against Federer will live long in the memory, as he twice came back from the dead to underline his growing authority over the Swiss maestro.


If you'll excuse the unforgivable pun, the English cricket team continue to hold an Indian sign over their rivals, with India only managing a tie in the Lords one-day international on Sunday. With Eoin Morgan being ruled out for the summer, and Stuart Broad now suffering a torn shoulder muscle, the in-form England side will be glad for an opportunity to regroup, and prepare for what will be a tough Indian tour later in the year against a wounded animal. First India suffered a 4-0 whitewash in losing their number one Test status, and now they have lost the one-day series. There remains a dead rubber match at Cardiff, but with England's mounting injury worries there remains an opportunity for the Indians to get on the board.


Simon Dyson won his 3rd KLM Open in the Netherlands yesterday, finishing a shot clear of fellow Englishman David Lynn. 12-under-par was his final score, as Dyson moved into the top 30 rankings for the first time in his career. US Open champion Rory McIlroy finished 3rd, a further shot back, as his fine year continues. The Northern Irishman will now return to 3rd place in the rankings.

Monday, 5 September 2011

Sports News Round-Up

The past weekend was home to the mildly irritating sideshow of international football. It was also home to several defining matches, which will shape the future UK football for years to come. Or so we would be led to believe! In reality, we don't know anything that hasn't already been discussed to death. England are a better side than most - certainly better than Bulgaria - but will continue to fall short when the real tests roll around. Scotland and the Republic of Ireland are not quite tournament standard, and will only make up numbers should they sneak in through the back door. Northern Ireland will not challenge for any more than respectability.

The only real interesting story is of possible progress for Wales. While Gary Speed's first win as manager is hardly reason to uncork the champagne too prematurely, it should be seen as a welcome step forward. With the likes of Aaron Ramsey and Gareth Bale to build a new generation around, they could yet be dark horses for qualification at future tournaments. Is Gary Speed the man to harness their talent? Or is he the latest in a long line of heat-over-head appointments, full of "passion" but low on tactical intelligence? I will be following his progress very closely, while of course accepting that anything other than a tonking at Wembley will be cause for muted satisfaction.

With the dust settling on the transfer window, Arsene Wenger will have reason to believe the worst of the storm has passed. Despite Jack Wilshere being ruled out for the next 3 months, Arteta and Benayoun represent good business in the market, as well as a raising of the squad's average age by about a decade. Realistically though, can these two really fill the gap left by Fabregas and Nasri. My prediction that Arsenal will struggle to reach Europe cannot be altered by such a drop in midfield quality.

One club that are up the creek without a paddle are Everton. Arteta has been their main source of creativity for the best part of a decade, and with Yakubu and Beckford following him out the door, the reliance on Tim Cahill for goals will only increase. I hate to say this, as I think David Moyes is a fantastic manger and a sure-fire candidate to replace Sir Alex at Old Trafford, but I can only see a bitter relegation ahead for Everton. Hopefully Blackburn's below-par managerial situation will keep the Toffees bobbing their heads above water for now.

Speaking of below-par managerial situations, (well, chairman situations anyway..) Newcastle's latest deadline day of inactivity has left Alan Pardew hoping to turn Leon Best and Demba Ba into a world-beating combo of dynamic goalscoring quality.... good luck Alan! In all seriousness, I fail to see where any serious worries about relegation will come from on Tyneside. Mike Ashley is a fine businessman. He will do enough to keep Newcastle in the division. If anyone is hoping for any serious ambitions beyond that though, they'd best go support another team for a couple of years...

That's all till next week, where I will have real football to talk about! I'm saving my words on Andy Murray's US Open campaign until after it crashes and burns at the quarter/semi-final stage...