Premiership Countdown: 9 Days to Go.
By Bruce Gottesman, EPL Talk correspondent
I’ve followed Newcastle United since early in the 2001-2 season. A couple of things happened at that time which led to that:
- MLS contracted the Miami Fusion. I was a season ticket holder, and have not watched more than a few minutes of MLS play since then.
- I moved to Margate, Florida, which had Fox Sports World. That meant I could follow the EPL.
Since I had no club allegiance, I got to choose as a kind of free agent. Sure, I could go with Man U like everybody else in the world. My favorite player used to be Cantona, but he doesn’t play for them anymore. I like Bergkamp, too, but that’s also pretty cliche. I learned that Ray Hudson, former Striker player and Fusion manager, is from Newcastle and played for them. And Alan Shearer is The Man. I checked out the fan site NUFC.com, which was awesome – the hosts there are great. So I chose the Black and Whites. About 2 months in I realized I had chosen the EPL equivalent of the Chicago Cubs. Oh, well…
It’s been a very unusual 5 years. From Uncle Bobby and a Champions League place to 14th two years ago to the well-deserved sacking of Souness to the current squad under Glenn Roeder, it’s been a soap opera.
Now on to the current season. Newcastle’s season started early with a place in the Intertoto Cup. After a rusty opener, they’ve won two straight now, including tonight’s win at Ventspils in Latvia. The lineup today looked like this:
Stephen Carr Titus Bramble Craig Moore Celestine Babayato
Nolberto Solano Scott Parker Emre Damien Duff
Goalkeeper: There may be keepers on the same level as Shay Given, but you won’t find anybody better. The backup Steve Harper isn’t a bad choice either, but Given is truly great.
Defense: A serious problem since I’ve been watching Newcastle. Maybe Bramble has figured out how to play, as his late-season form last Spring was a considerable step up from being considered the worst player in the league by many. They have some useful players in the back now, with Peter Ramage, Steve Taylor, and Craig Moore. They probably won’t have Babayaro for too much longer, as he’s rumored to be sent out for more cash to spend on a forward (more on that in a bit).
Midfield: The strength of the team. You won’t find too many sides in the world to compare with the starting 4 of Duff, Emre, Parker and Solano and the strength of the bench. All four can make plays and score. Butt is being used as a fifth defender, but the club can also use attacking players in Charles N’Zogbia on the left, Kieron Dyer and James Milner.
Forward: It looked like the torch was being passed from retiring legend Alan Shearer to new superstar Michael Owen. Unfortunately, Owen’s a bit brittle, and he hurt himself this Summer again (probably not news to anyone reading this). His return this season is extremely doubtful. With Shearer’s retirement – though with his knee injury late last year he would have missed a lot of time too – the team has only 2 forwards on the roster – Shola Ameobi and Alberto Luque. But the latter has been out of favor from the moment he got here, which leaves Ameobi as the sole striker in the current lineup. Is another forward coming in? Who knows:
Transfers: Much talk about transfers has amounted to nothing (nowt in Newcastle-speak) other than Damien Duff, who plays left wing. As much as I like him, it’s strange to bring him to a club that already had N’zogbia and Milner on the left side. It’s almost like the US World Cup squad… but I digress. There has been talk of Dirk Kuyt to come in alongside Shola. Thomas Gravesen is rumored to be on his way from Real Madrid. Other than that, it’s hard to pin anything down. The Intertoto win and another advancement in the UEFA Cup should help bring another forward to the northeast.
Outlook: It’s hard to see where this club can compete regularly with Chelsea, Man United, Liverpool and Arsenal. The best they can hope for, presumably, is to stay close enough to those fourth and finish in UEFA Cup qualification. It’s just too much to ask for a team that may have trouble scoring goals and at the same time has a recent history of spotty defending. But at least the horror story that was the Souness era is fading quickly, and there’s no reason to think Roeder can’t build this club back to where the 52,000-odd fans at ever Saint James’ Park match think they belong.