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Sunday, August 29, 2004

State of the Toon

Yesterday's capitulation at Aston Villa makes it one win in eleven for Newcastle United. We haven't won away from home since Halloween last year and morale is low. People are saying the manager should go, the players should take the blame or that it's the chairman's fault. I suspect they're all right. Here's my take...

How bad is it?
We're not going down and we're not the new Leeds United. On the other hand we are going *backwards*. Last season Chelsea and Liverpool consolidated their position as 'definately better than us'. This season sides like Villa, Blackburn, Charlton, Boro, Spurs and Bolton are going to be hoping to get into the sixth spot in the table so we can't expect a free pass into Europe. If things don't improve soon mid-table obscurity beckons.

On the Pitch
We still can't defend, but more seriously we keep failing to turn up. It's rare to read a match report which praises Newcastle for the effort and work rate lately. Last season Shearer and Speed worked their socks off, but players like Viana, Robert, Jenas and Dyer consistently failed to deliver. This is a bit harsh on Robert as well, since his 'lack of effort' included 12 goals, double what Jenas and Dyer managed between them.

Injuries have been frustrating, especially to Woodgate and Bellamy, but it's not like we've suffered the way Spurs seem to with half the team out.

The finances are OK. In recent years we've made profits, player wages haven't been excessive (although I'd like to see them lower) and money from the champions league hasn't been spent before it's been earned. That said there are plenty of problems, like the lack of a proper independent remunerations committee for the board, the clubs' inability to explain what our 'international' subsidiary in Gibraltar actually does. While the Chairman's certainly done a solid job in finding revenue sources and bringing in players I still don't get the sense the club is all that well run. Perhaps most telling is a dividend policy that seems to be operating for the benefit of the Chairman and Chief Executive.

That we've appraently got the money to bid for Wayne Rooney shows we can't be completely skint.

Management Structure
Who's in charge seems to be a complicated question at Newcastle. Robson is the manager, but reports over the summer suggested that the Chairman was pursuing his own shopping list of players (Kluivert, not Beattie, low priority for a new right back...) The sudden bid for Rooney reinforces this. We're not short of strikers and bringing Rooney in would probably mean saying goodbye to at least one of Bellamy and Ameobi, we don't need him, we need a replacement for Woodgate, I'm sure the manager knows this. It does though seem like the kind of thing the Chairman likes to do, proving we're a big club with a big reputation and so on...

Meanwhile as heir apparent as manager and most influential player Shearer presumably has something close to a veto on major decisions. One thing that is clear is that it's still Robson who picks the team.

I worry about our training policy. The list of players who've come to St James' Park and got better is worryingly short. Shola Ameobi has improved a lot over the past few seasons. Craig Bellamy improved almost instantly, winning young player of the year in his first season. (so quick was that improvement I'm not sure we can take the credit, his knee surgeon might deserve it instead).

On the other hand, Lua Lua, Dyer, Jenas, Bramble, Chopra, Viana and Ambrose, some of the hottest talent in the Premiership have failed to improve at all. Following Gary Speed's move to Bolton he commented that training there was much harder and that he was learning a lot. Arsenal and Man Utd have delivered consistent improvements in their new signings for years. Look at the way O'shea, Fletcher and Miller have come through at Man Utd or the improvement in Cygan and Toure at Arsenal. If we are going to go round buying players with potential and talent rather than experience and class we'd better be confident of our training system - and I'm not.

What needs doing?
1. Professionalise the boardroom and the bootroom. More transparency about the finances, tight discipline for players - particularly when talking to the press.

2. New coaching staff. Pulling in world class coaches for the youth and reserve sides who are independent from the manager of the first team, and getting some top notch support for the manager are a must. I've never understood why a teams 'coaching setup' gets completely restructured everytime the man at the top is changed. Continuity needs to be built into squad development.

3. A strong manager. Could be Bobby, could be someone else, but the manager has got to have the final say on discipline, on tactics and on signings. Without that we'll have more episodes of players refusing to do what they're told or behave on their nights off.

As with so many things it seems almost certain that the quick fix will be attempted, a new manager and a panic signing or two. We've tried this before and it hasn't worked. What we need is a well planned revolution, the kind Ferguson brought in at Man U, Wenger carried off at Arsenal and Mourinho / Abramovich are trying at Chelsea. In his own way Sam Allardyce's transformation of Bolton into the most scientificly managed side in the Premiership is another example.

Any new manager will have to bring vision, coaching excellence and a long term plan that has the backing of the board. I'm not sure that those are qualities we'll get if we sack Bobby, install Shearer and blow £20m on a new forward...

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