As the dark nights close in, many football fans’ thoughts turn to the impending transfer window. Even educated guesswork and the pessimism borne of classic Magpie experience couldn’t have predicted the events of early December, nor the possibilities thrown up in their aftermath. We can go either of two ways now, a Kinnear-style appointment which dooms us to no budget and sales of anything even remotely promising in our squad, or one of someone who will stand up to the owner, say what needs to be said and help us progress. I know which I’m expecting, but just for the sake of argument I’ll assume at first we’ll be doing things the right way this January.
Even before Chris Hughton’s sacking, the season has been a strange one. Newcastle epitomised the inconsistencies which have characterised the Premier League as a whole. A team capable of winning away at Everton, Arsenal, West Ham and Chelsea has dropped points at home to Blackpool, Stoke, Wigan, Blackburn and Fulham. At our best defensively well-organized and solid, playing against sides chasing the win seems to suit us. However, at home we have struggled to create chances and break sides down when presented with possession by visitors reluctant to commit men forward. Changing tactics from our initial 4-5-1 to a 4-4-2 with Ameobi joining Carroll doesn’t seem to have helped in this respect, if anything making it easier for visitors to clog midfield with extra numbers.
Obvious personnel problems exist. Our team was lop-sided when Hughton ignored Routledge on the right and preferred Barton or an uncomfortable Guthrie to play out of position there. A new right-sided midfielder would provide much-needed balance, and enable us to stretch opposition defences right across the pitch. Also, with our central midfield consisting mainly of Tiote, Barton and Nolan following the loss of Ben Arfa, we lack both the flair to open up stubborn opponents, and the athleticism in that area to effectively support our strikers from midfield. Finally, beyond Shola and Carroll, our strikers don’t look up to the job. In particular, Lovenkrands, who in an ideal world would be our pacy striking option, has underwhelmed since our promotion.
We have some senior squad members who are firmly second choice or worse, and we should be looking to move these on. Ryan Taylor is behind Danny Simpson and nowhere near a first-team slot. Perch hasn’t been a success and with his purchaser gone there is no face to save in keeping him any more. Alan Smith is obviously inferior to the marvellous Tiote. Rather than retaining him as cover we’d be better off finding a youngster who can improve to fill his squad place. Perhaps this could be Gosling’s role. Neither Lovenkrands or Best are good enough to challenge for a place up front, so we should replace them with at least one who is.
The problem position on our right-hand side could be filled by one of two players who could become available for different reasons. Sebastian Larsson of Birmingham City is out of contract at the end of this season, and his delivery could suit Carroll. Niko Kranjcar is out of favour at Spurs and supposedly available for £4m. Technically very good, he’s just as comfortable playing centrally. Up front I’d take a punt on someone like Nicky Maynard of Bristol City, who is fast, strong, tricky, and capable of the spectacular. He has been injured since pre-season but is due back before Christmas. Another on his way back is Michael Johnson of Man City who can either sit in front of the back four or drive the side on from box-to-box. A great young player but with no chance currently at City. Hopefully he would see the opportunity in coming here. Just as with Maynard however, someone who hasn’t played football for a long time couldn’t be signed without the most stringent of medicals – we’ve signed too many crocks not to be wary – and it might even be a wiser idea to wait and go for them in the summer if there’s any doubt.
Most probably however, we will remain a selling club. Our new appointment will likely be required to throw himself into selling the proven and replacing with promise. Carroll, Steven Taylor, Tiote and Enrique are all either standout performers or are rumoured to be attracting attention. Carroll in particular would seem almost certain to be the subject of a bid in January. To lose someone who has become our talisman in the last year would be a disaster, changing the whole dynamic of the side. Perhaps our best hope is for the club to be aware of what he could be worth and refuse to get taken to the cleaners in terms of price like we did with Given. Such an attitude might see him turn out for us in the second half of the season after all. We’d all like the club to push on with new purpose under the new man, while thanking Hughton for the job done. The unpalatable likelihood is that the club’s fortunes are about to take a downturn, as losing key players would cut the throat of our revival even more than the loss of the manager. In that case thinking of ways to improve us would be to misunderstand the aims chosen for our club, bare survival for the purpose of maximising cash generation.