Newcastle United – The Club Who Deserve Relegation

by Johnny Connelly
Carver

Once again in England’s bloated top division, the foot of the table has been far more interesting than the summit. At one point we had eight or nine clubs scrambling to avoid the drop; and with just one space still to be decided, it’s clear to me that Newcastle United have earned that spot.

It’s often a heart-breaking affair where a smaller club has battled against the odds to take it to the last day, only to fall at the final hurdle. This won’t be the case for Newcastle.

The Tyneside club have outdone themselves on the disarray front this season. Campaign after campaign, they make the same mistakes, segwaying gracefully from one crisis to another. While the Toon Army will be quick to blame this season on Mike Ashley, I’d argue that the 2014/15 shambles was brought on by themselves as they fought tooth and nail to oust a manager who had them challenging for a top 10 finish.

After months of pressure, ‘Pardew Out’ planes flying over St James, and even the launch of www.sackpardew.com, the 2012 Premiership Manager of the year jumped before he was pushed. Newcastle United were sitting 10th in the table, just 5 point off a European spot. In stepped John Carver, a man who “loves the club”, as we’ve heard so often. Fast forward 5 months, and the Magpies are fighting for Premier League survival.

The remarkable thing is, this is almost a carbon copy of events at the club in the past. The sentimental appointment of Carver is almost tantamount to Northern tribalism. How many times must it fail before the fans realise it doesn’t work? Einstein said that insanity was doing the same thing over and over, and expecting different results. Needless to say Einstein wasn’t a geordie.

Cast your mind back to Sam Allardyce’s tenure at the club. He received the same treatment. Cries of, “You don’t know what you’re doing”, when Newcastle were sitting 12th in the table. Less than a season into the job, with no hope of being given time to build a team, Allardyce got the chop. Enter, Newcastle legend, Kevin Keegan. A mere 6 games into the 2008/09 season, the love for Keegan had gone, as Newcastle found themselves second bottom of the table. Keegan was duly sacked. His replacement was to be Joe Kinnear, and what a replacement he was.

Within a week of taking the job, Kinnear had verbally abused the Daily Mirror’s Simon Bird at a press conference, swearing 52 times in the process, and declaring he’d never give interviews to the national press again. Good start, Joe.  Kinnear lasted until April, when his health took a turn for the worst, and he stepped down, requiring a heart bypass operation.

Newcastle were in 18th position with 8 games remaining. As much as there was a distinct danger of going down, they were in fact only 9 points away from a top 10 finish. The season hung in the balance. What a normal club would do in this position is appoint a battle-hardened pro to ensure survival. But as we know, Newcastle United are not a normal club.

On the 1st of April 2009, Alan Shearer, a man who had never managed at any level before, was appointed interim manager of Newcastle United. Shearer managed one win in eight, and Newcastle were relegated on the last day of the season. That was just 6 years ago, yet Newcastle seem to have learned nothing about it. Carver’s appointment and performance has been almost identical. He’s managed two wins from 15, and even included an astounding streak of defeats, spanning 9 matches.
Even if they do stay up, they’ll continue down this illogical path. Half a dozen times burnt; still not shy, it would seem.

Many people level the blame at Mike Ashley. I don’t.

Mike Ashley

Newcastle have been a shambles long before Mike Ashley was on the scene, and they’ll be a shambles long after he’s gone (unless the whole ethos of the club shifts towards a more realistic structure). The popular belief is that Ashley isn’t up for funding any transfers, and the Newcastle fans are very unhappy that he’s turned a profit of £34m. There are two things very wrong here.

Firstly, since Mike Ashley took over in 2007, Newcastle have spent over £140m on transfers, almost £40m of which was spent this season. The accusation that he hasn’t spent any money is therefore unfounded. This leads me to my second point. The assumption that a lack of spending is what’s put Newcastle in this sticky situation is borderline laughable. It’s a given that the very best players come with big price tags, but Newcastle are not in a position to attract this type of player. What Newcastle have ended up with is a group of mercenaries.

If you think a big transfer and wage budget automatically brings success, you need only look as far as QPR to see how wrong you are. Their budget is extraordinary, so much so that they’re currently spending more on wages than Borussia Dortmund and Juventus. Big spending has landed big clubs in big trouble, some of which have never bounced back. Leeds, Bolton and Portsmouth are living examples, and it’s taken a long time for the likes of Southampton and Middlesboro to get it right.

The problem isn’t that Newcastle aren’t spending ; it’s that they’re spending poorly, and that’s hardly Mike Ashley’s fault. It seems that the Newcastle fans have an obsession with having a panto villain, so much so that they can’t see the problems that are stacking up at the club. There seems to be no long-term goal. If they make progress, the fans cry out that it’s not happening quick enough. This is madness, and is why the club will continue to yo-yo between mid-table and relegation.

Mike Ashley is no angel, we know that. He’s in the game to make money and further his sports direct brand. Where would Newcastle be if they didn’t sack Pardew now? Perhaps around mid-table, with something to build on for next season?

Is the goal to eventually become a team who can challenge for the Premiership title? Or just to support the club through thick and thin, playing attractive football? Or develop an Ajax/St Ettiene/Dnipro style youth academy? – Who knows!? The fact is, changing the variables this often does not lend itself to any of these long term goals.

Newcastle United are a big club, with all the right resources to be on the periphery of European football. Why is that not enough for the support? Chances are, it’ll be Hull, not Newcastle who face the drop; but another stint in Championship could be exactly what Newcastle need to get their ship in order. For the good of one of England’s biggest and best supported clubs, they need to go down, as Premiership survival could vindicate the destructive path they’re on for years to come.

Tim Lovejoy: Football Cretin

By Johnny Connelly

While wading through tedious online football news feeds today in search for some subject matter that differentiated even slightly from the big question, ‘who will Woy take to Bwazil?’, I stumbled across a much needed and brutally honest shot in the arm from the When Saturday Comes archives.

As an avid reader of football books, particularly those recommended by WSC, my eye was drawn to this latest offering, salvaged beautifully from the back catalogue of the popular off-the-wall football magazine’s review section.

My eyebrows raised in disbelief when the book in question for this review was an autobiography (of sorts) from smarmy former Soccer AM host, Tim Lovejoy. 

Image

Yes, that classic paperback that all football hipsters just couldn’t do without, ‘Lovejoy on football’. My heart sank for a brief moment, had WSC sold its soul to the devil? Endorsing something straight from the quill of a patterless John Terry-lover come cooking show host is tantamount to a golden handshake with Lucifer himself in the eyes of any football fan with even half a brain.

Thankfully, the true nature and purpose of the book review sets in early on. Phew.

Without spoiling the full review, critic Taylor Parkes hits the nail on the head when he describes these bound sheets of drivel as: part witless musing, and one more triumph for the crass stupidity rapidly replacing culture in this country. Hopelessly banal and nauseatingly self-assured, smirkingly unfunny, it’s a £300 T-shirt, a piss-you-off ringtone, a YouTube clip of someone drinking their mate’s vomit.”

I doubt even if Shakespeare had been around today, (and happened to share a fondness for the beautiful game), he’d have found a more encapsulating and accurate few lines of prose to portray the sheer piffle that Lovejoy puts across when discussing football, or anything else for that matter.

The delightfully savage review, in all its glory can be read here.

If you’re looking for the perfect birthday or Christmas present for that thicko football fan you so unfortunately have to endure through family or work commitments on a regular basis, then look no further. 

Killie’s Prodigal Son Could Seal Top 6 Finish

By Johnny Connelly

Alexei Eremenko

Alexei Eremenko – The key man?

As the eyes and ears of Scottish football fans turned towards Parkhead in expectance of an injection of excitement to the transfer window in this Scotland; the attention turned to the Ayrshire coast as Finnish international Alexei Eremenko secured an unexpected switch back to Kilmarnock.

Killie’s talisman playmaker of the 2010-2011 season joined Allan Johnstone’s men until the end of the season, and his technical ability has sparked hopes of a top six finish, as well as a bit more excitement in general at Rugby Park.

First time around, it was then manager Mixu Paatelainen who used his homeland contacts to procure Eremenko on loan from Metalist Kharkiv. The midfield dynamo wasted little time in making his mark, scoring the winner on his debut against St Mirren with a tantalising free kick.

After the match, Eremenko said: “ I made some good passes at the start of the game which gave me confidence. It was an okay performance from me, but I can even play much better than this.”

He wasn’t kidding. Eremenko went on to light up what was then the SPL, carving out a place in Scottish football folklore as potentially the most gifted player to grace a Kilmarnock shirt in 20 years.  He scored a handful of goals that season, and transformed Killie’s attacking play with his ability to split defences with precision passes.

His skills drew crowds and plaudits, so much so that both Celtic and Rangers made enquiries about acquiring the player’s services. A big money move to Rubin Kazan ensued, but he failed to hold down a place in the team, presumably as a result of the options available thanks to the club’s vast wealth.

Eremenko’s record for the Finland national team (59 caps and 14 goals) also proves that the silky flair player can perform at the highest level, and now has invaluable experience that would benefit any club in Scotland.

Killie currently sit 8th in the SPFL. They’ve had an inconsistent season so far, and are widely considered as safe from relegation, but with Kris Boyd having netted 15 times so far, the introduction of an attacking playmaker like Eremenko could push him up over the 20 goal mark, and move Killie into the top half of the table.

With any luck Eremenko’s return will bring about an increase in crowds at Rugby Park, but at the very least, his sublime skills will improve the profile of our league overall.

During his last loan spell, Eremenko helped guide the Ayrshire club to a comfortable 5th placed finish in the SPL. There’s a bit of work to do to replicate that feat again, but it’s far from impossible. Allan Johnstone’s men are edging away from the pack at the foot of the table as each week passes, and now find themselves just 9 points behind a wayward Dundee United who haven’t won any of their last 6 matches in the SPFL.

As Eremenko parted ways with Killie last time around, he made a promise to return. He is certainly a man of his word. This week he also said: “I don’t think I played against Kris (Boyd) when he was at Rangers the last time I was here. But I watched Saturday’s game with Inverness and I think I can make him score even more goals.”

Everyone at Kilmarnock will be hoping that he continues to be a man of his word, as this partnership with Boyd could make the difference between them finishing in the top and bottom 6 come May.

With just 8 games remaining before the split, the clock is ticking for Killie and Eremenko.

A matter of faith for Neil Lennon

Do Pukki and Balde just need games?
 
By Johnny Connelly

Image

As Celtic crashed out of European football this week, much was made of their sloppy defending on the night; but the real issue throughout the campaign has been the lack of firepower in the final third.
 
Just two goals in their five group games is a worrying stat. That worrying stat becomes an alarming stat when you then remember that one of those goals was a penalty, and the other was a deflection. Whichever way you look at it, Celtic’s attacking presence has been sub-par for the Champions League.
 
After losing Gary Hooper in the summer, Neil Lennon knew he needed to sign at least one striker. He secured two, Teemu Pukki, and Amido Balde. 
 
Neither player has had a great run of games. They’ve both looked off the pace, and bereft of a killer instinct in the penalty box. This is undeniable, but would a significant run of games in the first team have changed things? 
 
The pressure to succeed at big clubs is huge, and Celtic are no different, but players are only human. It must be difficult coming in from a foreign league and being expected to start rattling in the goals. Admittedly, some players can do it, but others struggle. 
 
One example of a Celt that took a bit of time to settle rolls of the tongue, John Hartson. The big Welshman came to Celtic with a top pedigree, but he too looked out of sorts at the beginning of his Celtic career. Remarkably, it took Hartson 11 games in a Celtic jersey before he found the back of the neck. He then went on to become a legend and a hero for the Parkhead club.
 
Hartson started each of these 11 games, and his then manager, Martin O’Neill, put faith in the signing he made in order to succeed. 
 
To directly compare Pukki & Balde to a class act like Hartson verges on unfair, but perhaps the issue of faith in your signings does ring true. 
 
Since signing back in August, Pukki has started 9 from 16 games, and Balde has started just 2 from 18 games. From that you could assume that Balde has some way to go before he’s a first team regular, but even Pukki, with significantly more appearances, didn’t get a run of games longer than 4 games, and most of the games he missed have come in the Champions League (the very place he was signed to make a difference in).
 
Instead, Lennon has opted for the likes of Georgios Samaras, who despite his tenacious attitude, is a left-winger rather than a striker; and Anthony Stokes, who struggles at the highest level. 
 
The Celtic boss seems frustrated with his options, and he’s clearly unimpressed by his summer signings in that department. 

After the 3-0 home defeat to AC Milan, he said: “We’ve competed again tonight but just that quality at the top end of the pitch has caught up with us.”

 
“When the squad’s not as big as some other squads it does tend to bite you.
 
“If we’re going to look to the future and continue to play in the Champions League, we have to improve with the squad we have now and we have to improve on recruitment as well for next year.”
 
Celtic can’t go and sign a £10m-£15m, it would make no financial sense, so to try and make the most of a £2m-£3m player is the trick. 
There are alternatives. Putting faith in youth, or in domestic signings (would the likes of Billy McKay or Nadir Ciftci really do any worse for Neil Lennon than any of his current crop?) are always options. 
Only Lennon will know how he truly feels about the likes of Pukki and Balde. Only he will know in his mind whether he feels any merit in giving them a run of games to prove themselves, or whether they’ll be consigned to the room 101 of Celtic signings.

The Rise and Rise of David Marshall

Did an early exit from the Old Firm goldfish bowl help his development?

By Johnny Connelly

Image

Result apart, there were few positives to be taken from Scotland’s 1-0 away win against Norway earlier this week, but few could dispute the plaudits received by David Marshall for his heroics between the sticks. 

A string of terrific saves, and an overall competent performance secured a clean sheet for Strachan’s resurgent Scotland side, and has further cemented the general opinion that Marshall has become a top goalkeeper.

It’s a far cry from the shaky teenager that emerged in a Celtic jersey in 2004 in the most bizarre of circumstances in the Nou Camp. That night against Barcelona, presumably running on adrenaline, the young ‘keeper gave the performance of his life, and replicated the feat in the home leg to help Celtic knock-out the Catalan giants. 

Things at Celtic quickly went sour for Marshall. Conceding 5 against Artmedia Bratislava, and 4 against Motherwell in quick succession left then Celtic manager, Gordon Strachan, of the opinion that Marshall was surplus to requirements. 

How ironic now that Strachan is the man to thrust Marshall back into the limelight on the international scene. Marshall has now secured two consecutive clean sheets for Scotland, and has been at the heart of a robust Cardiff unit in the English Premiership.

The development in the keeper, who’s still just 28, is remarkable by comparison to his Celtic days.

I’m sure many football fans back in 2005 would’ve written Marshall off as a sub-standard keeper, but is that a failing of the pressures attached to being thrown into the Old Firm goldfish bowl at a young age? The pressure to perform without any modicum of weakness or nervousness for Celtic has proven to be the undoing of many players over the years. 

When Marshall was cast off to Norwich to carve out a career in England, few expected him to re-emerge as a contender for the Scotland jersey. 

Years of developing his game in the English Championship in his early 20’s was arguably the best thing for him. Playing for Norwich, in such a competitive league, where there was no expectation of a clean sheet every week, perhaps allowed Marshall to develop naturally, at his own pace, and fulfil the potential that Celtic identified in him as a lad. 

He’s now approaching 150 appearances for Cardiff, through the good times and the bad. He’d never have been allowed that development time at Celtic, so should Celtic be factoring in long term outbound loan deals when developing youngsters? The Marshall case backs this theory, and perhaps there are other examples too.

Charlie Mulgrew’s story echoes this idea. Mulgrew left Celtic as a rough-around the edges 20 year old who wasn’t good enough to hold down a first-team slot. To keep him in the squad for 4/5 years beyond this in the hope that he comes good would be folly, but look at how things have panned out. Mulgrew spent a handful of years playing first team football at Dundee United, Wolves, Southend and Aberdeen, before returning to Celtic as a completely different player. 

Just under 5 years of first-team football, cutting his teeth, has helped Mulgrew become an accomplished professional, worthy of being a Celtic and Scotland regular. 

There are so many examples of promising young former Old Firm players who disappeared off the radar, that a longer, or more complicated development period is surely something worth considering. 

Sometimes throwing a youngster in and expecting a hero to emerge is asking too much, even in the idealistic world of the Old Firm fan. As football grows and develops, we can expect approaches to player development to grow and develop too. Surely it’s worth reviewing this process to maximise the potential of players, both for the good of our game on the domestic, and international front?

Will Terry, Butcher Inverness To Rescue Hibs?

New Hibs boss could head hunt his old players in January

By Johnny Connelly

Image

After two weeks of poker-faces and media speculation, the cat’s out the bag, and Terry Butcher has been confirmed as the new manager of Hibernian Football Club. The ferociously passionate Englishman has left Inverness (albeit with a heavy heart), and taken on a new challenge and adventure with a huge club in the capital.

Butcher has proven himself to be a capable manager in recent years, most recently propelling a club of reasonably small stature like Inverness Caledonian Thistle to 2nd in Scotland’s top flight, with very little resource at his disposal.

The lure of the being invited to manage a club that has the history, fanbase, stature and potential resources to become a force in Scotland proved too much to refuse for Butcher, but many suspect that the measure of his success will be based on the players he brings in, rather than what he can do with the current squad. 

When we take a look at the Inverness starting XI that faced Hibs last week, we see that Butcher signed 9 of them, and brought the other two through as youth players. That apart, the remarkable thing about Butcher’s Inverness team is that he didn’t spend a penny in transfer fees. 

This shows us that Butcher has the ability to identify top players on a shoe-string budget, and motivate them to compete with and often defeat the best the league has to offer.  Given the success he’s had with the core unit at Inverness, all eyes will be on his transfer dealings in January to see if he attempts to bring any of his Caley Thistle players down the road to Edinburgh. 

Given that HIbs are the lowest scoring side in the SPFL, perhaps a goalscorer will be top of Terry Butcher’s wish list at his new club? If so, there can be fewer hotter properties than Inverness and indeed the SPFL’s top scorer, Billy McKay. The nippy striker has found the net 10 times so far this season, and is contracted to the Highland club until 2015, so any move would require a substantial transfer fee (as Butcher admitted only a few months ago: http://www1.skysports.com/football/news/11795/8972286/)

 Perhaps the attacking prowess of young Aaron Doran will be at the forefront of Butcher’s transfer plans? The 22-year old Irishman has been a hit since his move from Blackburn Rovers, more so this season than ever before. His pace, energy, and ability to use the ball well at both ends of the field has made him an invaluable asset for Caley Thistle, but he too is tied up in a contract there until 2016. Again, a transfer fee would be required to seal the deal, assuming of course the player wanted to make the switch. 

Leaking goals has been an issue for Hibs this season, with vulnerability on the wings clearly visible. Will Butcher opt to bolster his squad by hunting down an old full back of his? If so, would he consider going after either Graeme Shinnie or Carl Tremarco? Shinnie has rarely been displaced since coming through as a youth player, and Tremarco’s tough tackling style has helped him hold down a regular spot in the Caley Thistle team. Shinnie is tied up until the summer of 2015, but Tremarco’s contract is set to expire in the summer so he’d appear to be the more easily obtainable player. 

Terry Butcher will know in his mind exactly how he plans to go about galvanising his Hibs squad. The limits of his transfer budget in January, and indeed the summer could have an effect on who he buys, but history has taught us to treat his signing policy with respect. 

The well respected Englishman is relishing his new challenge, if what he said to the press the other day is to be believed:  “It was a simple decision really. I wanted to be at a bigger club and that is no disrespect to Inverness. 

“The training facilities, the stadium, the fan base and the potential was just too much for me to say no to.”

“I’m excited about the future and what we can achieve at Hibernian,” concluded Butcher.

Perhaps shrewdly tying up his prized Caley Thistle assets up on longer deals could come back to haunt him? Or could the wily manager surprise us all again by unearthing more gems from the English lower divisions? 

Whichever tactics he deploys to reverse the fate of the club will have full backing from the fans, but he’ll have to move swiftly to get off to a positive start, and he’ll no doubt do everything in his power to avoid becoming the 8th head to roll at Easter Road in as many years. 

Your move Terry…

Decision time for Butcher

Tel looks bound for the capital, but is it the right move for him?

By Johnny Connelly
Image

 

In stark contrast to the sentiments expressed by the man last week, Inverness Caledonian Thistle manager Terry Butcher looks set to become the next manager of Hibernian.

Those of you who listened in to The Football Show on PLZSoccer.com last Saturday will have heard Butcher describe the rumours connecting him to the vacant post at the much maligned Edinburgh club as “pure speculation”. He continued on, saying that the only people talking about him leaving his current position were “you boys (journalists present)”, and concluded by saying “I’ve brought these players here, I’m staying here.”

It appears the old cliché, “a week is a long time in politics”, also rings true for the beautiful game. Widespread reports have connected Butcher with the Hibs job, and the media juggernaut appears to be gathering momentum on this matter.

Given the troubles and inconsistencies that Hibs have faced in recent years, it’s widely agreed that a manager who’s as capable as Terry Butcher would have a positive effect, and could steady the ship at the Easter Road.

The reasoning for the approach by Hibernian is clear, but the appeal of the job to Terry Butcher, for me, is less apparent.

Terry Butcher’s Caley Thistle side are flying high. They finished 3rd in the SPL last year, and are challenging for 2nd place this year. If Butcher could guide Inverness to a 2nd place finish, he’d be engraved into Highland folklore for generations to come. Given the lack of funds he’s had at his disposal, his achievements are nothing short of remarkable.

Surely Butcher can do no wrong if he stays where he is? Even if Caley Thistle slipped to mid-table mediocrity, he’d be unlikely to come under any major scrutiny, and would still be regarded as a top candidate for future roles thanks to his past achievements.

The charismatic Englishman would be unlikely to be given as much leeway if he makes the switch to the capital. The expectations at Hibs are high, given the stature of the club. For some reason or other, they’ve consistently underachieved, and the Easter Road hotseat has become something of a poisoned chalice in recent years.

Hibs have gone through 6 managers in 8 years. Butcher would seriously have his work cut out for him to buck the trend and deliver success there. Perhaps that’s the lure for him, to take a club on its knees, and transform them into a tenacious outfit, capable of challenging for honours.

Perhaps he wants to prove that his success at Inverness Caledonian Thistle hasn’t been a fluke? The money Butcher would get to spend at Hibs will be only fractionally greater (presumably) than his budget at Caley Thistle, with almost instant results demanded of him, and the overbearing character of Rod Petrie looming over him, potentially encroaching on his decision-making power at the club. Any success at Hibs would be as remarkable as anything he’s done at Caley Thistle, yet he could possibly receive less praise there, given the expectations of the club.

What’s the end game for Butcher? What’s his overall goal as a manager in Scotland’s top flight? It’s a fair assumption to make that it won’t be to win the title, given the current gulf between Celtic and the rest of the pack, so is his ultimate goal to guide a club to 2nd place? If so, then surely staying at Inverness, a team he’s spent years fashioning into an effective unit capable of challenging for such a position, would be a better bet.

Does he eventually want to make the leap to the English Championship? Again, if so, why not stay with Inverness Caledonian Thistle? Surely guiding a smaller club to 2nd or 3rd in the league would be perceived as a greater achievement than securing those positions for a bigger club like Hibs?

Barnsley came knocking for Butcher last year and he decided against it. If England is where he sees his future, then perhaps he sees it at a higher level than that of Barnsley.  Given what we know of Terry Butcher’s character, money would be unlikely to be the catalyst for any move in his management career, so the lure of a bigger challenge, at a bigger club, is widely regarded as what’ll see him make the switch to Hibernian.

The big Englishman have everyone on the edge of their seats as we await his decision on where his future lies. As chance would have it, Butcher’s Inverness Caledonian Thistle side will take on Hibs on Saturday.

Rod Petrie and the Easter Road faithful could experience first-hand, the strength and organisation that Terry Butcher brings to a team, and the Highland club could be taking one last look at the greatest manager they’ve had in their brief history so far.

Where will Butcher be managing this time next week? Only time will Tel.