Before Newcastle’s game with Spurs today, a black & white clad fan was asked to give her partisan opinion on the chances of Alan Shearer achieving what he has claimed would be “the biggest achievement of my career”. Her response was probably not as insightful as you might (or might not) have expected, but it was hard not to let the mind wander upon hearing it.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if he put his boots on and picked himself before the end of the season.”
It isn’t the first time this “humorous” sentence has been uttered, and it probably won’t be the last, but in terms of relevance it will not have carried much more than it did today upon the Magpies’ tame 1-0 surrender to Spurs. Oh how this side craved a Shearer.
Actually, I am being a little harsh on Newcastle’s forwards. Whilst another zero in the goals-for column may suggest a problem with firepower, the presence of Michael Owen, Mark Viduka, Obafemi Martins, and even Alan Smith on the field at the final whistle should, in theory, be enough to dispel any doubts about Newcastle’s propensity to score goals.
But since when has “in theory” been anything more than a two-word excuse for failure? The fact is that since Shearer’s arrival, only teenage forward Andy Carroll has managed to find the back of the net. With Geordies speaking of winning their three remaining home games (a bold claim considering they have won just four all season), this patently has to be addressed.
The return of Martins & Viduka will be a major fillip for Newcastle even if, just as today, they are fit enough only for a half hour burst. The burden of responsibility has hung on Owen’s shoulders for too long this season, and the simple fact is that he cannot do it on his own. He isn’t eighteen and fleet footed any more.
Yet the real problem need not be the lack of goals, nor even the defensive insecurity that has followed Newcastle teams around like a seedy stalker for the best part of two decades. In truth, the three fixtures Shearer’s side have faced since he elbowed his way into the managerial hot-seat could not have been much tougher.
Chelsea at home is never an easy task- it is almost tempting to suggest a trip to Stamford Bridge is a more appealing prospect given their current defensive woes in West London- whilst visits to two solid home sides in Stoke & Tottenham are unlikely to yield chances. Indeed, only Liverpool have conceded less goals at home than Harry Redknapp’s side, and with the smell of Europa Liga (it will never sound right will it) football in their nostrils, Spurs were always likely to boss this particular fixture.
But there are issues that do need addressing by Shearer and his players. The Carroll equaliser at Stoke aside, it is hard to remember too many clear chances fashioned by Newcastle. It took eighty five minutes here, with Martins collecting Ryan Taylor’s cross on his chest but firing over on the stretch. Before that, hope had predominantly come disguised in the form of woefully-delivered set-pieces- Taylor & Damien Duff competing for honours in that respect- and hopeful long range efforts.
In the Sky Sports studio sat Rob Lee, a loyal servant over a decade on Tyneside and a provider of many a midfield goal. Lee is a great friend of Shearer’s, one of the people who first allowed the talk of his “wicked sense of humour” to reach the public domain. How his old chum must yearn for a midfield runner in his mould in this current side.
Instead, today he had Kevin Nolan & Nicky Butt. To the untrained eye, Nolan looked a shrewd piece of business by Newcastle in the January transfer window. At Bolton he had spent the best part of a decade chipping in with his share of goals and assists from midfield, impressing his managers enough to earn himself the captaincy at the Reebok.
But further inspection reveals that cracks have been appearing in his game for roughly three seasons. Before the start of this season, FourFourTwo magazine asked a fan of each English club to name the one player they would “happily drive to their next club”. The Bolton fan’s response to this was “Kevin Nolan- but only after I had bumped the suspension up.”
This might be crude, unfair even. But even given the hypocrisy of a pie-eating armchair fan deriding a professional athlete for their physique, the truth is unavoidable. Today, against the energy of Wilson Palacios and the strength and composure of Tom Huddlestone, Nolan looked a has-been. And he is only 26.
Gone are the midfield raids of his early Bolton days, gone are the well-timed bursts from deep which drew comparisons with Steven Gerrard during his teenage years. Gone even is the energy which saw him cover some serious yardage even during his poor games. Gone it seems, are his best days.
Alongside Butt, Nolan offered little by way of creativity or thrust, and comprehensively lost the midfield battle against the two stars of the show in Palacios & Huddlestone. Whilst Butt can point to age and the fact that, to be honest, going forward has never been where his qualities have lain, Nolan it seems has only himself to blame. His fitness looks questionable, and as a result his quality is suffering.
The same could also be said of Damien Duff, although to be fair the Irishman had some mitigating circumstances considering the lack of a natural left back in the side today, which meant he spent the most part firefighting against the raiding Aaron Lennon. Duff was one the most exciting wingers in the Premier League- and I include Ryan Giggs in that assessment- prior to his switch to Chelsea, and even at Stamford Bridge his performances impressed sufficiently to convince Jose Mourinho he was worth a key role in two Premiership-winning campaigns.
But since those days, he has suffered with injuries, confidence-crises and a lack of support. Currently, Duff is a shadow of a player. The once terrifying dribbles from the left flank have given way to an ineffective, buck-passing type of game whereby responsibility is shifted as soon as possible by relieving oneself of the ball with a first time pass, whilst his goal tally has been reduced to a farcical level (5 in 77 for Newcastle).
The sale of James Milner to Aston Villa in August may have put £12m in the bank account, but it also effectively removed any threat from wide areas, something which a free transfer- Peter Lovenkrands- is unlikely to provide in anything other than sporadic fashion.
With Jonas Gutierrez’s work-rate and desire taking him down more blind alleys than a new-boy cop currently, and with only Danny Guthrie- tidy but hardly effervescent- in reserve, Newcastle have a serious problem creating chances, with the likes of Owen dropping deeper and deeper in a bid just to put boot on ball.
A lot of burden has been assumed by Ryan Taylor at right back, which says it all really. His free kicks, crosses and long-throws are just about the only things that enable Newcastle to get the ball into the penalty area with any threat, unless Martins can conjure something from nothing.
It says a lot for the state of the midfield that a lot of neutrals suspect the return of Joey Barton from injury may be pivotal in Newcastle’s season. And few Geordies would like to admit this, but envious glances must be cast to rivals Sunderland, who can call on Steed Malbranque, Kieran Richardson & Andy Reid to unlock doors for their strikers.
Of course it is easy to get caught up in the doom and gloom a defeat, and the subsequent four-point gap to safety, and Newcastle could easily have snatched a decent point here, but there are some painful truths being learnt by the interim’s interim at the moment.
It isn’t a Shearer he needs, it’s a Rob Lee. Hell, a Keith Gillespie would do right about now…..