A bumper edition for you this week as our Photoshop theme is Mike Ashley, chairman extraordinaire of Newcastle.
Lots more on the Guardian site – he really is a good topic.
The news yesterday that Newcastle, or more specifically Mike Ashley, had sacked Chris Hughton was something of a shock to say the least. After leading them back to the Premier League with a 102 point Championship winning season, Hughton has overseen comfortable start to the season with Newcastle lying 11th with 19 points from 16 games.
Ashley cited the need for someone with more managerial experience to take the club forward which is reasonable if Newcastle were struggling but not in the current circumstances.
It’s not as if Newcastle are marooned in the bottom three, they’ve been mid-table all season and had impressive league victories over Arsenal, Aston Villa and Sunderland amongst others. Chuck in a League Cup win away at Chelsea and you’ve got the basis of good start to the season.
Perhaps there was the feeling that the current run of one win in six was a sign of things to come, but if that was the case then surely Chelsea would be sacking Carlo Ancelotti right now, given he has the exact same record over that period. If Ashley looked at the table he’d see Everton and Liverpool below his side too.
The whole reason Newcastle were regarded as a joke club for so many years was that there was always something ridiculous going on. Whether it was poorly thought out signings, directors making inappropriate comments, or hiring Joe Kinnear as manager, you always felt glad your own club wasn’t as stupid.
Hughton brought some stability and more importantly some dignity back to Newcastle. Conducting his business with little fuss, and managing to pretty much unite one of the most divisive squads in recent memory, he was doing well in his first shot at full-time management. Ashley obviously felt otherwise.
Perhaps he felt this season offers an opportunity – it’s a tighter league than normal so a higher than expected finish is achievable.
Perhaps he looks at how well fellow promoted sides West Brom and Blackpool are doing and feels Newcastle should be doing better having last season finished 11 and 32 points ahead respectively.
Perhaps he still plans to sell the club sooner rather than later and wants a bigger manager to attract higher bids and better players. The thing about most of these options is that if anything Newcastle are punching above their weight at the moment.
Ashley may feel that they should resume their place at the higher echelons of the league but times have long since changed from the heady days of title challenges. The main reason is the lack of investment in the team. I know Ashley has spent £300million since buying the club (including the cost price) and he the right to do what he wants but much of this was wasted on poor players and a big fat payoff to big fat Sam Allardyce.
This summer they spent around £6million and that’s being generous as a third of that was just to loan Ben Arfa. Considering how small the squad was to begin with, to currently be 11th despite a poor run of form isn’t to be sniffed at. A promoted side should be looking at staying up first and foremost. Who knows what changing manager now will have.
In fairness, despite the difficulty in doing so, judgement has to be reserved until the next manager is named. If Newcastle end up with say Martin O’Neill (unlikely) or Martin Jol (expensive but maybe) then you could argue that a good decision may have been made, however harsh it is on Hughton.
There isn’t really a good time to change managers and it may as well have been done pre January transfer window. The backlash will come if Newcastle end up with someone like Alan Curbishley or Alan Pardew. Are they truly better than Chris Hughton? Really? It would smack of hiring the proverbial safe pair of hands or in other words complete mediocrity.
Curbishley has a track record of uninspiring mid table finishes, the exception being 7th with Charlton in 2003/04. I lost track of the number of times his team would be in a good position come January before collapsing once reaching 40 points. I suppose Alan Pardew is a slightly better option but that’s like saying Andy Townsend is a slightly better pundit than Robbie Earle – both are completely meh.
By keeping out of the limelight for a while, Mike Ashley’s reputation improved in recent months but he’s destroyed any goodwill he had with Newcastle fans. Even if he brings in someone really quiet good, I’m not sure he will regain it. In the eyes of most, he’s probably the one who should be leaving the club.
That was the weekend that was.
1. Theo Walcott had arguably his best ever game for Arsenal scoring a hat-trick as the Gunners demolished Blackpool 6-0. Showing pace, direct running, and good end product, Walcott ran the show against the beleaguered Seasiders.
Yes it was “only” Blackpool and he was afforded more time and space than normal (not least once Blackpool were down to ten men) but it was encouraging to watch him put in such a performance.
Walcott has had his critics in his brief career, and rightly so in many cases but it shouldn’t be forgotten that he’s only 21 years old and has yet to get a through a season without major injury disruptions.
Taking his league stats from the last three seasons into account, it shows every season broken up through injury and bit part appearances.
2007/08 – 25 appearances/1260 minutes
2008/09 – 22 appearances/1265 minutes
2009/10 – 23 appearances/1129 minutes
1260 minutes equates to 14 full games which is just over a third of the season. Therefore in the space of three league seasons, he’s had one season’s worth of playing time. Yet people wonder why he’s not yet the finished article.
Of course cup and European games can be added to those totals but the point remains that Walcott is still very early into his development. Walcott himself acknowledges this is a key season for him, but let’s judge him at the end of it not the beginning.
2. Another week, another 6-0 win for Chelsea – this Premier League lark is pretty easy isn’t it?! Drogba was once again a key player with three assists while Malouda and Anelka helped themselves to yet more goals.
Tougher tests will follow than West Brom and Wigan but a significant goal difference advantage amounts to the equivalent of an extra point at the business end of the season. Given they won the title by just a point last season, these early victories may prove vital.
3. Two bogey teams continued their hold in London this weekend; Bolton winning their third successive game at Upton Park while Fulham prevented Man Utd from 3 points at Craven Cottage for the third successive season. Both games came down to missed penalties taken by someone other than the regular taker.
Carlton Cole saw his kick saved by Jaaskelainen which meant West Ham didn’t go into half time with lead. Bolton came out in the second half and scored twice and went on to win meaning Mark Noble’s penalty made no difference.
Meanwhile at 2-1 up against Fulham, Man Utd’s Nani took a spot kick instead of regular man Ryan Giggs. Stockdale saved, Fulham equalised and Fergie bemoaned silly dropped points.
It got me wondering as to why Noble hadn’t taken West Ham’s first and Giggs hadn’t taken United’s. Every club ranks their penalty takers for a reason. If the top man is on the field, he should take it.
The only exception to this is if someone is on a hat-trick and the game is won. I’m sure both Avram Grant and Alex Ferguson will be telling their players as much before the next game.
4. As much as I want to ignore Bale’s second goal vs Stoke, I can’t deny it was an excellent volley. I’m pretty sure we’ll see better this season but it’s likely to end up as goal of the month if nothing else. Bale is fast becoming Tottenham’s most important player and will be key to ensuring they challenge for a top four spot again.
5. I don’t think anyone expected the third 6-0 of the weekend at St. James’ Park. Newcastle were terrific against a woeful Aston Villa and Joey Barton and Kevin Nolan reminded many that they are more than capable of performing at the highest level.
Andy Carroll scored a nice hat-trick and already people are tipping him for an England call. It is perhaps a little early for that but he has great potential. He won most things in the air against Vidic last week and was once again dominant aerially against the Aston Villa defence. His link up play suggests decent technique and it will be worth watching him this season, especially in home games.
Newcastle are now unbeaten in something like 23 games at home and they could do well to follow the template of two other recently promoted clubs, Stoke and Birmingham, in making their home ground a fortress in order to get the points needed to stay up.
6. Last season Wigan were very Jekyll and Hyde beating Arsenal or Liverpool one week before getting smacked by seven the next. It looks like this season will mainly consist of the latter. I don’t think Martinez will have too long to sort it out but with games against Spurs and Man City coming up, they may be quite far adrift quite quickly.
Based on all the predictions written, here’s how I see the Premier League finishing up in May.
A few more thoughts. I think the top four are quite interchangeable though Man City won’t win it. It depends what other business is done before the end of the transfer window – you get the feeling the Milner deal will get a few things going.
I reckon Liverpool, Everton and Spurs are all capable of sneaking fourth spot. With the former two it depends on how fit their first choice teams stay throughout the season while Spurs could maybe go as high as third but it relies on them coping with two competitions at once. I’m sure they’ll sign one or two more players but are waiting to see if they beat Young Boys in the qualifier.
With Martin O’Neill leaving Aston Villa will drop down the table. It doesn’t matter who they get in to replace him, they won’t come ahead of those top seven teams. I have Fulham a little high on reflection. I should probably swap them with Villa. If they lose Schwarzer and get an injury or two, it remains to be seen whether Hughes can keep them going. With the signing of Kenwyne Jones Stoke might push on an extra place or two. I genuinely wonder if they have any players under 6ft beyond Tuncay and Etherington!
Going down to about 15th/16th you can mix and match. Bolton could shock a few people, while West Ham have one of the more talented spines of teams at that level. Birmingham could really struggle if Foster doesn’t live up to Hart’s performances last season and Zigic doesn’t perform but all in all the teams in this section should be ok.
For me there are just the four clear relegation candidates, though you could perhaps chuck Wolves in there too. Maybe I’ll revisit this once the transfer window shuts, as things should be a bit clearer by then.
Last Season: 13th
New Signings: Angeleri, Mignolet, Bramble, Mensah, Riveros, Al-Muhammadi
Key Player: Darren Bent
One To Watch: Jordan Henderson
Needs A Big Year: Kenwyne Jones
Would Quite Like: Long unbeaten runs rather than long runs without beating. Remain ahead the Magpies.
Thoughts: Sunderland started off very well last season before enduring a horrible 14 game run without a win. They recovered towards the end of the season but it felt like they underachieved somewhat. Darren Bent was predictably excellent with 24 goals and Steve Bruce will be looking to him to produce similar numbers.
The surprise departure of captain Lorik Cana after just one season leaves quite a big hole in central midfield so the hope is Lee Cattermole will have a less injury truncated season this time round. Bramble is a decent addition in central defence – let’s not forget it was Steve Bruce who got him to a consistent level, while Jordan Henderson will want to continue making an impression.
Kenwyne Jones needs to rediscover the form that saw him linked with big money moves to the likes of Spurs and Liverpool. It’s hard to know what to predict for Sunderland – the teams between 9th and 14th are all very even in terms of ability I’d say. The high turnover of players at the Stadium of Light means it might be another season towards the bottom end of the group.
Apologies for the lack of posts recently. I’m still in two minds about whether to do season reviews for each club – to be honest I’m in World Cup mode now. Perhaps I’ll still get round to it though.
Back in August I played a mug’s game and tried to predict how everyone would finish. Here’s what actually happened:
Looking at the results showed I got just three clubs spot on: Man City in 5th and basement dwellers Hull and Pompey taking the bottom two places. In my defence I was only one place out with six other clubs but really this table looks like what it is, rubbish punditry.
I think if Gareth Southgate and Garth Crooks had a bastard lovechild it would look something like this predictions table (enjoy those nightmare thoughts kids).
In terms of the thinking, I had found it really tricky to split the top three when writing pre-season predictions. My loyalties to Arsenal may have played a part in placing them second while I couldn’t bear to predict Chelsea as Champions even though deep down I knew they had retained the most strength over the summer.
A similar scenario led to placing Spurs 7th – I was hardly going to predict them a Champions League spot was I?! I underestimated Liverpool’s decline and overestimated Sunderland’s improvement.
The biggest mistake was Birmingham, a full nine places out, but I’m sure I’m not the only one who had them down to struggle. Fair play to Alex McLeish (who I had as first sacking!), he brilliantly led them to a top half finish.
The bottom half was slightly better predicted clubs wise, if not positions wise. The dearth of quality is such that it’s pot luck as to where the likes of Bolton and Wigan finish. I got three of the bottom four right and on another day would have predicted Burnley to come in 18th not 17th.
In terms of the cups and other stuff it went like this:
Oh dear. Only Bayern Munich correct and I suppose West Brom for promotion. If the Premier League table was the Southgate/Crooks lovechild then this is the resulting mess when said lovechild had a threesome with Alan Shearer and Jamie Redknapp. I literally couldn’t do any worse at being a pundit. Like I said at the beginning, it’s time for the World Cup…
Where they finished: 18th
Season in five words: Joke club gets just desserts.
Successful season? Hmm, absolutely not. I almost don’t know where to start. Let’s do it in bullet points (imagine a Benny Hill style montage). Best outfield player sold (Milner). Keegan resigns, again. Who should replace him? I know let’s get Joe Kinnear! Barton in trouble with something or other. Kinnear does ok. Ashley wants to sell. Ashley doesn’t want to sell. Ashley downs pints. Best player sold (Given). Kinnear has heart trouble. Slide down the table. Shearer returns! Eight games to save them. Only wins one. Newcastle are relegated. That’s just the brief story. In reality, this is a club which has been mismanaged for years, both on and off the pitch. At some point it would catch up with them, the irony being that this was a year when a particularly low points total was needed to stay up.
Defining moment: Keegan resigning, again. There have been so many errors over the season, but had he stayed you feel things may have been a lot more stable. Bottom half, but not relegated.
Player of the year: Nicky Butt has been solid in an otherwise poor midfield. Bassong has impressed in defence and will be targeted by other clubs.
Goal of the season: I literally spent about 15 minutes trying to find some kind of good Newcastle goal this season but had no luck. Any suggestions are more than welcome. This by Duff is the best I could do.
Flop of the season: Coloccini has the unique ability to drag down those around him. Can you think of a single thing Xisco did?
Highlight: Shearer returning was a false dawn in the end but at the time it was quite an amazing story.
Summer homework: Complete the sale by Mike Ashley, sign up Shearer permanently. Get rid of all the deadwood on large contracts and sign young, hungry, pacey players who can get them up at the first attempt. Keep hold of Taylor and Bassong.
Where they finished: 14th
Season in five words: Harry leaves, Tony rubbish, safe.
Successful season? Not really. They came into the season as FA winners, top half finishers and with a talented squad. The debt accumulated to achieve this however could not be maintained and Muntari, Defoe and Diarra were all sold during the season for big money. Harry Redknapp left for Spurs and Adams was promoted in his place. The Arsenal legend couldn’t seem to get the rub of the green and coupled with some curious tactical decisions went on quite a long winless run. He was replaced by Paul Hart who guided Pompey to safety without too much stress in the end.
Defining moment: Redknapp leaving for a second time, he won’t be back again.
Player of the year: Glen Johnson was excellent at right back all season. He needs to cut out the positional lapses but that wil come once he is playing for a big club again.
Goal of the season: Glen Johnson’s left foot volley from around 30 yards. Brilliant stuff.
Flop of the season: Tony Adams? It’s hard to see his managerial career recovering after his spell at Fratton Park. David James and Sol Campbell have started to look their age.
Highlight: In terms of occasion, hosting AC Milan in the UEFA Cup and holding them to a 2-2 draw shows just how much they’ve come in the last few years.
Summer homework: Reduce the average age of the squad. Buy some young, pacey players. Keep Johnson and Crouch. A lot depends on whether the rumoured takeover will happen.
Where they finished: 12th
Season in five words: Not pretty but very effective.
Successful season? Yes. Amongst the favourites to go down at the start of the year, Stoke were never in any real danger of going down. Their home form at the Britannia Stadium was excellent and they picked up plenty of impressive results there to be safe with games to spare.
Defining moment: Signing James Beattie in the January transfer window. Six goals in nine games followed and by the end of that run Stoke were safe.
Player of the year: Abdoulaye Faye was a beast at the back, leading the defence whilst also popping up to score some vital goals. Special mention to Rory Delap and his bullet throws and Jame Beattie for his run of goals.
Goal of the season: Fuller against Villa early in the season.
Flop of the season: Dave Kitson, who quickly went back to Reading.
Highlight: There were many impressive home wins this season but the victory over Arsenal was the most satisfying. When you make Wenger angry and talk about physical, anti football, you know you’ve had a good win.
Summer homework: Sign some more squad players and perhaps some creativity in midfield. A striker to push Fuller and Beattie wouldn’t go amiss.
Where they finished: 16th
Season in five words: Keane’s shadow still looms large.
Successful season? So-so. The aim at the start was to stay up, but given the manager (Keane) and the money he spent, initial expectations were perhaps a little higher. Keane resigned in December citing that he was fed up (and also a run of five defeats in six) but not before he has wasted much of the budget given. Niall Quinn appointed Ricky Sbragia, who started well but then didn’t really have the personality to impose himself (especially after Royston). They stayed up, just, and Newcastle and Boro went down. In that sense it was a great season!
Defining moment: Keane resigning in December. It left them without a figurehead and a proper manager for the rest of the season.
Player of the year: Danny Collins was good at the back. Jones appeared to play well once he returned from injury.
Goal of the season: Kieran Richardson scored one of the few great free kicks this season against Newcastle.
Flop of the season: Cisse scored quite a few but did little else. Lots of other signings didn’t really have great years either (Malbranque, Tainio, Ben Haim etc).
Highlight: Newcastle going down.
Summer homework: Part of it is already done in the sense they’ve appointed a good manager to replace Keane. Getting Steve Bruce to join is quite a coup for Sunderland and he should prove better than Keane in working with a similar size transfer budget. Basically more quality is needed. Lots of honest pros but Sunderland need that spark to ensure they avoid another scrap next season.
Newcastle’s favourite goody two shoes midfielder this week. Well not exactly. More like an aggressive, violent, cigar stubbing, assaulting, ticking timebomb. Shame, as he’s quite a good player when fit and not suspended. Anyway, his past misdemeanors provide plenty of ammunition.
The rest of this week’s gallery can be found here:
That was the long weekend that was.
1. Rafa is still absolutely adamant that Man Utd will slip up twice on the run in to let Liverpool sneak in and win the title. Looking at their final four games of Man City (h), Wigan (a), Arsenal (h) and Hull (a) there is certainly some potential for dropped points but I don’t see them losing twice or drawing three times which is essentially what Benitez needs to happen. Even if they lost to Arsenal, it’s difficult to envisage a scenario where they don’t get the required seven points they need for the title. The run of three games in six days will be a tough ask but with the Champions League out of the way after this week until the end of the season, there should be enough within the squad to cope. Of course Liverpool can’t concede while it’s still mathematically possible to win the title but I suspect that it will remain false hope. They should win their three remaining games (West Ham [a], West Brom [a], Spurs [h]) but United haven’t won the Premier League ten times in sixteen years without knowing how to close things out.
2. All of the bottom eight lost this weekend meaning it is as you were in the battle to avoid relegation but with just three games left. Stoke, Portsmouth and Blackburn all had varying degrees of poor performance but such is the inability of the clubs below to win that it would be most surprising if they were dragged back into it. West Brom are six behind with nine to play so will go down officially next week leaving the at risk north-east foursome to battle it out.
3. Middlesbrough face a trip to St James Park next weekend in what could be a winner stays up scenario. What price a 0-0 draw that does neither of them any favours? Boro have scored nine measly goals away from the Riverside this season yet face a Newcastle side that have scored once since Shearer’s return. I remember the images of when he returned, with his boots on the dashboard as he drove to the training ground. Clearly he’s been unable to teach any of his old dogs up front new tricks. I saw a terrible film over the weekend called Like Mike, in which a kid finds a pair of Michael Jordan’s old trainers and gains the ability to play basketball like him. It’s only worth watching for the cameos by NBA stars like Jason Kidd and Steve Nash. Anyway, I digress but it got me thinking about how maybe some Newcastle’s strikers need to steal those boots on the dashboard. As the joke goes, the only way Shearer will be on Match of the Day next season is if he returns as a pundit, as it sure doesn’t look like Newcastle are staying up.
4. That is unless Hull continue to make things interesting. I know I talk about the north east four, but if anything Sunderland having a four point advantage over Newcastle means they have to screw up twice in the remaining three games to be caught. This perhaps leaves Hull as the only catchable team. You can talk about 40 points being the safety mark all you want but I think that this is a season where it will be exceptionally low. Now is the time for threatened teams to be scrapping for points not losing every week. Given the bottom four in the form table are the four aforementioned teams (Boro ‘lead’ with four points from six games, Sunderland have three, Hull and Newcastle two) you could see a scenario where 35 points keeps you up. Boro or Newcastle would need just a win, draw and defeat from their last three games to achieve that but even that seems beyond them right now.
5. The remaining point of interest is the battle for UEFA Europa Cup qualification with West Ham, Man City, Fulham and Spurs separated by a point. Of those four I think the teams managed by Zola and Hodgson deserve it most but the teams managed by Hughes and Redknapp have the squads to cope best. Given that the latter two managers didn’t give two shits about it this season, I don’t see why they should be rewarded with a place next season. Both Zola and Hodgson have done wonders with small squads and even smaller budgets and I would be delighted if either of them got the spot. I worry for Fulham getting it simply as I could see an Ipswich syndrome where they overachieve but then don’t have the players to compete on two fronts and face a relegation struggle the next season. All four teams face quite tricky run ins (all play top six teams twice except Man City) so it will be interesting to see who comes through.
6. A word for the end of the Championship season too. Wolves and Birmingham come back up and will no doubt go straight back down if they stick with their current managers Mick McCarthy and Alex McLeish. Of the playoff bunch, Burnley or Reading look the most likely to survive in the top flight from what I’ve caught this season. Meanwhile, at the bottom Norwich, Southampton and Charlton all went down into League 1. All were in the Premier League as recently as four seasons ago. Something to note for the threatened clubs this time round.