Posts Tagged ‘Hatem Ben Arfa’

Hard done by: Hughton's work had only just begun

In the run-up to the new season, I wrote about how Newcastle United could be a team to look out for, with their down-to-earth manager and their young, talented squad (pieced together on a shoestring budget), the newly-promoted former giants looked as though they had finally achieved a certain level of stability after years in the doldrums. https://universalgrassroots.wordpress.com/2010/08/15/newcastle-united-the-tragic-heroes-of-football/

And indeed, this proved to be the case as the early stages of the season unfolded, with the Magpies picking up wins against the likes of Everton, Arsenal, Chelsea, and most notably Aston Villa (6-0), and Sunderland (5-1). Inevitably, there were low points too, such as Hatem Ben Arfa’s terrible leg injury, suffered at the hands of a defeat by Man City, and dismal performances against Blackpool, Blackburn, and most recently, West Brom. Having said that, the Toon Army currently sit 11th in the league, ahead of the  likes of Fulham, Everton and Villa. Why, then, has owner Mike Ashley decided that now was the right time to get rid of manager Chris Hughton, who had achieved so much in his 14 months in charge. A 55% win rate from 70 games, 102 points in the Chapionship last year. Statistics tell their own story, and these particular ones show that Hughton was the man to raise St James’ Park club from their mediocre status.

The first thought that came into my head when I heard the news this morning (Dec 6th), was the similarity between Hughton’s dismissal and that of Sir Bobby Robson, four games into the 2004/5 season. Parallels between the late, great Geordie and their newest casualty are plentiful; Robson had taken over in 1999, with the club rooted to the bottom of the Premiership, before slowly turning them around with a series of shrewd signings and a positive attacking style, reminiscent of the great Kevin Keegan era. Robson even brought them into the Champions League, because he was given the time, money and patience to do so.

Sir Bobby, 1999: Brought the good times back to Tyneside in a way few could have imagined

Hughton has been the best Newcastle manager since Robson, but time,  patience and money are no longer in fashion in Mike Ashley’s Sports Direct @ St James’ Park. The grim inevitability of the whole situation is perhaps the worst aspect, it has long been established through media sources that Ashley has wanted a more “showbiz” manager, after Hughton had essentially taken over by default when Joe Kinnear fell ill. Martin O’Neill currently stands at 7/2 to replace the former Ireland defender at Tyneside, but, considering the way in which O’Neill left Aston Villa, this move seems unlikely. Villa chairman, the American tycoon Randy Lerner, is seen as one of the more decent and rational money-men in the game, but O’Neill walked out when he discovered Lerner was unwilling to fork out too much cash during the summer transfer window.

Ben Arfa's capture was a stroke of genius by Hughton

The reasons behind Hughton’s sacking are much like the reasons you would dump a girlfriend before Christmas – so you don’t have to buy her a present. Hughton had identified a number of January transfer targets which could have helped the squad keep the momentum going after the testing Christmas schedule and beyond. Utrecht’s £8 million-rated Ricky Van Wolfswinkel was one such target, and talk of Robbie Keane, Niko Kranjcar and even Manchester United’s Anderson had been mentioned as potential new arrivals. Clearly, Ashley was not prepared to spend money on a manager he didn’t have faith in. When we look at Hughton’s dealings in the transfer market, however, we can see he has a keen eye for a bargain. Free transfer Sol Campbell has proved a worthy understudy to Fabricio Colloccini,  loan signing Hatem Ben Arfa’s talent is known the world over (although Hughton’s departure may jeopardise a permanent move to the North-East), while Cheik Tiote’s dominant performances in midfield have been one of the few consistent elements in what has been a rollercoaster season so far.

Sad as it may seem, the damage has been done now, and the Newcastle board will live and die by the decisions they make in the next few weeks.

Of all the games in this opening weekend of Premiership action, the one that stands out the most is Monday night’s clash between newly-promoted Newcastle United and Manchester United. While most people would say Liverpool v Arsenal  is a bigger game (and it is), the Magpies 102 points in last year’s Coca-Cola Championship proves they are an interesting prospect for their new season in the top flight.

Roberto Di Matteo may find things tough at West Brom this season

We have seen some contrasting fortunes from the two other newly-promoted teams so far, Blackpool’s 4-0 demolition of Wigan shows what a tight, well-organised squad of players can achieve, while West Brom’s capitulation at the hands of Chelsea reminds us that the smaller teams must know their limits – ordinary footballers forced to play beautiful football will always fall short when faced with the reigning champions. Newcastle are an altogether different prospect, with Argentine internationals Jónas Gutierrez and Fabricio Colloccini in their ranks, the Black and White will not be in awe of their Old Trafford surroundings. Kevin Nolan was the best player in the Championship by some distance, while up front, they have a genuine successor to Alan Shearer’s boots in the young Andy  Carroll.

Carroll: Part of a new era on Tyneside

The history between the Toon and the Red Devils goes back to the mid 90’s, when Kevin Keegan’s side was 12 points clear at Christmas, only to collapse in the later stages of the 96/97 season, handing the title to United in the process.

These two videos sum up what is best about the mercurial north-east side, the first is Keegan’s infamous rant towards the end of that season, with their rivals closing in. The second shows what happened on October 21, 1996, a day which lives long in the memories of fans.

Once Keegan had left, his side slipped into gradual decline, with Kenny Dalglish and Ruud Gullit guiding the Magpies to mediocre mid-table finishes, and successive defeats in the ’98 and ’99 FA Cup. Things took a significant upturn when Bobby Robson was appointed manager in 2000, and they finished fourth the year after, and made the top five twice more during his tenure. Then, perhaps predictably, as the veteran Geordie made way for Graeme Souness, things fell apart once again. The Scotsman’s short stay left a bad taste in the mouths of fans, especially with the club hemorrhaging money through the permanently-crocked Michael Owen, who cost £17 million and made just 71 appearances in four years. Souness was followed by Glenn Roeder, Sam Allardyce, Joe Kinnear and Alan Shearer, which brings us right up to the present day, with Irishman Chris Hughton.

Hughton has won many admirers with his calm outlook in difficult times

Gone are the days of spending daft money on the likes of Owen, Hughton has moulded a team primarily out of good, up-and-coming English players. The signings of James Perch, and Dan Gosling should prove very good investments indeed, while the addition of Sol Campbell should give their traditionally shaky back-line some muscle. 35 year-old Campbell had come in for some criticism about his weight in recent weeks, but going by last season’s performances for Arsenal, he’s still got it.

Ashley: Unpopular

All of these pragmatic, sensible signings do make the typical Newcastle fan yearn for a bit of folly though; the likes of Faustino Asprilla, Carl Cort, Hugo Viana, and of course Michael Owen are all part of an era that will probably never return to St James’ Park. With the notoriously penny-pinching Mike Ashley in charge of finances, Hughton doesn’t have much to work with. Still, if they can finally complete the loan signing of Hatem Ben Arfa from Marseille, they will have pulled off the biggest transfer coup of the summer. He will join a long line of tempermental French wingers to serve the club. David “40 fags a day” Ginola and Laurent Robert have gone down in the club’s folklore, and Ben Arfa’s style of play really suits the English game.

So, how will they actually fare out this season? Well, they are nowhere near Sir Bobby’s great team of the early noughties. At the moment, their strengths lie in midfield; the typical line-up this year will be Gutierrez, Barton/Smith, Guthrie and Lovenkrands/Ben Arfa, with Kevin Nolan just behind a lone striker. Compared to a typical ’03/’04 midfield of Robert, Speed, Jenas and Solano, (plus Shearer and Bellamy up front), so there’s still a long way to go. I have often said, having followed them closely in the Championship last year, that they would have come around 12th in the Premiership with the form they were in. Now, with a few extra signings under their belt, and a new winning mentality forged during tough times last year, they should (in theory at least) do pretty well. Well worth putting a fiver on them staying up anyway.