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Tootle's 'slug' goal celebration

The Toe Poke

Rae's say: Time for the Toon

It's hard to believe that Newcastle United, a club practically oozing tradition, have gone fifty years without winning the FA Cup. It's perhaps even more difficult to fathom why the Geordies have failed to lift major silverware of any description since 1969.

Not surprisingly, Newcastle supporters are more realistic than most, and hence loath to get overly bullish about the prospects of the barren years coming to a sudden end.

The bitter memories of the 1996 collapse, when the Premier League title looked well-nigh in the bag, are far too recent, to justify cartwheels being performed en masse along Neville Street.

Yet there's undeniably something in the Tyneside air in this early part of spring. Qualification for the semi-finals of the FA Cup and the last eight in the UEFA Cup has seen to that.

United supporters would probably snatch your hand off if you had the gift to offer them just one of the two afore-mentioned trophies.

Not so long ago, there was little to get enthused about at St. James' Park. The appointment of former Scotland international Graeme Souness to succeed Sir Bobby Robson early in the season captured the imagination of very few in the North East. Initial results were disappointing and performances uninspiring.

Shortly after the turn of the calendar year though, the Magpies became imbued with the spirit of improvement. It was perhaps no accident this upward trend coincided with the jettisoning of problem child, Craig Bellamy to Celtic.

That Bellamy can play at a high-level is indisputable, but in a time of uncertainty, Sourness had no need for double-edged swords.

While Bellamy was on his way out, Jean-Alain Boumsong, Amdy Faye and Celestine Babayaro were just getting their bearings, in a part of the country where the passion for the game is red hot. Signed from Rangers, Portsmouth and Chelsea respectively, each made an immediate impression.

The knock-on effect provided by the newcomers can't be under-estimated.

Boumsong's composure at the back, had a calming influence on the previously erratic Titus Bramble, and made the defence as a whole, that bit harder to breach.

Faye's intelligent midfield play gave added confidence to the likes of Kieron Dyer and Laurent Robert - and so on right the way throughout the team.

Now, in mid-March, Newcastle, who have recorded eight victories on the bounce, appear ready to challenge for honours. Mind you, on the home front, it promises to be far from easy.

To prevail in the FA Cup, they'll have to dispose of Manchester United and (in all likelihood) Arsenal on neutral territory in Cardiff.

Arguably, the UEFA Cup offers a more favourable route to one of the glittering prizes. Typically, the quarter-finals of European football's second most prestigious club competition would feature three or four heavyweights.

This year, it's such welterweights as Newcastle and AZ Alkmaar who might just be capable of applying the victorious upper cut.

United displayed their quality at this level in the two matches against Champions League regulars Olympiakos. It shouldn't be forgotten that their 3-1 win in the first leg at the Karaiskakis Stadium was the first reverse suffered by Olympiakos at home all season.

The spade work having been done in Greece, the Magpies were afforded the luxury of being able to play relaxed football at St. James' Park. After easing into the last eight, 4-0 on the night and 7-1 on aggregate, Newcastle need fear nobody in Friday's draw.

The neutrals amongst us have reason to hope Newcastle's trophy famine is close to ending, and not just because United remain an endearing club.

Shearer and Kluivert could not keep Newcastle in Uefa Cup.
Shearer and Kluivert could not keep Newcastle in Uefa Cup.

There's the small matter of captain Alan Shearer to consider. Impossible as it seems, Shearer hasn't won a medal of any description, since playing a massive part in securing the Premiership for Blackburn Rovers back in 1995.

In the final season of a glittering career, it would surely be fitting if this Newcastle man born-and-bred, were to go out on a high.

Shearer has started to bring the best out of Patrick Kluivert. After a slow start following his move from Barcelona last summer, the Dutchman is beginning to justify his inflated salary.

A couple of months back, it looked highly unlikely Souness would find a reason to offer an extension to his 1-year contract. He might have to re-think that one, in the light of Kluivert's early and ultimately decisive strikes to send Chelsea and Spurs packing in the FA Cup. Kluivert is enjoying his football again.

The Irish pair, Shay Given and Stephen Carr deserve mentions too.

Goalkeeper Given had that unbeatable look about him in Sunday's nail-biter against Tottenham, and is currently in the form of his life. Carr, who was badly missed over the festive period while out with a knee injury, is tenacity personified at right-back.

There's plenty of cause for optimism amongst the ranks of the Toon Army. Few would begrudge them their moment in the sun, after so many years of darkness.

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