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Jul 24, 2006

Striker light

Forgetfulness is an unfortunate habit with potentially disastrous consequences...as Newcastle United may discover.

Imagine the Magpies squad when they reconvened for pre-season training. There were the goalkeepers, the reliable Shay Given and his deputy Steve Harper; there were the defenders, augmented by Steven Taylor's return to fitness; and there was a full complement of midfielders, later increased and improved by the addition of Damien Duff. And the strikers? So that's what they forgot...

That is a flippant interpretation, and not entirely true. Newcastle still have Shola Ameobi and Michael Owen, even if they may not see the latter in first-team action this season. But theirs is a dangerously imbalanced squad.

And it is rare to encounter a club who, by their own admission, have reached a critical point in their season before any of their rivals have kicked a ball in meaningful action. But the Intertoto Cup clash against Lillestrom - indeed their entire Intertoto Cup campaign - determines Glenn Roeder's budget, the calibre of his transfer targets and even Newcastle's status.

In its own way, that betrays a curious lack of confidence, a trait Newcastle have rarely lacked over the past decade. Historical tradition and the fervent support of the black-and-white masses, coupled with the reverence in which they held their heroes, were part of Tyneside's attraction (a generous approach to wages helped, too); Newcastle were not defined by success in the Intertoto Cup.

Newcastle's new-found identity crisis is apparent in the occupant of the No. 9 shirt: there isn't one. At some clubs, that may be a quirk of the squad numbers; at St James' Park it is indicative of a gaping void in the side.

From Hughie Gallacher to Alan Shearer, via Jackie Milburn, Malcolm McDonald and Andy Cole, the No. 9 has served as a focal point, a one-man distillation of fans' hopes and the epitome of their focus on attacking football. Last but not least, he has invariably been top scorer.

And now Ameobi, perennial substitute and willing odd-job man, now finds himself the sole available striker, granted more responsibility than he could ever have imagined. In the second leg against Lillestrom, he relished his new-found seniority with two goals. But lacking new partners - and still battling niggling injuries - he could soon crave a return to the shadows.

Yet Newcastle cannot claim they were caught unawares. Shearer provided ample warning of his impending retirement. And while the euphoria of luring Owen to Tyneside has given way to frustration at his continuing ill-fortune with injuries, his fate was apparent more than a month ago.

And since then, Newcastle's only striking business has been the sale of Michael Chopra to Cardiff, a correct decision for a player who had struggled to establish himself in the top flight. For Newcastle, however, the timing could scarcely have been worse.

Yet, while Roeder has pursued Steed Malbranque and then lured Duff to replenish a midfield already offering ingenuity, variety and energy, and a dominant defender would be preferable to Jean-Alain Boumsong, there is no doubt where his priorities lie. Up front.

Replacing Shearer could prove an unenviable task; but not replacing him is worse. Whatever importance the Intertoto Cup holds, whether financial or psychological, surely the intention should have been to start the recruitment campaign before it. The question of the succession has long been debated on Tyneside - some of the contenders, like Patrick Kluivert, have come and gone - but the intrigue has been added to Roeder's selection by his recent comments.

His apparent disdain for the reliance on big-name signings his predecessor Graeme Souness displayed suggested the dawn of a day when value for money ranked high on Newcastle's criteria (it is surely too much to expect an era of parsimony at St James' Park despite the £5million bargain of Damien Duff). Delusions of grandeur may have prevented moves for unheralded players in the past; will Roeder change that?

Shearer himself was apparently impressed by Miroslav Klose at the World Cup. Dirk Kuyt, long presumed the top target, was static and unconvincing on the right wing for Holland (at the very least, he is not Nolberto Solano's heir). But while Newcastle procrastinate, their options are diminishing. Two are now committed to Charlton: Darren Bent, who has signed an improved contract, and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, snapped up after his release from Middlesbrough.

While Iain Dowie has a new strike duo, Roeder had to pair two wingers, James Milner and Albert Luque, in attack in the first leg against Lillestrom. The Spaniard scored but his unhappy first season in England suggests he still craves a move back to La Liga. In any case - and while Luiz Felipe Scolari could prosper without an orthodox striker - it is a short-term solution for Newcastle. And paradoxically, enticing Duff to Tyneside could make the absence of forwards more pronounced; it is easy to envisage the most enticing of crosses failing to find a target in the penalty area if there are none.

Recent history makes the delay all the more baffling. Souness' three predecessors were all sacked in August; the Scot's cause was not helped by a pre-season Intertoto Cup exit, depriving Newcastle of the allure of European football that Roeder hopes will help him recruit. August, in other words, should be a red-letter month for Newcastle managers, even those appointed as recently as Roeder.

Habitual slow starts carry plenty of perils, allowing talk of crisis to multiply. Besides rarity value, an excellent opening couple of months would underpin the new management at St James' Park. Yet it is implausible without the addition of a goalscorer or two. For - whether or not in the Intertoto Cup - Roeder's regime will face must-win games.

Souness' time in charge was defined by his costliest signings - the misfortune of Owen and the misfits Boumsong and Luque. Roeder may see himself as the antidote to the Scot, but the length of his reign could be determined by his success in finding Shearer's successor and Owen's deputy. The certainty is that he requires strikers, and soon.

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