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Hernandez: Lessons from the Liguilla

Liga MX about an hour ago
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By ESPN Staff
Nov 13, 2006

Where did it all go wrong?

It is not that long ago - less than four years, to be precise - since Barcelona and Inter Milan visited St James' Park. Next season, it could be Barnsley and Luton, perhaps even Yeovil or Scunthorpe. The fall from the Champions League to the Championship will be rapid if Newcastle cannot escape from the Premiership's relegation zone. But where, as many have been asked over the years, did it all go wrong?

1. Who shot Bambi?

Freddy Shepherd objects to his image as serial sacker of managers. He has, he insists, only dismissed two but his reluctance to remove the first set off a chain of events culminating in Newcastle's current crisis. He was Sir Bobby Robson, the celebrated septuagenarian and a Newcastle fan who eventually managed his beloved club. Fearing the repercussions of sacking Robson ('I didn't want to be known as the man who shot Bambi'), Shepherd delayed, for the whole of the summer of 2004, before eventually making his decision.

His timing was dreadful. It is easier to recruit new managers in the summer and, because of the transfer window, Robson's successor was deprived of the chance to shape his own side. Fixtures in the top five under the former England manager, Newcastle have largely lingered in the lower half of the table since.

2. 'One of the eight biggest jobs in the world'

Or so said Freddy Shepherd when seeking a replacement for Robson. Ahead, it might be wondered, of whom? Bayern Munich? Inter Milan? Porto? Valencia? It was a statement that has served as shorthand for Newcastle's delusions of grandeur, especially when Shepherd only succeeded in hiring Graeme Souness - thought to be his sixth choice. It was an indication that after the botched dismissal of Robson, he had no successor in mind, and ended up with the wrong man. Souness squandered much of the £50 million he spent, and Newcastle are yet to recover.

3. The Real deal

First Real Madrid were reluctant to sign defenders. Then, in a slight change of policy, they amended that to a reluctance to sign fit centre-halves. In one sense, Newcastle benefited from the sale of Jonathan Woodgate, receiving £13.4 million for a man who barely played in the subsequent two seasons.

But it deprived them of their best defender and, coming shortly before the transfer deadline, an immediate replacement. Using the veteran left-back Robbie Elliott in the centre of defence was just one of the subsequent short-term fixes that failed. Newcastle have had no centre-back of comparable composure or ability since Woodgate's sale, and have seemed strangely uninterested in signing defenders.

4. Going for a (Boum)song

...except Jean-Alan Boumsong. Graeme Souness' fondness for signing players from Rangers, often for seemingly excessive fees, reached its logical and disastrous conclusion with the blundering Boumsong, who cost £8 million. Put in harness with Titus Bramble, Newcastle became a byword for disastrous defending; Shay Given, whose one-man rescue acts became ever more frequent, attracted increasing sympathy for the unenviable task of playing behind Tyneside's answer to the Chuckle Brothers. And yet, even when Boumsong was offloaded to Juventus, no defender was signed, despite a current management team where featuring two former centre-backs in Glenn Roeder and Nigel Pearson.

5. More haste, less Speed

Gary Speed's enduring excellence is rightly celebrated at Bolton and lamented on Tyneside. Against the wishes of many at Newcastle, perhaps including Sir Bobby Robson, Speed was sacrificed to sign Nicky Butt in 2004.

It was hardly the basis for renewal in midfield though Scott Parker, belatedly, has proved a worthy successor. Instead, buying Butt seemed a public display of Newcastle's supposed status as the best of the rest, the club particularly well equipped to sign players from the elite in England. It may have proved Newcastle's wealth, but Butt's first year on Tyneside was little short of disastrous.

6. Flexing their gold card

Rivals have given Newcastle's supporters the derogatory nickname 'the barcodes'. Their purchases have usually been expensive. Under Shepherd, Newcastle's willingness to buy big in foreign markets has often backfired. Albert Luque is the most prominent recent example, imported at a cost of £10 million. A reluctance to sell the Spaniard at a significant loss has lumbered them with a player who, even in their current predicament, is rarely seen on the first-team field.

7. 'Never overestimate the determination of a quiet man'

To paraphrase Iain Duncan Smith. Glenn Roeder's slightly awkward demeanour makes him an unlikely leader, seemingly far better suited to lurk in the shadows. Which was what he did before Graeme Souness' sacking. Newcastle's transformation under Roeder, as caretaker-manager, was remarkable, but his initial success may have come from the simple expedient of not being Souness.

But, though Martin O'Neill appeared interested in reviving the fortunes of an underachieving giant in the summer, Shepherd opted for Roeder instead, citing the popular support he had acquired because of favourable results. It ignored the evidence of Roeder's role in West Ham's relegation.

While supporters blame Shepherd, Roeder has produced immodest comments such as: 'perhaps I am lucky that I have this personality that I do not put myself under pressure.' Similarly, he has insisted he never suffers from nerves. So there must be other reasons for Newcastle's failure to win...

8. Striking failures

It hardly required a great deal of foresight to realise that Alan Shearer would retire. Shepherd's intended successor, Patrick Kluivert, was signed for what he had done, rather than what he would do which, at Newcastle, turned out to be very little. Newcastle's most penetrative forward, Craig Bellamy, whose incision allowed his senior strike partner to maintain a fine goalscoring record for many of his latter seasons, was sacrificed by Souness in his Faustian pact with Shearer, and left to propel Blackburn into Europe.

Michael Owen, who signed for the exorbitant salary but would have preferred a return to Liverpool, has spent much of his time injured. Shola Ameobi's long-standing hip problem was long known about, and his imminent operation will reduce Newcastle to three forwards: the callow, on-loan Giuseppe Rossi, Antoine Sibierski, more mediocre midfielder than out-and-out striker, and Obafemi Martins, currently injured and some way short of his finest form in his brief Newcastle career.

9. Duff deals

Much as the signing of Nicky Butt seemed designed to earn Newcastle kudos, so did the purchase of Damien Duff, reluctantly allowed to leave Chelsea. Shepherd could flaunt Newcastle's wealth by offering a far greater salary than Tottenham. The Irishman's brilliant best is yet to be seen at St James' Park; even if it is, however, it should not obscure the way Newcastle's priorities became distorted. Central defenders and strikers were their prime requirements in the summer, not another winger.

10. European Union

Newcastle enjoy the status of being in Europe, to the extent that they always seem willing to enter the much-maligned Intertoto Cup. But they have seven victories in cup competitions this season (and another in a penalty shootout) as opposed to just two in the Premiership.

Once again, it would appear, they struggle to prioritise correctly; soon the £40 million premium for staying in the top flight, rather than the lesser rewards for progress through the interminable stages of the UEFA Cup, could seem more significant to Shepherd. But will it be too late by then?


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