Forget Mariappa, the signature Newcastle must now secure is Captain Coloccini

With the January transfer window meandering to a close last night, Newcastle fans are today breathing a sigh of relief at making it through without losing any of their major assets. However, the failure to bring in much needed defensive cover is, for some fans, a cause for concern. With the club unable to reach an agreement with Watford on the valuation of central defender Adrian Mariappa, the centre back position looks worryingly threadbare should the likes of Williamson and Coloccini join Steven Taylor on the sidelines for an extended period of time. James Perch, many people’s man of the match in the FA Cup defeat to Brighton, is of course able to fill in at the centre of defence for a few games, but over a prolonged period of matches it is surely essential to have a natural centre half, someone who knows the position and is not learning it as they play. These concerns are certainly valid, and should not be dismissed lightly.

Nonetheless, the fact remains that, second half capitulation against Fulham notwithstanding, Newcastle’s centre half pairing of Williamson and Coloccini is up there with the best in the league, an effective combination of aerial prowess and guile. Against Bolton, QPR, and most notably Manchester United, they have looked almost impenetrable. It is Coloccini, though, a leader on and off the field, who has impressed most this season. Before injury ruled Steven Taylor out for the rest of the season, and brought to an end his partnership with the curly-haired Argentine, Newcastle had one of the tightest defences in the league, conceding only 8 goals in 11 unbeaten league games. Coloccini was at the centre of everything good defensively. Imperious against Everton, undaunted under the usual aerial bombardment away to Stoke and even faultless in a 3-1 defeat to Manchester City – with 2 of City’s 3 goals coming from the penalty spot, after a clumsy challenge from Hatem Ben Arfa and a handball from Ryan Taylor, whose earlier mistake also led to City’s first.

Coloccini has been one of the league's most impressive defenders so far this season

What has also sometimes gone unnoticed is the way in which other players’ performances seem to have been raised when playing alongside Coloccini. Ryan Taylor is the perfect example of this, having excelled at left back early in the season, despite openly admitting to not being a natural in the position. This showed at times, with the versatile midfielder often caught out of position or making silly mistakes. These rarely proved costly, however, as Coloccini’s excellent reading of the game meant he was almost always there to snuff out danger when it arose. The Newcastle captain’s excellent communication and leading of the line must also have made it easier for Taylor to cope defensively in a position he was learning as he went along.

It is of great concern to fans, therefore, that Coloccini’s contract expires at the end of next season, something which calls to mind a similar situation last year with Newcastle’s star defensive performer from last season, Jose Enrique. A refusal to enter contract negotiations and the opportunity to join a club seemingly on the rise in Liverpool led to his departure in the summer, an outcome that fans will be hoping doesn’t repeat itself this time round. The signs this time, it would appear, are positive. Stories in this morning’s Journal suggest that Coloccini’s agent is due in Tyneside to discuss the terms of a new five and a half year deal. A long contract for a 30 year old, but one that is a just reward for one of Newcastle’s star performers this season, as well as one that offers a potentially high resale value – something that will not be lost on the owner. If such reports prove to be true, and Coloccini signs on for the long term, then Newcastle may have made their shrewdest signing yet.

Why Grayson’s sacking is hard to countenance

“The third year is fatal” said Bela Guttmann, with regards to managers, cited often enough that it is has fallen into the football manager’s psyche. The dressing room loses respect for the manager. The manager gains an affinity for certain players above others, form or class aside. Opposition figure out how to deal with any tactics or innovations the manager initially brought to the table. Pep Guardiola, arguably the crafter behind one of the greatest teams of all time, is constantly on the verge of quitting the Barcelona job every summer. Last year, after winning the Liga BBVA and the Champions League once again, most in the media were gearing up for his departure. It therefore comes as little surprise that a mere month after his three month anniversary at the club, Simon Grayson, now ex-manager of Leeds United, has left Elland Road.

Last night (31st January 2012), Leeds United capitulated at home to Birmingham, losing 4-1 almost single-handedly to a striker who has only scored 8 goals this season. This despite the fact that reports from the ground suggested that the first half performance was one of the best Leeds have had for a long while. This is the truth of the latter part of Simon Grayson’s reign. This season, and during the back-end of last season, Elland Road has not been a particularly wonderful place to watch football.

There was a moment a week and a half ago, as Leeds played Ipswich, that one felt Grayson had lost anything that he may once have had. The day was windy, and any manager with slight tactical nous would have recommended the ball remain on the floor. Any ball sent upfield by goalkeeper or defender would get caught in the wind. Yet Leeds came out of the tunnel and, like most performances this year, the strikers found themselves confined to challenging defenders in the air. Admittedly, Leeds managed to win the match 3-1, but this was exclusively due to the capitulation of the Ipswich back line, and the granting of a red card to his former team by usually sturdy goalkeeper Alex McCarthy. Fans driving away from the ground last night would be caught up in a temporary surge of optimism, but by the time the radio phone-in had begun, it was clear that the fans’ discontent had not been assuaged by the result. There were clear faults with Grayson’s approach in their eyes.

This is the man, however, that lead Leeds United to Old Trafford as a League One side, and won. This is the man, however, that lead Leeds United to White Hart Lane as a League One side, and managed to take a draw. This is the man, however, that lead Leeds United out of said League One. A manager who achieves these results is clearly not bad at his job. Managing players of the quality at his disposal to a victory against Man Utd takes an incredible amount of tactical and motivational awareness. This is why it becomes hard to countenance his sacking. Clearly the ability is there, and somewhere along the way he has lost it.

Rumours have emanated from Elland Road for the past year or so that Grayson has lost the dressing room. The manner in which he freezes out players after a single bad performance, leading to them rotting in the reserves, and never getting an appearance in the first team no matter how much they are suited for the job necessary, is clearly not conducive to a harmonious club. Word that Grayson’s affair, reported in the red-top media, led to him losing favour with Ken Bates and Bates’ wife was rife. The manner in which Grayson dealt with Andy O’Brien, chastising him and saying he would never play for him again, yet back-tracking when depression turned out to be at fault for his refusal to play again for the side, revealed plenty about how Grayson worked with his players.

This might be where Grayson, the man who did so well for Leeds a mere two years prior, fell down. As Guttmann said, the third year is fatal, and particularly key to Grayson may be the thoughts the dressing room had about him towards the end. Leigh Bromby’s wife posted on Facebook immediately after the sacking that it was “karma”, and simply said “good riddance”. Bromby clearly brought work back home with him.

The ability was, therefore, there at one point, but it has since been lost. This is why Leeds fans have hung onto positivity towards Grayson, despite the falls. It must be said that Grayson could probably sustain success for longer under a Chairman that does not treat the playing side of the club with such contempt. Grayson, however, in the end, is to blame, possibly for not leaving earlier. His replacement, awash with innovation, will probably get more out of a team of players coveted by Premier League sides. The real shame to Leeds fans that remember the football played in the early days, is that Grayson simply did not learn the lessons of Guttmann.

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Demba Cisse shaking hands with Alan Pardew

Pragmatic Newcastle United show that January need not be a time to fear for clubs outside the ‘big 6’

31st January 2011. After a relatively successful 30 days of the January transfer window, which had seen no departures and the signing on a permanent basis of the mercurial Hatem Ben Arfa, as well as the loan signing of the unpredictable, though undeniably talented Steven Ireland, all seems well. Fast-forward 24 hours to the morning of 1st February, and a feeling of shock, anger and above all fear pervades the atmosphere at St. James’ Park. Terrace favourite Andy Carroll, wearer of the iconic number 9, focal point of the attack and top goal scorer had been sold to Liverpool – no one had come in to replace him. Newcastle, it seemed, had fallen victim to a peril of the January window that will be all too familiar to supporters of teams outside the ‘big 6’ – bigger clubs sniffing around and snatching up your team’s best players, leaving the squad significantly weaker and demoralised.

As it transpired, a strike force consisting of Best, Lovenkrands, Ameobi and the far from marquee signing Shefki Kuqi was enough to keep the team in the division comfortably – though this is thanks mainly to the goals of Kevin Nolan, and the close-knit team spirit fostered under his captaincy. However, in the immediate aftermath of the Carroll sale this did not seem a likely occurrence. It may seem bizarre in hindsight, with Newcastle flying high in 6th place in the Premier League at the time of writing, but there was at the time a genuine feeling amongst many supporters that relegation was a genuine possibility, and that £35 million for Andy Carroll did not represent a good deal if there were not enough goals scored to keep the team in the league. As more than one observer pointed out, “you can’t play a £35 million cheque up front”.

It turned out, however, that Liverpool struggled to play a £35 million player up front, as

Andy Carroll looking miserable
The former Geordie number 9 has found life difficult at Liverpool so far

Carroll found it hard to regain fitness and form in the second half of the season, making only 7 appearances in the league for his new club, scoring only 2 goals. He has continued this poor form into the current season, making 20 appearances but scoring just 2 goals in the league, and the fee paid on the much hyped ‘DEADLINE DAY’ looks ever more ridiculous with each passing game. Contrast this with Newcastle, who, far from being weakened by his departure, have in fact strengthened their squad, investing the money in the summer on shrewd buys such as Demba Ba (free), Yohan Cabaye (£5 million) and Davide Santon (£5.3 million). Ba in particular shows the folly of Liverpool’s spending, a free transfer who has scored 15 goals in 19 league games, including a memorable volley in the 3-0 thumping of champions Manchester United.

Going into this season’s January window, however, it seemed the same story – prolific Newcastle striker leaving for a bigger club – would be the outcome, with Spurs manager Harry Redknapp first revealing a mysterious ‘release clause’ in Ba’s contract, then doing his best ‘Brucie’ impersonation in a bizarre press conference in which he encouraged journalists to go higher or lower in guessing how much Ba could be bought for. It is Newcastle, though, who have played their cards right so far. Having decided against taking a £7 million gamble on the fitness of Modibo Maiga, Alan Pardew and Chief Scout Graham Carr secured the signing of long term striking target Papiss Demba Cisse for £10 million. Of course, there is no guarantee that he will prove to be an instant success, but given the way in which Carr’s other signings have taken to the Premier League, there is no reason why the prolific Senegalese can’t maintain the form he has shown in a struggling Freiburg side so far this season, scoring 9 goals in 17 games for a team languishing in 17th place in the Bundesliga.

Demba Cisse shaking hands with Alan Pardew
The signing of Cisse shows that for teams outside of the 'big 6', January need not just be about outgoing transfers

His 22 goals in 32 games last season suggest this is a player who can make all the difference in a side ambitious to continually improve and push on in the second half of the season. “We don’t just want to be happy with where we are – we want to keep improving”, said Danny Simpson in an interview with the Journal, and signings such as Cisse give Newcastle the ability to do just that. If Demba Ba can maintain his pre-African Cup of Nations form and gel with his fellow compatriot then there seems no reason why the club can’t grab a Europa League place come the end of the season. In addition to the signing of the number 9, much needed defensive cover is seemingly on the way as well, with Pardew adopting the sensible tactic of dipping into the championship for an affordable squad player – gone may be the days of seeing 5 ft 10 James Perch toiling at centre half against 6 ft 4 strikers, as was the case against Norwich earlier this season.

With 4 days still to go until the end of the window, there is, of course, still time for one of the bigger clubs in the league to swoop for one of Newcastle’s best players, but what the club has demonstrated is that when approached pragmatically, this month which is usually approached with dread by teams outside the top 6, can in fact be a time of excitement for fans, and an opportunity to genuinely strengthen the squad.