Thursday, August 11, 2005

The Great TSA Premiership Preview Thingy- Part Three

And so finally to two success-starved footballing heartlands, the north-east and the midlands, and the south coast's one representative. Some of the division's most passionate fans are here, but for the most part they have been largely denied the success that their counterparts in other regions have enjoyed.


Oh dear. Its not been much fun to be a Newcastle United supporter in recent times. Since the unseemly removal of Bobby Robson last year the bad PR for the Magpies hasn't stopped. The Souness-Bellamy affair was foul to behold, but in keeping with a club who have lately become synonymous with football's sleaziest face, through the misbehaviour of their players and the crassness of Freddie Shepherd and his board.

Graeme Souness has never convinced as a manager, and his appointment as a supposed no-nonsense disciplinarian enforcer ignored the fact of his track record for conflict with players and the resultant unrest which that caused. The Scotsman's reputation as a hard man seems to be more important than the welfare of his club, as evidenced by notorious tales of crunching tackles in training five a side matches.

The sense of fracture at St. James' Park could be significantly eased at a stroke however, if Souness pulls of the coup of signing Michael Owen from Real Madrid. At the time of writing, Newcastle are reported to be in with a chance of securing the England striker's signature, and the lack of interest so far from the big four clubs allied to Owen's increasing desperation to ensure firt team football in this World Cup year could play into Newcastle's hands.

As things stand, following the departures of Bellamy and Patrick Kluivert, and Shola Ameobi's suspension, Newcastle go into Sunday's opener with Highbury with only Alan Shearer as a recognised striker. Souness would appear to be one of the favouites for an early sacking by Newcastle's trigger happy board, and with Manchester United and Arsenal to play in August, a poor start could make him worth a punt.

Verdict: 13th. Too much unrest and instability still pervades for progress to be made, although signing Owen would give cause for reconsideration.

Makes 'em tick: Scott Parker should be a good signing and will be desperate to make up for his wasted time at Chelsea. He and Emre should bring improvement in the midfield area.

What he'll say: "I have the full support of the chairman and the board"

What he means: "Maybe if I grew my moustache back I would've kept my job"


Its onwards and upwards for Boro, the progressive chairmanship of Steve Gibson is finally being rewarded through the careful stewardship of Steve McClaren and they are at the moment established as the north-east's top club.

After several seasons of slow, dour progress in which McClaren built a solid defensive outfit, last season saw Middlesbrough advance through the recuitment of expensive strikers such as Mark Viduka and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, and experiencd midfielders such as Ray Parlour. This season the explosive Aiyegbeni Yakubu has been added to the mix. Despite the departure of Bolo Zenden to Liverpool, Boro would appear to have a perfect mix of experience (Schwarzer, Southgate, Ehiogu, Boateng, Parlour, Mendieta, Viduka and Hasselbaink etc.) and exciting youth (Stewart Downing, James Morrison and Stuart Parnaby all made significant breakthroughs last season).

Middlesbrough also have another European campaign to look forward to, and showed last year that they were capable of handling the distraction, reaching as they did the last sixteen. Regular European football can only add to the club's burgeoning status. The leap to top four remains too prohibitive, but they will be in the shake up for the best of the rest.

Verdict: 5th. Nice balance, and a settled feel about the club.

Makes 'em tick: George Boateng. The unsung Dutchman's steel in midfield has been key to Middlesbrough's rising graph of progress.

What he'll say: "Despite my invovlement with England, I am totally focussed on the job at Boro"

What he means: "Well once I take over from Sven, I really will have to get a mistress"


Well it can't turn out worse than the last time, can it? Sunderland's exit from the Premiership in 2003 saw them exit the division on 19 points, after a run of fifteen defeats. Things looked grim for the Mackems, massive debts and the necessity to sell off as much of their underachieving squad as possible seemed to doom them to a long spell in the doldrums.

So Mick McCarthy's achievement in winning the Championship only two seasons later and gaining reentry into the Premiership was highly laudable. It was even more laudable when you consider the lack of funds available, as a glance at the bare bones nature of Sunderland's title winning squad will evidence,

The problem for Sunderland is that this squad is largely being asked to compete in the Premiership, and the lack of depth and absence of proven top flight mettle would seem to doom them from the off. Like their fellow promoted clubs, Sunderland will rely on one or two more established clubs having a nightmare season, a la Southampton, to have any chance of staying up. Otherwise, with only some promising youngsters like Dean Whitehead, Liam Lawrence and Stephen Elliott, and the guile of Julio Arca offering hope, the north-east will almost certainly lose its third representative.

Verdict: 18th. Could be a long, hard season. Team spirit and a raucous home crowd will only mean so much at this level.

Makes 'em tick: Julio Arca. The dashing Argentine is easily Sunderland's most accomplished player, and his loyalty in the face of transfer interest last season was a great boost for the Mackem's campaign.

What he'll say:"Its all in the past, I'm looking forward to going to Old Trafford"

What he means:"Where did I put that bacon-slicer..."


Another club mired in underachievement, Aston Villa seem a long way from their Ron Saunders era European Cup winning heyday in the early '80s, or even the early nineties when they were amongst the top three and played in Europe regularly.

The continued presence of Doug Ellis, now 81 and just recovered from triple heart bypass surgery, at the helm seems to weigh the club down, with anti-Ellis protests never far away (there has been talk of a potential takeover in the air). In a way the continued focus on boardroom issues takes some pressure off David O'Leary, a manager about whom the Villa faithful remain unconvinced.

The chief question which O'Leary's appointment begged was as to whether he would be able to achieve success without the aid of a healthy transfer fund. He has been operating under undeniably straightened circumstances, but unlike managers like David Moyes and Sam Allardyce has been unable to inspire his team to success beyond their means, and so has not raised his managerial cache.

Currently attempting to sign Milan Baros, Villa are in need of bolstering their attacking options. Kevin Phillips has been added to what looks quite a venerable forward and midfield division, if new include fellow new signing Patrick Berger, 32, and Nolberto Solano, 30. If they do sign Baros, will they be replacing one striker who saves his best form for international football (Darius Vassell) for another?

Verdict:14th. No serious investment and O'Leary does not seem capable of making them more than the sum of their parts.

Makes 'em tick:Juan Pablo Angel. The talented but inconsistent striker will have to hit a hot streak if Villa's fortunes are to improve.

What he'll say: "Obviously, as I say, at the end of the day, we've a small squad, lot of young boys, what can I say, etc., etc."

What he means:"They don't even have goldfish in the boardroom here"


Another club looking to make the next step. Having established themselves comfortably in the Premiership and returned statistics of four wins and two draws in their bitter derbies with Aston Villa, Birmingham will want to progress from being a grimly difficult proposition for anyone, but rather unpleasing on the eye, to a genuine top half force.

Securing the signature of Mikael Forssell and Walter Pandiani to accompany Emile Heskey up front makes for a more than decent forward line, and they will continue to be defensively stout with Maik Taylor, Kenny Cunningham and Matthew Upson forming a formidable triumvarate.

The problem for Birmingham is creativity. Much of the responsibility would seem to rest with Muzzy Izzet and David Dunn, the latter especially will be expected to progress on his youthful promise, and Jermaine Pennant also has talent to burn, if a troublesome off-field rap sheet.

It is hard to see much improvement from the Blues, and it seems that they will continue to be stodgy, but uninspiring and ultimately mediocre contenders

Verdict: 14th. Hard enough to beat to avoid trouble, but the pulses will only race when Villa are around.

Makes 'em tick: Kenny Cunningham. Defence is Birmingham's strength, and Ireland's captain is still the bedrock.

What he'll say:"I love being manager of Birmingham...."

What he means:"...the free porn is great"


The second greatest miracle of season 2004-05 was Liverpool's incredible Champions League victory. The greatest was West Brom's survival. OK, they survived on 34 points, signifying the ever-increasing chasm between the top and the bottom of the division, but the achievement was significant nonetheless.

What staying up means for West Brom as a club, in financial terms and in the opportunities it opens up to establish themselves is unquantifiable. There are three newly promoted teams coming in underneath West Brom in the pecking order, meaning they are now the bookies fourth favourites for relegation. Progress indeed.

Staying up also rehabilitated Bryan Robson's reputation as a manager. His stock had declined in his dismal last days at Middlesbrough, despite some fine achievements in his earlier days at the Riverside, to the point where England's former captain believed he may never work in management again.

Like all the other strugglers, West Brom's squad is thin and short of quality. For them to succeed Robert Earnshaw, Kanu and Junichi Inamoto will need to do well, and Robson will hope Zoltan Gera can continue his good form from last season.

Verdict: 17th. Last year's experience will stand them in good stead, and they should have just a little more than their rivals.

Makes 'em tick: Gera. Did the most of any one player to keep the Baggies up.

What he'll say: "We want to establish ourselves as a real force this year"

What he means:"Anyone fancy a pint"


And finally to the south coast. Pompey, shorn of their bitter rivals, and glad of it. Like Southampton the peculiar managerial set up didn't do them any favours last season.

Alain Perrin did well to steady the ship when he came in and it will be of interest to see how the frank Frenchman fares- certainly he will be more comfortable with the continental style director of football/coach arrangement with Velimir Zajec than Harry Redknapp was.

The loss of Yakubu could be serious however, as Portsmouth don't look full of goals. Lauren Robert is an undoubted talent, but infuriates to the same degree as he delights. Svetoslav Todorov is recovering only now from serious injury sustained on Portsmouth's arrival in the Premiership, before which he had been prolific, and Lomana Lua Lua is also around to amaze, but again frustrate.

Verdict: 15th. Experience should see them safe enough.

Makes 'em tick: Dejan Stefanovic. A reassuring presence at the back.

What he'll say: "Oo are zees Saints you speak of?"

What he means:"Can't get a nice creme brulee anywhere in this place"


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