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Newcastle United: The Legion of the Damned

7 years ago

There has been much talk amongst fans recently, and throughout last season also, regarding some of the more maligned of our current crop of ‘talent’.

Some people call them scapegoats, some eschew their virtue as valuable and experienced squad members, other believe them to be substandard, lower league cloggers with as much right to wear the famous black and white shirt as Niall Quinn.

Reading all these opinions, some of which I agree with and others not so much, put me in mind of some of the lesser loved players from the last 25 years. Were they as vilified as some of the present incumbents of the squad?

My contention is that the dislike of players, or a player, is relative to the success of the team.

Even in the heady days of title challenges, Champion League football and The Entertainers, we had some players who were noticeably not up to the standard of others technically, but they were forgiven their transgressions because generally the team was performing well and we enjoyed a relative amount of weekly success.

Just like everyday life, when things are going well a bump in the road feels like a very minor thing, when they aren’t, every pebble feels like a mountain.

Of course the other factors are effort and pride, we all want to see the requisite effort being applied and especially by our less gifted players.

Did these players in past teams give more for the cause?

Was their effort greater?

Did even the accident prone and less skilled of years past make a greater contribution than their modern day equivalents?

The players to which I refer are the likes of Andy O’Brien, Titus Bramble, Andy Griffin, Warren Barton, Nikos Dabizas, Temuri Ketbaia, Darren Peacock, Keith Gillespie and even those who divided opinion, such as Tino Asprilla and Laurent Robert.

I can honestly say that I regard each and every one of those players with much more esteem than I do with some of the current crop, but am I simply looking back with rose tinted glasses?

Picking out a few key examples from the list of past players I have to admit that Asprilla was one of my favourite players ever, like a poor man’s Ronaldo (Brazilian) or a gifted Shola, the man had magic in his feet and for 89 minutes (sometimes 90) looked like he wasn’t interested in joining in with the game.

When he did join in though it was usually to great effect, as Barcelona found out when he had the game of his life alongside Gillespie. Strangely, my favourite Asprilla goal came in defeat at Anfield as he deftly swerved the ball around an advancing David James with almost nonchalant and dismissive ease. A real entertainer.

I know that many were huge fans of Laurent Robert, I never was.

For me he flattered to deceive and the odd spectacular goal belied how often he left the full back exposed, how often he lost the ball, and just how many games he was completely anonymous in.

Along with his team mates, I also didn’t appreciate his habit of smashing the ball into Row Z from promising positions and responding with a look on his face of wonderment as if he had just grazed the cross-bar from 50 yards. No doubt he had talent, just not as much as he thought he had.

Sticking with the forward line and this pair of baldies epitomise what I’m talking about here, Ketsbaia and Sibierski.

Ketsbaia was bought in shortly after the sale of Les Ferdinand and David Ginola by Kenny Dalglish, so he was already facing a mountainous task to replace what had gone before.

Signing alongside John Dahl Tomasson, it is fair to say that Ketsbaia (my lord) became a bit of a cult hero for his effort, ingenuity and erratic skills, not to mention that famous goal celebration against Bolton.

His performances may have swung between the sublime and the ridiculous but something often forgotten, is that it was Temuri Ketsbaia who scored the goal which put the club into the Champions League for the first time in its history.

Sibierski’s signing was regarded as an insulting joke by many supporters.

The season before we had brought in our most expensive ever signing with Michael Owen, as well as Scott Parker and Emre for decent sums of money. So to follow them up with the signing of a bloke who had struggled to find a place in a Manchester City team, who were not the financial giants they are today, was seen as a huge step backwards (not quite Shefki Kuqi, but close).

Sibierski, to his credit, set about showing how wrong we all were with good early season goal form, it’s safe to say that many of those who mocked his arrival were also sad to see him go. As he was offered only a one year contract, considering that after he left we were subjected to the transfer dealings of Sam Allardyce.

Unsurprisingly, it is in defence where Newcastle have enjoyed or endured their biggest batch of ‘characters’. I don’t think that any two players better sum up the type I am referring to, than Nikos Dabizas and Titus Bramble, polar opposites in some ways and worryingly similar in others.

Bramble came with almost as much potential as we used to attach to Shola, a truly big unit with strength and pace to burn, unfortunately he seemed (for the most part) to be completely devoid of any sort of spatial awareness. He was the master of the fresh air kick, the too late tackle, the sloppy back pass and most Premier League strikers lost him in the box with the ease of £10k in a casino, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. On occasions he was magnificent, like Bobby Moore reincarnated, he made tackles that he had no right to and could hit a 5p at 50 yards with a raking diagonal ball, just not very often.

Nikos Dabizas by contrast had no real special skills, nothing which made him stand out, I would go so far as to say that he was one of the most basic and no frills players I have ever witnessed. However, he held his own against anyone, never backed down and fought like a lion for the shirt on his back.

Dabizas is a player for whom appreciation seems to have grown in the years since his departure, and it has been a long time since I heard anyone speak his name in anything other than glowing terms. Sure, everyone remembers the goal for which Denis Bergkamp spun him around the wrong way, but that would have happened to any defender in the world in that situation, simply beat by a piece of sublime skill.

I wonder if, in years to come, we will be remembering the positives from our current crop.

Discussing and thinking fondly of Willo, Colo, and Obertan. I do hope not as I think that the only reason for my current nostalgia is the sad realisation that many of the players mentioned here would walk straight into our first team now, then there’s the managers, did Pardew and Carver make you remember Dalglish, Souness and Roeder with more fondness?

A special mention at the end of this article for Shola Ameobi, without whom the nearly men of Newcastle would not have a champion, and one who scored in the Nou Camp at that!

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