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Top 10 Newcastle United Playmakers

3 weeks ago
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Who are the top 10 Newcastle United Playmakers?

In a new feature on The Mag, we are featuring a different NUFC Top 10 each day.

A bit of nostalgia, stimulate a bit of debate / argument.

We might all have different views of what a Playmaker is or does but we can probably all agree that for most of our NUFC supporting careers, our team haven’t had one that is anywhere near good enough.

My first attendance at SJP was on my fifth birthday, a 1-1 draw with Chelsea in 1973, and what follows is my Top 10 Newcastle United Playmakers based on the following loose description.

It is an Italian definition of a playmaker rather than a play actor, more in favour at the moment:

‘A playmaker is a player who controls the flow of the team’s offensive play and is often involved in passing moves which lead to goals, through their vision, technique, ball control, creativity, and passing ability.’

If we are watching a team which hasn’t got one of these, it isn’t going to be a lot of fun.

10) Terry Hibbitt:

Signed from Leeds in 1971, Hibbitt played over 230 games for United in two spells, scoring a dozen or so goals.

The first was the golden period of attacking players like Macdonald and Tudor and a team packed with quality.

The second a period of despair after relegation to the old second division supplying the likes of Shinton and Rafferty. Hibbitt was scrawny, in his second spell I couldn’t tell the difference between him and Kenny Wharton, they both looked like a couple of stray dogs that had scuttled onto the pitch.

In his first spell, I could always pick him out. He almost glided around the pitch with total control of the ball every time he had it. The sort of quality seen later with Scott Sellars and Nobby Solano, he was a player who loved the ball.

As a kid, I stood in the Gallowgate listening to the adulation for Supermac and John Tudor and hoped that everyone else could see that every time Hibbitt touched the ball, something good was going to happen. He later played for Gateshead and died aged 46 just as United were being re-born. I’m sure he would have loved to see the team that Keegan put together, he would have fitted right in.

He gets his place at number 10 because he was the first player I noticed who could really play.

Terry Hibbitt‘A wizard’

9) (Wil) Liam O’Brien:

A 275K signing from Manchester United, the midfielder initially juddered around SJP like a Robot Wars contestant made by a nine-year-old as NUFC were relegated under Jim Smith.

More hapless dithering continued until a more ball-friendly approach to football was instilled under manager Ossie Ardilles. O’Brien quickly showed that he could play but with so many nippers around him he suffered as the team did, brilliant for short patches, unbelievably naïve and disorganised for larger ones.

Kevin Keegan changed all that. Surrounded by leaders in the 92-93 season, Liam O’Brien became a key part of a team which played excellent possession-based football. His movement may have been slow but his brain and passing was quick, accurate and his shooting and set-pieces became a key part of the team’s success. Never more so than a great free-kick to win the derby at Roker Park, his name in song forever, his ecstatic face as he peeled away the same.

After 151 matches he moved on to Tranmere as United moved on to a level which he couldn’t follow. A lot of his career at SJP was difficult and underwhelming but for that season 1992/93 he was a key part of an attacking array in a very, very good team which I loved to watch. He gets his place for that season alone.

Liam O'Brien‘All looking a bit pleased with themselves’

8) Hatem Ben Arfa:

Played 86 games for NUFC scoring 14 goals.

Initially on loan from Marseille, the Frenchman was immediately obvious as someone who could play at the highest level, scoring a cracker at Goodison Park in his third (I think) game.

There were only two problems, firstly, Nigel De Jong broke his leg soon after and secondly, he wasn’t the easiest chap to get along with. He made a full recovery from the first problem within nine months, seemingly never recovered from the second.

He returned the next season having been bought permanently. He scored some absolutely great goals for United, two especially I could watch over and over again, the one against Bolton one of my favourite ever NUFC goals. There were times during his NUFC career and beyond when he had good players around him and he played his part in an exciting and entertaining team. He glided like Hibbitt, had that extra yard of pace which got him away from players quickly like Ginola had and no matter how much defenders tried to keep him on his left foot, he always managed to cut back inside onto it.

There were other parts of his NUFC career where he was playing in an awful team and all they had was him. When this was the case he was sparingly used and his attitude was questioned, he looked a frustrated figure as he was thrown on by Pardew when United were losing and expected to change the game. Sometimes it looked like the entire opposition team was marking him because they knew he was all we had. Still, he was always a threat and remained the team’s best way to attack.

So when he was part of a good team with good players he was excellent. But he’s not number 8 on this list for that alone, he is mainly in this list because when those good players had departed and he was thrown on in the hope that he might do something to save our skin, he always tried to do that and sometimes succeeded.

Hatem Ben Arfa‘Magical’

Those too old to make it:

Tony Green.

By the time I started going, Tony Green had retired. His name still got mentioned at just about every game, always followed by “he was some player mind.” So Tony Green, he was some player mind.

Tommy Cassidy.

I remember Tommy Cassidy because he just looked like some scruffy, podgy lump in the middle of midfield but from what I remember he scored a couple of cracking goals and had a top class range of passing, when he was given the time. He was Jonjo Shelvey with Edward Scissorhands hair. At least that is how I remember him, that may not have been the case.

Zico Martin.

I was older by now so I do remember Mick Martin. I hadn’t seen much of the real Zico so I knew the Brazilian Zico must be good if he was comparable to our own Zico. I was wrong. Zico was brilliant. We should have called Mick Martin ‘Kleberson’ Martin, it would have been more applicable.

‘Jinky’ Jim Smith.

I can remember that the whole ground on its toes whenever he got the ball but that is all. He had moved on after a series of injuries before I was old enough to understand what was going on. My Dad said that Jinky Jim liked a drink and I thought he was on the bench a lot because he was drinking Dandelion and Burdock. The innocence of youth.

7) Nolberto Solano.

A £2.5million signing from Boca Juniors, in two spells at SJP Nobby played 230 games and scored 37 goals. Goals which included a winner at Elland Road in a 4-3 win which I still have the headache from now, such was the celebration.

He sometimes played full-back but the majority of his time was at right midfield. His crossing was possibly the best of any player in black and white in my lifetime. His free-kicks the same. For ball control, only Asprilla had more natural ability. And as for his accent…….

His best time for NUFC was when he played with Kieron Dyer inside him. The two of them had everything a footballer needs to be at the top of their game. Dyer was lightning fast and had relentless energy, Solano was quicker than he looked, had the ability to find Dyer wherever he was on the pitch with a perfectly placed pass and the brain to know when and where to cover and support his colleague. One of my favourite Solano moments was receiving a blasted ten-yard ball from Dyer waist high, bringing it down with one touch and setting Dyer off on a run with the next. A quiet, understated gem.

Nobby may not have naturally slotted into this playmaker list, he played with some great players who scored more goals or had more assists or were had more edge of your seat appeal. But if I follow the definition of a playmaker above, the Peruvian had as much “vision, technique, ball control, creativity, and passing ability” as any Toon player I have evert seen.

Nobby Solano‘Headache time’

Those who aren’t going to make it, the nearly but not quites:

Jonjo Shelvey.

If Liam O’Brien is in this list because he was integral to one great season at SJP then Jonjo Shelvey can’t be far behind.

He was top class in our promotion season under Rafa, top class in second class. Ian Holloway once described him “as the Championship’s best ever player” and while I don’t agree, I know what he means. I haven’t included Shelvey because he has much more natural ability than Liam O’Brien but is unable or unwilling to show it very often and that annoys me.

Neil McDonald.

Spotty was the first player I saw to be called a “future England captain” by the local media. As a seventeen-year-old midfielder in the Championship in a side featuring Keegan, Waddle and Beardsley amongst others, he looked like a player who could go right to the top of the tree. A few years later he was playing right back for Everton. Shame.

Emre.

Turkish midfielder signed from Inter Milan in 2005. Some of the performances he put in against the likes of Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United were very good. The performances he put in against Crystal Palace, Southampton and Stoke, absolutely awful. Top of the list of players who “only did it when they wanted too.”

Glenn Roeder. The first centre half I saw for the Magpies who could actually play football. A leader and decent defender, he forged a great relationship with the more rugged Jeff Clarke. His ability to bring the ball out of defence gave United a new dimension and he may well have made the list if it wasn’t for…

6) Philippe Albert:

A world class Glenn Roeder.

It should not be underestimated how much of an attacking benefit it is to have a defender who can just as easily be an extra man in midfield. Or attack, in Philippe Albert’s case. Prince Philippe had been a World Cup star in the USA in 94 and it was a major coup when Keegan paid £2.6million to bring him to the Toon from Anderlecht. In my mind, it elevated the club into the big league when it came to buying players.

His first season started brilliantly as NUFC went on an unbeaten run that made us look like certain champions, then the wheels came off and United finished sixth. The season will be remembered for the sale of Andy Cole and the lack of a suitable replacement which cost United any chance of the title but to me the knee injury Albert sustained a few weeks earlier, which would rule him out for the rest of the season, was equally to blame for dropping out of the title race.

On his return, NUFC were top of the league with a team including Sir Les and Ginola and Albert was not out of place playing with that level of attacker. He seemed more interested in joining in attacks than defending but he was good at it.

In one game, I think it was a 3-0 win over West Ham, Albert played more like De Bruyne then defender, all over the midfield, give and go, running with the ball and driving the team on. Although he played less than a hundred games for NUFC I can’t remember a more iconic player or a more iconic goal then his chip over Peter Schmeichel.

But he isn’t in his list for any of that. He is this list because in a team that was all out attack, that attack started at the back and Albert was the driving force behind it. If he was playing now, every team in Europe would want him. He was tiki taka before its time.

So much to say and so I have split the Top 10 Newcastle United Playmakers into two articles – Numbers 5 to 1 will follow…

(Previously in these featured NUFC Top 10s – You can go back and see the Top 10 Right-Backs, Centre-Backs, Goalkeepers, Goals and Strikers)

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