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Newcastle United hamstrung for transfers?

2 weeks ago

So, let’s have a look back down Newcastle United memory lane.

It’s April 2004 and I’m young, childless and prone to adventures, so I set off for a not untypical weekend on the hoy that involves heading to Twickenham where Newcastle Falcons win the cup final before celebrating with a night in the smoke.

The next day, instead of heading home I get the train to Birmingham where United are playing Villa, armed with the confidence that I can cadge a lift home on one of the buses after the game. Great plan and well worth it for a 0-0 draw.

Except this is quite a memorable 0-0 draw for a number of reasons. Andy O’Brien’s dubious red card after about ten minutes was the main influencer in the match, but it also stands out for me for the fact that I was stood at the end of a row with a camera pointing at it, filming crowd reactions for the film Goal! The exaggerated (but fit for a PG rating) cheers, claps and “Come on United” shouts I went through in the hope of making the final cut were nauseating and wouldn’t have looked out of place in a Roy of the Rovers strip. I also remember TV personality Kate Lawler, girlfriend of then Magpie Jonathan Woodgate, being in that away end, a move that has always given her extra respect in my house whenever she turns up on the box.

The standout event for me though is something I can still see crystal clear in my mind’s eye. A ball is played down the right wing, immediately in front of me (“Play up United! Let’s have a goal!) and Craig Bellamy tears away after it, before pulling up in the kind of hobble that screams one word: hamstring. I groaned and put my head in my hands, perhaps more than a bit conscious that the film makers may want “disappointed” crowd reactions as well, but the response was very genuine.

The following couple of weeks would see United resume a stellar UEFA Cup campaign with a winnable semi-final against Marseille. After two strong seasons under Sir Bobby, it was starting to feel like we might just have a whiff of that elusive silverware. I think I knew at Villa Park that Bellamy was critical to that plan, and sure enough we drew a pair of blanks as the far less mobile option of Shola Ameobi was brought in alongside Shearer. I had my tickets to France booked (I don’t recommend Marseille) and got a fine view of Drogba thoroughly expending any whiff, sniff or odour of silverware for the next 18 years and counting. Bah.

The Bellamy issue was a worrying echo, you see. Two year prior to these events, Newcastle came off the back of the first ever derby win at the Stadium of Light in second place and looking imperiously like title contenders in March. It was a very exciting time (the whiff was strong) but that derby was to be Bellamy’s last involvement of the season as those pesky hammys were found wanting again. United won one of the next eight games and finished nowhere near the title, needing to rally to secure fourth place (we’ll take that next year).

I think the fact he was always such a workie ticket (and delighted in scoring against us in future) has clouded the memory of what an excellent player Bellamy was for us. This is increased by the underwhelming circumstances of his leaving, a key part in Graeme Souness’ unforgivable destruction of Robson’s fine side.

Of course, Souness soon replaced him with none other than Michael Owen, who practically wrote the book on glass hamstrings. Owen would go on to start in 38% of United’s Premier League games in the next four years as we deteriorated from contenders for Europe to contenders for promotion from the Championship. You might well say that it’s not his fault that these injuries kept coming, but I think we all know there are elements of this period in time that could have been handled far better.

I wonder if you may have guessed as to why I’m retreading all of this right now, in the brave new world, the summer of 22 when Newcastle have a chance to once again regalvanise themselves to heights not seen since Souness arrived with his wrecking ball.

I’m sure most people will have seen that predicted imminent signing Hugo Ekitike has jeopardised this move by pulling up with a hamstring injury playing for France U20s. Not the end of the world you might think but the facts behind it are alarming. This is an injury Ekitike first picked up in February, missing three months of the season. The muscle was heavily strapped as he played for France, only his sixth appearance since recovering and the fear has to be there that this is a persistent problem.

I was really excited about the prospect of getting Ekitike, who sounds like a great one for the future that would also work in the now, but these are red flags with echoes of the past. Given his age he’s probably still worth the gamble, but there needs to be a good long look as an alternative to Callum Wilson that is prone to injury is doubling down on a problem.

Ironic that this particular muscle is the cause of woe, as it feels like the entire club is a bit hamstrung when it comes to transfers. While no one knows exactly what’s going on, it’s a fair deduction that multiple stories of inflated transfer fees being quoted are entirely legitimate. United currently can’t really rely on players spoiling for the move either, as many of those of the calibre we need to move forward might have alternatives who can offer Champions League e.g. Botman with Milan.

I’m certain there are a couple of options out there like Bruno and Trippier, where high quality players will invest in the project, but the apparent dead ends met so far, make the bad luck with Ekitike that bit harder to swallow. It would be ideal to have some new faces on board for a full pre-season as well, but we may have to be more patient than that. However, after the past decade and a half, patience is unfortunately a rare commodity round here.

I am confident that Dan Ashworth’s presence will see things happen and we will go into this new season strong. However, I have said many times that there is a golden opportunity here for United to capitalise on the packed schedules of others to take a giant stride forward this autumn, and an injection of further quality is the key to achieving that.

At least we have people who know what they’re doing, who actually want to drive the club forward, managing the situation in a way that you just know whoever turns up will be a quality, well-thought out signing that will fit the project ahead. Who and when they arrive though, is anyone’s guess.

I’m now off to doomscroll Twitter, where anyone and everyone is doing precisely that.

You can follow the author on Twitter @Mr_Dolf


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