Five steps to stay in the top flight

WHAT Newcastle United must do to remain in the promised land.

AND now for the hard part. Chris Hughton has performed wonders by constructing a Championship promotion campaign from the wreckage of a dispiriting relegation but bigger challenges await.

Here the Journal considers Hughton’s five priorities ahead of the Premier League return.

1. Get a proven Premier League goalscorer. Whatever else Chris Hughton needs this summer – and there is a good case that United sorely need to recruit a couple of full-backs and midfielder – this must be the absolute priority.

Although United have found goals easy to come by in the second half of the season, the thudding truth is that none of his strikers have ever been prolific scorers in the top tier.

Andy Carroll has the ability to become one but that is an awful lot of responsibility to place on the shoulders of a 21-year-old with a knack for attracting the wrong sort of publicity, and he needs a proven Premier League performer to share the goalscoring burden.

As Roy Keane said the other week ‘You’re only as good as your goalscorers’ in the top flight. Sunderland were able to conceal a multitude of sins during their winter of discontent by virtue of Darren Bent’s prolific form, while Bobby Zamora has lifted Fulham to stunning new heights with his 17-goal season. Even Wolves, who are the lowest scorers in the league, put securing safety down to the acquisition of the excellent Kevin Doyle.

This is the one area where Mike Ashley’s scrimping and saving won’t wash. Strikers don’t come cheap – as West Ham and Hull will testify having tried to import firepower on the cheap and ended up with duds like Mido and Amir Zaki.

We are led to believe Hughton’s transfer kitty could be as little as £15million and if that’s the case, he should be prepared to wipe out half of that amount on bringing in a forward. Anything else is gambling with their Premier League status.

2. Do your transfer research. Too many times in the past we have seen good players of international pedigree come up short at St James’ Park because United have not done their homework.

They’ve signed big name players on reputation alone without looking into their past, without taking character references and without asking them the big question – do you know what it means to play for Newcastle? Take Michael Owen for example. He was a terrific goalscorer but his heart was not in it and unsurprisingly he flopped. United need to bring in new recruits who are willing to engage with the area and the expectations that surround the club.

In short they need players with the approach of Kevin Nolan and Danny Simpson, who have embraced the culture and the unique demands of being a professional footballer in the North East.

Additionally, and Hughton has already spoken about it, they cannot afford to disrupt the dressing room harmony. That means they need the ‘right’ characters, those willing to roll their sleeves up and graft and not players who will come into the club on big wages and immediately set noses out of joint.

Targeting the likes of Jamie O’Hara and Stephen Hunt bodes well – they are both hard-working, committed players who are well thought of in the game. And the appointment of the respected Graham Carr to head up the scouting network is a definite step in the right direction.

3. Get the midfield mix right. No sooner had United won promotion than some fans had already written off Nolan. Perhaps on the back of a below-par first season in the Premier League, the cry has gone up for a completely new midfield to cope with the quicker pace of the top flight but that is grossly unfair on a man who has done as much as anyone to secure promotion.

Nolan has bagged 18 goals this term and can definitely make an impact next season – provided he is played with the right type of player. That is likely to mean a player mopping up around him, a Hunt or an O’Hara, and Hughton getting the system and his tactics absolutely spot on when United collide with one of the division’s big guns.

4. Don’t stop believing. Bonds have been formed and trust has been repaired during this uplifting season. For the first time in years it feels as if there is an empathy between the squad and the terraces, and preserving that unity is absolutely key to Newcastle’s hopes in the Premier League.

It will be much, much tougher next season though and those new-found alliances will be seriously tested when the inevitable defeats arrive.

So many questions loom on the horizon if the club runs into a sticky patch. Will United fans who have finally embraced Chris Hughton give him time to find his feet in the division? How long will the uneasy truce last with Ashley if the team are struggling again? It is to be hoped that even in the hard times to come, both fans and players will not lose sight of the defiance and spirit of togetherness that has helped them so much in this promotion campaign.

Home form will be key. United lost seven games at St James’ Park in their relegation season and became a soft touch on their own turf, something that has been corrected over the last 12 months. Supporters can play their part in ensuring that is maintained now they are back in the big time.

5.  Allow for a bit of fantasy football. United are already dampening expectations for next season, with players and management drip-feeding the message that simply surviving next term would be an achievement of sorts.

It is an understandable strategy given the size of the task United face in establishing themselves in the elite again, but they must not lose sight of the ambition that has done so much to inspire the club in the recent past.

The Premier League would have something to fear if Newcastle could rediscover their mid-nineties momentum and while it is right to preach patience, this is a club with the potential to challenge at the top end of the table.

After all, they still ride high in the football rich list and can boast average attendances above Chelsea and Liverpool despite a season of second tier football. Re-asserting themselves in the top six must be a realistic aim within the next three years.

Journalists

David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer