The ins and outs at the North East's big two

JANUARY is a confusing month in the world of football but now all the hype, conjecture and hyperbole has evaporated there is a refreshingly straightforward way of bringing Newcastle and Sunderland’s transfer window dealings to account.

JANUARY is a confusing month in the world of football but now all the hype, conjecture and hyperbole has evaporated there is a refreshingly straightforward way of bringing Newcastle and Sunderland’s transfer window dealings to account.

It all boils down to whether either club is in a stronger position now than they were on December 31, when so much hope was invested in a football’s month of opportunity. On that front, there are mixed fortunes for the North East’s twin superpowers.

The answer from St James’ Park is an unequivocal yes. Newcastle’s six signings have definitely strengthened Chris Hughton’s squad – providing hardened Championship know-how in areas where United looked brittle.

In Wayne Routledge and Leon Best he has astutely added pace, the one area where Newcastle had a glaring deficiency, and in Mike Williamson and Fitz Hall, players who know how to operate with their backs against the wall on a wet Tuesday night in Doncaster.

Just as importantly, Hughton has held on to key men like Kevin Nolan, Alan Smith, Jonás Gutiérrez and Steven Taylor – which was a crucial statement of intent on the part of an unpopular owner.

Substantial savings were made by letting the woeful Geremi leave – no great loss given his obvious diminishing ability.

A delighted Hughton told The Journal his first transfer window had been a successful one yesterday, thanking Mike Ashley for his backing.

“We are definitely stronger than we were at the end of December and I’m delighted with the players we’ve been able to bring in,” he said.

“I have absolutely no complaints about the backing the owner has given me this month. We have brought in the right players at good ages who can develop. Is this squad good enough to get into the Premier League? I certainly hope so.”

United had their knocks. Despite the player’s determination to move north they couldn’t prise Jermaine Beckford from Leeds because Mike Ashley wouldn’t meet Ken Bates’ £2million valuation. How much of a blow you consider that depends on how highly you rate Beckford, a 26-year-old who has never competed above League One level.

His goals at Old Trafford and White Hart Lane offer evidence of talent but for a player out of contract in August, Leeds’ price tag was unrealistic, and United were correct to move on.

Victor Moses was a greater setback. An explosive teenage talent with a potentially huge sell-on value, he was open to the idea of moving to the North East and Hughton was desperate to have him on board. But again, a deal was torpedoed by Ashley’s unwillingness to sanction the funds and United’s unorthodox way of doing business. Those are concerns that will carry into the summer if United do go on to clinch promotion.

United would have to invest heavily, perhaps to the tune of £50m, to bring in proven top-flight experience. This is where Ashley has hesitated in the past, to the detriment of the club he owns. It is a worry acknowledged by the Newcastle United Supporters’ Trust, who have praised Hughton’s steady hand but remain somewhat sceptical. “The squad is now two players stronger so that may well prove to be a positive move,” a spokesman said.

“The current regime are gambling that we will get promoted but have made no plans for the Premier League and that does not bode well for the stability and future of our club.”

If qualified optimism is the order of the day on Tyneside, the outlook is unquestionably gloomier on Wearside.

While Steve Bruce last night awaited confirmation over Benjani’s proposed move from Manchester City, Sunderland’s other business was restricted to Matthew Kilgallon – a former Newcastle target with limited top-flight experience – and Alan Hutton, a fringe member of Tottenham’s squad. Both are solid players who unquestionably improve the Black Cats’ defensive options but being brutally honest, they are not names to set pulses racing at the Stadium of Light.

Steve Bruce and Niall Quinn had always maintained that in the wake of the substantial and impressive summer recruitment drive there would be little business conducted in January, and that ultimately proved accurate.

Deals for Maynor Figueroa, Guy Demel, Ahmed al-Muhammadi and Habib Beye all fell by the wayside, while Adam Johnsonwas swayed by the Abu Dhabi oil dollars on offer at Manchester City.

Injury problems continue to ravage a midfield that has not been strengthened and Sunderland will be praying that no misfortune is visited on Darren Bent, one constant during a winter of discontent. They can hardly turn to Kenwyne Jones, who has seen his stock plunge during a window of uncertainty. Sunderland are rightly furious with Liverpool’s underhand tactics on this one, but Bruce must accept that his pursuit of Kevin Kuranyi – which was always likely to leak out – will have done just as much to unsettle him.

Quinn is notoriously reticent to do business in January, reasoning rightly that prices are over-inflated and clubs can panic buy questionable players.

Wearsiders will see more substantial moves in the summer but in the meantime, Bruce must squeeze an improvement from the squad he has – a real test of his managerial credentials.

Journalists

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