BRUGES feels uneasy. Twenty-four hours ahead of an anticipated black-and-white invasion of this pretty northern European city and football is most certainly front-page news in a tourist trap more notable for its medieval architecture than its passion for the beautiful game.
But take a walk around the old town and it soon becomes apparent where the local’s focus lies.
The headline in regional newspaper Het Laatste Neuws screams about the 3m compensation that Club Brugge boss George Leekens is due for being dismissed at the weekend, and rails against the unfairness of the 63-year-old getting such a generous pay-off for overseeing a disastrous start to the season.
With one point in six games and a defeat at St James’ Park a fortnight ago, Leekens’ sacking was anticipated. The size of his compensation in a league that makes a fraction of England’s Premier League was not.
“Legal? Yes,” read rival ‘paper Metro. “But hardly ethical”.
You’d think that with such worries, the city would welcome an opportunity for a football match, but it appears as if bar owners are braced for thousands of likely travellers from the North East of England.
On Monday, the police visited the tourist honey trap bars that line the cities’ historic square and told them not to allow for any outside drinking areas outside their premises. From today, beer will be served in plastic glasses and the locals wear concerned expressions; they remember trouble that was caused by visiting Birmingham fans last year and fear more of the same.
It is all in stark contrast to Newcastle’s attitude to Europe, which has seemingly grown warmer by the week this season. They have reserved their best performances of the season for the Europa League and there is a real zest about the performances of the young players who have been given their opportunity in this competition.
So while Premier League form is puzzling, United make the short hop to Belgium today bristling with confidence about their chances of skipping into the last 32 of a competition which is proving anything but the unwanted burden that others have found it.
Part of that is because Alan Pardew does not have the same selection dilemmas that seem to stalk him in the league. His decision to pick Vurnon Anita and Papiss Cisse on Saturday was an attempt to get Mike Ashley’s last two big-money signings into a cohesive starting XI, but it was only a partial success – and Newcastle are still searching for the fluency and formidability that has typified their European efforts.
Whether or not Pardew feels more liberated in Continental competition is a moot point, because his younger players are certainly reaping the benefits of the Newcastle manager’s long-term thinking.
It probably helps to have an eight-year contract – and £3m in compensation probably wouldn’t be far off what Newcastle would demand if their manager was poached – but Pardew can afford to look to the future.
Judging by the attitude of Sammy Ameobi et al, it is a policy that is beginning to work.
Ameobi is one of the players who has benefited the most from getting opportunities, but he deserves immense credit for the way that he is embracing those chances.
The younger Ameobi brother burst on to the scene as a cult hero by virtue of his familial ties and a wonderful goal against Scunthorpe when there was little else in black-and-white to cheer, but he has stepped up a gear this year.
The skilful flick that set up Gabriel Obertan’s goal in the home defeat of Club Brugges was indicative of his on-field confidence – some would say arrogance – but it was just the headline contribution of his most vital game for Newcastle. He is stronger now too, not quite so easy to brush off the ball and with a swagger in his stride.
On current form, some might have him in Newcastle’s strongest XI.
Speaking ahead of tomorrow night’s match at the Jan Brydelstadion, he said: “Every game is a massive game, but for the young players coming through like myself, the European games have been even more important this season because they’re generally the ones we’ve been playing.
“It’s been a fantastic experience so far, and hopefully we’ll get another chance to show what we can do in Brugge. It’s another big opportunity to show we deserve to be here, and at this stage in our careers, it’s important to grasp every opportunity that comes along.
“As young players, you can sometimes go months without getting anywhere near the first team, but because of all the matches we’re playing at the moment, that hasn’t been the case here. That’s fantastic, but brings a pressure to perform.”
Playing at home has been one thing; replicating those displays on his travels would add another string to Ameobi’s bow. As ever, his older brother provides inspiration.
“It’s especially valuable to be playing European matches away from home because you learn so much,” he said.
“It’s different to even playing away in the Premier League and I think we, as young players, will benefit so much from the experience of travelling away to play teams in a foreign setting.
“It takes you out of your comfort zone. You travel to different places, and you also experience different styles of football as well. That’s great for our experience as young players coming through.
“Shola did it at the start of his career and learned so much – I think we’re learning a lot from this as well.”
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