August is supposed to be a time for optimism and belief but there can be no escaping the stark truth: these are worrying times for North East football.
Starved of a major trophy for the best part of a decade, the region is now suffering from the worst goal drought in living memory. Between them, our five professional clubs are averaging just over half a goal a game – with two (Newcastle and Hartlepool) yet to register at all this season.
The Great Goal Drought is a worrying trend, but is merely a symptom of a region where the returns on the field are increasingly failing to match up to the enthusiasm of the supporters. A summer where Sunderland have stood alone in making the changes that were so obviously needed after last season looks set to give way to an autumn where the lack of investment will come home to roost.
Newcastle’s woes seem most acute, but there is a rather obvious explanation for their worrying struggles in front of goal.
Demba Ba is the common factor here: or rather, the lack of him. Ever since he completed his move to Chelsea in January, Newcastle have struggled to replicate anything like the goal threat that the former forward had. Add into the mix the loss of poor, unsettled Yohan Cabaye and it is clear that there is an issue over personnel here.
Alan Pardew has explaining to do too, for the struggles in front of goal are directly related to the lack of creativity in his team. They simply aren’t creating as many chances as they did last season, and that is a problem of strategy and system that needs to be addressed urgently.
Why, for example, has it taken Cabaye’s reckless and wanton decision to go AWOL for Vurnon Anita to be given an opportunity to fill some of the creativity chasm at St James’ Park? Cheick Tiote has his merits, but Newcastle need to start creating again and their midfield mix just hasn’t been right.
Pardew addressed the issue in the summer. He told The Journal: “I think last year the bottom line was we weren’t threatening the goal enough. If you’re not threatening the goal enough, teams get a little bit more confidence they can score against you and start to believe that if they score they will win.
“Therefore not only are you suffering from a lack of confidence, you’re suffering from an over-confident opposition whereas the year before everyone was fearful of playing us because the results – home and away – were excellent.
“We need to get the fear factor back and to do that you need to threaten the goal. There is no doubt in my mind we need to get a team out there that threatens the goal more.
“Forget about 4-4-2 or 4-5-1, that’s what we have to do. We have to create more chances, score more goals.”
The worry – and the alarming development for Newcastle – is that Pardew recognises the problem but has yet to solve it. With Fulham to come on Saturday – almost certain to shut up shop if their previous trip to the North East is anything to go by – he needs to find a way of unlocking the Cottagers’ defence without Cabaye in the midfield.
A new signing would be nice but, given Joe Kinnear’s lumbering efforts so far, don’t bank on it.
At Hartlepool, the need for points and goals is even more pressing as they look to turn around a dreadful start to the season.
A summer spent desperately trying to bring in strikers may yet end with a move for Spennymoor’s Michael Rae. The lack of a substantial transfer budget makes it difficult to recruit in the one area where good players are expensive and difficult to come by.
Green shoots of recovery have been spied in some of the performances, but the lack of a goalscorer is an obvious impediment to Victoria Park progress. Managerial rookie Colin Cooper has been made acutely aware early that Hartlepool’s Achilles heel is in front of goal. He admits: “That first goal is key. You talk about going in off someone’s backside and we did enough for that to happen – they scored one, bundled in from close range – that’s the differ- ence right now, are we trying to score the perfect goal?
“It’s my job to find the answer why we’re not scoring.”
Carlisle’s worries in front of goal pale into insignificance compared to the defensive woes that have undermined their start to the season. They do have a splash of threat in exciting winger David Amoo but need to bolt the gate at the back first.
Sunderland look relatively free-scoring next to the other teams. Two in two is a decent return for Di Canio’s new-look side, and there is hope for them with the return of Steven Fletcher, who travelled with the team over the weekend.
Jozy Altidore has worked hard but his lack of clinical edge has undermined the Black Cats so far. He almost needs to become a bit more selfish if Sunderland are to take games by the scruff of their neck.
But the bonus for the Black Cats is they are creating chances, which is not something they did often under Martin O’Neill. If Fletcher returns, there is hope yet that Di Canio’s vision may be realised.