Posts Tagged ‘Keegan’

The manner of Dalglish’s sacking at the hands of FSG will seem very familiar for Newcastle United fans.

The owners of a well-supported club installed their final manager before selling up and moving on, much to the delight of the club’s vast fanbase. The club’s new owners are wealthy benefactors who promise a return to the glory days and instantly back the manager they inherited, only to relieve him of his duties after just 6 months in charge. The manager wasn’t popular with the fans and the new owners knew as much.

Now the owners – wanting to win over the club’s fans – decide to bring back the club legend in a move hailed as ‘The return of the King’. Said legend served the club with distinction as a player and later as manager, yet he’s been out of the game for years. Some question his credentials in today’s modern game. The fans claim he understands the club like no one else. The good times are set to return…

Well… that’s what was supposed to happen anyway. In reality the club legend briefly restored the fans’ passion and pride in the team before being unceremoniously dumped, much to the outrage of the faithful.

The club I’m referring to? Well, it has to be Liverpool, surely, and FSG’s hiring and firing of ‘King’ Kenny Dalglish. You’re only half right. For those departing, unwanted owners, instead of Hicks & Gilett, read Shepherd & Hall. For Hodgson’s disastrous 6-month tenure, read Sam Allardyce. The new owners universally welcomed with open arms? For FSG at Liverpool read Mike Ashley at Newcastle. As for that club legend, well, for King Kenny, read instead King Kev – former Newcastle manager Kevin Keegan.

For a while now I’ve been following FSG’s tenure at Liverpool with much interest, mainly because I felt like I’d seen it all before. As it turns out, in a way, I have. As a Newcastle fan I watched Mike Ashley arrive to a hero’s welcome before he gained even more fan popularity by dumping the unwanted Sam Allardyce before he could even negotiate the 3rd Round of the FA Cup in 2007/08. Allardyce, after half a season in charge, was axed on the 9th of January.  Almost 3 years to the day later, Roy Hodgson departed Liverpool in similar circumstances.

In stepped Messrs Keegan and Dalglish, both of whom saved their respective clubs’ seasons from disaster by the end of the campaign in May. Both were also given Directors of Football to work with, put in charge of player transfers & scouting. In hindsight, perhaps the appointments of Dennis Wise and Damien Comolli showed an inherent lack of trust from the two clubs’ owners in their newly appointed managers to spend their money, especially at Newcastle.

Eight months after returning to Newcastle, Keegan was gone, with the club subsequently admitting in court that they had undermined their manager and lied to the fans. It turned out Mike Ashley wanted to run the club on a budget, whilst Keegan wanted to continue Freddy Shepherd’s policy of paying top dollar for ageing stars past their peak.

Needless to say, despite the blip – or blessing in disguise – of relegation in 2009, Ashley got his way and the rewards are there for all to see.

The only difference, it seems, between the start of Mike Ashley’s Newcastle tenure and that of his American counterparts at Liverpool, is that Ashley was ruthless enough to realise his blunder of appointing Keegan and to ditch him before he could spend any of his money.

The same cannot be said of FSG, who let Dalglish spend over £100m on overpriced British players who spectacularly failed to deliver last season, leading Liverpool to their worst Premier League finish since 1994.

FSG, with their history of implementing the low-budget ‘Moneyball’ scouting and transfer techniques in baseball, will be looking to use Mike Ashley’s Newcastle blueprint – minus relegation – to propel the Anfield side back into the Champions League.

For the fans, the departure of the King may not seem the right move at the moment, I know, but trust me, I’ve been there before. Perhaps it’s for the best.

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Over the years, Newcastle United have been linked with everybody and anybody under the sun. Whilst a large proportion of the myriad of players linked to the Toon would probably never even consider moving to Tyneside to ply their trade, some of football’s biggest names were actually closer to adorning the famous black & white stripes than many would imagine. This article looks at some of the best players that, perhaps surprisingly, Newcastle almost, but never had…

 

Zinedine Zidane

Regarded by many as one of the world’s greatest ever players. Often grouped just behind Pele and Maradona with the likes of Cruyff and Best, the Algerian-born Frenchman etched his name into the history books by scoring two goals in the 1998 World Cup final as well as this spectacular effort in the 2002 Champions League final at Hampden Park:

Yet before Zidane had gained his reputation as one of the world’s finest, he was just a young Bordeaux midfielder when the then Newcastle manager Kevin Keegan turned down an option to sign the future 3-times winner of the FIFA World Player of the Year award in 1996. Zidane was offered to the Magpies for the paltry fee of £1.2m but was rejected as he was ‘not good enough to play in the first division (Championship)’. Zidane did go on to wear black and white stripes; however they were those of Italian giants Juventus, for whom he won 2 league titles before moving to Real Madrid for a world record £45.7m, or £55m in today’s inflation-adjusted market.

 

Dennis Bergkamp

The Iceman, as he is fondly known, is something of a cult-hero amongst football fans. Highly regarded by those that watched him play, the Arsenal legend is often, unfairly in my opinion, overlooked in debates about the ‘greatest players of all time’. The Dutch striker was a flop at Inter Milan when Arsenal came calling in 1995. A £7.5m bid ensued and he never looked back. However, things could have been so much different for the Dutch maestro had Kevin Keegan chosen to opt for him, instead of plumping for QPR’s Les Ferdinand. As it was, Ferdinand proved to be a huge success and Newcastle, like Bergkamp, never looked back. However, whilst Sir Les only lasted 2 years at Newcastle thanks to a certain Scotsman, Bergkamp saw out his career at the Gunners, delighting the fans with moments of genius like this:

Whether or not Bergkamp would have been a success at Newcastle and outlasted Dalglish on Tyneside is something we’ll never know.

 

Clarence Seedorf

Ruud Gullit didn’t do much good work in his ill-fated spell at St James’ Park but he was close to doing one thing right. The Dutch legend’s sky-high reputation in his homeland very nearly persuaded his fellow countryman Clarence Seedorf to St James’ Park in the summer of 1999. The Sunday Mirror reported on the 2nd of May ’99 that Seedorf had called Gullit to confirm that the contract offered to him by Newcastle was acceptable. A fee of £5.5m was mooted yet the deal for the much-celebrated attacking midfielder fell through – reason unknown. Whilst Gullit spent over £6m on Elena Marcelino, Seedorf moved from Madrid to Milan, playing for two years at Inter before moving to city rivals AC Milan, where he remains to this day. Newcastle meanwhile, turned their attentions to Kieron Dyer instead, depriving the Toon Army of moments of brilliance like this:

 

Rivaldo

One part of Brazil’s famous ‘Three R’s’ (Ronaldo, Rivaldo & Ronaldinho) at the 2002 World Cup, Rivaldo came to the world’s attention when, after scoring more than a goal every other game for Deportivo La Coruna, he moved to Bobby Robson’s Barcelona in 1997. He went on to score a remarkable 130 goals in his five seasons at Barca, yet despite his undoubted quality, he was released from his contract following Brazil’s victorious 2002 World Cup campaign.

Prior to the World Cup, Newcastle were rumoured to have agreed terms with the mercurial Brazilian, who was reportedly keen to work with Bobby Robson again. Newcastle had lined up a £10m bid and Freddy Shepherd looked odds on to recruit the 30-year old at one point. However, his successful world cup and free agent status attracted new suitors and he moved to AC Milan instead. He became something of a journeyman after that, playing in Greece, Uzbekistan and now, at the age of 39, he is still playing in his home city of Sao Paulo.

 

Ronaldinho

A year after the club’s failure to land Rivaldo, Newcastle tried, again in vain, to tempt his compatriot and second member of the ‘Three R’s’, Ronaldinho to Tyneside. The goofy-toothed Brazilian was Europe’s hottest property at the time and having finished in a disappointing 11th place in France’s Le Championnat with Paris Sant-Germain, he was keen on leaving France’s capital for pastures new. Newcastle, facing stiff competitions from Europe’s elite, attempted to woo him to Tyneside by offering to double his wages. The transfer bid itself was rumoured to include Laurent Robert, who had joined the Mags from PSG two years previous, plus £3m in cash.

The deal failed to materialise however, as Ronaldinho was at the centre of a three-way power struggle between Man Utd and Spanish giants Real Madrid, Barcelona. With Barcelona’s new president Joan Laporta having included David Beckham’s acquisition as part of his election maifesto, only to see ‘Golden Balls’ opt to join Madrid’s Galactico’s project instead, Laporta was under pressure to appease Los Cules and he subsequently signed Ronaldinho for a fee in the region of 30 million Euros. In the process, Ronnie disappointed the Toon Army, excited by reports of the Brazilian magician leaving a London nightclub with the Newcastle chairman’s son, Kenny Shepherd.

 

Wayne Rooney

Probably the most famous example of Newcastle attempting to, if not nearly signing one of the world’s most wanted players. Fresh with cash to burn following the surprise departure of perma-crocked Jonathan Woodgate to Real Madrid for £13.5m, Newcastle looked to respond by appeasing their fans with a big-name signing. Spearheaded by Freddy Shepherd rather than Bobby Robson, Newcastle made the first move in bidding for Everton’s rising Scouse superstar. Their initial £20m was immediately rejected and although they upped it towards the region of £25m, the wonderkid eventually moved to Old Trafford for £30m. Many a conspiracy theory (including upping the price for Man Utd) has since been put forward as to Newcastle’s reasons for bidding for Rooney when a defender was so blatantly needed instead but for me, you can’t look too far past Freddy Shepherd’s insistence upon creating his own Galactico’s Upon-Tyne project. Fast forward 12-months and Sir Bobby Robson had been relieved of his duties, Graeme Souness was in charge, Jean-Alain Boumsong was the club’s first choice centre-back and Michael O**n was paraded around after becoming the Toon’s record signing. To add insult to injury, Rooney scored this screamer plus many, many more against us in the years since his move to Manchester:

Rooney would most likely have moved on soon after joining a Newcastle side in decline but at least the club have seen a return on their investment, unlike the massive total they received from the departure of Owen: £0.

 

Luis Figo

Another FIFA World Player of the Year winner, Luis Figo was the figurehead of Portugal’s supposed ‘Golden Generation’. Having started his career at Sporting Lisbon before transferring to Barcelona in 1995, Figo appeared at St James’ Park in the Champions League in 1997, when he was part of the Barca side that lost 3-2 to a Tino Asprilla inspired Newcastle side. It wasn’t until eight years and ten trophies later though, that Newcastle registered their interest in the free agent whose Real Madrid contract expired in the summer of 2005. At 32 years of age, Figo was rumoured to be close to joining Newcastle on a one-year contract with the option of a further year.

Eventually interest from Italian giants Internazionale arose and the former Portugal-captain unsurprisingly opted to head for the San Siro rather than listen to Graeme Souness’ inspiring teamtalks. Figo played on for a further four seasons before announcing his retirement in 2009. He might not have lasted long at Newcastle on his high wages after Shepherd broke the bank to sign Owen and because of his age may have proved to be more Patrick Kluivert than Alan Shearer on Tyneside, had he joined Souness’ short lived revolution.

 

Luka Modric

Perhaps the closest any of the players on this list came to actually signing for Newcastle, Luka Modric was maybe not so well known at the time, but his performances for Tottenham since arriving in North London have been nothing short of spectacular. The diminutive Croatian playmaker has confirmed himself as one of the world’s best midfielders and is currently attracting interest from Chelsea, Man Utd and Man City following Spurs’ failure to re-qualify for the Champions League. Rewind 3 years to 2008 and it was actually Newcastle who led the queue to sign the former Dinamo Zagreb man.

Newcastle, fresh from having appointed Kevin Keegan and chief youtube-watcher Dennis Wise were supposedly looking to splash the cash on up and coming players from the continent. The likes of Andrei Arshavin and Arda Turan were linked prior to Euro 2008 but it was Newcastle’s interest in Modric that proved to be the most serious. Indeed, at one point, Modric was odds on to be wearing black and white after he was flown to Tyneside to meet the club’s officials and view the facilities. However, Tottenham also had a bid accepted and managed to persuade the little maestro that his future lay at White Hart Lane, a decision the Modric surely has no regrets about following Newcastle’s subsequent relegation in 2009.

 

“Please allow me to introduce myself,
I’m a man of wealth and taste.
I’ve been around for a long, long year
Stole many a mans soul and faith.”

Many a Newcastle United fan would surely empathise with the opening lines of the Rolling Stones’ classic hit ‘Sympathy for the Devil’. In sporting terms, Newcastle’s owner Mike Ashley could definitely be described as being Satan-like in a city where football is regarded by many as a religion – but whilst he is certainly wealthy, the jury is still out as to whether he is a man of taste! Since buying Newcastle United “a long, long year” ago – four to be precise – Michael James Wallace Ashley, otherwise known as the Fat Cockney Bastard or simply as ‘Mike’ has indeed stolen many a man’s soul and faith.

Should Toon fans sympathise with Mike Ashley?

Ashley seemingly came to the club’s rescue in the summer of 2007 when he quickly and unexpectedly forced through the purchase of the club for a total fee in the region of £134m, excluding existing debts. The Newcastle fans had exactly what they had been craving for for nigh on a decade – the replacement of the much-maligned Freddy Shepherd as the club’s chairman. Ashley bought the club with promises of debt removal, squad investment and talk of 5-year plans that would see Newcastle turn into the ‘Arsenal of the North-East’. The clubs new Billionaire owner was seen by many to have bought the club as a toy and in a rare interview with the News of the World, he openly admitted as much following the sacking of Sam Allardyce in early 2008:

“I bought this club to make it a success and the harsh truth is there wasn’t much prospect of that. I bought this club to have some fun and I wasn’t having much fun at all.”

Initially, the fans rejoiced at the positivity of the club’s new owner and his sidekick chairman Chris Mort. Ashley was regularly seen amongst the Toon Army at away fixtures, complete with replica shirt sporting the name of one of his first purchases as owner of the club in the form of striker cum defensive midfielder Alan Smith, signed from Manchester United for a fee in the region of £6m. Ashley’s choice of having ‘SMITH’ emblazoned on the back of his shirt probably had more to do with the former Leeds United player’s newly inherited squad number (17) though than it did the abilities of the former England international. Ashley is a known gambler and roulette enthusiast, with 17 being his number of choice on the green-felted table… apparently. Ashley’s penchant for risk-taking extends far further than the casino’s of Mayfair however and is no doubt one of the major reasons behind his incredible success with his Sports Direct business.

Ashley's fondness for risk-taking has been evident throughout his NUFC tenure

‘But what’s confusing you, is just the nature of my game’

Throughout the last four years of Ashley’s NUFC tenure, his appreciation for gambling has become increasingly apparent to th0se who turn up to watch his assets play each week – yet perhaps the biggest gamble of all was Ashley’s initial decision to buy the club – rather than the many gambles he has taken since (with varying degrees of success). The sportswear giant demonstrated his addiction to gambling, combined with an alarmingly distinct lack of business acumen when he chose to purchase the club despite not having undertaken due-dilligence – a common practice in such large-scale business transactions where the painstaking process of carefully analysing a company’s books is done in order to give the buyer a full-picture of what exactly they are buying.

Some may argue that Ashley’s reluctance to undertake due-dilligence was actually a blessing in disguise, fearing that had he taken a proper look at the club’s accounts, he would have seen the awful financial position that the club was in and wouldn’t have touched the club with the proverbial bargepole. Such a situation would have left the previous devil-incarnate Freddy Shepherd in charge of the club – an option which seems to be increasingly favourable with the benefit of hindsight. Only Ashley, Shepherd and their associates know the true situation that the club was in when the former purchased it in May 2007 but Ashley’s aides – most notably Derek Llambias – have always been quick to portray the Sportswear and waistline giant as the saviour of Newcastle United:

“If it wasn’t for Mike’s continued input… we would be in a similar position to Portsmouth (In administration)…”

Derek Llambias

So should we have Sympathy for the Devil?

The number of mistakes and major gaffes Mike Ashley has made in his relatively short time at the helm of NUFC are far too large in number to comprehensively list, yet despite his obvious and numerous flaws there are also a number of areas where Ashley could perhaps be forgiven or indeed sympathised with. In particular, right from the start, he inherited a club that was inherently poorly run both on and off the pitch. Sorting out the mess that Freddy Shepherd left behind would have taken the world’s best football and business brains combined years to achieve, let alone a cockney knock-off merchant and his casino cronies. He not only inherited a club that was being run into the ground financially from within the boardroom, but also an underachieving team on the pitch, with an aging squad full of overpaid, under-committed ‘stars’. He was also in the unfortunate position that just weeks prior to his purchase of the club, his predecessor had installed former Bolton manager Sam Allardyce and his army of backroom staff on long, lucrative contracts. Faced with the awkward position of either instantly and expensively replacing Allardyce upon his arrival or backing him in the transfer market, he chose the latter option, endearing himself to the Geordie public in the process. If he had chosen to dispense of Allardyce’s services before the Yorkshireman had even taken a training session at the club would have seen a national backlash against Ashley for not giving Big Sam a chance. As a result, Ashley was forced into signing cheques for his new manager – a process which saw the following arrive at St James’ Park for a total of more than £20m with all on lucrative contracts: Joey Barton, David Rozehnal, Geremi, Claudio Cacapa, Abdoulaye Faye, Habib Beye, Mark Viduka, Jose Enrique and Alan Smith. Of those 9 players, only Habib Beye hit the ground running and whilst Barton and Enrique are now justifying their price tags, they did anything but in their first 2 seasons at the club. Others, like Geremi and Viduka took the club for all it was worth in their (fortunately) relatively short stays on Tyneside. After 6 months, with the team playing awful football with some awful results to boot, Ashley sacked Allardyce and although many neutrals will tell you this decision prompted the club’s relegation in 2009, this is a theory most fans on Tyneside dispel as a myth.

‘Made damn sure that Pilate, washed his hands and sealed his fate.’

Ashley replaced Allardyce with fans favourite Kevin Keegan and wanting to make sure that there would be no repeat of the aging, expensive players brought in by Big Sam, Ashley introduced a policy of signing younger players with resale value, should the club wish to sell them in the future. In order to oversee this new policy, Ashley installed Dennis Wise, one of the most hated men in football, above Kevin Keegan, as the head of youth development and scouting. The Keegan/Wise partnership was a marriage made in hell as Keegan found out to his cost some 7 months later, resigning after having players he had not wanted (Nacho Gonzalez and Xisco) forced upon him by Wise – playing the role of Pontius Pilate – on transfer deadline day 2008.

Dennis Wise's actions led to Kevin Keegan's resignation from the club in 2008.

Whilst Ashley’s new policy of signing younger players and looking to improve the club’s academy was an admirable strategy for the club to impose, the personnel chosen to run it were entirely non-compatible. It seemed that Ashley’s problem was not so much his ideas, but instead the people he entrusted to carry them out. This certainly applied to the decision he took next: appointing the former boss of Wimbledon’s Crazy Gang, Joe Kinnear as the club’s caretaker manager. Ashley wanted an experienced head to guide the club while he looked to sell up after the Keegan fiasco turned the Toon Army against him. No serious bidders were forthcoming however, and Ashley took the club off the market in December of 2008 although further criticism was to come.

Following the departure of the talented French sulk Charles N’Zogbia and club legend Shay Given in January of 2009, the club required a further caretaker manager in February when Joe Kinnear was taken to hospital on the eve of the team’s game against West Brom. Chris Hughton originally took charge of first team affairs however with the team struggling and 8 games remaining in the season, Ashley and his new chairman Derek (Silence of the) Llambias managed to persuade club legend and record-goalscorer Alan Shearer to leave the comfort of the Match of the Day studio and return to Newcastle to lead the team until the end of the season.

‘And I was round when Jesus Christ, had his moment of doubt and pain.’

The decision to employ Shearer seemed the correct one, allowing him to galvanise the fans and team alike on the run-in to the end of the season, in the hopes of avoiding relegation to the Championship. However, the club, with its squad desperately lacking in either desire or confidence was virtually already down. Shearer and the fans could only watch in horror as the club slid into English football’s second tier at Villa Park in May. Although it was hardly Shearer’s fault, it was to be the worst moment of his playing and (short) managerial career.

Ashley oversaw Alan Shearer lead the team as they were relegated in 2009.

In the immediate aftermath of the team’s relegation, Shearer claimed the club was in need of a massive overhaul from top-to-bottom. He later declared that he wanted the job full-time and when Ashley and Llambias said he was the man to take the club forward, it seemed only a matter of time until the sheet-metal worker’s son from Gosforth took up the task of guiding his hometown club back to the Premier League at the first time of asking. However, Shearer claimed he was never even offered a contract. It seemed apparent that it was a publicity stunt by the NUFC board, aimed at quelling demand for Shearer to be given the job even though he was never in the running. One of the reasons may have been his wage-demands although it’s more likely the requested control over team affairs and transfer budget that put Ashley off appointing Shearer. Instead, he appointed the low-budget option of Chris Hughton – the quiet ex-Spurs man who had failed to inspire when in temporary charge the previous season. The club was again put on the market and again there were no takers. Ashley took the club off the market for a second time and turned Hughton’s temporary appointment into a permanent one after a promising start to the season.

Hughton – on a reported annual salary of just £250k – received no money for transfers despite seeing the likes of Michael Owen, Mark Viduka, Damien Duff, Obafemi Martins, Habib Beye and Sebastien Bassong all leave the club in the wake of its relegation. Hughton slowly conquered the hearts of the Toon Army as he manfully guided the team to automatic promotion with alarming ease. Only the achievement was anything but easy. The club’s humiliated players, tarnished by relegation, bonded and formed a new-found team spirit, battling their way to 102 points and the Championship trophy.

Chris Hughton delivered promotion and silverware at the first time of asking

Paying PL wages in the Football League: Ashley’s successful gamble

Although many star names left, several remained at the club and due to Ashley’s failure to include relegation induced wage reductions in players contracts, the entire playing staff continued to pick up Premier League wages. The massive reduction in revenue caused by relegation meant that Ashley was left to pay the bills, forking money out of his own pocket to keep the club running and the players paid. It was another Ashley gamble  – The club’s wage bill dwarfed those of other clubs in the Championship – except this time it paid off. By retaining the core group of the playing squad, Newcastle’s quality shone through and promotion was secured. Ashley’s faith in both Hughton and the playing squad must be commended, even if many will see alterior motives behind his decision to back both.

Return to the Premier League (and old ways)

Once back in the Premier League, Hughton received limited funds to strengthen the squad, bringing in Cheik Tiote and Hatem Ben Arfa (initially on loan), but the outlay of £3.5m in summer transfer fees was one of the lowest in the Premier League. Ashley was gambling again – this time that the squad was good enough to survive the 2010/11 season. By the start of November his gamble seemed to be paying off, with the club sitting safely in the top half of the table and great results against Aston Villa, Sunderland and Arsenal showing that Newcastle were able to compete in the top-flight. However, when Hughton’s assistant Colin Calderwood left to take over at Hibs North of the border, doubts about Hughton’s future began to surface as he was unable to choose his replacement. In true Mike Ashley fashion, the owner bit the hand that fed him and dispensed of Hughton in December, replacing him with Alan Pardew, rumoured to be a London gambling buddy, known through former casino manager Del boy Llambias. The move further angered the Toon Army as Hughton had worked minor miracles in the face of adversity yet this time it also served to anger the footballing community as a whole, with Hughton one its most-liked members. His replacement with a man whose track record included relegating Charlton Athletic and, most recently being sacked as manager of League 1 outfit Southampton failed to inspire Newcastle’s fans although with safety virtually assured and £35m from the sale of Andy Carroll to spend, it remains to be seen if the appointment of Pardew will be a successful gamble or the latest in a long line of major Ashley gaffes.

The jury is still out on Ashley's decision to appoint Alan Pardew as Hughton's successor

Whilst Ashley is undoubtedly guilty of committing several high profile mistakes and PR errors, he has also made some good decisions in the running of the club. Ashley finally has the club running like a business and as much as some people may hate it, in the harsh current economic climate, that is how football clubs will have to be run as fans of Leeds, Portsmouth and Plymouth will doubtless agree. If the man portrayed as the Devil by most on Tyneside has good intentions for the club’s future then he simply MUST show them this summer with the substantial amount of cash he pocketed from the sale of Andy Carroll in January. For many, Ashley had his last chance too long ago but some are willing to have Sympathy for the Devil and see what he does in the summer before making their final judgement.

Some of Ashley’s biggest NUFC PR gaffes:

  • Appointing Dennis Wise above KK
  • Appointing Joe Kinnear
  • Poor treatment of club legends Keegan and Shearer
  • The stadium naming rights fiasco (SportsDirect.com@StJamesPark)
  • Sacking Chris Hughton
  • The sale of Andy Carroll

The Young Athlete

José Enrique Sánchez Díaz was born on the 23rd of January 1986 in the Spanish coastal city of Valencia. More commonly known simply as José Enrique, or affectionately as ‘The Bull’ (‘El Toro’ in his native tongue), Enrique possessed blistering pace from an early age, becoming a member of the Benimaclet running club in his early teens. At the age of 16, despite his athletic talent for sprinting, he signed a youth scholarship with home-town club Levante. He made his professional football debut for their ‘B’ team in the 2004/05 season at the age of 18. He played just 19 games, scoring one goal but it was enough to impress the watching scouts and he earned his dream move to his boyhood idols Valencia CF who snapped up El Toro from their city rivals in the summer of 2005.

Spanish Nomad

 

As is common practice in Spain, Valencia felt the raw 19 year old left back was not yet ready for their first team, so they loaned him out to Primera División counterparts Celta Vigo for the entirety of the 2005/06 season. Enrique did well, playing 18 games for Los Celestes as the newly promoted Galicians marched into Europe via a sixth-placed finish in the league. The following season, Celta Vigo faced Newcastle in the UEFA Cup, losing 2-1 to the Magpies at St James’ Park thanks to a Steven Taylor diving header at the Gallowgate end. However, it seemed that Celta Vigo’s European excursions had a negative effect on their league performances as a José Enrique-less side struggled to 18th place and relegation.

Enrique meanwhile had escaped both Celta Vigo and his parent club Los Che, as in the summer of 2006, he made the short journey up the Costa del Azahar to the small seaside town of Villarreal. On August the 5th of 2006, he played at St James’ Park for the first time, a year before his transfer to Newcastle United. As part of a Villarreal side that drew 3-3 in a friendly match mainly remembered for Nicky Butt’s incredible substitute appearance which saw him booed onto the pitch, score 2 headed goals and then applauded off at full time. The performances of Enrique or his Yellow Submarine teammates were completely overshadowed by Butt’s 20 minute cameo, credited by many as the turning point that revived the holding midfielder’s Toon career.

Enrique excelled for Villarreal, taking on the world's best players

The Black & White Bull

Although Butt stole the headlines that day, a sturdy if unincredible performance by Enrique may have impressed Newcastle officials as exactly one year to the day later, The Bull returned to St James’ Park to finalise the details of his £6.2 million transfer to the Magpies and watched from the stands as his future teammates recorded a 1-0 win over Italian side Sampdoria; a game that saw Alan Smith net his first and only goal in black & white to date. Having missed Newcastle’s entire 2007 pre-season programme, Enrique did not feature for Newcastle in the Premier League until late September, instead making his debut for the club in a 2-0 home win against Championship side Barnsley in the League Cup. However, despite promising signs from the young Spaniard when he did play, manager Sam Allardyce openly admitted that he felt Enrique was not ready to start consistently in the Premier League, instead preferring to deploy sulky French left-winger Charles N’Zogbia in the left-back role. The end of 2007 saw Enrique put in some good performances and in doing so he staked a claim for a place in Newcastle’s starting XI, with N’Zogbia pushed into midfield. However, despite some good personal performances, the team’s results were suffering under an increasingly clueless Allardyce. The turn of the year saw Newcastle record a goalless draw at Championship side Stoke City in the 3rd round of the FA Cup. The man who sanctioned the pricey deal to bring Enrique to the club was relieved of his duties soon after, as Mike Ashley looked to appoint his own man.

“Allardyce was the one who brought me to the club and gave me the chance to play in England and I’m very grateful to him for that, for taking a chance on me.”

The unwanted man

Taking the country by surprise, Ashley pulled out his trump card on the day of the FA Cup replay with Stoke. King Kev returned to the club from the wilderness, over a decade on from his acrimonious departure in 1997. The feel-good factor returned to Tyneside and was immediately transferred onto the pitch, with Newcastle demolishing Stoke 4-1 at an expectant St James’ Park in front of a watching Keegan, alongside Ashley in the director’s box. Although Keegan, after a tough start, guided Newcastle to safety and returned attractive football to Gallowgate, he failed to see eye-to-eye with the 22-year old Spaniard. Contrary to popular opinion, Keegan’s renowned man-management skills did not extend to the entirety of his playing staff:

“I didn’t really know Keegan but he seemed like a nice man. The thing was that he didn’t pick me either and I heard that he didn’t want me at the club. That didn’t come from him because he barely ever spoke to me.”

Keegan played Enrique sporadically in his short second-spell as Magpies boss. Enrique’s form suffered as a result, with indecision creeping into his game. Bad luck followed; a freak Liverpool goal at Anfield in March 2008 came as a result of an Enrique clearance that rebounded off Jermaine Pennant, over Steve Harper in the Newcastle goal and into the back of the net. That goal seemed to sum up Enrique’s performances under Keegan, as he struggled for consistency in the Premier League. During the 2008 summer break, Enrique was told he was overweight and needed to shed a few pounds. He overreacted in his weight loss however and returned to pre-season underweight and lacking the vital upper-body strength that has become a key part of his no-nonsense approach. As a result, he was dropped by Keegan for the start of the 09/10 campaign. Enrique didn’t have to wait long for his return to the team though. Keegan left under a cloud once again at the start of September.

Enrique struggled for consistency in his first two seasons in England

Lacking confidence

Under Keegan’s temporary successor Joe Kinnear, Enrique enjoyed a return to the starting lineup and struck up a promising left sided partnership with Argentinian and fellow Spanish speaker Jonas Gutierrez. Constant managerial changes throughout the season however, saw an impending relegation battle result in a mass loss of confidence that affected the entire Newcastle squad. With morale decreasing rapidly, club legend Shay Given and French sulk N’Zogbia jumped from the sinking Magpies ship in the 2009 January transfer window. On a personal note for Enrique, the sale of N’Zogbia meant he was now the clubs undoubted first choice left back. For the club however, morale reached an all-time low and even the appointment of club record goalscorer Alan Shearer as temporary manager could not save Newcastle from the drop as they recorded just two league wins since the turn of the year. Enrique occasionally showed flashes of his talent, but in a team playing with zero confidence, even the great Paulo Maldini would have struggled to make an impact from left back.As the club contemplated life in England’s second tier, many predicted a fire sale of the club’s top talent, including Enrique, thought by many to be in line for a return to Spain. Enrique though, had other ideas.

“It was a terrible day – the worst day of my football career. I want to be part of a successful Newcastle and try to take it back to where it was 10 years ago. That’s my dream.”

Enrique vowed to help Newcastle return to the top flight

Cult hero in the making

Although big names like Owen, Viduka, Beye and Duff all jumped ship in the summer of 2009, most of the players set out to right the wrong of relegation. Under the guidance of Chris Hughton, Newcastle dominated the Championship and returned to the Premier League at the first time of asking, via 102 points and the Championship trophy. Enrique played an integral part in Newcastle’s title-winning team, playing 34 league games on his way to becoming a firm fans-favourite with the Toon Army, underlined by the fact he was Newcastle’s official Player of The Season, as voted for by Newcastle fans. He also made it into The PFA Championship Team of the Season, alongside teammates Coloccini, Nolan and Carroll. The moment of crowning glory for his season came in the 2-0 win over promotion rivals Nottingham Forest at the end of March. A soggy St James’ Park witnessed Newcastle all but secure promotion after Shola Ameobi broke the deadlock before Enrique added a second – his first goal in Newcastle’s colours and second of his career – in injury time. His celebration and that of his teammates showed the spirit within the Toon camp was incredibly high and the sight of the Newcastle players piled up on top of the Spaniard at the Leazes end is one of the enduring images of the successful 2009/10 campaign.

José Enrique goal versus Nottingham Forest

Mr Consistent

The settling in period that Enrique benefited from in the Championship saw him add consistency to his game, which, allied to his physical strength and surprising pace has turned him into one of the best left backs in the Premier League. High quality performances have been forthcoming so far this season, culminating in a fantastic display at The Emirates in November, where Arsenal’s pacy right winger Theo Walcott was marked out of the game in a 1-0 win for the Mags. Considering his position has not been under threat since the departure of N’Zogbia two years ago, the lack of backup at left back is credit to both his consistency and fitness as he rarely misses games because of injury. Fans and media alike have been queuing up to offer praise for the young Spaniard with calls for a first national-team call up also emerging. Rumours of January interest from Tottenham show just how far ‘The Bull’ has come since his arrival some 3 and a half years ago. 

Enrique has firmly established himself as one of the Toon Army’s favourite players – heralded via the simple, but effective chant of “José, José, José, José!” – and although it took two years to reap the rewards, it seems that Allardyce did do something positive for Newcastle. Enrique’s current contract runs until 2012 and if he keeps on playing how he has done in the last 18 months, then the fans will be happy to see him extend it. So too, it seems, would the player himself:

“When I signed here, I signed for five years. I have two years more – this year and another one – but I am already thinking about the future and hoping that my stay is longer than that. I would like to stay for another five years if it possible. I am very happy here.”

Much of the talk surrounding Alan Pardew’s recent appointment has revolved around the importance of keeping Andy Carroll at the club. The new manager could do much worse than ensuring El Toro also remains at the club for the forseeable future.

For Keegan, read Hughton. For Ginola, Gutierrez. Shearer: Carroll, Ferdinand: Ameobi, Beardsley: Nolan… You get the picture. Newcastle’s emphatic Tyne-Wear derby destruction of hated local rivals Sunderland led to fans harking back to the days of “The Entertainer’s” in the mid-nineties. Comparisons have been made with the infamous ‘Howay 5-0h” five-nil drubbing of Manchester United in October 1996. Darren Bent’s late consolation goal aside, the scoreline against the mackems on Sunday would have replicated that of arguably Newcastle’s greatest ever game.

Sunday's atmosphere and feel-good factor have been compared to that of the 5-0 win over Man United in 1996

Granted, times have changed (massively) and Sunday’s game was played between two relegation rivals (Or mid-table at best), rather than the clash of the title-challenging giants that took place on the same pitch some 14 years ago. Since the heady days of challenging for the FA Carling Premiership under Kevin Keegan in the mid-90’s, Newcastle have had 8 permanent managers and several others whom held the fort temporarily, not least Tyneside’s local hero and record goalscorer Alan Shearer. Keegan himself returned for a brief period before leaving under a cloud once more. The club reached two FA Cup finals then languished in the lower echelons of England’s elite league before returning to Europe under Robson after the turn of the century. Robson came and went, as did the club’s stature and relative success. The club went into decline once more and soon became the laughing stock of the country, spearheaded by chairman Freddy Shepherd and his successor Mike Ashley. The decline of the club, once commonly known as “everyone’s second favourite team”, culminated in its relegation in May 2009. The team on that day contained supposedly World-class players. The likes of Michael Owen, Damien Duff and Obafemi Martins all helped to sink the club into the depths of England’s ‘Championship’, or Division 2 in old money. The players of season 2008/09, although undoubtedly unsettled by the constant managerial changes and off-field troubles, seemingly didn’t want to be there and they played like it too.

Comparisons were quickly drawn with other fallen footballing giants including the likes of Nottingham Forest and Leeds United. Yet, guided by Chris Hughton, Newcastle returned to the Premier League at the first attempt, selling their uncommitted players and installing a new-found camaraderie along the way. A 6-1 pre-season defeat to Leyton Orient and the subsequent inquest is seen as the turning point in Newcastle’s recent history that paved the way for the club’s immediate return to the Premier League; the team’s fighting spirit evident throughout a season in which the Magpies went unbeaten at home. At the start of this season, pundits from far and wide queued up to offer their opinions that the Newcastle squad that came up would just as quickly be going back down. Whilst that may still happen, the baffling reason most pundits gave for Newcastle’s predicted relegation battle was that the playing squad had changed little and was, in fact, weaker than the one that took them down:

“It worries me that he has come up from the Championship with pretty much the same Newcastle team that got relegated from the Premier League.”

Andy Gray, 13 August 2010

What Andy Gray somehow forgot to include in his analysis, however, is that a good or bad team is much more than simply a collection of good or bad players (as Man City are demonstrating at present). If that were the case, Newcastle would surely have never been relegated in the first place and FA Cup ties between Premier League giants and non-league minnows might as well never take place, as only one team is guaranteed to win. Gray completely omitted the effects of mentality (including team spirit, determination and confidence) on a teams performance from his pre-season predictions. As a result, he has been made to look somewhat silly, as Newcastle and their promotion counterparts West Brom and Blackpool have taken the league by storm. To be fair to Gray, however, he later admitted that the new-found confidence in United’s squad was both surprising as well as responsible for their decent start to the season:

“The biggest difference for me between this team and the one that went down is confidence and it’s amazing what that can do for a team.”

Andy Gray, 24 September 2010

Newcastle’s improvements since that fateful day at Villa Park in 2009 stretch far further than just an increase in confidence however. For a start, stability both on and off the pitch has helped dramatically. The appointment of Chris Hughton as the team’s permanent manager just over a year ago has led to similar starting eleven’s, week-in week-out. And arguably, for the first time since Sir Bobby was in charge, players have been played in their correct positions, with the exception of the occasional deployment of Messrs Guthrie and Barton on the right wing. Hughton has by and large been a success in the transfer market too, despite what some of the media would have you believe. The signings of Mike Williamson and Wayne Routledge in January provided the team with a timely boost, changing Newcastle’s return to the big time from a steady process into an emphatic one. Add to that, the arrival of Ivorian midfielder Chei(c?)k Tiote in the summer. The battling anchorman has proved to be a snip at £3.5 million and is surely an early contender for Premier League signing of the season.

Cheick Tiote has been a revelation since signing for £3.5 million from FC Twente

Yet the main differences in Newcastle’s squad from 2009 lie within both mentality and player improvement. In dropping to the Championship Newcastle’s players, with their newly instilled fighting spirit, had to do what no Magpies side had done successfully since the Robson days; win away from home. Regularly. For too long, Newcastle have relied on their home form to have a decent season, far too often turning in poor performances when playing away. Whether or not they scraped survival or challenged for Europe depended mainly on how many points they picked up on their travels. In order to gain promotion, the mentality of the players needed to change. Spurred on by the external criticism of them, the players took on a winning mentality, especially away from St James’ Park. That mentality has been carried through into the Premier League, with victories at Everton and West Ham having already matched the amount of away wins the club recorded during the entire 2008/09 season.

The technical improvements in United’s existing playing squad have also been underestimated by those who blatantly never bothered to watch Newcastle play last season before predicting a bottom-three finish. Andy Carroll, Jonas Gutierrez, Fabricio Coloccini and Jose Enrique all benefited hugely from their year in England’s second flight. For Carroll, the much needed playing time he received significantly improved his game, transforming him from a raw, lanky striker into Newcastle’s new number 9, with rumours of a full England call-up growing at the same rate as his criminal record. As for the latter three, the Spanish speaking trio all arguably possessed the talent required to succeed in the Premier League, yet they had failed to show it on a regular basis. In the Championship, they flourished, adapting to the English game with 46 physical battles coming thick and fast.

Spanish speaking trio Enrique, Coloccini and Gutierrez benefited greatly from their 12 month secondment to the Championship

The settling in period proved invaluable as the trio each staked their claim for player of the season, with Enrique eventually picking up the accolade. The vast improvement of Enrique and the Argentine duo over the past 12 months has undoubtedly helped the team in the Premier League this season. Behind Ashley Cole, Evra and Clichy, you would be hard pressed to find a better Premier League left back than Enrique, whilst Gutierrez, since being dropped at Goodison Park, has put in some performances akin to his debut at Old Trafford, when he looked every inch a World-beater. As for Coloccini, mocked the length of the country during the relegation season, he has returned to the top flight with a point, and a hefty price tag to prove. Now idolised by the fans with a song to boot, the fact that Coloccini has worn the captain’s armband in the absence of Kevin Nolan this season is testament to the curly-haired centre back’s progress and increased importance to the team over the last year.

In the 14 years since St James’ Park rocked to The Entertainers 5-0 thrashing of Man United, much has changed, but arguably more change has occurred over the past year than in the preceding 13. For a team that was predicted by many to collapse into obscurity, they have returned with a vengeance and whilst the 5-1 victory over Sunderland at the weekend may not have seen the return of The Entertainer’s, it certainly signaled that times are changing at St James’ Park and the Geordie faithful can once again have pride in their team. Whether or not they can survive come the end of the season is unknown, but one thing is for certain; if Newcastle do return to the Championship in May, it will not be for want of trying.