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FA Carling Premiership, 20/11/99
Newcastle United
Soap opera
By Matt Rowson

It's rubbish, the Premiership. Overpaid mercenaries parading in front of silent spectators who either have forgotten how to sing or merely expect to be entertained. Disproportionate, fawning media coverage, image over substance, winning above everything.

This has not been better illustrated, as yet, than by our trip to Old Trafford last month. Christ, what a soulless place. Fifty-five thousand supporters, most of who would scoff at the thought of facing Chesterfield, York City and Wrexham as we did two seasons ago. The irony, of course, being that each of those sets of fans made more noise than the plastic patronage at Old Trafford.

Most of all, the distance between a football club and its support seems in most cases to be completely insurmountable. Not that treating your clientele like dirt is the exclusive domain of the top clubs… Ken Richardson, Robert Chase and David Webb all provide evidence to the contrary. But only in the Premiership does this seem to be the shameless norm.

Newcastle United, the most ridiculously soap-opera club in the country, is a case in point. As has been widely discussed in Watford, visiting clubs are now to be offered the entire Vicarage Road end. Sunderland, our next visitors and still getting the hang of this Premiership thing themselves, have taken the full whack.

However, this offer has not been taken up by the Magpies, who preferred to restrict themselves to a meagre one-third of the offered allocation. Strange, inexplicable, given demand for tickets to Newcastle games and that regular United fans seem to have gone without tickets. Not so strange when the beamback to St.James's Park was announced - £8 to you, sir. Cue plenty of away support in the home end (again), but not Watford's fault this time.

A factor which makes painting this heartless picture of the United infrastructure all the easier is that certain members of the board are clearly complete bastards. Perhaps, not for much longer though... rumours surfaced this week that Douglas Hall may be on the verge of selling on his considerable shareholding. Given the degree of financial support that the Halls have given the club, this may or may not be good news for the Geordie faithful... Hall seems very much to be the Devil to the Deep Blue Sea of the financial strife that may follow.

Following the departure of the ridiculously pompous Ruud Gullit, Bobby Robson arrived as manager on what may only end up being a brief contract, inheriting a stupidly large and overvalued squad languishing near the foot of the table. Following the reassimilation of Robert Lee and reintroduction of Alan Shearer, Robson peculiarly chose to add to the pile with the signings of Kevin Gallacher and Portugese stopper Rodrigo Helder, the latter on loan. His early games have provided modest improvement, not least the first away point of the season, at Highbury, and one suspects that following Newcastle's recent tribulations the United support will give Robson every chance to make a go of it in the North East.

There are four keepers on United's books, and they're all rubbish. Diminutive Irishman Shay Given is currently injured, leaving local boy Steve Harper to take over in goal. That Harper should be one of United's longest serving players says a lot. Another option is Dutchman Jan Karelse, one of Gullit's less stable signings, whilst peroxide-victim Lionel Perez was recently recalled from loan at Scunthorpe.

There are thousands upon thousands of defenders. The selection at full-back in Robson's preferred 4-4-2 seems at least pretty clear-cut... the impressive Frenchman Didier Domi on the left, and Italian Alessandro Pistone on the right in the absence of the suspended Warren Barton. Pistone, a £4m+ signing from Inter, was one of several discarded by that master of man-management Gullit, but now seems to have a second chance.

At centre-half has been the Greek Nikos Dabizas, at one-point rumoured to be joining Leicester's collection but now back in the side despite occasional stark inconsistency. Alongside him, former Monaco stopper Franck Dumas, although the Frenchman is thought to be returning to France imminently.

Other options are new-boy Helder, Spaniard Elena Marcelino, a £5m summer signing who probably still bears Dennis Wise's toothmarks on his arm following last season's confrontation, the ponderous Laurent Charvet, and the highly dodgy Aaron Hughes. Another expensive summer signing, Alain Goma, is injured, as is the promising Andy Griffin. Steve Howey and Carl Serrant both played for the reserves on Monday evening, but only the latter is likely to fit enough for contention on Saturday.

In midfield, Welsh captain Gary Speed partners the rejuvenated Lee in the centre. Peruvian captain Nolberto Solano and Scotsman Kevin Gallacher provide width. Solano has provided many goals this season, particularly for Shearer, but has a tendency both to avoid physical confrontation and elaborate on anything he's not quick enough to back out of. Gallacher had a woeful time in Saturday's international play-off, although his assertion that Scotland "played England off the park" suggests that serious concussion may have been to blame for his profligacy in front of goal.

Other options include delicate, wantaway Croatian Silvio Maric, Scottish winger Stephen Glass, and youngster Peter McClen. Definitely missing is new star Kieron Dyer, who interestingly claims on the unofficial site that he "never plays when not fully fit". Except when he's scoring with a broken leg against us, presumably.

Up front, Duncan Ferguson, who "looks like he was fashioned at Swan Hunter" according to one account, is looking for his first prolonged run in the side alongside Alan Shearer, who has scored four goals in his two previous outings against the Hornets. You'll all have your own opinions on him.

Other options are Gallacher and youngster Paul Robinson, whilst the barking mad Temuri Ketsbaia is returning from injury in the reserves.

Several of United's squad will come out of the international play-offs into Saturday's game. The distraction of a trip to Rome next Thursday is looming, and Watford, with an albeit semi-fit Gifton back in tow, are beginning to look like Watford again. I'm looking forward to Saturday.

In the meantime, Nationwide Extra starts in five minutes....