There’s an air of gloom surrounding Newcastle United. The club is in free fall with one win in 12 matches in the league, below the Mackems in the table and the loss of goal machine Demba Ba. For many his departure seemed inconceivable, the clause in his contract existing solely for the purpose of giving the red tops something to write about every January in these austere times. Then it happened – Chelsea came calling and he was gone.
On the matter of betrayal the fans reaction seemed an odd one. Sure, we saved him from a fate worse than footballing death, being part of the Stoke City set-up, but both parties knew exactly what they were getting in to. The club didn’t want to leave themselves liable if that phantom dodgy knee, of which there has been no evidence since it was revealed, scuppered him and the contract reflected that. Equally, Ba – a man who had made much of his struggles in his early career– was looking for a stepping stone club. We weren’t the fairy tale ending to his story, just the penultimate chapter.
As he said when he was paraded around in Chelsea blue:
“Hopefully I can do the same here, it would be good. This club is at another level, it isn’t West Ham or Newcastle. They are both big clubs with a strong history, but Chelsea is Chelsea and you cannot compare. It will be easier with world-class players around, who make the football look so easy.
When the club who won the Champions League wants you, the decision making is very easy. This club is massive and that helped the decision a lot. It was not a hard one.”
Can anyone really argue with any of that? The above quote was reported as being a “swipe” at his old club. Seems like a fair appraisal of the facts to me and anyone who would deny that is in the grips of foaming Geordie fever, like those poor wretched creatures who believed the club was ever in the running for a Champions League spot last season. We punched well above our weight and a large part of that was down to a fair helping of luck and the talents of Demba Ba.
As a striker it is impossible to describe his style. “Clinical” doesn’t feel right yet this is a player who seemed to score every time the ball bounced off him. “Flamboyant” doesn’t seem to fit either. He didn’t beat players so much as just always seem to be in the right place at the right time. Not to say any of it is fluke. It is clearly by design. Still, he remains difficult to categorise even if a statistically impressive player.
Will we miss him? Of course. Is he irreplaceable? Absolutely not. I remember the same sentiments when we sold a certain Andy Carroll for a fee so vast it remains one of football’s greatest pranks, Dalglish so blinded by hatred of his former employers he would literally break the bank to try and hurt them. The fans concluded then that the money was no good, that his impressive strike record was worth more to us than money in the bank. Since then the player can’t even get a game for West Ham and Newcastle continued to score goals.
We have a habit of getting the best out of strikers and I’m not saying that history will repeat itself for Demba Ba but the evidence is there for all to see. For decades we have been a glass cannon – a strong and forceful attack encased in something so fragile it can all be undone with a simple tap. When we find a figurehead striker we surround them with the players necessary to lay on the chances. Andy Cole had Peter Beardsley as the perfect foil, laying chances on a plate for a man who went on to score 41 goals in all competitions. After a season at Manchester United suddenly he was viewed as a player that needed too many chances to score, a perception that meant he never got a fair shake for England.
Even when we had undoubted quality in the form of Alan Shearer, we made sure he had the ammunition to put away. We brought in the “G-Force” of Ginola and Gillespie and the best header of the ball in the league at the time, Les Ferdinand. We scored for fun. We lost a lot of games 4-3. We won f**k all.
In all the hysteria surrounding Ba, people seem to have forgotten what we do have. First, Papiss Cisse is a player who can do all the things that Ba can, especially if played in the same system with our first team actually fit. He may only have scored four goals this season, but he has been played out wide in the absence of Guttierez and Ben Arfa. Play him in the middle again and he will bury the chances. When he first arrived he scored so frequently he even prevented Ba from doing so. Simply put, everything he hit seemed to go in, proven in audacious style, funnily enough, against Chelsea.
Second, we need to move away from this idea that has plagued the club that we need to be free-scoring. I’m proud of our history as an entertaining football club. I love the fact that neutrals elect to watch our games. But the fact they in choosing to do so they are guaranteed goals isn’t just a compliment. It is a damning assessment of our inability to defend and that has been evident again and again this season.
How different would our season be looking if we had been capable of defending leads against United? Hadn’t capitulated against a weak Arsenal team? Hadn’t conceded a last minute goal against Everton at home? The problems surrounding the club all lie in our defence and while Ba was a wonderful luxury to have, a luxury was all he was.
The signing of Debuchy points to at least a start in addressing these problems. Now Danny Simpson, who has been blinded by the “charms” of Tulisa can go to London and won’t be missed given his current form. Davide Santon needs to realise that the term “wing-back” means you actually spend some time “back”. Mike Williamson needs to be dropped immediately. Only Coloccini has looked like a Premier League defender and now we’re being told he has to go back to Argentina for “personal reasons”.
If that happens then there is something more catastrophic than a lack of goals going to befall us and, with the “I’ll bankrupt your club but keep you up” ‘Arry revival at QPR all bets are off about the bottom three. Any notion of guaranteed safety given our current form is a delusion. It might feel like Ba was a big part of avoiding that grim future but the reality is that it doesn’t matter how many goals you score if you always concede more.
I’d happily take a season where we drew every game from now until its end 0-0. That would probably just about guarantee our safety. Not very ambitious but I’ve seen this kind of freefall before and I just want it to stop.
For the future? Replacing Ba is a low priority without question. We need centre-backs. We need a defensive midfielder who can actually break up play and pass, the latter part of the gaming seeming to escape Tiote. We need to ask Coloccini to put his life on hold until the end of the season. All of these things are much bigger than the matter of finding the new Demba Ba and it’s a shame Pardew, and many of the fans, don’t seem to realise that. Simply put, goalscorers are ten a penny at Tyneside. A quality defender is a real rarity.