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Magpies old guard fear days of title pushes are over
INSIDE a packed St James' Park on Wednesday night, there were fans who had turned up to celebrate Steve Harper's loyalty, those who wanted a glimpse of Italian greats such as Franco Baresi and the rest wanted a reminder of yesteryear.
There are Newcastle United's supporters who may never have the opportunity again in their lifetime to witness the team they follow go as close to winning the top tier of English football as they did under Kevin Keegan.
And even the players involved during that entertaining era on Tyneside think it could be a long, long time before Newcastle ever come close to winning a first top-flight title since 1927 again.
Times have changed around Tyneside, and football in general. No longer are the club, now under the more frugal ownership of Mike Ashley, willing to go out and break records like Sir John Hall sanctioned for the £15m purchase of Alan Shearer in 1996.
Nor are Newcastle, who surprised everyone by finishing fifth before last season's relegation struggle, likely to recreate the bond between the team and fans which existed during the years of Keegan's entertainers.
That is why, mainly, more than 50,000 Geordies packed inside St James' on Tuesday to see the likes of Shearer, David Ginola, Rob Lee, Les Ferdinand and Faustino Asprilla pull on the black and white shirt for one last time together. Lee was one of the earliest arrivals of the revolution under Sir John Hall after Keegan had persuaded him that Newcastle was closer to London than Middlesbrough before completing a £700,000 switch from Charlton in 1992.
Fast forward 21 years and the 47-year-old fears Newcastle may no longer have the pull nor the ambition they once did when the legendary Keegan, whose second spell in charge ended after a breakdown in his relationship with Ashley's boardroom, was doing the deals for players.
“It depends on whether he (Ashley) wants to spend some money, whether he is going to back Alan Pardew or not,” said Lee. “It’s not going to be a short term fix here.
“It’s not a case of the club only needing a couple of players and they’ll be very good. It’s more long term than that. There aren’t the kids coming through the academy. Since I left here we’ve had Steven Taylor, Andy Carroll and Shola Ameobi through. They aren’t coming.
“Players don’t want to join Newcastle any more. Kevin Keegan sold this club to me when I joined. If Joe Kinnear was speaking to you, are you going to join this football club? I’m not so sure …”
The turn-out for Harper's 20-year charity match, albeit with reduced ticket prices and a pledge to support three local charities, provided a timely reminder of the sort of passion there is for Newcastle. Lee, though, does not think it as easy as saying Ashley should sell up and move on.
“In an ideal world, he should, but it isn’t an ideal world,” said Lee. “If he sold it, you don’t know if you’re going to get someone even worse. The likelihood is you are going to get a foreign owner. There aren’t any Geordie billionaires out there. That’s the problem you’ve got.”
The Ashley regime, helped along by chief scout Graham Carr and now Kinnear as director of football, have filled the Newcastle squad with foreign players – the majority of which are internationals.
“The fans want to see the club progressing and they want to see the owner spending some money on the team. That hasn’t happened,” said Lee. “I’d like to see them spend it on a few more British players. They’ve not got enough in the squad.
“They’ve gone too far. Some of the foreign players have been good, but some of them aren’t good enough and there doesn’t seem to be any desire to invest in domestic talent. When I joined Sir John Hall was pushing the club forward and Kevin was pushing the team forward. We had 16 English players here.”
Shearer, a more regular speaker on all things Newcastle, was more reserved in his thinking, although did suggest the attendance for Harper's farewell game highlighted how special things could be if Newcastle had greater spending power to surge toward the Champions League spots.
Shearer said: “It takes an incredible amount of money to get there. You've seen what Spurs have spent, albeit they got it back with Gareth Bale money, and Newcastle haven't got anything like that. You have seen what Chelsea, Man City, Man United, Arsenal have spent and Newcastle cannot compete with those any more unfortunately.
“The aim now is to try to win a trophy be it the FA Cup or the League Cup and to stay in the Premier League unfortunately. It might be a while before you see Newcastle challenging again for a top four place. It takes a hell of a lot of money to get there."
After leaving Newcastle in 1995 for Manchester United, Andrew Cole had the honour of becoming one of the few English men to have won every honour in the English game. During his time at Old Trafford, Newcastle almost pipped the Red Devils to the title in 1996 and then also finished runner-up the following year.
Cole, 41, said: “Newcastle United aren’t going to win the Premier League, only three or four teams can win the league now. That’s changed. Football has changed, but Newcastle used to be a lot closer.
“It’s a rock and a hard place at Newcastle at the moment. They seem to get themselves on the right track and all of a sudden someone here derails them. It’s almost as if somebody running the club wants to upset the punters and I find that very strange.”
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