Time to show some respect to Ashley and Llambias?

DELIVERING THE BLUEPRINT: Mike Ashley and Derek Llambias

DELIVERING THE BLUEPRINT: Mike Ashley and Derek Llambias

First published in Sport The Northern Echo: Photograph of the Author by

MUCH more of this, and Mike Ashley might be able to start drinking in the Bigg Market again after all.

Twelve months after Newcastle United supporters were heartbroken to see Andy Carroll leaving to join Liverpool on transfer-deadline day, some of the damage was finally repaired by the arrival of Papiss Cisse for £9m.

A desperate attempt to curry favour following an ill-advised decision to change the name of St James' Park? The more cynical section of the Magpies support will no doubt see it as something similar.

But that would be to do a disservice to Ashley and Derek Llambias, figures who continue to attract derision and suspicion in equal measure, but who surely now merit at least a modicum of respect for the manner in which they have set about turning Newcastle United around.

After all, for all that the capture of Cisse came somewhat out of the blue, it can hardly be said to have been out of kilter with the general principles that have driven Newcastle's financial and recruitment policies in the last few years.

A club that was once synonymous with marquee signings on sky-high wages, bought for vastly-inflated fees, is now being hailed for adopting the kind of nuanced financial approach that the rest of the league is rapidly attempting to copy.

The template is now well known. Instead of buying big-name players either at, or even beyond, the peak of their powers, why not target developing talent that will retain or increase their value during the term of their contract?

Tap the foreign market because, in general, it tends to be cheaper. Sign young players, preferably 26 or under, because they will hold their value far better than players approaching their 30s. Scout a range of targets thoroughly, and if you can't pull off the deal you want at the first attempt, continue with your monitoring and do not be afraid to make a renewed approach if the opportunity arises.

So many clubs' transfer policies appear to be scattergun, reacting to events in the final hours of the transfer window and desperately scrambling around to pick up their rivals' leftovers.

Whatever you want to say about the current Newcastle regime, they cannot be accused of that.

There is clarity in their approach, and a powerful belief that after a series of errors in the season that resulted in relegation, they have finally hit upon a successful formula.

Given the Magpies' performances on the pitch in the first half of the season, it is hard to argue against them.

Cheik Tiote, Yohan Cabaye, Demba Ba - all players who have been purchased by the current regime; all players who have performed superbly despite being relatively unheralded when they arrived on Tyneside.

Will Papiss Cisse be added to the list? It's dangerous to make too many assumptions, especially with players who have no previous experience of life in the Premier League, but given the strength of his performance in the Bundesliga and the reports that have accompanied him from Germany, it would be a brave man to bet against him.

He has all the credentials to become a success as Newcastle's latest number nine, but crucially, his arrival will not break the bank.

Was does £10m buy you nowadays? A fifth of Fernando Torres? Less than a third of Carroll? Someone like Andy Johnson or Bobby Zamora if the figures being quoted in the current transfer window are anything to go by?

The transfer market remains vastly overheated. Arsene Wenger and Sir Alex Ferguson would rather recall Thierry Henry and Paul Scholes respectively than reach for their wallet in pursuit of a new signing, such is their lack of faith in their ability to secure value for money.

Yet, somehow, Newcastle have managed to land a succession of bargains. For that, their scouting team led by Graham Carr deserves considerable credit.

But perhaps it is also time to direct some praise towards the board. Not only have they assembled a squad that suddenly looks capable of competing for Europe, they have also addressed the financial calamity they inherited from Freddy Shepherd.

Strength, both on and off the pitch. If only they would ditch the Sports Direct Arena and bring back St James' Park, there'd be a queue outside Blue Bambu to buy the first round.

**

Cisse's arrival might well persuade Newcastle supporters to take more than a passing interest in the Africa Cup of Nations, where the club's new centre-forward will play alongside his club mate, Demba Ba, in the Senegal team.

In this country, the Africa Cup of Nations only tends to become newsworthy when managers start complaining about their players having to disappear.

That is a shame, partly because it is disrespectful to the people of Africa, who rightly view the competition on a par with the European Championships or Copa America, but also because some of the world's leading players now hail from the African continent.

And yet the region's international football continues to amount to significantly less than the sum of its parts. More than two decades after Pele made his much-publicised prediction of an African World Cup winner, and despite the continent hosting the tournament for the first time in 2010, the wait for an African side in the semi-finals goes on.

This month's tournament in Equatorial Guinea and Gabon should tell us a lot about how the continent's leading nations are shaping up ahead of the 2014 tournament in Brazil.

Intriguingly, eight of the last nine CAN winners have failed to qualify, with big names such as Egypt, Nigeria, Cameroon and South Africa missing out.

Does that mean the rest have caught up, or does it mean the big boys have been dragged down to the level of their lessers? The next three weeks should let us know.

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