ANOTHER quiet pre-season at St James Park with just the chairman and manager apparently falling out, while the skipper and his boss have allegedly done likewise.

Then again Newcastle United wouldn't be Newcastle United without a few ructions and a dash of rancour.

Sir Bobby Robson's last season in charge - according to Freddy Shepherd that is - has begun with clear-the-air talks between himself and the chairman.

Alan Shearer's last season in football - according to Alan Shearer that is - started with the captain insisting he expected to play when fit and in form.

The purchase of Patrick Kluivert appears to make the skipper's hopes of a minimum 42 matches appear remote.

Shearer wants to go out on a high with silverware and the 200 goal record of Jackie Milburn unlikely to be too far from his thoughts.

Kluivert and the skipper are likely to start the campaign up front but where does that leave the fit-again Craig Bellamy or the ever-improving Shola Ameobi.

It would appear folly if Robson failed to find room for the pace and guile of his Welsh wonder, and Ameobi could count himself very unlucky if his chances were limited after his end of season goals shot Newcastle to a UEFA Cup spot when a blank return threatened.

The arrival of Nicky Butt should soften the blow of Gary Speed's departure but the failure to strengthen their defence could prove costly - especially with Jonathan Woodgate's fitness record showing little signs of improvement.

James Milner will add strength in depth to a department where Newcastle already have strength in depth, but it is Kluivert's arrival that appears to have split the Newcastle footballing public down the middle.

The Holland international is an undoubted talent but the tap he uses to turn it on with appears to have stuck half cock. A return of a goal every other game from his time at Barcelona is outstanding - but just eight in a troubled last season at the Nou Camp didn't have Europe or the Premiership's biggest players hammering down his door.

The positive thing is that the man who has scored 40 international goals in 79 appearances for the Dutch has some points to prove.

His love-hate relationship with the Barca fans ended badly so he'll be keen to win over the Magpies faithful, whose fondness for a striker who scores regularly is legendary.

He will also want to prove he's still among Europe's finest after a disappointing Euro 2004 when he was the only Holland outfield player who didn't make it off the bench.

The first quarter of the season could make or break Kluivert's career on Tyneside.

If things don't go well and the toys come out of the pram then it could prove a disastrous legacy to Robson's spell in charge.

If he knuckles down, scores goals and makes his place up front untouchable then Alan Shearer could have his place under threat for the first time since Ruud Gullitt in 1999.

A fully fit Bellamy will no doubt be squeezed into the Newcastle starting XI, but where?

He has shown he can play in midfield, but if you play him with Kieron Dyer and Laurent Robert then Butt will surely be over-exposed as the holding player.

Robson is a firm fan of 4-4-2 but if he feels the need to accommodate Bellamy and Dyer then a five-man midfield would allow him to play either Lee Bowyer or Jermaine Jenas alongside Butt.

The options are endless but they are based on a Shearer/Kluivert attacking axis that is unbreakable.

All well and good if the duo are hitting the net and hitting it off. But Robson proved last season he is more than happy to rest his skipper and the soon to be 34-year-old Shearer may have to like it or lump it this term.

The target of 27 goals to equal Milburn's return half a century ago will be a tall order, but an even bigger challenge in this his final season may be to hold on to his position as the number one striker at the club.

Success may again elude the club this season but dull it certainly won't be.

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