AS if a first Premiership clean sheet in almost three months wasn't a novel enough occurrence last weekend, Newcastle's much-maligned defenders have spent the last five days experiencing something even more unusual - specialist coaching.

Among the myriad of criticisms levelled at former manager Graeme Souness, his perceived negligence of the club's defence proved one of the most damaging.

Boasting a backroom staff comprised entirely of midfielders and strikers, Souness was unable to prevent a lack of both confidence and cohesion undermining his side's defensive efforts.

With both Titus Bramble and Jean-Alain Boumsong looking a shadow of their former selves, the Magpies have shipped a series of sloppy goals that have contributed to their slump down the Premiership table.

Caretaker manager Glenn Roeder has compiled a video of all the goals Newcastle have conceded this season - the more unforgiving of judges would no doubt conclude it must have been a long-play one - and has focused the bulk of his attention on restoring a sense of order amidst the chaos.

As a former central defender himself - Roeder made 193 league appearances for the Magpies in the 1980s - the 50-year-old is in the perfect position to dispense some specialist defensive advice.

And, after witnessing an initial improvement in last weekend's 2-0 win over Portsmouth, Souness' temporary successor expects to see further evidence of progress as his side take on Aston Villa this afternoon.

"I've asked our IT man to put together a collection of all the goals we've conceded this season and I've watched it a number of times," said Roeder.

"I don't think I have to say any more than that. We have given lots of goals to the opposition and we have to be men and admit that.

"I couldn't do a lot before last weekend's game but I've had time to work with the back four as a unit this week and I've targeted them. Hopefully, that will have helped.

"We've been stopping training to talk about positional play and how they should be working as a unit.

"We've looked at what should happen when the ball goes wide, how the whole unit should slide across so we haven't got great big holes in the middle of the back four. I think the back four will think they've got something out of it.

"Things aren't going to suddenly change overnight after just two training sessions, but you have to start somewhere."

While Roeder was at pains not to criticise Souness' methods, the former Academy chief was equally quick to highlight the raw defensive ability at his disposal.

Bramble, in particular, has the makings of a successful centre-half and, sporadically, the former Ipswich defender has produced performances of polish. All too often, though, his displays have been undermined by a moment of madness that has cost his side a goal.

Roeder is confident the 24-year-old is capable of cutting out such errors and insists his high opinion of Bramble is nothing new. On the final day of last season, he visited St James' Park on a scouting mission for England boss Sven Goran Eriksson and, by the end of the 90 minutes, Bramble's name was at the top of his list.

"I saw Titus against Chelsea last season while I was working for the FA," he confirmed. "I had been sent up here by Sven to report back on players and if you re-visit that game, Titus was excellent.

"In my report, I recommended him for England. It was a very positive report. When I saw the squad that was in America in the summer, I couldn't help thinking there was an opportunity there.

"In my opinion, Titus could have been in that squad. Given some of the players who played on that tour, Titus could certainly have been among them.

"Since then, though, he has broken his elbow and that hasn't helped.

"Titus would admit that is not a full excuse, but it hasn't helped him at all.

"He missed pre-season, which is very important, and it has taken him time to get back to full match fitness."

If Bramble is to make an international appearance in the future, he will need to add some consistency to his game. With that in mind, last weekend's dominant display will count for nothing this afternoon if he fails to control a Villa attack that put four goals past Middlesbrough last weekend.

Roeder has watched the Riverside romp on a number of occasions this week and, while Luke Moore's hat-trick inevitably caught the eye, it was a Newcastle player who made the most significant impression.

Midfielder James Milner is ruled out of today's game because of the loan arrangement that took him from Newcastle to Birmingham at the start of the season and, while Roeder expects to play no direct role in subsequent negotiations this summer, he will be urging the club's next manager to bring the youngster back to the North-East.

"Whoever takes this seat - and it's warming up by the minute - my recommendation, from what I've seen of James, is that he's a young English talent that you would want in your squad," he said.

"The new manager will have his own opinions and he will have to decide that for himself but, if I was asked, I would say that, whenever I've seen him, I've always seen him play well."

By then, though, it could be too late. Villa boss David O'Leary is keen to sign Milner on a permanent basis and his chairman, Doug Ellis, is hoping to open preliminary talks with his Newcastle counterpart Freddy Shepherd this afternoon.

"James Milner cost Newcastle £5m plus add-ons when they signed him from Leeds and that sort of money takes us out of the equation," admitted O'Leary.

"He is not spectacular but plays at a high level of consistency and is a very functional player.

"Newcastle must have thought they could not go wrong allowing him to join Villa on loan as he could only improve with us.

"Villa did a great bit of business when he joined us. Nobby Solano came for £1.5m and they gave us back that money when he returned to Newcastle and we took Milner on loan for a year without any fee being paid.

"No doubt Doug Ellis, will be speaking to Freddy Shepherd (later today)."

Read more about Newcastle United FC here.