Mon, Aug 06, 2007 - Page 18 News List

No quick fix for the Toon

AFP, NEWCASTLE, England

No matter what has happened in the previous 12 months, optimism is never in short supply at Newcastle United at this time of year.

The club may not have picked up a significant trophy since their Fairs Cup success in 1969, but Newcastle's readiness to invest in new summer signings has always made this a city of hope as a new season looms.

A club anxious to sell season tickets has traditionally encouraged such pre-season anticipation -- even though more cynical supporters point to the fact that abject disappointment has always ensued.

This season, though, there has been a subtle change of emphasis, which has come as an unpleasant surprise for many fans who expected Newcastle to match the Premier League's biggest spenders.

Sam Allardyce arrived as manager to replace Glenn Roeder and was swiftly followed by new owner Mike Ashley, who paid ?133 million (US$272 million) to wrest control from the previous regime of Freddy Shepherd and Sir John Hall.

A billionaire owner and a manager keen to get his hands on the sort of financial muscle that was not available at his former club Bolton Wanderers represented a dream scenario for the supporters.

However, the talk at St James' Park is not of the quick fix that was forecast.

Ashley's right-hand man Chris Mort -- the new chairman -- soon discovered the club's finances were far worse than they believed at the time of the takeover.

Ashley may be one of the UK's wealthiest men, but he clearly demands that Newcastle United will be run as a business.

That means Mort will have to reduce the club's ?80 million debt, while Allardyce attempts to compete with the likes of Chelsea in the transfer market.

If the proverbial sleeping giant of soccer is to be aroused, it will not be a sudden awakening.

"It's not a short-term project for Mike Ashley or myself. I want to put that to bed straightaway," Mort said. "He has bought an entire asset here and the plan is to develop it over a lengthy period of time, not turn things round quickly and sell it on again. We are here for the long-term and we are looking at how to take the club forward over various timescales."

However, the importance of hitting the ground running in the new campaign has not been entirely lost on Mort, who has no previous experience of top-level soccer.

Allardyce, no doubt, has given him a swift introduction to the realities of a world that is vastly different to the one he experienced as a leading lawyer in London.

Mort has responded by making money available for players, although it is not the bottomless pot of gold that many envisaged at the start of the new era and there is a suspicion that Allardyce was disturbed that some of them arrived with only a week to prepare them for the new season.

Troubled England midfielder Joey Barton, veteran Cameroon international Geremi, Czech star David Rozehnal and Australian international striker Mark Viduka were shrewd signings by Allardyce before the players reported for pre-season training.

Since then he has added Manchester United's Alan Smith and Brazilian international Clauydio Cacapa to give more depth to his squad.

Smith, in particular, generated more of that traditional feelgood factor in Newcastle's famous Toon Army, but it should be tempered by Mort's cautious vision of the future.

"Our ambitions are to take the club back into Europe, but this is just the first step forward. We are getting the foundations in place in the first team, but also across the whole of the club. We are not focusing too much on what happens in the first few weeks or months," Mort said.

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