Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Oh Carroll! I Am But A Fool ...

There's a joke currently doing the rounds on the Internet. No, this one's clean and doesn't involve Richard Keys, don't worry. 'Shell-suits, trainers, Andy Carroll,' it begins. 'Mike Ashley has a long history of selling utter crap to Scousers.' It's not quite as good as the one about Fernando Torres's move from Liverpool to Chelsea collapsing after Torres's wife failed to agree personal terms with John Terry. But it does, undeniably, give a bit of brief light amusement to the situation. Actually, though, as with many football-related jokes, it's more than a bit unfair to both Scousers and to Andy Carroll himself - the lad is already a fine player with the potential to be so much more than that. At twenty one he can, if handled right and if he manages to keep himself out of nightclub fights and, you know, jail, go on to become the best Premiership striker of his generation and England's centre forward for the next decade. He certainly has the ability to. Liverpool have taken a colossal gamble paying thirty five million quid for a very young lad with raw talent but also with experience of just over forty premiership games (and a mere seventy minutes in an England shirt). But it's a gamble which could pay off massively. For Newcastle, Mike Ashley has taken an equally big gamble. If not bigger. It's virtually impossible to argue with the fact that thirty five million pounds for Carroll is too good a price to turn down. Hell, he's a good player, he might even be a great player in a few years, but he is not, by any stretch of the imagination, the eighth most expensive footballer ever to walk the planet. If the eighteen million quid Villa paid Sunderland for Darren Bent looked daft money (and it did), then this is positively obscene. Especially in the middle of a recession. But, for all that, as you'll find repeated in all the bars and clubs around Tyneside this week, 'you can't play a big bag of money up front and expect to get twenty goals a season off it.' Ashley has, quite literally, tossed a coin in the air and speculated that a Newcastle side which has, frankly, somewhat over-achieved thus far this season still has enough about them not to get relegated. It's a calculated risk. The club are currently in ninth place in the Premiership and sit nine points above a relegation place with thirty points for twenty three games. Even without Carroll, they can score goals but they also have an unfortunate habit of letting them in at the other end in increasingly ludicrous ways. It's almost certainly a far better position than most United fans expected them to be in at this time of the season when it started back in August. Is it false? Some results suggest not, others that it is. But, still, realistically four more wins and maybe a couple of draws from their last fifteen games, in theory, should be more than enough to keep them up. It might take less than that - particularly with one or two clubs apparently in free-fall at the moment. Although this has been a very strange year in the Premiership in terms of everybody beating everybody else. In the past, several clubs have certainly found themselves in apparently 'nothing to worry about' positions such as this during the first week in February, only to find a quick run of four or five defeats in a row and, suddenly, they're back down struggling for their lives among the dead men at the wrong end of the table. Ashley's gamble, if it comes off, is that United survive this season with the (weakened) squad they have. If they do and, in the summer, they spend every single penny of that thirty five million knicker (plus a bit more from their next chunk of TV money and next year's season ticket sales) and bring in let's say three or four real quality eight to ten million pound signings (a striker, a right winger and a centre half are three positions they need filling, along with cover at left back) then selling Carroll is, perhaps, going to look like one of the best bits of business in the club's history. Or any club's history, come to that. Regardless of how he actually gets on at Anfield (and, I think it's fair to say as far as most Newcastle fans are concerned - aside from two games each year - we genuinely wish him all the very best for the future after what he did for us in the last eighteen months). As with so many things in football, the trick is to try to predict the future. If it comes off, you look like a genius. If it doesn't, you're a plank. For better or worse, the next three months are going to define Mike Ashley's entire ownership of Newcastle - everything that's gone before is the mere prelude. Two points about the Carroll transfer really trouble me, however. Firstly, it spectacularly undermines Alan Pardew's position as manager at Newcastle just at the point where most Toon fans were kind of coming around to a grudging acceptance of the bloke and even a mild warmth that he seemed to be making all of the right noises and producing some decent results - albeit, with Chris Hughton's team. For the last month Pardew has said, repeatedly, whenever asked by the press, that Carroll was going absolutely nowhere. That Carroll was one of a handful of players (Joey Barton, Enrique, Nolan, Steven Taylor, Ben Arfa) around whom Pardew wanted to build a side. Never once did he say 'Andy Carroll's not for sale ... unless we get stupid money offered, of course, in which case every man has his price.' Which I think most fans would have, with a heavy heart, accepted as the way of the world these days. Yesterday, Pardew was having to field some pretty awkward questions at his first post-transfer deadline day press conference. It was put to him that if fans can't trust him on this matter then why should they believe anything he has to say in the future. 'What can I say?' he replied meekly. 'We didn't force anybody to leave.' And that brings us to the second troublesome question. Did Carroll jump or was he pushed? A series of text messages between Carroll and the North East fanzine editor Steve Wraith on Monday afternoon, published in the national press yesterday, suggest that Carroll himself wanted to stay at Newcastle until the club made it clear they'd prefer the money. That's certainly the stance that Carroll himself has taken in his post-signing interviews. The club - through Pardew - have hotly denied this. Carroll claims that Derek Llambias asked him to hand in a written transfer request. The club deny this and say that it was Carroll himself who handed in the request without any prompting from them. (Interestingly, the text of the actual transfer request has not yet been made public.) So, essentially, either Andy Carroll is lying or Mike Ashley (via his various spokesmen, including Llambias and Pardew himself) is lying. Given the previous track record of Ashley, who has form infamously saying one thing to the fans and then doing exactly the opposite and claiming his original statements were mere 'public relations' (an entire industrial tribunal case was fought, and lost, over exactly that) lead many observers to know which side they believe. Watching the saga unfold on Sky Sports News on Monday afternoon was certianly a classic example of that curious modern TV-rolling-news phenomena, information and disinformation colliding head on and producing only confusion in their wake. For two hours mid-afternoon the broadcaster, in the guise of their North East correspondent David Craig, was confidently telling their viewers from a vantage point somewhere outside St James' Park that Craig's understanding was Newcastle had rejected Liverpool's overnight bid of thirty million pounds for Carroll. But they had let it be known to the Reds that an increased offer of thirty five million would be acceptable to them. Andy Carroll was, by all accounts, already on his way to Liverpool at that time (around 2pm) to discuss terms claimed Craig. When, actually, Carroll was in Alan Pardew's office just a couple of hundred yards from where Craig and his camera crew were standing, discussing whether he'd get a new contract or not. On that, pretty much everyone agrees. So who was telling Craig all this other stuff? Who told Sky that it had been 'intimated' Newcastle would accept a thirty five million pound bid? Somebody, somewhere, was sending out highly mixed signals. Within twenty minutes of it being announced that Newcastle had turned down Liverpool's 'increased' offer (which was described as 'thirty five million plus add-ons' and which happened at around about 4pm), Carroll's handing in of a transfer request was also announced - live on Sky - as was the statement that the club had, 'reluctantly', agreed to sell. If all of that doesn't sound like 'public relations' and - not unusually for Newcastle - particularly banal and unbelievable public relations at that, then nothing does. For what it's worth, despite their being a Tiding of Magpies involved, there are no black and white areas in this particular example of football gone mad. Newcastle, if they manage to keep themselves up, could - could, mark you - emerge a stronger better, more balanced side. Liverpool have signed a player with huge potential which might, long term, prove to be the start of something really special for them. Or, it could be the 2011 version of Peter Marinello. (That's a reference for all you fortysomethings out there!) Time will tell. In football, as in life, it usually does. Moscow Chelski FC have spent fifty million quid on Fernando Torres, a World Cup winner with astonishing natural goalscoring ability but someone who can be even more of a sulking child than the two they've got already, Anelka and Drogba. Only Happy Harry and Tottenham Hotshots appear to have lost out, but they've already got Steven Piennar so what they hell are they complaining about? The Andy Carroll transfer saga suggests that, on a day when football quite simply suffered from a manic overdose of ego-driven insanity, there remain only three proper certainties in life. Death, the rent man and the fact that being a Newcastle United fan is never, ever, dull!

Today's Keith Telly Topping's 45 of the Day, incidentally, concerns the subject of betrayal!It's a bit late for all that now, Neil, I'm afraid. He's gone!