Newcastle are a team on the up

THERE are several good reasons why fourth-placed Newcastle can remain in contention for a Champions League place.Such a prestigious end-of-season prize looked as if it would be contested by the so-called big five – Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool, Leeds and Chelsea.

By Mel Henderson

THERE are several good reasons why fourth-placed Newcastle can remain in contention for a Champions League place.

Such a prestigious end-of-season prize looked as if it would be contested by the so-called big five – Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool, Leeds and Chelsea.

But the Geordies have gate-crashed the scene and, with the half-way stage of the season fast approaching, they must now be seen as genuine contenders for one of the four available places next season.

Never mind the sound leadership of 'been there, done it' boss, Bobby Robson; the hunger of ton-up striker Alan Shearer to make up for lost time; or the depth of quality in an ever-improving squad.

The fact that Kieron Dyer is now fit to return to first team action for the first time since February is reason alone to fancy Newcastle's chances of not only maintaining, but stepping up, their impressive early-season pace.

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Admittedly, they started their season in mid-July in the Intertoto Cup, but Robson's men have scored 48 goals so far and if Dyer suffers no setbacks they are not going to be short of further scoring opportunities.

The former Ipswich midfielder's return is a mid-season boost to Newcastle and their supporters, as well as England boss Sven Goran Eriksson, who has pencilled him in for a place in his World Cup squad.

Provided he suffers no recurrence of his long-term shin problems, and regains the stunning form he displayed to earn an international call-up in the first place, Dyer should have little difficulty in booking his ticket to the Far East next summer.

He is one of this country's outstanding talents, a player who could grace the game at any level and who, should Newcastle ever decide to cash in, would have the top clubs in Europe entering a £20 million-plus auction for his services.

If ever a club needed to deliver, preferably in the shape of a major trophy, it is Newcastle, for whom there have been a number of false dawns in recent years.

How can we forget the Kevin Keegan era, when he picked the club up off the floor, breathed new life into it and had most of the country adopt his cavalier team as their second favourites?

Or his famous 'I would love it' rant at Alex Ferguson that backfired so dramatically, followed by the dip in form under, first, Kenny Dalglish and then Ruud Gullit.

In the Dutchman's defence, however, it should not be forgotten that he displayed the foresight to invest what has proved a bargain £6.5 million fee in Dyer.

Robson's availability was a bonus to the ailing North East outfit he followed as a boy and it has been a case of steady, if not spectacular, progress during his 27 months in charge.

Such is his enthusiasm and appetite for the job that it is difficult to appreciate he has been collecting the pension for the past three years, and it must be almost impossible for his boyish passion not to rub off on those around him.

Having taken his club goals tally to 100 with the brace that helped to see off Ipswich in the Worthington Cup recently, Shearer sat in front of the media to wax lyrical about the man he is tipped to succeed.

"I want us to win a trophy for Bobby," he enthused, no doubt focusing on the latest incarnation of the League Cup as the best chance of doing so in the short term.

"But I hesitate to talk about trophies," added the 31-year-old, who credits his decision to retire from the England scene as one of the main factors behind his ability to perform to such a consistently high standard at club level.

Shearer's reluctance is understandable, given the number of times Newcastle have taken their magnificent fans to within touching distance of domestic glory, only to fail.

But there is genuine belief that now, at long last, the mix is right to enable the club to cement its rightful place, not only among the English elite, but also on the European stage.

Robson's knowledge of the European scene has enabled him to import some outstanding talent to Tyneside, none more so than French winger Laurent Robert, who cost £10 million from Paris St Germain in the summer.

Once eyed by George Burley on behalf of Ipswich, until he realised the player was well outside Town's price range, Robert's price tag makes him the club's second most expensive player behind Shearer, who cost £15 million.

Also in the firing line, and proving value for money, is ex-Norwich star Craig Bellamy, for whom Robson handed Coventry £6 million in the summer. He has since netted 10 times for the Geordies.

Still without the services of £7 million ex-Wimbledon forward Carl Cort, who underwent a knee operation in America last week and whose latest comeback target has been revised to February, Newcastle have been grateful for the emergence of England Under-21 striker Shola Ameobi.

They can also call on ex-Colchester forward Lomana Lua Lua, who cost £2.25 million in September last year and has clearly benefited from playing in better company over the past 15 months.

Welsh international midfielder Gary Speed is a consistent performer who has scored in two of his side's last three Premiership games, while 35-year-old Rob Lee's reluctance to extend his stay at St James' Park beyond the end of this season has not had an adverse effect on his play.

Robson regularly raves about Chilean midfielder Clarence Acuna, an industrious type who cost only £1 million, while another South American import, Peruvian right-winger Nolberto Solano, has become a huge favourite with supporters.

Shearer thrives on the service from the flanks provided by Solano and Robert, while Bellamy's pace when running at defenders has been another not-so-secret weapon behind Newcastle's success this term.

Robson has also strengthened the Geordies' defence, retaining Greek international Nikos Dabizas and bringing in Andy O'Brien at a cost of £2

Million from Bradford, while also securing the services on loan of Sylvain Distin from Paris St Germain.

Home-grown Welsh international Aaron Hughes is performing solidly at right-back, to keep ex-Wimbledon man Warren Barton in the wings, while Robbie Elliott returned on a free from Bolton in June and has seen off all challengers for the left-back berth.

Robson is in the enviable position of having two top-class keepers, Republic of Ireland international Shay Given currently keeping Steve Harper on the bench.

Completing the Newcastle squad are 22-year-old French defender Olivier Bernard; Argentinian midfielder Christian Bassedas; and former England Under-21 pair Andy Griffin and Wayne Quinn, previously with Stoke and Sheffield United respectively.

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