Newcastle United are back in the English Premier League. IBWM’s Jeff Livingstone looks at two players set to make an impact at St James’ Park.
And that’s Pannonian, as in the Pannonian basin; a large area of Eastern Europe which encompasses Slovenia and Hungary, amongst others. But then, you knew that already dear reader; maybe you want to argue the Carpathian side of things? Let’s get back to football, eh?
Slovenia and Hungary are mentioned here as they are the homelands of two young players that have every chance of making a mark in the English Premier League this season. Both are young, both are on the fringes of their full national sides and both are on the books of Newcastle United.
Newcastle have endured a traumatic period of late - some would argue this began in 1892 with no sign of abating - following a downturn in fortunes and a fall through the Premier League trap door. After enjoying a lengthy stint at the top of the English game, Newcastle slipped from being a key player in Europe’s elite club competitions, to become a mid table, and then ultimately relegated, side on the verge of full implosion. The slide can be tracked back to the latter days of Sir Bobby Robson's reign, with his subsequent dismissal being a clear reference point for consequent failure.
In 2007, Newcastle United was taken over by billionaire sports retailer Mike Ashley and Newcastle fans felt, with huge financial resources available, it was now their time to stand toe to toe with Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal at the top of the tree. It wasn’t.
Ashley arrived with money to spend, but it was apparent that he had not done his research. Cash earmarked for investment was required to plug the holes of a heavily listing ship up to its neck in debt and servicing player contracts it could not afford to maintain with sponsorship money already long gone. The hangover of a decade of financial and footballing mismanagement by Newcastle’s previous owners had arrived with a bang.
A series of PR disasters and bad decisions ensued and any good feeling the Geordie masses felt toward the club’s new owner was well and truly destroyed by 2008. If any positive work was being done behind the scenes for the long term financial state of the club, it got lost in a melee of botched attempts at sales and antagonising appointments, with Ashley feeling the full wrath of a city’s discontent. Invariably the palpable negativity at St James’ Park spilled down from the stands onto the pitch and the club was relegated.
At the start of the 2009-10 season, a disjointed club lined up for its first game in the English second tier facing what many expected to be the final leg of a journey to complete oblivion. A disinterested owner, an unproven manager in Chris Hughton and an overpaid squad of players comprising the bulk of the side that had capitulated the previous year did not look to be the foundations of a rejuvenated club. However the remaining players rolled up their collective sleeves, dug in and won the division with automatic promotion back to the premier league at something of a canter; Hughton taking the plaudits for an excellent job. The crowds at St James Park, as ever, remained high and with average attendances of over 43,000 enjoying a winning side, positivity and some stability slowly returned…..albeit with a large dose of apprehension about how long it would last.
In amongst the debris of bad decisions made during Newcastle’s last stint in the Premiership, were some good ones. The club had resolved to focus on youth development - the North East being renowned as a rich vein of footballing talent – and set about rebuilding links with local youth teams and, in some cases, offering junior coaches ‘a kings ransom’, as one local coach I spoke to put it, to defect to Newcastle from other Premiership clubs. To supplement the local intake, Newcastle widened its scouting network to bring in talent from overseas and amongst the new recruits were two players that arrived from Eastern Europe full of promise. Enter 20-year-old Tamas Kadar from Hungary and Haris Vukic of Slovenia, aged 17.
Hungarian defender Kadar was signed in January 2008 from Zalaegerszegi and didn’t take long to make an impression in youth and reserve team matches. A year after signing for the club, a full blooded tackle during a reserve team game against despised neighbours Sunderland did for young Tamas. A broken leg was the result, which ruled the player out of Newcastle’s relegation scrap, just as he was needed. The injury may have been a blessing though as it meant that Kadar avoided being part of the disjointed side that went down; the effects of playing in a relegated team could easily have left a mental scar on the youngster.
Kadar did manage to make his debut for the first team at Newcastle the following season in the more sedate surroundings of the Carling Cup. Some nervousness had crept into the young Magyar’s (headline writers take note) performances - inevitable following his injury - but by the end of the season
Kadar was back to his best and was disappointed not to have played more.
As a composed and classy defender that has covered several positions for his club already, Kadar is a player that wants to play football properly. In the blood and thunder of the championship, young Tamas has, on more than one occasion, caused Newcastle fans to almost swallow their dentures as he looks to dribble and pass his way from the goal line when row z is the usual clichéd prerequisite. But this is something that has clearly not been drilled out of the player by Newcastle manager Chris Hughton. As a former defender and well respected coach in UEFA circles, Hughton has actively encouraged the player to play his football but within reason.
In terms of footballing ability, it is many years since observers of Newcastle’s reserve and junior games have saw anything as good as Haris Vukic. While several of Europe’s big names dithered, Newcastle nipped in ahead of Bolton to pick up NK Domzale’s 16-year-old attacking midfielder in January 2009. At 6’ 2” and with great physical strength, Vukic would have been lining up for the magpies on a regular basis had he, like Kadar, not been hampered by injury.
A league debut at QPR in Newcastle’s final game of the season gave Geordie fans a glimpse of what Vukic can offer, and he too will have been disappointed not to have got more appearances under his belt. Strength, skill, a range of passing and a ferocious shot all helped a Newcastle junior side destroy a particularly gifted Chelsea XI at the start of last season and Chelsea have continued to monitor the player’s progress, along with Manchester United, Real Madrid and AC Milan.
For now though, Newcastle have offered no encouragement to any other clubs and made it quite clear that approaches for either Vukic or Kadar are not welcome. Both players are expected to feature more often for Newcastle this season as they return to their rightful position in England’s top flight. With money remaining tight on Tyneside, chances will present themselves for both players this year and it has to be good for both that they will be allowed to develop playing first team football, rather than just disappearing into the reserve sides of Europe’s current elite.
If bids come in that are impossible for Newcastle to turn down, then the recruitment of both will have been a worthwhile exercise, if for no other reason than helping to correct the club’s balance sheet and providing a strong foundation to move forward. As Newcastle United corrects itself and seeks to ultimately return to the top table, both Vukic and Kadar look to have a big say in the journey.