Football: Newcastle's Georgian period

Simon Turnbull talks to the import who quickly became a priceless asset
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The Independent Online
They may not have won many trophies over the years but Newcastle United have never been short of a gilt-edged goalscorer. From Hughie Gallacher, the firebrand Scot, to Alan Shearer, the pounds 15m local boy, they have boasted some of the most prolific plunderers in the business.

No one in Newcastle's 105-year history, though, has scored a goal quite like the one Temuri Ketsbaia struck in the Maksimir Stadium in Zagreb three weeks ago. It earned the Tynesiders a place in Europe's elite club, as championship-less but fully qualified members of the Champions' League. It alone would have paid off Ketsbaia's transfer fee. The Georgian, however, was a free signing from AEK Athens.

Apart from his golden goal, though, Ketsbaia has already proved to be a priceless acquisition in more ways than one. He has quickly won his spurs from the St James' Park cognoscenti as a David Ginola with attitude - a work-ethic attitude. He has shown his versatility too, playing on the right wing and in a central-attacking support role as well as in his favoured position, wide on the left of midfield. And, unlike his predecessor, Ketsbaia does not have a precious view about his place in the scheme of things at St James'. "I always knew it was going to be hard to hold down a regular place in the team," he said after being dropped to bench duty for the trip to Zagreb.

Ketsbaia, with his speed, his skill, his versatility and his willingness to work for the greater good, is precisely the kind of canny signing Kenny Dalglish had in mind when he started rebuilding the squad he inherited from Kevin Keegan. Though not unhappy in the spotlight, and fluent in English (his wife's aunt lives at Finsbury Park), he even shares his manager's penchant for public pragmatism. "I am not a man who promises to do this or do that," he says. "I prefer to do my talking on the pitch."

Ketsbaia was certainly in eloquent form in Tblisi on Wednesday, tormenting the Italian defence in the goalless Group Two World Cup qualifier. At 29, such big occasions are nothing new to him. His national service includes scoring twice in a 5-0 win against Wales and appearances home and away against England. His European club record with AEK Athens included playing Louis Van Gaal's Ajax in the Champions' League three years ago and holding Paris St-Germain to a goalless draw in Parc des Princes before a Patrice Loko hat-trick in the return put them out of the Cup Winners' Cup quarter- finals last season.

Such experience is likely to be invaluable to Newcastle's cause when Van Gaal brings his pounds 400m-valued Barcelona boys to Tyneside on Wednesday. And so is the assured presence of Alessandro Pistone in the home guard.

The 22-year-old Italian cost pounds 4.3m more than Ketsbaia but has been a valuable asset to the new-look Newcastle. Such has been his impact on the right of a three-man-central defensive formation that the one occasion on which he put a foot wrong stood out, though David Batty was equally at fault for the error which allowed Igor Cvitanovic to shoot the Zagreb tie into extra-time. Even Dalglish has been hard pressed to contain his admiration of the former Italian Under-21 captain.

"Alessandro has been a great signing," he said. "He's got excellent control. He's strong in the tackle. And he's especially good in the air. He's also good at organising at the back. He'll be even better when the other lads know what he's saying."

There was more than a little consternation in Italy when Internazionale allowed Pistone to leave. Dalglish's shrewdness had much to do with it, however. Inter needed money to finance the pounds 20m signing of Ronaldo and simply could not refuse Newcastle's offer, though they insisted on a clause in the four-year contract allowing them a first option to buy. That itself confirms how highly Pistone is rated in his homeland. And he has quickly earned a platoon of admirers among the Toon Army. "He reminds me very much of Mark Lawrenson," Ian Rush said.

Pistone's polished start has been all the more impressive considering the fact that he has not been playing in his recognised position. It was as a fluidificante, an overlapping full-back, on the left, that he became established in the Internazionale team Roy Hodgson guided to the Uefa Cup final last season. "Alessandro was a first-class player at Inter," his former team-mate Gianluca Festa, now of Middlesbrough, testified. "I can only think Inter let him go because they could not afford to hold on to him. In Italy pounds 4.3m is a lot of money but Newcastle have got themselves a bargain." And they have the canny Kenny to thank for that.