Football: Soldier of own fortune

Simon Turnbull says Newcastle's goalkeeper is ready to fight another battle
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The Independent Online
Pavel Srnicek started his working life as a soldier in the Czech army. Perhaps it was just as well. Since joining English football's foreign legion, he has fought a constant battle to earn his stripes.

In January the woodcutter's son will have been on Newcastle United's books for six years. He is already the longest-serving foreigner in the club's history; George and Ted Robledo, FA Cup winners with the Magpies in the 1950s, stayed for four years and four months before returning to Chile. Yet once again Srnicek's position, as the last line of Newcastle's defence, seems under threat.

The 28-year-old is certain to be wearing the No 1 shirt when Kevin Keegan takes his team to the Baseball Ground next Saturday - that happens to be his squad number. But it remains to be seen whether the Newcastle manager will keep faith with the goalkeeper he has been unable to replace in his four years at St James' Park.

When Newcastle's defensive frailties were exposed in their 4-3 defeat at Liverpool in April, Srnicek was demoted and Shaka Hislop recalled. Srnicek was dropped again after Newcastle's 4-0 Charity Shield defeat against Manchester United in August but bounced back when Hislop paid for the 2-0 defeat at Everton on the opening day of the Premiership season. Now, after the open-house policy Newcastle adopted at the back against Aston Villa last Monday night when they escaped with a 4-3 victory, Srnicek is in danger of being the fall guy again.

Reports that Keegan is prepared to bid pounds 4m for Tim Flowers have met with "no chance" rebuttals from Ewood Park and silence from St James'. Yet, as Keegan looks to mount another title challenge, the time has come to resolve his number one dilemma, as it were. Blackburn, with an in-form Flowers, and Manchester United, with the commanding Peter Schmeichel, have shown in the last two seasons that solid custodians are required to win the big prize. And Newcastle's defending, which was back to its ponderous worst against Villa, is never going to be free from trepidation while the man at the absolute back is unsure of his place.

A vote of confidence to face Derby - whose manager, Jim Smith, signed him for Newcastle from Banik Ostrava for pounds 350,000 in January 1991 - might be what Srnicek needs to add an air of assurance to his natural agility and first-class shot- stopping ability. Certainly, an automatic recall for Hislop would have its risks now that Newcastle no longer have a reserve side to keep the out-of-favour match fit. But Keegan may decide on a cheque-book remedy.

Srnicek is the only man in the Newcastle squad that Keegan did not buy or who did not graduate from the youth team. He forced his way into the first team in the ill-fated Ossie Ardiles era, ousting the veteran John Burridge and the former Northern Ireland international Tommy Wright. Keegan replaced him three years ago with Mike Hooper but it soon became clear that the pounds 550,000 signing from Liverpool could not punch his weight let alone show his Anfield pedigree. Hislop arrived from Reading for pounds 1.575m 15 months ago but was kept out by Srnicek's impressive form after an injury at Chelsea cost him his place in December.

The irony is that Srnicek is back in the Czech Republic team because he has become first choice at Newcastle while Petr Kouba has fallen out of favour with Keegan's old Anfield striking partner John Toshack at Deportivo La Coruna. The Flowers stories surfaced on the day Srnicek prepared to leave for Prague, where the Czech Republic play Spain on Wednesday. "Ever since I came here Newcastle have been connected with other goalkeepers," he said. The old soldier clearly intends to fight on.