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Premier League

Keegan cannot hide in numbers game

A small and expensive squad is now being reinforced but Ashley's backers are already thinking of deserting him. By Michael Walker

It is a five-hour round trip on a Sunday afternoon for a game live on television at a venue where Newcastle United have not won for 36 years, where they were beaten 6-0 in January, and where the cheapest ticket for a visiting adult is £41. But come four o'clock today there will be 2,520 Geordies in their sold-out section at Old Trafford in yet another display of Tyneside fanaticism. They may evenhave Newcastle's owner, Mike Ashley, among them.

If so, Ashley will know he is taking a risk. It is easy to view supporter attendance as a declaration of seasonal belief in Newcastle, but the truth is a little more complex.

Ashley may not have understood this when he bought the club in a rush a year ago, but a private meeting in the Magpie Room at St James' Park last Sunday demonstrated that Ashley is aware of the push-and-pull unease which fans are feeling. He is also aware of the subsequent economic knock-on.

In the Magpie Room with Ashley were 35 people described within football as "corporates". These are the local businessmen who invest around £40,000 a year in some cases to sit in St James' best seats or in the executive boxes. Ashley had called them together because, as of last Sunday, none of the 35 had renewed their season tickets. The reason is scepticism, not hardship. These people do not know who Ashley is, where he is taking the club, or why.

They are also unnerved by the presence of Dennis Wise at their club and the assumed threat he poses to manager-legend Kevin Keegan. Last Sunday the 35 were given answers, and 17 of them liked what they heard: Ashley's vision. They signed up again. According to someone who was there, Ashley's flourish – thought to be unscripted – was along the lines of: "If we're not top seven I'll rip up your contracts."

A glimpse of Ashley's rationale for that placing – Newcastle came 12th last season – came in the launch edition of a new club magazine. Ashley, speaking in depth about Newcastle for the first time, referred to the fifth-highest wage bill in England and said: "I'd like to see our position in the table reflect that fact more closely." He also mentioned £27 million outstanding on players bought by the previous regime.

Yet top seven, given Newcastle's squad, is imaginative, which is why presumably the other 18 are pondering. "Corporates" may not be regarded as representative of average fans, but in this case their hesitation is. Season-ticket sales are said to be down across the stadium.

Two days later, in a library in Washington on the outskirts of Sunderland, Newcastle's most senior player, Shay Given, was helping to launch the Premier League's Get On agenda.

Afterwards, Given addressed his 12th Newcastle season under his seventh different manager. "You've spent many years apologising for previous seasons, Shay. What does this one hold?" he was asked

Given is smart and sharp outside the box too. His smiling reply was: "What's the next question?" But he carried on. "The gaffer has been quoted as saying he wants a couple more players in. If we can do that, get the squad a bit stronger... because I do feel it is a little bit thin on the ground.

"Hopefully this new centre-half, the Argentinian guy [Fabricio Coloccini], will be signed soon. I think we need a couple more before the end of the month. Maybe I might be able to tell you a bit better then. Our problem is we won't have the biggest squad in the Premier League. Injuries and suspensions could hit us a lot harder than Man United, for example.

"We don't have enough quality in depth. If we do get that,if we field our strongest team, then we'll give any team a good game. To sit here and say we are going to end up here, end up there, is very difficult at the present minute."

Asked to survey his time at the club, Given's first two words were: "Well, disappointment." The following morning, in teeming rain, the Irishman was training at St James' in front of 12,000 fans at an open day. In March 2003, Newcastle were playing here in the second group stage of the Champions' League against Barcelona. It is not that long ago.

Wednesday's was some crowd yet Given's colleagues were, as he said, thin on the ground. Keegan's two summer signings, Jonas Gutierrez and Danny Guthrie, were present, but Coloccini was not – his signing was not official until Friday morning. Nor was Obafemi Martins, Mark Viduka or Habib Beye. Michael Owen jogged around the pitch with Abdoulaye Faye, but on Thursday Keegan admitted Owen will not feature today. Owen, Keegan suggested, might not make next Saturday at home to Boltoneither. By Thursday, even those who had signed up to Ashley must have been experiencing doubt. At that stage, Alan Smith looked like a lone striker today.

But then Martins returned from Nigeria declaring his willingness to play, Coloccini's deal was at last completed, and on Friday night his clearance came through. Keegan's tone, which had been muted, changed. He, Ashley and Wise, Keegan said, are in harmony. The signing of Coloccini, at £9.1m a record for a Newcastle defender, "sends out a message". As he said that, though, Newcastle were selling Faye to Stoke and Shola Ameobiwas in talks with Ipswich. Two more out to add to Emre, Carr, Rozehnal and Ramage.

"I do still need three or four," Keegan said. "I think we will get at least two more and by the end of the deadline we'll have two more fit. By then that squad will be strong enough and good enough for me and, hopefully, for Newcastle. I've had 100 per cent backing in the market. We're still a small squad but we're doing something now. There's no shortage of endeavour."

Or support. But another drubbing today will erode goodwill. Somehow portrayed as impatient despite no League title since 1927, Newcastle fans are watching and waiting. They are on the cusp.