Newcastle bring close season to early conclusion

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The Independent Football

For a man who has won trophies in four different countries, the idea of beginning the season in mid-July at an obscure ground in Belgium must seem faintly demeaning. Bobby Robson may be besotted by football but, frankly, the Intertoto Cup could be an affair too far.

It will be an odd-looking Newcastle United side who take the field against the extravagantly named Sporting Lokeren St Niklaas Waasland this evening. There will be no Shearer, Dyer, Cort or Lee, and the surroundings themselves will seem equally unfamiliar.

Uefa has ruled that only those seats in Lokeren's Daknam stadium that are fitted with backs can be used; which rules out about two-thirds of the 16,000 capacity. The Toon Army which in a few golden years in the mid-1990s campaigned in Barcelona, Monaco and Bilbao, will be allocated 350 tickets and any Brit stumbling across this corner of Belgium, half-way between Ostend and Brussels, without a ticket has been threatened with immediate deportation.

The swirling rain that shrouded the north-east yesterday seemed to suit Robson's mood. For the first time since he arrived in September 1999 to rescue Newcastle from the wreckage created by Ruud Gullit's regime, substantial funds are available. The club's majority shareholder, Douglas Hall, boasted towards the end of last season that "the likes of Rivaldo" would be brought to St James' Park. It was predictable that the Brazilian would not be seen in Newcastle, but the club have made serious bids for his Barcelona team-mate, Boudewijn Zenden and Laurent Robert of Paris St-Germain, two left-sided players who together would have cost £16m.

Craig Bellamy has been secured from Coventry for £6m, but interest in Emmanuel Petit, Dennis Bergkamp, Josep Guardiola and Francis Jeffers came to nothing. Newcastle have finished in the bottom half of the Premiership for four successive seasons (they only qualified for the Intertoto because Malaga withdrew) and are no longer the draw they were under Kevin Keegan or even Kenny Dalglish.

Neither Robson nor his senior players were especially delighted to be entered for the Intertoto. "A club of this size should not have to enter a competition like this," remarked Gary Speed, who had played his last match of the season – for Wales – on 6 June. He heard of Newcastle's participation while on holiday in Portugal with Steve Staunton, whose Aston Villa side play in Croatia today, and immediately began training on his own.

The Newcastle manager, who had planned a pre-season camp in Sweden and friendlies against Sevilla and Fiorentina, said: "The club wanted to take part in the Intertoto and I could not say no."

Zenden may go to Chelsea, even though they are offering a lower salary than he could have commanded on Tyneside. Now, Gilles de Bilde, who failed to inspire Aston Villa when on loan from Sheffield Wednesday, has been targeted. Perhaps the most significant achievement of the summer has been not who Newcastle have signed, but who they have kept; Kieron Dyer, the subject of a £15m offer from Manchester United, is still on board.

Robson returned to pre-season training angered by the departure of his assistant, Mick Wadsworth, whom he felt had been forced out by intense criticism from the supporters and the local media.

"I have not just lost a top-class coach, but a friend," he commented on learning of Wadsworth's move to Southampton. Robson's record, personality and his Geordie roots have made him generally exempt from abuse from the terraces. However, the failure of a raft of South Americans such as Diego Gavilan, Daniel Cordone and Christian Bassedas to establish themselves has led to tension with the board.

"I would love one more trophy before I ride off into the sunset," said Robson, and it would be wonderfully romantic were he to achieve his aim, although he may need outside assistance.

It is perhaps not a coincidence that the Reverend Glyn Evans of St Andrew's Church in the city centre yesterday announced special services in which Robson and Alan Shearer will be mentioned in prayers and hymns. Only in Newcastle.

As for Aston Villa, Paul Merson will captain the team in their tie against Slaven Belupo in Koprivnica. Following the departures of David James and Gareth Southgate, and with newcomers Mustapha Hadji and Hassan Kachloul not available, the Villa manager John Gregory has taken the opportunity to include some of his young players in the squad.

They include Johnny Bewers, Stephan Moore, the German midfielder Tommy Hitzlsperger and the 19-year-old American goalkeeper Boaz Myhill, who will be on the bench. With Peter Schmeichel unavailable, the club's Finnish No 2 goalkeeper Peter Enckelman will start.