Newcastle in crisis? Anything but black and white

Kevin Keegan described him as the last man he'd let go. But yesterday James Milner was sold for £12m – leaving just 14 fit first-team players. So are Newcastle in crisis? Michael Walker reports
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The Independent Football

Either in possession of knowledge that will be embarrassing to sceptics, or acting with the vim of a latter-day Laurence Olivier, Kevin Keegan yesterday asked Tyneside and the broader football world to suspend belief systems until midnight on Monday. Only then, with the transfer window shut, should people begin judging why Newcastle United sold James Milner to Aston Villa yesterday morning less than 72 hours after Keegan had described such a scenario as "unthinkable".

The fee, which could reach £12m, is a good enough argument for many fans and Keegan intimated that Newcastle are close to using some of it to buy again, possibly the sort of "wow signing" of which owner Mike Ashley spoke to hesitant corporate backers on 10 August at St James' Park. Javier Saviola, now of Real Madrid, has talked of "Newcastle interest" in the Spanish press in the past fortnight.

"We have about four or five irons in the fire," Keegan said, "two of which are pretty much well down the line. Three could-be-maybes." Keegan described Kamil Zayatte, a 23 year-old defender from Young Boys Berne, as "one of those could-be-maybes. He trained with us this morning and certainly looks like a player who could improve us." Another 'maybe' is Thimothee Atouba, the former Tottenham defender. He was withdrawn from Hamburg's squad this weekend because, said his club, 'the Cameroonian's future is unclear' after he turned up for training on Friday when they expected him to have travelled to Newcastle to undergo a medical.

However, only an optimist like Keegan would say either man will shift season tickets to an unusually uncertain fanbase. And Keegan will offer Newcastle supporters' faith another test by placing Joey Barton on the bench at Arsenal for this evening's televised game. It is Barton's first appearance in club colours since his release from prison for assault. His Football Association hearing is next Friday.

Barton's presence is due to an injury crisis that has affected an already small squad to the point where Keegan said he has 14 fit first-teamers. A 17-year-old called Nile Ranger may start today. Recently released from Southampton's academy he signed as a free agent a few weeks ago and slipped virtually unnoticed on to Newcastle's bench at Coventry City on Tuesday night.

That was where Keegan had used "unthinkable" after Milner had made his 100th start for the club. The 22 year-old was the best player on the pitch. The management process and squad context of Milner's departure is troubling.

A fortnight ago, with Villa lurking in the background and Newcastle not addressing Milner's desire for an improved contract, Keegan said this: "The last player we will want to sell is James Milner, and I am talking about the owner and myself. I am sure he will not be leaving St James' Park."

By yesterday, at Newcastle's training ground, Keegan's view had become: "Sometimes you just get to a point where you sit down and say, 'Yeah, it's the right time to do this deal'. You could argue the clock on the wall, with the deadline three days away, makes it a bit more tricky – and I wouldn't disagree with you on that – but nevertheless I am pretty confident that we can overcome his loss in the next three days.

"It might not just be one player, it might be two," Keegan suggested. "It's a win-win, James has got a fantastic move to a club that he knows, because he's been on loan there. And we've got some more money in the pot should we choose to use it in this window or the next."

Keegan was buoyant, either naturally or by design. "You can take it from my mood," he said, "that although I am really disappointed to lose James Milner, I think we can make a plus out of this."

That is a two-headed position, but that feels appropriate at Newcastle, where management is conducted on various levels. Keegan said his meeting this week with Ashley was "great" but those close to Milner say Keegan supported his reasonable request for a new deal; Dennis Wise, they say, said not.

Yet Keegan bounced in to meet the press yesterday and declared straight off: "I just want to make it absolutely clear that at the end of the day it was my decision to sell him." If everyone believed that, it would go unsaid.

"If you look in the past at my managerial record, I've not been afraid to sell players as well as buy them," Keegan continued. "Andy Cole will come to mind. So in the short term it looks, 'Wow, why have they done that?' but over a period of time it might be, 'That's why.'

"It'll be judged over a period of time, won't it? It'll be judged on lots of things. Who we get in, what we will do with the money in the next window if we don't get people in, and people will judge it on how James does at Villa and so on. It will to and fro but the facts are that we have to get on with it. We are a player down for tomorrow but this is a long season."

Despite numbers, it has started promisingly. A draw at Manchester United was followed by the 1-0 defeat of Bolton and then the Carling Cup win at Coventry. Milner played every minute. He has never been convicted of assault.

"No more outgoings?" was the final question to Keegan yesterday. "No, I wouldn't say that," he joked, nervously. "Just getting rid of one as we speak."