The manager of Newcastle United, Alan Shearer, is hoping forgotten man Joey Barton can revitalise his midfield just when he needs it most.
The 26-year-old former Manchester City player is expected to return to full training later this week after recovering from a fractured metatarsal and would then be in contention for the vital Premier League visit of Portsmouth on Monday evening.
The Magpies' midfield has lacked penetration in recent months, leaving the club's strikers starved of meaningful possession, so the return of a man yet even to start paying off his £5.8m transfer fee cannot come soon enough.
At his peak with City, Barton scored and created goals, and Shearer is desperate for him to do just that as his side prepare for their final five games of the campaign, with three of them must-win affairs at St James' Park.
"Joey has had treatment all over the weekend and, if everything goes well with him over the next few days, we might have him in full training on Thursday or Friday," the manager said. "He can also run on and get past the forwards, which, with all due respect, Nicky Butt, who is 34, can't do. He does well in other jobs that he does, but he can't get past the forwards, and if Joey is there to do that, then it would free up some other players."
Barton was signed by the then Newcastle manager Sam Allardyce in July 2007, but has managed only 31 appearances since as a result of injuries and his spell in prison. Just five of his 25 starts have come this season with knee and foot problems having severely restricted his attempts to prove his worth on Tyneside.
The Magpies are yet to see anything like his best form on a consistent basis, and Shearer will keep his fingers crossed that he can prove an inspirational figure in what is effectively a five-game shoot-out.
Newcastle's chances of top-flight survival have realistically come down to their remaining home games against Portsmouth, Middlesbrough and Fulham, with only three victories likely to keep them up. Barton's return, as well as that of Jose Enrique, who has missed the last two games with a knee injury, could prove significant, although the club was yesterday awaiting the outcome of a scan on Steven Taylor's ankle problem.
It promises to be a tense few weeks on Tyneside as the Magpies attempt to dig themselves out of a hole entirely of their own making. However, despite the ongoing uncertainty, planning for next season is under way. Shearer has repeatedly insisted he will not be at the helm come August, with the previous manager Joe Kinnear – absent as a result of illness – expected to return in some capacity, although the 38-year-old's denials have done little to dispel speculation that he could stay.
But the process of identifying potential summer transfer targets is continuing, even though the club do not know which division they will be playing in next term. Shearer said: "That's all still happening. There have been one or two tweaks to the system, but it all has to happen for next season. That's for the benefit for the club next season."
Shearer's return to St James' this month was confirmed hours after it emerged that the executive director Dennis Wise, who was employed to oversee recruitment, had left.
First team games, of 80, Joey Barton has missed since joining Newcastle in June 2007.Reuse content