Steve Harper, former Newcastle United and Sunderland AFC goalkeeper, reflects on the work our region’s clubs need to do in 2017
The recent admission from David Moyes that his job description ‘didn’t do what it said on the tin’ certainly hasn’t prevented an impressive run from the Wearside team in the run up to the hectic Christmas period. Many people had them written off – again – after the annual slow start, however a run of four victories from seven games has Sunderland very much back in touch with their fellow strugglers and another opportunity to perform their annual great escape – although this time it will be against all the odds.
The signing and good form of Victor Anichebe has been a huge plus for the club, as has the return to fitness of both Seb Larsson and Fabio Borini. However, this has been offset in an already-small squad by the injuries to Duncan Watmore, Jan Kirchhoff and Lee Cattermole, all of whom have played important parts in recent survival successes.
The form of young Jordan Pickford has been sensational and will surely have the bigger clubs making enquiries come the opening of the January window. After working with him for four months at the end of last season, it was clear that with some fine tuning he had a big future in the game.
It’ll be a huge dilemma for Sunderland given its lack of transfer funds as to whether to accept a £20-million-plus fee for their talented young goalkeeper, which would give them the opportunity to buy three or four players as they did last January to help ensure their Premier League safety.
Meanwhile, after a recent blip of three losses in a week, Newcastle United has bounced back to narrowly lead what is very much a two-horse race for the Championship title alongside former manager Chris Hughton’s in-form Brighton and Hove Albion. A very productive
first half to the season has yielded 16 wins and five defeats for the club, however the strength in depth from an impressive summer recruitment spell from Rafa Benitez will surely see them return to the top-flight in 2017.
The £10-million signing of Dwight Gayle from Alan Pardew’s struggling Crystal Palace looks very astute given that he’s fast approaching 20 goals already this season and, if he can stay injury-free, he may well score more than 30 goals in an already-impressive campaign. What I particularly like is that he’s not afraid to miss chances and doesn’t hide from opportunities if he has missed a couple. He looks a very confident young man.
The £30-million surplus from Newcastle’s United’s summer wheeling and dealing could well be spent ahead of the club’s expected promotion to prevent the summer’s undoubtedly inflated transfer fees eating into it too much. And it’s what will surely be needed if they are to return to the Premier League and make the necessary strides forward towards staying there.
Hoping to complete the trio of North East teams in next season’s Premier League is Middlesbrough. Aitor Karanka’s side have proved to be difficult to beat at times this season and have picked up impressive points away at both Arsenal and Manchester City. The team have proved to be a pretty solid defensive unit which has given them a platform to get results in games and the recent up-turn in form from Alvaro Negredo has been very timely.
A friendly looking run of fixtures over the turn of the year needs to be capitalised on for the ‘Boro. And if they continue to be difficult to beat while scoring goals, then I expect them to comfortably survive in the Premier League come May.
Down in League Two, Carlisle United continues its impressive promotion push while sadly highlighting the continued struggles of Hartlepool United, which remains perched precariously just above the relegation zone.
The turnover of managers at Hartlepool United over recent years reflects years of under-investment and poor recruitment and the possibility of the club dropping into the abyss of non-league football – given the strength of the Conference League – is a truly frightening prospect for any ‘Pools fan.
Hopefully, Hartlepool United boss Craig Hignett can use his extensive contact network to wheel and deal particularly defensively and keep another former club of mine in League Two next season.
I’d like to wish all of our region’s sports teams good luck. And a very happy 2017 to all of you!