With Sammy Ameobi to the fore, youthful Newcastle United will hope to continue to make waves in the Europa League tomorrow night. Chief Sports Writer Mark Douglas reports from a city where tension is all around.
BRUGES feels uneasy. Twenty-four hours ahead of an anticipated black-and-white invasion of this pretty northern European city and football is most certainly front-page news in a tourist trap more notable for its medieval architecture than its passion for the beautiful game.
But take a walk around the old town and it soon becomes apparent where the local’s focus lies.
The headline in regional newspaper Het Laatste Neuws screams about the 3m compensation that Club Brugge boss George Leekens is due for being dismissed at the weekend, and rails against the unfairness of the 63-year-old getting such a generous pay-off for overseeing a disastrous start to the season.
With one point in six games and a defeat at St James’ Park a fortnight ago, Leekens’ sacking was anticipated. The size of his compensation in a league that makes a fraction of England’s Premier League was not.
“Legal? Yes,” read rival ‘paper Metro. “But hardly ethical”.
You’d think that with such worries, the city would welcome an opportunity for a football match, but it appears as if bar owners are braced for thousands of likely travellers from the North East of England.
On Monday, the police visited the tourist honey trap bars that line the cities’ historic square and told them not to allow for any outside drinking areas outside their premises. From today, beer will be served in plastic glasses and the locals wear concerned expressions; they remember trouble that was caused by visiting Birmingham fans last year and fear more of the same.
It is all in stark contrast to Newcastle’s attitude to Europe, which has seemingly grown warmer by the week this season. They have reserved their best performances of the season for the Europa League and there is a real zest about the performances of the young players who have been given their opportunity in this competition.
So while Premier League form is puzzling, United make the short hop to Belgium today bristling with confidence about their chances of skipping into the last 32 of a competition which is proving anything but the unwanted burden that others have found it.
Part of that is because Alan Pardew does not have the same selection dilemmas that seem to stalk him in the league. His decision to pick Vurnon Anita and Papiss Cisse on Saturday was an attempt to get Mike Ashley’s last two big-money signings into a cohesive starting XI, but it was only a partial success – and Newcastle are still searching for the fluency and formidability that has typified their European efforts.