Newcastle United fans love an idol, a hero, a talisman. A player to adore, someone to lean on, put our hopes into, someone to idolize! Over the past 25 years, I’ve seen some fantastic players come through the doors at St James Park – some have stayed for years, others just for a moment. Many have come and gone too soon, some were sold for profit, others flamed out, but it’s undeniable that Newcastle United is a club that needs a hero. In my time, we’ve had Andy Cole, Peter Beardsley, Rob Lee, Les Ferdinand, Alan Shearer, David Ginola, Gary Speed, Laurent Robert and more recently Hatem Ben Arfa, Moussa Sissoko (yes, for about 6 months, remember that performance against Chelsea at SJP?!) and Papiss Cisse.

 

Sadly, in recent times, too many of these heroes have left us wanting more. They’ve given us hope, even just for a second, some relief from the frustrations that now churn inside us all as fans. Many have deserted us too, it’s hard to argue that Moussa Sissoko, Demba Ba and Yohan Cabaye didn’t see Newcastle as just a stepping stone – a path to fortune and fame perhaps. Does Newcastle lack ambition? Yes. Does Newcastle offer continental players a path into the Premier League? Yes. Do we tend to make a profit on these players once their heads are turned? Absolutely. Cabaye, £20m in profit. Sissoko, more like £30m in profit, and even Demba Ba we made something like £7m in profit when he was sold to Chelsea. But what’s the point in profit when it’s not reinvested? When the next hero isn’t found.

 

Seems to me that we’ve not had a hero in town for a while. We’ve had players show us moments that could be turned into club history, certainly, Matty Longstaff’s goal last season against Man Utd was one of the best moments I remember as a fan in some time – but he’s not a hero, not a legend, at least not yet.

As I look at today’s Newcastle United team, and the key players in it, I think to myself, what makes a club hero? What creates a club legend? Do we have anyone of that pedigree right now?

 

Defining a club hero is very hard. To fans of my age, Alan Shearer is the most prominent and outstanding player Newcastle have had in the last three decades. He personified the working class culture of the city, that hard nosed, blood sweat and tears that typified the club trying to drag itself to the very top of the domestic game – and he almost did it! He was magnificent in every way. Captain of Newcastle and England, he led the line exactly how fans wanted him to. He went head first into every challenge and represented the club’s identity for 10 amazing years. That’s a hero, a local hero. But other than work ethic and identity (and of course talent!), what else do we need in a hero? How about the ability to make fans literally come up off their seat. That amazing and mysterious talent to do the unthinkable, the unbelievable. We’ve had some of those players too. David Ginola followed Peter Beardsley as one of those players who could change a game with one touch, one flick, one pass. In David’s case, it all happened so quickly, and for not nearly long enough. Just two seasons amazing fans across the country before it all turned sour and collapsed. Frankly, it’s one of Kevin Keegan’s biggest failings, not being able to nurture Ginola into a more composed, mature winger that could have carried Newcastle to a first Premier League title. When he arrived from PSG he was an enigma, no one had ever heard of him but he became an instant club & fan icon – not just for his magical left foot!

 

How about the grafters? How about Rob Lee, David Batty, Cheick Tiote and most of all Gary Speed? I loved a good central midfielder. Someone you could rely on to take the game by the scruff of the neck and drag Newcastle back into it! These are the kinds of legends that are so sorely missed, especially in the current Newcastle squad. Sadly, there just aren’t enough of these players anymore. For a fleeting moment I’d hoped Sean Longstaff was on the path to becoming one of these heroes – perhaps it’s too soon to write him off Gary Speed was probably my favorite player of his generation. I remember watching games just thinking that everything was going to be ok when he was in the line up, and actually Yohan Cabaye had the same effect for awhile, particularly when partnered with Tiote. If you played a lot of football as a kid, I bet your team had one of two of these players, the lads that made the whole game easier, and I bet more often or not they were a central midfielder! Newcastle have had many of these unsung heroes, and we need one right now.

So, do we have a hero? Do we have a player that defines who we are as a team? I’d argue that we do, just one. Allan Saint-Maximum.

For better or worse, this team will go as far as ASM can take it. Last season he was a one man team, and the main problem with that was that he only played in 26 leagues games, and many of those he was barely fit for purpose. When you’re the man the team relies on for drive, for creativity and for wins, it’s not helpful when you can only play in two thirds of the games. It’s not what heroes do! That said, clubs can build teams around heroes, and that’s what Newcastle should be doing with ASM. He’s the man that can drive Newcastle to where they want to go, even that’s only mediocrity! He’s flamboyant, and unpredictable which fans just love. He’s passionate and determined which managers love. He’s tricky, hard to read, and tough to catch which oppositions hate. He’s got the ingredients you’d want in a hero.

Anything holding him back? Well, yes. The club is yet to give him the players to support his ambition, but they’ve made a start. Adding Callum Wilson finally enables ASM to provide opportunities for a lethal striker. One of the slights on ASM last season was that he didn’t create enough goals – just 4 assists in all, but I’d argue that this is a two person stat, you can’t create goals for strikers that can’t score! Now, in Wilson, ASM has the perfect partner in crime and I think we’ve already seen glimpses of how potent that partnership could be. I wonder how long it’ll be before we see those two playing upfront together, or at least as part of an attacking couple. I think a hero also does better when they aren’t the only thing moving on the pitch. Too many times last season, teams could simply double and triple mark ASM and basically guarantee that Newcastle could be stopped. We just simply didn’t have anything else to offer going forward, and when he wasn’t in the team, we couldn’t get any type of attacking momentum going. Now, we’ve got some nice complimentary pieces around him. Not only Callum Wilson, but Miguel Almiron, Ryan Fraser and even Joelinton offer Newcastle many alternative paths to success when ASM is being marked out of a game.

Any risk with ASM being our hero? Yes, certainly. No doubt he’s a little fragile, or brittle as some would say. He’s often found limping around after a heavy tackle, and teams will soon realize that he’s a player they can get psychical with and marginalize early in a game and that might be their best chance of winning. Already this season, we’ve seen West Ham, Brighton and Burnley simply try to foul him into submission. His ankles seem a touch soft, so will he break down with rests over the course of a season? Maybe. Hopefully, he can get through more games than last season, but at least now we have some options. He’s also still inconsistent and takes too many touches, his end product needs to improve and he needs to know when he’s done enough and take the easy pass. All of that will come, he’s young and inexperienced and he’s also new to being a leader and a key figure on a Premier League team.

Will his head get turned by a bigger club? Too soon to say, perhaps. I think we’re all delighted that we made it through the summer window without anyone enquiring seriously about him. He seems to really love the club and the city and appears to have a unique and friendly relationship with Steve Bruce. Perhaps the best thing Bruce has done as Newcastle manager is build a strong relationship with ASM – giving him the freedom and discipline he needs at the same time. I think he’s passionate about playing for Newcastle and we should all enjoy that while we can. There’s already talk of him wanting a new contract, and that’s fair in my opinion. He’s outplayed expectations and therefore deserves to be rewarded for it, even if he signed a long term contract just one year ago. He’s our best player, and warrants being paid like it. He’s our leader, our driving force, and our hero – and he deserves to be loved for it!

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