Keegan faces summer of uncertainty at Newcastle

With the boardroom merry-go-round continuing and the purse strings tightened, Kevin Keegan has plenty on his plate at St James' Park
Kevin Keegan
Kevin Keegan has contract and transfer issues to resolve at Newcastle United. Photograph: Owen Humpreys/PA

Kevin Keegan can expect to be greeted by a bulging in-tray and a block on making 'trophy' signings when he returns to his office this morning. Newcastle United's manager has spent most of June on holiday in the United States and, given the rapid pace of change at St James' Park these days, will have much catching up to do.

A game of boardroom musical chairs had already begun when Keegan departed for America and he returns to a club which will now be run without a chairman. With Chris Mort, the last incumbent of that post, newly returned to London to resume his former life as a corporate lawyer, Derek Llambias steps into the breach under the new title of managing director.

Such tinkering with convention is typical of Mike Ashley, Newcastle's maverick owner who will now adopt a more hands-on role and has already played an active part in negotiations over a contract extension for Steven Taylor. As with Michael Owen and the goalkeeper Steve Harper, the defender's current deal expires next summer and Keegan is keen to see all three sign fresh agreements as soon as possible.

Ashley though is acutely aware that nearly 80% of Newcastle's turnover was spent on salaries last season and remains determined to slash the wage bill. This explains why players are to be asked to break with tradition and pay for their club suits next season and why, while the comparatively modestly remunerated Taylor can expect a significant pay hike, Ashley hopes Owen will agree to his wages being reduced by around £40,000 a week.

If all this makes sounds business sense, it does not totally chime with Keegan's hopes of ending Newcastle's trophy drought. Moreover while the manager may be heartened to hear that Dennis Wise, the club's executive director (football) and recruitment supremo is seemingly contemplating the idea of attempting to rejuvenate Aaron Lennon's career by relocating the winger from Tottenham Hotspur to Tyneside as a possible replacement for the apparently outbound James Milner, Ashley remains decidedly cautious about splashing his billions.

Indeed Keegan has been told Newcastle will no longer be signing established Premier League 'names' in their late 20s on huge salaries. Accordingly he has been discouraged from pursuing players such as Manchester City's Richard Dunne and asked to buy into the Ashley/Wise blueprint of recruiting young, unpolished but highly promising diamonds.

By offering a reputed £20m for Croatia's Luka Modric - who ended up joining Spurs - and currently having a £10m bid for the St Etienne striker Bafétimbi Gomis on the table, Ashley has indicated a willingness to invest heavily in blossoming stars whose value possesses the potential to appreciate. But the owner's primary interest appears to be signing up Europe's brightest teenagers, often before they even have a first team game to their name.

Newcastle - who having failed to offer Peter Taylor sufficiently attractive terms to lure the former England Under-21 coach and new Wycombe manager to Tyneside are now expected to make the ex-Walsall manager Richard Money their latest academy director - have duly snapped up a host of talented youngsters, including Ben Tozer, Tomas Kader, Wesley Ngo Baheng, Fabio Zamblera and Ole Soderberg, from across the continent this year and continue to pursue Plymouth Argyle's Aaron Spear. Realistically though none are likely to feature in Keegan's senior squad next season.

Whether or not the first team will continue to be coached by Steve Round or feature Joey Barton remains unclear. While Round is entering the final week of his contract at the club with an extension not yet forthcoming, Barton - currently serving a six month prison sentence for assault and due back in court on another such charge next Monday - faces having his deal terminated if he continues to refuse to accede to Ashley's demand that he accepts a 50% cut in his £60,000 a week salary.

Few things are ever certain at St James' but Keegan can safely anticipate an unusually challenging summer.