Patrick Kluivert at Newcastle: a lesson in nostalgia

TFN debutant and Newcastle fan Andy Booth remembers Patrick Kluivert’s season on Tyneside…

Patrick Kluivert’s arrival on Tyneside in July 2004 was met with cautious optimism from the Newcastle United supporters. Manager Bobby Robson had compared the capture to that of the revered Alan Shearer in 1996, such was the reputation of the Dutch striker.

He had left Barcelona earlier that summer as the fourth top La Liga goalscorer in the club’s history and was top of the chart for the Netherlands with 40 goals in 79 internationals. Yet he had been released on a free transfer after failing to fit into Frank Rijkaard’s side for the second half of the previous season and had not played a single minute in Euro 2004, in which the Oranje had reached the Semi-Finals. Having just turned 28, he was, theoretically, still in his prime and after a disappointing 5th-place finish the year before, Kluivert was recruited to return Champions League football to St James’ Park.

However it certainly did not work out like that. His one season on Tyneside ended in a 14th place finish and there were few tears shed when he returned to Spain the following summer. But should we be surprised that the move did not work out as the club had hoped (rather than expected)? Even at the time the signing always felt slightly nostalgic. A former star, past his peak, plying his trade in a place he’d rather not be and probably wishing it was 1995. So what went wrong?

Well from a purely tactical sense you have to question whether his style of play fitted with the dynamics of the squad. At Ajax and Barcelona he had excelled playing as a classic number 9. Good with his feet, exceptional in the air, always eager to shoot, he was your stereotypical penalty box striker; a role already filled by the talismanic local hero Shearer. Even at 34 Shearer expected to start every game, and failure to fulfil these demands risked a backlash from the Toon Army, as Ruud Gullit had found out five years earlier.

Consequently, Kluivert started the first three games of the season on the bench, with Shearer partnered up front with the pacey Craig Bellamy in a fairly conventional 4-4-2. Having acquired just two points in this run, Bobby Robson took action and changed it up for the trip to Aston Villa; Kluivert would get his first start for his new club. But like Gullit before him, the decision would cost Robson his job. Kluivert had come in at the expense of Shearer and despite the Dutchman scoring, Newcastle lost 4-2 and Robson was duly sacked the following Monday, four games into the season.

In hindsight the dismissal of Robson seems like an atrocious decision. Newcastle had finished 4th, 3rd, and 5th in their last three seasons, as well as reaching a UEFA Cup Semi-Final. At the time though, overt frustrations meant that the dismissal was not entirely out of the blue. The previous season’s 5th-place finish was deemed an underachievement and the board’s patience was notoriously thin.

Robson’s replacement, Graeme Souness, ultimately proved as unpopular with the players as he was with the supporters, but he started his tenure brightly and was getting the best out of his forwards – all three of them.

The work rate of midfield trio Bowyer, Butt, and Jenas allowed Bellamy, Kluivert, and Shearer to combine in a highly effective 4-3-3. A 10-match unbeaten run saw Kluivert net 5 goals in the 5 games he was involved in, easily his best spell for the club. However, a minor injury disrupted this prolific spree before off-field issues began to have a hugely damaging effect on both Kluivert and the club.

Angela Kluivert, Patrick’s wife and mother of his three children, had not made the move to England, instead preferring to stay in Amsterdam. Two months later she filed for divorce. It can be easy to forget the sort of impact off-field issues can have on a player’s performance, as there is no way to quantify their effect or know the ins-and-outs. What we do know is that the couple had been together since they were teenagers but the relationship had become increasingly frosty in public: Mrs Kluivert was reportedly demanding a settlement around €15m. Regardless of what his agent said, the divorce was likely to have been a considerable distraction for Kluivert.

But at least he had chosen to play for a stable club which would help ease his stress levels…

During a routine training session in mid-October, seven matches into the unbeaten run, Souness and Bellamy had to be physically dragged apart. Both men, hardly known for their level-headed natures, brought further unwanted attention on the club. As Souness put it, “From the outside looking in before I took this job it seemed to be a recurring situation. The club were making headlines not for attractive football but because some dope was doing what he shouldn’t be doing.”

A second row between the duo at the end of January was the final straw and Bellamy, Newcastle’s most energetic forward, was loaned out to Celtic. In that same window Souness spent £10m on Jean-Alain Boumsoung and Amdy Faye.

But the moment Kluivert really realised he had joined a circus came the day after April Fools’ Day. Another defining match against Aston Villa, this time a 3-0 home defeat, came to be known as one of the most comical and embarrassing in the club’s history. Steven Taylor had been sent off on the 73rd minute for a deliberate hand-ball on the goal-line despite a valiant theatrical effort to convince the referee it had struck his chest. Ten minutes later things got a lot worse. Another fight sparked in the Newcastle camp, at least the third of the season, this time between Lee Bowyer and Kieron Dyer. Kluivert, like the 52,000 others in the stadium, could only look on wondering what on earth he was witnessing.

Injury had kept him out of squad that day, as it had on and off for much of the season. His lack of match fitness meant that he was regularly overlooked in favour of a young(ish) Shola Ameobi, who was quickly developing into his role as an utterly useless Premier League striker. Ameobi’s season figures of 2 goals in 31 league matches makes Kluivert’s return of 6 in 25 games look relatively prolific.

It feels only right to end with a homage to Kluivert’s FA Cup exploits. Without doubt his most acclaimed performances came in the Cup where strikes against Chelsea and then Tottenham in the 5th and 6th Rounds saw Newcastle progress to the Semi-Finals. Failure to return to that stage since has perhaps sweetened those memories, and this simply adds to the nostalgic feeling summoned by thoughts of Patrick Kluivert.

Despite reaching the FA Cup Semi-Final (a 4-1 loss to Manchester United) and a UEFA Cup Quarter Final (lost 4-1 against Sporting CP three days earlier to seal a 4-2 aggregate defeat), the season had been pretty much a disaster for the club. Having dropped nine league positions and into the bottom half a clause was triggered in Kluivert’s contract allowing either party to terminate the deal; both agreed it was for the best.

Injuries and an unfavourable tactical situation at the club accelerated Patrick Kluivert’s decline and staying on beyond the season was never really considered. The experiment had failed. But the baton of hope was passed on to another pair of injury-prone La Liga imports, £17m Michael Owen and £9.5m Albert Luque; a sure-fire recipe for success…


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