Why are Toon's youngsters not thriving?
There are many worrying sights and sounds these days at Newcastle United. Not least the sight of a side treading water and the sound of silence among many of its supporters.
Few things are more likely to sink a club than fans' indifference.
The reasons for Tyneside's torpor are so numerous and varied that it's tempting to just close your eyes, stick your fingers in your ears and wish them away.
So it may be just me that sees the sorry figure of Charles N'Zogbia (top) - and the noises being made about his future - both alarming and symbolic.
Alarming, in that he appears to have gone from the Next Big Thing to nowhere man in much less than a year.
Symbolic, in that his seemingly dizzying decline embodies Newcastle's downward spiral.
N'Zogbia scored in Glenn Roeder's first two games in charge at United and was an ever present for the remaining 13 games of last season.
Having been Sir Bobby Robson's parting gift to Newcastle and then dazzled amid the gloom of Graeme Souness' reign, the Frenchman was probably the club's brightest young star.
So how come he now looks more diamante than diamond?
The official line is that he is still feeling his way back after a nasty knee injury which sidelined him for two months in mid-season.
But the unspoken suggestion at St James's Park has long been that N'Zogbia has too high an opinion of himself.
Long before the pitiful performance at Portsmouth a fortnight ago which brought matters to a head, that is.
Before Damien Duff died a death on the left wing that N'Zogbia once owned.
Significantly, even before Duff arrived on Tyneside last summer.
Yet whose fault is it if Charlie went big time too soon?
Even the most modest left winger - a Billy Askew, perhaps - would not perform cartwheels upon seeing a player signed to replace him.
And Duff, lest we forget, was a luxury buy made when United should have been shopping for necessities.
Yet the enduring doubts over N'Zogbia's temperament point towards a chronic problem within not just player, but club.
The problem of youngsters in general struggling to make progress at Newcastle.
Elsewhere in the current squad, Kieron Dyer is an example of potential largely unfulfilled. So too, though he never promised as much, Titus Bramble.
Shola Ameobi, for all Roeder's talk, remains an enigma rather than an established star.
Those that have recently been and gone - hinting at a big future in between - include Hugo Viana and Darren Ambrose.
And then there is Jermaine Jenas.
N'Zogbia's fall from grace at Newcastle reminds me all too much of that of the one-time PFA Young Player of the Year.
Granted, the likes of James Milner and Steven Taylor are heading in the right direction. Andy Carroll - a towering but seemingly grounded lad - will hopefully follow.
But with all due respect to those individuals, that is a meagre return on the club's once boldly-declared investment in youth.
The only young player to truly make significant major strides there in recent times was Craig Bellamy.
And he did so while largely at odds with Newcastle's coaching hierarchy.
That suggests the problem of growing pains at United is, if only in part, a symptom of a deeper malaise within the club.
But you cannot discount the outside forces which bear down on St James's Park.
At Newcastle, fans' fanaticism and almost 40 years of non-achievement combine to create pressure like nowhere else in the country.
And numerous players in recent years have arrived pitifully unprepared to shoulder that burden - but had their heads turned by the adulation that comes with it.
Lord knows, United have done their worst on the pitch over the years to stifle that adulation.
But still it survives - and still it inflates impressionable junior egos within their dressing room.
So isn't it time Newcastle set about educating their youngsters in how to remain anchored in what Jenas described as a goldfish bowl, rather than just cast adrift those who stray?
Premiership’s finest . . . not!
Faintly nauseated by the cosy love-in that is the PFA awards?
Sorry to remind you, but we’ve got the Football Writers’ Player of the Year gongs still to give out.
So in the meantime, sod the PFA Team of the Year, let’s pick our Premiership Worst XI of 2006/07. I warn you though, it’s far from easy.
For every Ronaldo, there is an Andy Reid, a Kevin Kilbane or an Albert Luque. For every Drogba, a Samaras or a Henderson.
Separate the wheat and you’re left with easily enough chaff to disprove the theory of ours
being the best league in the world.
But here’s my final nightmare team. Selected not simply on lack of talent, but on spectacular under-achievement.
The only good thing to say about this lot is that they could play 4-4-2.
Oh, and Luque isn’t in the team on the grounds of invisibility.
KEEPER: Paul Robinson (Totten- ham): Over-rated on a scale almost as large as his gut.
RIGHT-BACK: Lucas Neill (West Ham): Steve Carr misses out here to the man who snubbed Liverpool for West Ham for footballing reasons. Reasons still unknown.
CENTRE-BACK: Anton Ferdinand (West Ham): No explanation needed.
CENTRE-BACK: Souleymane Diawara (Charlton): Branded a flop by his chairman four months after joining. Some going, that.
LEFT-BACK: Ben Thatcher (Man City & Charlton): Beat off Celestine Babayaro for his place here. Not literally though, for once.
MIDFIELD: Nigel Reo-Coker (West Ham): Another Baby Bentley in reverse this year.
Didi Hamann (Man City): Yes Didi, Joey Barton was talking about YOU.
Nigel Quashie (West Ham): £1.5 million for this relegation specialist. And you thought Alan Curbishley was the sensible
type . . .
Luis Boa Morte (West Ham): The least predictable of Curbs’ cock-ups, but a big ‘un nonetheless.
STRIKER: Steve Kabba (Sheff Utd & Watford): Against a clamour of contenders, his stats speak for themselves: two clubs, 22 games, 0 goals.
Marlon Harewood (West Ham): Two goals in 29 league games. And people wonder what’s gone wrong at West Ham.
In a nutshell
Alan deserved all the tributes paid to him last week, and then some.
One thing he did not deserve was for news of his death to be relegated below a report on rubbish recycling by BBC Breakfast first thing on Wednesday.
The Beeb rectified that error as the morning went on, hopefully after an outcry from the few viewers who had still believed Auntie gave a toss about sport.
Reckon Middlesbrough doesn’t command the same civic pride as its North East neighbours? I give you hometown heroes Steve Gibson and Jonathan Woodgate.
What certain other clubs wouldn’t give to boast a benevolent chairman and a world-class defender, whose motivation is more emotional than financial.