Friday, October 29, 2004

Harsh Lesson – or Cheap Stunt?

I see Chelski have sacked Adrian Mutu following his failed dope test. Perhaps this signifies the way forward for clubs when players step out of line, but in all probability I doubt it.

The problem is that rather than simply being employees, footballers are financial assets which belong to clubs. Consequently, if you sack a player, you write off that asset, and only Chelski can afford to do that.

Leeds didn't stick by messers Bowyer and Woodgate following their trial because of some unerring loyalty to them, they knew that if they were found guilty and they sacked them that it wouldn't be long before someone else came along, picked them up for nothing and got them playing again.

Mutu's situation is complicated by the fact that he will probably face a suspension for his crimes, but given football's soft stance on the issue of drugs, I expect to see him back playing before too long, and expect a number of clubs to be chasing him.

It's the nature of football managers that they all believe they can tame the bad lads and get them playing the beautiful game – sometimes they can (e.g. Paolo di Canio at West Ham after the ref pushing debacle), and sometimes they can't (e.g. Lee Bowyer at West Ham), but nonetheless they all think they can do what nobody else can.

It's that kind of arrogance that makes a player want to be a manager, and sees the best managers rise to the top.

In this instance, I would applaud the position taken by Mourinho, but for the fact that he's wanted rid of Mutu for ages, and seized a chance to get him off the wage bill, absorbing a financial loss which Abramovich can easily afford and masked it as a stance against drug users.

Don't kid yourselves into thinking this is some grand crusade against drugs in football (or even drugs in Chelsea), it’s just an opportunity for Jose to get shot of a player he doesn't want, and show his squad who is in charge: but don't expect another club to follow suit.

Can you imagine, for example a team in the bottom half of the premiership sacking their star player cos he did something he shouldn't away from the pitch? No chance, they simply couldn’t afford to – and neither could anyone except Chelsea.

Thursday, October 28, 2004

Second time lucky

When old boy Darren Huckerby's second half penalty hit the back of the net we could have been forgiven for fearing a repeat of the debacle that was the league fixture against Norwich at the end of August.

On that occasion we were 2-0 up and cruising against a side struggling to find a foothold in Premiership football, only to slump into complacency in the second half and allow the spirited Canaries to mount an unlikely comeback and snatch a well-deserved point.

Thankfully, though, this time we managed to hold out and get the win merited by our dominance in terms of possession and chances.

Souness took the decision to shuffle his pack, with only Bernard, Robert and Jenas remaining from Sunday's starting line-up against Man City. Ronny Johnsen made his debut, Bramble returned from injury to partner him in central defence, and Milner, Ambrose (in central midfield), Harper, Hughes and Ameobi were all granted the opportunity to impress, the latter playing up front with the fit-again Kluivert.

Jenas it was, though, who got us off to a perfect start barely 70 seconds into the game, forcing the ball over the line after Robert's wicked low corner had caused panic in the six yard area.

After that, we created chances aplenty but were just unable to convert them into goals. Robert's delivery from set pieces continually gave the Norwich defence problems, but they held out until just before half-time.

The second goal, when it came, owed much to the half's two other star performers. Kluivert, who showed some beautiful touches in and around the penalty area, backheeled the ball into the path of the onrushing Ambrose who went down under a challenge. Our third penalty in successive games - not absolutely stonewall, granted, but there was contact - and the impressive Ameobi stepped up to send Green the wrong way.

Into the second half, though, and it was the lanky striker's clumsy challenge on Mattias Svensson that handed Huckerby the chance to get his side back in the game. Though we eased off when we should have continued to go for the jugular, and Norwich struck the bar with a fine header, we still created enough opportunities to have put the game firmly beyond the Canaries' reach.

Our reward for the win is a home tie in the Fourth Round against Chelsea, to be played in a fortnight's time. Souness can rest assured that if we don't take our chances in that game - and we probably won't get many - then we'll most likely be once again dumped out of a cup competition that we're perfectly capable of winning.

A final word on the crowd. As pointed out, at over 42,000 our attendance was over 30,000 higher than that of the Smoggies down the road - who, lest we forget, are the current cupholders and owe their much-trumpeted first foray into Europe to this competition.

Tuesday, October 26, 2004

The View From The Away End

This is a new semi-regular feature aimed at offering more detached, distanced and objective perspectives on events at St James's Park from those who, unlike Paul and myself, have no allegiance to the club.

The first topic of discussion: Bellamy's strop and Souness's response

The participants:
Kenny - West Ham supporter and author of popcult blog Parallax View
Pete - Spurs and Sparta Prague fan who writes the general football blog Round And White

Kenny: "Despite his undeniable talent, Bellamy is becoming an increasing liability and should be sold while you can still get some decent money for him. The problem is that with the state of his knees every time he feels he's a fixture in the side he can sod off injured until the next big Wales game. I'm sure I wasn't the only one who noticed Bellamy's 'miraculous' recovery two months ahead of schedule co-incided with the first real threat to his starting place (ie Kluivert). Conclusion? He has no real commitment to any cause other than his own ego. Get rid, and if Celtic want him all the better, so there's less chance of him scoring against you sometime soon.

I also believe Dyer's best days are behind him, and if you don't sell him soon, you'll get nowt. If you get £10m for the both of 'em, you could buy more than adequate replacements with a bit more from Freddie's slushfund on top - Scotty Parker and Damien Duff from Chelsea, maybe? Although a decent centre-half wouldn't go amiss and why exactly are you persevering with Olivier Bernard?

As for Souness, this is surely his last chance at a big job and that may well play in his favour. He's always falling out with players anyway, so his confrontational style will at least bring things to a head quicker, whereas Bobby Robson was too patient for his own good, and you can only sweep problems under the carpet for so long. The issue is, that even with all your temperamental stars, you're not good enough for the Champions League at the moment, so the rebuilding process needs to start with getting rid of those more trouble than their worth. When Shearer goes (one season too late?) it will also be much easier to manage the club I think.

As for celebrity status, it's all very well Beckham being on front and back pages because he's got the medals and England skipper's armband to merit the attention. Dyer, Bramble et al have WON NOTHING and would be well advised to keep their heads down until they do.

If you're asking for predictions, I think Souness' reign will be a short but eventful one, but if he can see through the transitional period that shows Bellamy, Dyer and Shearer the door he will make the next manager's job much easier than if they'd taken over straight from Robson.

Pete: "Well, I’ve rewritten this about three times this week as Craig Bellamy’s fortunes have gone up and down. After a week of rumours it seems that Craig’s match-winning volley against Man City will be the final word on the dispute, at least for the time being.

My first thought on the matter at the time, was that it was really only going to be a matter of time before Souness and one of his players clashed or as Souness put it, ‘had a meeting’. The real surprise for me (Newcastle fans might well be of a different opinion) was that it was Bellamy who showed the first sign of dissent and not Dyer, Robert or even Shearer (although one of this trio is sure to express his opinion too before the season is out if things don't go according to plan).

Having said that, Craig has been developing a reputation as someone who enjoys a good moan. But perhaps this time, he has realised that all of this conflict is not doing him any good. If Souness were to freeze him out of the team at some point in the future, would any other (top) team be interested in taking Craig on?

Ultimately, Bellamy has to realise that he is likely to remain in the Newcastle squad, but that Souness is not a manager to take any nonsense (hello Dwight Yorke, David Dunn, et al). Furthermore, as a 'professional' he should just learn to accept his manager’s decision, regardless of whether he agrees with it or not. Luckily for Craig, Souness hasn't been particularly vindictive this time round.

Thanks to Pete and Kenny for their thoughts.

If you're not a Newcastle fan and weren't contacted about taking part in this feature but would like to become involved in future, we'd love to hear from you. Drop us an email at

Tales from the touchline

Remiss of me not to mention this before, but the football stories section of the blog Crinklybee comes highly recommended with the B&W&RAO Gold Standard Seal Of Approval, and not simply because it's written by a Geordie exiled in darkest Manchester.

Recent fantastic posts deserving of your immediate attention include the tale of baby Frank's first exposure to live football and a piece about the legend that is Altrincham's Nyinger Nyanger Man.

Apparently young Frankie has all the makings of an astute and intelligent pundit - as the proud father himself says, "the boy could hardly do a worse job than Ian Wright, now could he?"

Thought for the day

The pea soup thrown at Fish-Eyed Ferguson - was it Campbell's or Heinze's?

Monday, October 25, 2004

Grey Hairs all round

Sunday's match saw John Beresford as summariser on Radio 5Live Sports Extra. At one point Bez was talking about the idea of going into management, and said that having seen the way Keegan's dark brown locks went white during his time presiding over Newcastle that he didn't fancy the idea himself.

He then mused out loud how many of those grey hairs he himself had been responsible for?

At which point someone within earshot reportedly said: "Not as many as Philippe Albert."

and relax...

Kevin Keegan may no longer be manager at St James' Park, but his record in seven goal matches remains as it always was. For Collymore on that fateful night on Merseyside a few years ago, read Bellamy yesterday, as the little Welshman rounded off his week in fine style, and reminded Souness of his good points.

Nil-nil at half time, in what was a pretty scrappy encounter with only a Bellamy header over the bar and a Bowyer shot cleared off the line to show for it, this game looked like it needed a goal to really spark into life.

That goal was duly delivered from the boot of Laurent Robert, curling a free kick up and over the Man City wall, past a static David James. That the free kick came from a soft foul left Keegan fuming, but having seen the replay Bosvelt did make contact with Butt, even if little Nicky did then fall to the ground somewhat readily.

Minutes later, some excellent harrying from Shearer in particular gave Steven Carr the chance to burst into the Man City box, ride the tackle of Steve McManaman, and find himself one on one with the keeper. As Carr knocked the ball past the lunging David James and then went to ground a penalty was the only option open to the referee. Contact may have been minimal, but if James is going to go to ground and not get the ball he risks giving away a penalty every time it happens – a lesson I thought he would have learnt following Euro 2004. Keegan may have been fuming, but a penalty was probably a fair decision. Sure enough, Shearer put the ball in the opposite corner to the way James dived, and moved one goal closer to Milburn's record. At two nil up, Souness brought on Aaron Hughes for Stephen Carr, and I foolishly thought that we'd done enough…

However, good work from Shaun Wright-Phillips down the right gave him the space to crash the ball past Shay Given, and give City a lifeline into a match which they shouldn't have been allowed back in to. A foul by Nicky Butt on Robbie Fowler gave the scouser the chance to even things up from the spot, and he took the opportunity to bring things level only a few minutes after Shearer had looked to have put the result beyond doubt. Replays showed that Butt got the ball, and for all Keegan's post match bleating about the referee, he failed to mention how lucky they were to get the penalty which put them level – who says manager's only see one-side?

Having looked as though we were home and dry, to lose a two-goal lead was hardly the stuff dreams are made of, but back came Newcastle and following a Laurent Robert free-kick which he didn't blast at the goal/stand behind, but instead chipped towards the penalty spot, Robbie Elliott rose to flick the ball into the net, via the post, before embarking on his ecstatic chicken celebration.

The fact that we again let the smallest man on the pitch score a second goal, and pull City level again, is something that Souness will need to address, and quickly, if we are to begin to really show progress in any competition this season. Three-all then and things were looking decidedly dodgy at both ends of the pitch, as neither side appeared to possess a competent defender worthy of the name.

Man City could have got a fourth, if Flood had squared the ball to Fowler instead of going for glory, but it was to be Souness' boys who triumphed. Bernard beat Flood on the left hand-side before crossing into the box for Bellamy to flick up and volley into the corner, to give us all three points.

Keegan may be sick of losing to last minute goals, and feel aggrieved at the refereeing, but if you consider the fact that we were never behind in the match, and that they benefited from at least one terrible decision to let them back into it, he can't complain too much. I can't imagine either manager will feel happy with their defending – quite how Aaron Hughes will fare in his manager's eyes (we were 2-0 up when he came on) we shall have to wait and see, but at least Souness can take heart from the fact that we kept going to the end, and came back when all looked like being lost – something we repeatedly failed to do last season.

So a win to keep the unbeaten run going, and take us into the League Cup game against Norwich on Wednesday in good spirits. Hopefully we’ll take the one domestic trophy we've never won seriously enough to progress…

Crowd trouble

It may be premature to call it a crisis, but the news that Premiership attendances are down does seem to signal difficulties ahead - though it's worth noting that the gradual rise experienced up until the 2002/3 season was unsustainable.

Birmingham (surprise surprise) come in for a good deal of criticism for charging away fans a whopping £45 for a seat - at least this season Newcastle supporters got, if not a win, then something approaching value for money - and Inspector Sands's Charlton are praised for their policy of offering reduced ticket prices to attract fans and fill empty seats for televised games.

Towards the bottom of the article, Michael Martin of Toon fanzine True Faith offers some laudably forthright opinions on the state of the game: "Football has become a vehicle for turning turds like Kieron Dyer and Paul Stretford into millionaires. Is this the start of a downward spiral? If it means getting shot of the parasites, I hope so".

(Thanks to Pete for the link.)

Friday, October 22, 2004

No Greek tragedy

A Chelsea-esque performance saw us snatch a useful 1-0 victory over Panionios in Athens and get our participation in the group stage of the UEFA Cup off to a good start.

Chances were at a premium, but three minutes from time substitute Ameobi, who'd made a nuisance of himself ever since coming on, unsettled two Panionios defenders into sandwiching him in the box. Not the most blatant penalty, but we weren't about to quibble. Shearer duly crashed the ball into the top corner and the points were ours.

We had looked the more threatening side all night, bossing the game and controlling possession, but were unable to turn our superiority into goals - mainly because our shooting was abysmal, several different players guilty of launching the ball into orbit when well-placed. Before the penalty winner, the closest we'd come was Robert's well-saved shot, Ameobi's poor far-post header when unmarked and Shearer's second half header which was acrobatically tipped over the bar by the keeper. Panionios battled manfully, but as an attacking force they were weak, only troubling our usually brittle defence on a couple of occasions.

Though the result was pleasing, the performances of Milner and particularly Robert were not. Granted the places in the starting line-up they've been pressing for, neither did themselves justice or pushed their claims to be included for Sunday's visit of Man City to St James's. Milner didn't seem to have the zip and zest of recent substitute appearances, whilst Robert's contribution consisted of a few decent set-piece deliveries. Surely our errant Frenchman must be aware that coasting along lazily and giving the ball away time and again is not the way to Souness's heart.

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Mixed-up metaphors

Thanks to Phill of Danger! High Postage for reminding us that our dearly departed manager Sir Bobby Robson doesn't have an exclusive monopoly on saying endearingly daft things. Judging by some of these gems, QPR's Ian Holloway is his natural heir.

My favourite? "(On the abuse Gino Padula gets from away fans)
'Everyone calls him a gypsy but I can assure you he doesn't live in a caravan. He has a house with foundations'

Monday, October 18, 2004

Not Quite Happy Valley

Two goals from Newcastle players left us with 1 point from Sunday's trip to Charlton. Craig Bellamy's first half header, the product of an exquisite cross from Olivier Bernard was cancelled out by a scrappy, poorly defended goal which went in via both Stephen Carr and Andy O'Brien.

On balance, neither side really deserved to lose the game, with our dominant first half performance giving way to a shoddier, defensively more lax display in the second 45 minutes. Both sides had chances to win the game, with balls flying around both goal mouths as the seconds ticked away, and although Shearer had a header cleared off the line, he was also able to return the compliment and maintain Graeme Souness' unbeaten run at the other end.

Having started the better side, and generally bossed the first half well, Newcastle were slightly unlucky to be only one goal up at half time. Bowyer had what looked a perfectly valid goal ruled out for a push, and generally we dominated play. Shay Given being drawn into action on only one occasion, with a good one handed save denying a home team seemingly intent on committing as many snide, niggly, fouls as possible.

However, half time saw a change in both the weather and the performances of the two teams. In the first half we had bossed the play, controlled the midfield and kept things nice and simple, however in the second our control became cockiness, and sure enough we proceeded to concede a terrible goal. O'Brien let a throw in bounce over him, allowing Lisbie to get in on goal, and whilst Given delayed him sufficiently for Carr to get his foot in, our full back only managed to belt the ball goalwards, with the retreating O'Brien only able to deflect the already goalbound ball into a different area of the net.

Back on terms and Charlton started to play some better football, and as some of the Newcastle players tired, they were able to assert more control over the game. Souness rang the changes, replacing the tidy if unspectacular Ambrose with Robert and a somewhat disgruntled Bellamy with Ameobi.

However, despite some testing corners, and a cracking headbutt on Matt Holland, neither was able to influence the game to the level where one point became three. Milner later replaced Butt, as Souness went for broke, but ultimately it wasn't to be.

Interestingly Souness was asked about his attacking substitutions afterwards, and observed that with Robert the more he seemed to ask him to do defensively, the less he appeared to do, which meant the game much more open after he had come on. Quite where this leaves our second most expensive signing only time will tell, but I wouldn't be shocked to see him move in January, particularly if stories linking us to Damian Duff become a reality.

At the end of the day, a point away from home is always a point gained, but on another day it might have been three. Of course, Charlton could say the same, and for those of you seeking an alternative view of the match, All Quiet on the East Stand will happily provide one.

Friday, October 15, 2004

The boy done good

I doubt if even the most ardent Newcastle fan would have expected or even wanted to see Jenas in the England side to face Azerbaijan in Beckham's absence.

Before Wednesday, he'd made just seven substitute appearances, all in friendlies, and never started a game.

Of his potential rivals in the squad, Owen Hargreaves is playing well at Bayern Munich, Joe Cole has more of Beckham's creative edge, while Shaun Wright-Phillips is in good form for Man City, is naturally right-sided and did very well in his run-out in the friendly at St James Park.

But it was a measure of just how highly Eriksson rates JJ that he was included in the side from the start, and in difficult conditions and after a nervy opening few minutes, he repaid that faith with a good performance.

JJ seems to have rediscovered his best form of late, and he can only take pride from the fact that he's so highly thought of by the national manager. I don't see him challenging for a place in Eriksson's first choice midfield, but if he carries on playing as he has been he'll give the Swede quite a headache.

Up the Duff

Judging by this post on Chelseablog, it seems the rumours about the possibility of a Toon bid for Chelsea winger Damien Duff - fuelled by recent comments from Souness about potential transfer targets - have caused some merriment and rib-tickling Dahn Sarf.

Mr Blingo Starr may well scoff at Fat Freddie claiming we're one of the eight biggest clubs in Europe, but then where the fuck were his beloved Blues before a certain Russian roled into town, money spilling out of his pockets and paving the West London streets with gold? Their ground's a shitehole, and in last season's home game (let's ignore the away match, eh?), even with an understrength side and despite their advantage of Abramovich's millions, we still beat them.

Of course, even if Chelsea were prepared to even entertain the idea of a bid for Duff (which is far from certain), the whole thing potentially smacks of the Rooney saga all over again - we start off the bidding only to sting another club flush with more cash and more attractive to the player into action, and we end up losing out.

But I'd love it, just love it if we somehow managed to poach him...

Monday, October 11, 2004

The big shut-out

Given the scorn and derision usually reserved for our backline - which, while too leaky and frail for a team with Champions League aspirations, is not quite as bad as is made out - it was pleasing to see key members of our defensive personnel performing well in the weekend's international matches.

Nicky Butt turned in a typically solid if unspectacular shift in front of his back four in England's 2-0 victory over Wales. The rock on which most of Wales's few attempted attacks foundered, Butt also contributed some telling passes whilst allowing Lampard and Beckham to play their more natural attacking game.

Meanwhile Northern Ireland captain Aaron Hughes helped prevent Azerbaijan from registering on the score sheet - just a shame that his team-mates at the other end couldn't find the net.

But the highest praise should go Stephen Carr, Andy O'Brien and Shay Given, who formed three-fifths of the Republic of Ireland defensive unit that kept out France in Paris, restricting Thierry Henry and company to a very few real chances. When the back four were breached, Given pulled off some great saves, while O'Brien was rightly incensed when, jostling for position at a corner, he took a deliberate elbow to the neck from Fabien Barthez which should have resulted in a penalty.

Incidentally, it was interesting to see Bellamy deployed on the right hand side of a five man midfield for Wales. Presumably he was looking forward to having a run out up front with Hartson, but Mark Hughes had other ideas. Though his finishing was wayward on the one occasion when he had a clear sight of goal, he can probably claim to have caused Butt and the English defence at least as many problems as any of his team-mates, Giggs included.

"Shit ground, no fans"

The Top Ten Shittest Football Grounds In Britain, according to The Observer. Nice to see that south coast hell-hole Fratton Park (Premier League? You're very much having a laugh, my friends, with only three roofs...) and Stamford Bridge ("Where do this mob get the brassnecked spivvery to charge visiting fans £52 (Manchester Utd) and £48 (Newcastle) for a view not dissimilar to watching the match through a letterbox?") are both featured.

(Thanks to Inspector Sands of All Quiet In The East Stand for the link.)

Reading list

Black & White & Read All Over endorses the following quality club-centric football blogs:

All Quiet In The East Stand (Charlton)
Arseblog (Arsenal)
Gamblog (QPR)
Portman Road (Ipswich)
Toffeeblog (Everton)
Upton Lark (West Ham)

Also well worth a peek is Round And White, a general footy blog.

All can be found in the sidebar, which will be added to as and when other sound sites come to our attention.

Wednesday, October 06, 2004

Thoughts so far

Now that Souness has begun to bed in as manager, and shape the team around him, it seems a good time to assess his early performances. Since he took over 3 weeks ago, we've successfully negotiated the first round of the UEFA Cup; broken our 30 year losing streak in Southampton; beaten the Baggies; managed a draw against a Birmingham side who played their best game of the season so far; had one player sent off; and seen our manager enjoy a frank exchange of views with a crap manure reject.

We've also seen the renaissance of Robbie Elliott; a three-pronged attack at home; Bellamy on the wing away; a tactical shift to three at the back when we were chasing a game; the stop-gap signing of Ronnie Johnsen; 14 goals for and 4 against.

The question is: what do people think of how he's handled things so far?

I'm happy with the results on the pitch, although I can't help feeling we could have beaten Birmingham, at least we haven't conceded crappy late goals, as we did last season. Fourteen goals scored in 5 games is an impressive scoring record, and only four goals against is pretty good. Of course, had we been playing stronger teams the results may well have looked very different, but you can only beat what is in front of you, and generally we've done that with some aplomb.

I can’t believe that come the end of the season Robbie Elliott will still be in the team, or that Johnsen will last beyond January, and only when Souness is let loose with the club cheque book in January will we really be able to tell what sort of team he wants to build, and how good a judge of player he is, but in the mean time we are holding things together well.

We've also not seen any strong signs of the public arse-kicking that some had predicted for the young guns, but then Titus, Dyer and Shola have all suffered injuries, so we've not really seen any signs of improvement on the pitch. JJ on the other hand has been like the player who won the PFA Young Player of the Season Award 2 years ago, not the waste of space we saw huffing and puffing around the centre circle last season. If Souness can work similar miracles with the other 3 then it’ll be like having a load of new exciting players, without the issues of them bedding into the side. I must confess to having high hopes for Titus, and if only Souness can teach him to concentrate for the entire game we could have a great centre-half on our hands. (A lot of ifs in that sentence, I know.)

I remain unconvinced by 3 upfront, and think that they need to work on that in training. I think Bellamy dropping slightly deeper might work better, as he can run from deep and unsettle a defence trying to deal with Shearer and Kluivert, which should create space for one of them to do the business, but whether that works, or they just have to accept some form of rotation policy, only time will tell.

I also think that at times we've lacked width, and the reintroduction of Milner and Robert in to the side could well be a good move (particularly as Robert appears to be in one of his good phases) – how you balance that with the 3 pronged attack I don't know, but then I'm not paid to make those decisions.

All in all, I'm happy with what I've seen so far, but I’m sure Souness is aware that against better sides we might be found out, and we need to work on finding a shape that suits our play, and learn to not give away careless goals. If we can do that, it could be a very exciting season, but if not we may find that it ends like so many before it – promising much, but ultimately leaving us wondering "what if…"

Monday, October 04, 2004

Drawing comfort

Before kick-off yesterday, victory over Birmingham looked within easy reach. We were going into the game on the back of a comfortable if bruising win in Israel, whilst our hosts had been struggling for form and woefully goal-shy. When the final whistle blew, though, we were probably content with the point from a 2-2 draw, forced to concede that the opposition had played their best football of the season so far and given us an excellent game.

It was a match in which familiar faces came back to haunt the respective managers. David Dunn, a diamond in a team of plodders and grafters, sparkled in an attacking midfield role, and Dwight Yorke, another player heavily criticised by Souness whilst under his charge at Blackburn, came off the bench for the injured Heskey to score Birmingham's equaliser and keep O'Brien and Elliott occupied.

But neither was it to be self-proclaimed Geordie Steve Bruce's afternoon: his former Man Utd team-mate and Birmingham transfer target Nicky Butt popped up with a spectacular volley to equalise Matthew Upson's header and deny Bruce's team victory. Butt's first strike for the club was all the more unexpected having witnessed in the flesh his numerous appalling efforts on goal in last week's win over West Brom - the first sailed nearer to the corner flag, and the rest were also launched high, wide and handsome.

JJ had got us off to the best possible start, coolly seizing the opportunity to give us the lead in the third minute when a shot from Kluivert - who, like his strike partner Shearer, was quiet after Thursday's exertions - was deflected fortuitously into his path. His appearance in the England squad is not merely the result of injuries and retirements - the last three games have seen a resurgent Jenas back to something like his best, working hard and providing a creative spark in midfield. What he needs now is consistency.

The scoring was over by the 67th minute, but both sides still had several chances to emerge with all three points. Bellamy had a header scooped off the line by Kenny Cunningham, while at the other end Damien Johnson was being allowed an alarming amount of space on the Birmingham right. The Blues came perilously close as Robbie Savage struck the woodwork and Given magnificently tipped a Dunn header onto the same upright and away. And then, with just three minutes to go, substitute Robert crashed a phenomenal 35 yard daisy-cutter free-kick against the Birmingham post, keeper Maik Taylor rooted to the spot, a helpless spectator. Much as I dislike them, it would have been harsh on Birmingham, though - a draw was a fair result for a pulsating match.

A two week break now - let's hope our international players return from duty unscathed, and the others use the time to recharge their batteries. And fingers crossed I'm not cursing Bellamy next weekend...

Saturday, October 02, 2004


We were expecting the same sort of aggressive tackles and strongarm tactics from Bnei Sakhnin, and that’s exactly what we got from the very first whistle. Quite how so many brutal challenges - made with absolutely no intent of playing the ball and deserving of a GBH charge let alone a yellow or red card – went unpunished is a question only the referee can answer.

Thankfully, though, we emerged from our bruising UEFA Cup encounter unscathed, our players admirably refusing to rise to the provocation (something which would have saved Butt his first-leg red card and subsequent three match suspension). The opposition were so poor when they attempted to play football rather than rugby that our two goal winning margin in the first leg at home looked embarrassingly narrow, and in the end we cruised to a comfortable victory in Israel, 5-1 on the night.

The headlines and plaudits rightly went to the two strikers who, between them, bagged all five goals. Kluivert registered with a couple of neat finishes, and continues to look lethal rather than like the lazy mercenary many pundits and some fans claimed or feared he would be - that’s six in five starts now. Meanwhile, skipper Shearer went one better, notching a hat-trick and laying claim to the match ball. His first was a fairly simple tap-in after the Sakhnin keeper spilled a Bowyer cross-shot, his second a penalty after Jenas was clumsily up-ended in the area and his third a scorching left-footer in the last minute past an outfield stand-in who had replaced the red-carded Murambadoro in goal.

However, credit should also go to our defence for building a secure platform – aside from a brief moment of sloppiness which allowed Sakhnin to equalise – and to our midfielders for supplying the chances for the strikers to convert. Bowyer was combative and hard-working, Jenas seems to have rediscovered the ability to take players on and beat them and Robert was always dangerous on the left flank.

Once Kluivert had been taken off as a precautionary measure, Bellamy moved up front, evidently desperate to score and impress – but at present he’s surely fighting a losing battle if he wants to play there from the start. No matter – Bellamy seems happy to play on the right (unlike another of our more vocal squad members…), and though it means players more accustomed to the position like Milner and Ambrose are having to bide their time on the bench, he did very well, scaring the proverbial out of the opposition full-back with his pace and trickery. The only concern, long-term, is that he’ll be caught out when he faces a full-back who likes to attack, like Ashley Cole.

Presumably Butt will return for the trip to St Andrews, and Robert will probably miss out, but whoever it is can count themselves very unlucky. After a decidedly sticky start to the season which contributed to Sir Bobby losing his job, things have taken a turn for the better – five wins on the trot, rocketing up the table, securely in the group stages of the UEFA Cup. Long may it continue.