Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Out of sympathy

How wonderful to learn that our beloved chairman, Fat Freddy Shepherd, has once again been throwing around his considerable weight, this time at the Soccerex international football business forum in Dubai.

Footballers continually make provocative comments only to hastily retract them claiming to have been misrepresented, but on this occasion there seems to be little possibility of Shepherd backtracking on what he said:

"I think it is dog-eat-dog. The big fight will be for the Premier League to take over the running of the other leagues. The others can't hold us back, the time will come, I think, when it is the Premier League running the whole show. Many of these other clubs will have to go part-time. When we have got 52,000 fans at each home game, the last thing we are worried about is clubs in the third division. There is no sympathy here."

What an absolute cunt. Is it any wonder that the club - and, by extension, us fans - has a reputation for arrogance?

Shepherd makes me sick.

Monday, November 29, 2004

All fluff and not enough stuff

Glenn Hoddle.

Not a very late suggestion for who we should have appointed as manager, but rather a player who sums up the way we currently play football, and which became apparent during yesterday's match.

An excellent finish from Bellamy following a beautiful ball from Kluivert had given us an early lead, and chances came and went for both strikers and Jermaine Jenas, who was relishing in his role as Captain. However, Everton's grit and dogged nature gave them a share of the spoils following Lee Carsley’s free kick.

The problem with the team at present is that we are currently wrapped up in a desire to craft beautiful goals. Not that I'm complaining about this, some of our attacking play is fantastic to watch, and really highlights why it's the "beautiful game".

The problem is that for all our craftsmanship, we seem incapable of doing the hard graft which teams like Everton and Bolton treat as their bread and butter. We aren't doing the gritty stuff well unlike the teams we come up against, and as a result we're losing points that we should have secured well before the end of ninety minutes.

For all our guile and panache going forward, we're guilty of sloppiness and being overly casual at the back. The problem being that when we don't slam four past sides in the opening twenty minutes, we tend to allow them back into games by forgetting that for all the flair, we still need to do the grafting work, and make the tackles, hoof the ball clear at times, etc.

Until we find a way of blending the two it's going to leave us firmly sat in mid-table, which is a crying shame, and not at all what Fat Freddie & Co ordered when they put Bobby out to pasture and gave Souness the chance to show us what he could do.

On a different note, we'd like to wish Steven Taylor hearty B&W&RAO congratulations on his first start at St James' Park. Here's hoping for many more, from the most promising young defender we've had in a very long time!

Other reports:
Talk Of The Tyne, BBC, Guardian

An Everton fan's view:

Friday, November 26, 2004

Let's dance in the east of France

Given the near constant diet of shit we have to put up with, every now and again it's nice to be reminded why the hell we support Newcastle. On these occasions, which take place perhaps two or three times a season, you genuinely feel yourself swelling with pride.

Last night's 4-0 UEFA Cup thumping of Sochaux was just such an occasion.

Let's boil it down to the facts.

Despite lacking any star players of international renown, Sochaux were the form team in France, unbeaten in 11 matches and victors away to last season's Champions League runners-up Monaco as recently as Friday night.

Not only had we never won in France, but Souness decided to rest several key players ahead of Sunday's crucial Premiership clash with Everton. That meant Jenas, Dyer, Robert and Kluivert on the bench, and with Shearer, O'Brien and Carr injured and Johnsen ineligible, starting places were granted to Elliott, Ambrose, Milner and Ameobi.

And yet we won - comfortably, in the end - thanks to a tremendous team performance.

A four goal margin of victory looked very unlikely in the first half, though. The pattern was set early on, our players tackling robustly but generally fairly only to fall victim time and again to a fussy referee. Given had already pulled off one excellent stop and Bellamy squandered a good chance when Bowyer burst into the box after good work from Ameobi and swept the ball into the net for his first of the season.

Though Milner should have added a second from point blank range shortly afterwards (the move having been set up by a superb Given ball for Bellamy), Sochaux always looked very dangerous and Given was called into action on several other occasions. Our problem was an inability to retain possession, which meant that we kept presenting the ball to the industrious Sochaux midfielders and inviting them to apply more pressure to our defence. To be fair to Bramble and company, they were holding out manfully but it was doubtful whether it could have lasted, had Souness not sorted things out in the half-time interval.

Thankfully, in the second period we were much better in possession. Within a minute of the restart, lackadaisical French defending allowed an unmarked Bernard to cross for an unmarked Ameobi to prod in at the back post. I sat waiting for the ref to blow up, thinking there must have been something amiss, but no, we had a priceless two goal cushion.

The game's pivotal moment came shortly after the hour mark, when Bernard was adjudged to have indulged in a spot of shirt-pulling. Left back Jeremy Mathieu sent Given the wrong way from the spot, but his scuffed penalty dribbled feebly wide of the post.

From then on, we were totally dominant, attacking with abandon down the flanks and threatening a dispirited Sochaux outfit with humiliation. Dyer, on for the yellow-carded Bowyer, threaded a fabulous ball through for the onrushing Aaron Hughes, who squared it for a suspiciously offside-looking Bellamy to stroke home the third, and in the last minute substitute Robert curled a wonderful free-kick into the top corner, as sweet a goal as I'll ever savour. Even then there was still time for Ameobi and Robert to waste excellent chances to rub further salt into the wounds.

So, tremendous stuff, not only in an attacking sense but also defensively - Bramble in particular put in a top quality shift at the heart of the back four. Of course the worry is that the next blunder is just round the corner, but if he can carry on in this vein he'll make a mockery of the talk of offloading him in January.

It would be typical Newcastle, though, to follow this up with a desperately poor showing against Everton. We need to take this momentum and spirit into Sunday's game because, make no mistake, we're going to have to be at the top of our game to beat the Toffees.

Other reports:
Talk Of The Tyne, BBC, Guardian.

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Bye bye Bramble and Bernard?

Rumours are rife that we could be gearing up to sell Titus Bramble in January, with both Norwich and Everton reportedly interested. I'm not sure whether I feel it would be a good move for the club, especially when we're already pretty thin on the ground as regards defenders.

To repeat what I've said ever since I first saw Bramble in a Toon shirt, very often to the amusement of friends who support other clubs and don't watch him in action regularly, he's a naturally talented defender, powerful in the tackle and in the air, as well as being quite handy with a well-judged long ball.

What he desperately needs to improve, though, is his concentration level. Time and again in his Newcastle career he's lost concentration for a split second in a league in which that invariably costs you goals. The number of times he's allowed one fatal error to blight an otherwise faultless performance... And, of course, it's the fatal errors that are remembered.

So, if he can eradicate that from his game, he'll be able to turn the potential into reality. But we've been saying that ever since he arrived from Ipswich. With there having been no marked improvement or progression in his game since then, perhaps Souness has decided we can't afford to be patient and indulge him any longer, and that our defence is crying out for the finished article.

More concerning to me than Bramble's possible departure, though, is the news that Bernard's wage demands - reportedly £30,000 a week - might possibly scupper his chances of a new contract, meaning he'd be able to leave for pastures new for absolutely nothing.

By contrast with Bramble, Bernard has matured into a consistently sound player over the last couple of seasons, since getting a regular run in the side. The attacking side of his game has never been an issue - he adds so much to the team going forwards, particularly in tandem with an in-form Robert - but he's worked very hard on his defending, learning the art of tackling hard but fair and of snuffing out danger by being alert at all times. Given the inconsistencies of his team-mates I'd be surprised if he isn't one of the first names on the team sheet these days.

All of which makes the prospect of him being allowed to leave for nowt mystifying. There are plenty of players at Newcastle who get paid more than he's asking for yet who make much less of a contribution to the team. What's more, to get in a replacement of a similar calibre would almost certainly cost a sizeable transfer fee before wages are even taken into consideration.

I just hope the board sees sense, but, as sense is generally in very short supply at St James's Park, I'm not holding my breath.

A sense of proportion

I was pleased to read that the racial abuse dished out to Birmingham's Dwight Yorke at Ewood Park at the weekend has been swiftly and severely dealt with, the main culprit - one Jason Perryman - being hit with a £1000 fine and banned from all grounds for five years. Apparently, Mr Perryman "became aware of a nationwide appeal the next day and went to police when he was shown a videotape of the incident" - how noble of him.

In making the complaint, Yorke had the backing of his manager Steve Bruce and chairman David Gold - but not the club's co-owner, porn baron David Sullivan, who claimed: "It's been blown out of all proportion - I heard absolutely nothing. If it's three out of 22,000 who make racist comments then it's not very nice. You have to pick up on it and ban those people from the ground but I just can't believe that it's that big a deal".

Not only, then, did he refuse to support the player, thereby undermining manager and chairman in the process, he also trivialised the incident, unforgivable in any climate let alone that post-Spain friendly. Birmingham fan Pete complains that Sullivan was effectively bullied into saying what he did by a Radio 5 journalist, but that by no means excuses his comments. Racism needs to be combatted at all levels of the game regardless of the scale on which it occurs - it's a cancer and cancers have to be cut out.

Further proof, as if it were needed, that there are some complete cunts involved in Premiership clubs behind the scenes - Sullivan fits in nicely alongside the likes of Rupert Lowe, Peter Kenyon and our very own Fat Freddie, not forgetting those in the Hall of Infamy (Alan Sugar, Ken Bates).

Update: Pete has clarified his thoughts about Sullivan - check out the comments box below and this follow-up post on his blog. Apologies for implying - as the above post does - that Sullivan was hectored into making the original comments. He wasn't - they were utterly unprovoked, and Pete wasn't defending him for making them. Sullivan was, however, hectored into saying Yorke could leave if he wanted to, and this is what Pete took objection to. Just to clear that up.

Monday, November 22, 2004

Blessed relief

Saturday's 2-0 victory at Crystal Palace brought to a sequence of three consecutive league reverses, edging us up one place to 9th in the table. The clean sheet was only our second in league matches this season, and our first away from home.

So, all smiles in the end, but it had the potential to be a horrible afternoon. Our record at Selhurst Park is not good (though mainly against Wimbledon), and Palace have set about proving some doubters wrong in recent weeks, myself included, with displays of passion and commitment epitomised in the match with Arsenal which, but for an awful miss by substitute Lakis, they could have won. In Andy Johnson they have a striker in form, and someone who no doubt took one look at our defensive record and rubbed his hands with glee. I would have settled for a draw, just to stop the rot.

Unlike at Birmingham and Charlton, though, we were fortunate not to come against a side determined on putting in one of their best performances of the season. For once, our superior class and talent told, though we didn't take the lead until the 78th minute and had Given to thank for a couple of decent stops before then.

With Shearer out injured, Bellamy had the opportunity to show his worth up front and form a partnership with Kluivert and it was they who combined for the decisive first goal. Bellamy latched onto Dyer's pass out wide and his low cross was deftly flicked past Palace keeper Gabor Kiraly by Kluivert. It would have looked foolish if it hadn't come off - but it did, and we were celebrating a brilliant goal from a player who's been badly in need of one since his comeback from injury.

A welcome victory was assured with the second goal two minutes from time. Robert found Bellamy in the box and he shimmied away from a defender before lashing the ball high into the roof of the net. Even though he's been being played out of position in recent weeks, it's pleasing to note that he's responded to the arrival of Kluivert by sharpening his scoring instincts and finding the back of the net with increased frequency - that was his seventh of the season in all competitions.

Not wanting to read too much into the win, it does at least prove that even without Shearer we have more than enough strike power to score goals, and that if the defence stays tight and focused, victories will follow. It's not rocket science.

Thursday's UEFA Cup match in France against Sochaux promises to be a tough encounter, especially given the ineligibility of Johnsen to compound the absence through injury of Carr and O'Brien. What's more, Sochaux are now eight games unbeaten, having defeated last season's Champions League finalists Monaco 3-1 at the weekend. We're going to have to be on our mettle to take something from the game.

Thursday, November 18, 2004

Kick racism out - wherever it is

During last night's "friendly" in the Bernabeu, England's black players Ashley Cole and Shaun Wright-Phillips were subjected to a disgraceful barrage of monkey noises from a minority of Spanish fans. The day before, it was U21 players Darren Bent, Glen Johnson and Carlton Cole who suffered the same abuse.

Tony Blair was left "very disappointed" by the chanting and Minister for Sport Richard Caborn has said: "I will write to my Spanish counterpart to express my outrage. I would like the Spanish FA to condemn the scenes. I also expect Fifa and Uefa to fully investigate the issue. There is no place for racism in football or modern society, and I strongly believe that action needs to be taken at the highest level". Meanwhile, Newcastle midfielder and England substitute Jermaine Jenas has also spoken out against the abuse.

However, Spain manager Luis Aragones, himself at the centre of a recent row over a racist jibe directed at Thierry Henry, has refused to comment, whilst the Spanish press have broadly downplayed or ignored the issue and, even more astonishingly, Spanish Federation press officer Fernando Garrido has laid the blame at the door of the English press: "Were there racist chants against some players? This hasn't happened in the Spanish league and Spain for many years. So you [English reporters] should ask yourselves what you have done to contribute to all this".

Before we saddle up on our high horses, though, we should bear two things in mind.

Firstly, there's something horribly hypocritical about the Daily Mail voicing its disgust at racism.

Secondly, and more importantly, there's a danger of simply pointing the finger at "Johnny Foreigner" and thereby becoming racists ourselves. Even though, as Pete has pointed out (see comments box), we've made considerable advances in eradicating racism, especially in international matches, there is still some way to go and we shouldn't overlook the fact that the problem still exists on our own doorstep. You only have to read about the disgust felt by the author of 4-3-1-2 Walsall towards his fellow Walsall fans to see that racism is alive and kicking.

Oh, and the England performance was terrible, too, Butt looking utterly out of his depth against the excellent Xavi - though it's harsh to single out any one individual in a display that was collectively woeful.

All in all, the sort of night that leaves a very sour taste in the mouth.

Stand up and be counted

Charlton blog All Quiet In The East Stand has an interesting post about the possibility of reintroducing terraced areas at grounds. Inspector Sands endorses the argument that "making people sit at football has led to a tendency for fans to expect entertainment, like you would in a cinema". Standing, he suggests, would provide a solution to the problem of passivity and passionless spectators, making them feel more involved.

On the one hand, in many ways I think it's a good thing that we've come a long way from the 70s and 80s - violence and racism are no longer as much of an issue as they once were (though neither has gone away entirely - see above post), and grounds are much safer post-Hillsbrough.

On the other hand, I, like the Inspector, am dismayed at the gentrification and corporatisation of football, which leaves the fans more distanced - literally and metaphorically - from the game and from the club they support. Without a doubt something needs to be done to stop this seemingly inexorable change, and, whilst the reintroduction of standing areas would not be a panacea, it would certainly help to enliven the crowd.

I know I'm not alone as a Newcastle fan in bemoaning the lack of atmosphere at St James's Park, and the sense that punters are sitting back, arms crossed, passively demanding entertainment rather than actively calling for it and offering vocal support and encouragement. That they are prepared to spend vast sums of money and travel great distances often just to watch 90 minutes of toss illustrates why away fans should be regarded as the most passionate, but isn't there perhaps also a connection between the fact that Newcastle fans away from home are noisy in a good-natured way and the fact that for all or most of the game they insist on standing, much to the annoyance of pedantic home stewards?

Further information about the campaign to turn back the clock can be found at Stand Up Sit Down (thanks to QPR Jon for the link).

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

The honeymoon's over

Without wanting to be alarmist and to whip up any ideas of there being a "crisis" at St James's Park - after all, we supposedly had one at the beginning of the season, and that was overcome easily enough - the last week has brought home our frailities and problems once more.

In the space of seven days, a kind of miniature annus horribilis, we've lost no fewer than three home games. Any defeat is disappointing, but home defeats, especially for a club that prides itself (with some justification) on its fortress-like lair, feel like some kind of violation - beaten up in our own home and burgled of the three points, or, in the case of the Chelsea match, the opportunity to progress in a cup competition.

To look at these games in a positive light for a moment, in Chelsea and Man Utd the calibre of the opposition was such that any mistakes would be and indeed were punished, and the Fulham result was freakish beyond belief. We played at very least reasonably well in all three games, and failed to get our just desserts in the way that we did with the awful showing at Bolton, culminating in Souness's first defeat as manager.

However, the brutal facts of the matter are that Souness has now presided over four defeats in the last five outings - three league defeats in a row and the only win coming against powderpuff opposition we should have destroyed by a far greater margin. Questions are beginning to be asked of his selection policy, and he needs to come up with some answers.

I'm certainly with Paul on the issue of the three strikers. We're simply not getting the best out of Bellamy in a wide midfield position - his strength is racing onto long balls and flicked headers to stretch the opposition's back line, and he just isn't getting the opportunity to do that, or get into scoring positions often enough. For a player who has hit the net with pleasing regularity thus far this season, this makes no sense, especially when we're overstocked with midfielders clamouring for a place. Bellamy should be moved up front, with Kluivert - who continues to show neat touches but has provided little threat in recent matches - dropping to the bench.

Then there is the Robert issue. Much as I appreciate the frustrations of other Newcastle fans with the mercurial Frenchman (mindful as I am of my own irritation at his frequent lazy and lacklustre displays), and much as I dislike his constant whingeing in the press, I think he should be reinstated on the left side of midfield on a more permanent basis. This would not be to capitulate to his moaning, but to make a decision for the good of the team. Though he still needs to improve his overall contribution to the side, even on off days his delivery from wide positions and set pieces is so dangerous that we can't do without it, especially with a predator like Shearer demanding service.

Without Robert, we've looked too narrow, and the lack of natural wide men in midfield puts too much onus on the full-backs - an onus which Bernard is happy to accept and capable of bearing, but which, in the absence of Carr, neither O'Brien nor Hughes are comfortable with. As things stand, I'd like to see Souness drop Bowyer, play Butt and Jenas in centre midfield and either make Dyer fill the right side role, giving him some creative scope which he wouldn't otherwise have in the middle, or bring Milner back in from the cold (as Paul suggested in his match report, his omission from the squad, along with that of Ambrose, scorer of a spectacular goal in his last appearance, remains a mystery).

In central defence, it looks as though Elliott's Indian summer has come to an end. Despite decent showings from both Bramble and Johnsen in the last two matches, we continue to ship goals at an alarming rate. The fact that our goal difference is now negative despite our scoring plenty and being blessed with a wealth of attacking talent tells its own story. Until we have a solid defensive platform on which to build - like Chelsea's, relentlessly shutting teams out - we'll continue to tread water and score goals in vain.

Unfortunately, until the New Year there's nothing Souness can do except to work harder on defensive drills in training. Come January, though, and the acquisition of at least one new composed and accomplished central defender is imperative, particularly as that's when Johnsen's short-term contract expires.

Today's papers see us linked once again with Rangers's summer signing Jean-Alain Boumsong, not long ago touted as a future regular for France. The rumoured £5m wouldn't represent a massive outlay - assuming, that is, that all the Woodgate money will be reinvested to strengthen the squad (potentially a foolish assumption, knowing Newcastle...) - and we could go out and get someone else too, though I'm still not wholly convinced that either Michael Dawson or Robert Huth are the long-term answer.

Plenty of food for thought for Souness, then.

Monday, November 15, 2004

Granny lover scores in toon

Two goals by Wayne Rooney, and one from Mr Ed the talking horse gave manure three points on Sunday when for the third game in a week all our efforts failed to produce anything lasting. That their goals game from a collection of poor defending and a degree of weak refereeing was frustrating. The fact that we were given the rough end of the stick by the ref making it all the more bitter a pill to swallow.

In reality, we should have done better against both their first and third goals, with the defence/midfield guilty of failing to track Rooney's run for the first goal, and Bernard seemingly unable to deal with what looked a simple ball for their third. Their second came following a push on O'Brien by Rooney, and in the ensuing goalmouth scramble Scholes crumbled under challenge from Given. In all honesty, the push on O'Brien was there for all except the referee to see, but had the Irishman not then slipped he should have dealt with it anyway.

The sickener was, that after having fallen behind in the seventh minute, we'd worked our way back into the game, and had drawn level thanks to an excellent goal by Shearer, who robbed Wes Brown and tucked the ball beautifully past Carroll.

Looking back on the game, it seems to be a case of our old failings letting us down again. Put simply Kluivert is a striker badly in need of a goal (which duly arrived only to be wrongly ruled out by the linesman), and his finishing is currently letting him down. Bellamy is not a winger, and appears desperate to cut inside at every opportunity, leaving us without the necessary width to stretch defenders and create the space for players like Bowyer and Jenas to run into. (Quite what James Milner has done to upset Souness, I do not know.)

Defensively we looked reasonably stable, with Johnsen and Bramble having decent games. The former even having a goal chalked off for very little reason. Something which Match of the Day 2 deemed not worthy of televising. (Frustrating seeing as I could see no reason for the referee to suddenly get fussy about contact in the box after his refusal to penalise the jug-eared wunderkid for in the build up to the penalty, and from my seat in the Leazes end , I would have appreciated the benefit of seeing it again.)

The disappearance of Stephen Carr early in the first half, presumably with the re-occurrence of his recent knee injury was a worry, it's amazing how much we miss his forays forward when he isn't there. To take us forward, I think Souness is going to have to bite the bullet and drop one of his forward triumvirate, only then will we have the necessary width and space in the middle for our strikers to do their jobs properly.

It was interesting to note the crowd chanting for Robert. Presumably some of those doing that were amongst those who booed him from the pitch, and Viana on to it, against Wolves in the last home match of last season.

Who says football fans are fickle?

P.S. I'd like to commend the gentleman behind me, whose creative juices simply overflowed with the following chants:

"He's sacked your board, he's sacked your board, Glazer's sacked your board" and the slightly more coarse, "He's shagged your gran, he's shagged your gran, Rooney's shagged your gran".

Sadly neither took off, but certainly gave me a smile on what was otherwise a very frustrating Sunday afternoon.

Thursday, November 11, 2004


Another case of unjust desserts. For the second time in the space of four days, we played sufficiently well to expect to be tucking into a delicious slice of Victory Cheesecake at the final whistle, but instead found ourselves with Defeat Pie smeared all over our faces.

For once – and make a note, you’re unlikely to read this very often here – you have to feel for the players. Despite being full of effort and worrying one of the best sides in England on numerous occasions, they went unrewarded for their travails.

Once again Souness shuffled the pack, though given recent performances it’s debatable whether Elliott, Hughes and Bowyer were rested or just outright dropped. Bramble and Johnsen reprised their central defensive partnership from the previous round against Norwich, and Robert came into midfield.

For Chelsea, Jose Mourinho found places for Glen Johnson, William Gallas, Scott Parker and Carlo Cudicini, and moved right back Paulo Ferreira into a holding position in midfield. A weakened team you might say, but any side boasting a front three of Kezman, Duff and Cole is not to be taken lightly.

Once O’Brien, moved to right back, had got a terrible mistake out of his system – his sloppy backpass after two minutes was seized upon by Kezman who rounded Given but was unable to finish from a tight angle – the first half belonged to us.

Robert’s wicked delivery from set pieces proved our most effective tactic in unsettling a normally composed defence, one fantastic inswinging corner palmed over from just under the bar by a flustered Cudicini who’d strayed too far off his line. The best chance of the half fell to Bernard who, after a neat exchange of passes with Robert, moved into the penalty area with menace and saw his low shot brilliantly tipped round the post. When he’s on his game, as he was last night, the Frenchman gives us another excellent attacking option, a fact underlined by the lack of threat down the right, due in part to O’Brien’s understandable reluctance to venture into unfamiliar territory.

The half time whistle came and I – foolishly, as ever – felt very satisfied with the performance and only ever so slightly worried that we hadn’t capped it with a goal. Judging by Souness’s muted reaction to the Bernard chance, he was rather more concerned…

The second half was a similar story. We dominated in terms of possession and chances, Robert in particular unlucky to see a rocket of a free-kick saved. We didn’t test Cudicini quite often enough, though, given our superiority, and the threat of having our chips pissed on was always there – most obviously when Tiago missed a sitter after some careless defending.

Most of us could have been forgiven for a sharp intake of breath at the news that Bramble was in the line-up, but he had a fine game, his concentration for once impeccable throughout. Not only was his tackling and heading sound, his long-ball distribution helped to start several promising forays into the Chelsea half. We still desperately need someone to marshal the back line as a unit – I’m sure I wasn’t the only Newcastle fan casting envious eyes at John Terry – but Bramble at least showed there is hope for his career on Tyneside.

It was helpful, of course, that Chelsea’s forwards had a collective off day. Kezman’s tireless running was in vain, Duff was utterly anonymous and Cole’s contribution to the Blues’ cause was to commit a succession of petty and cynical fouls. Not that our attack was much sharper, though – Shearer, Kluivert and Bellamy all worked hard enough but question marks remain over the effectiveness of playing all three at once. Perhaps Souness needs to stop pandering to their egos and incur the wrath of one of them for the good of the team.

After a goalless 90 minutes, the classic sucker punch duly arrived in extra time. Forgetting his record against us, I had actually welcomed the arrival of Eidur Gudjonssen onto the pitch, primarily because it involved the removal of the excellent Parker, the one major obstacle preventing us from getting at the Chelsea defence. Of course, no sooner had I opened my stupid mouth than the striker’s shot had nestled into the bottom corner. Cue the shoulder slump of resignation. The second goal hardly mattered, except to twist the knife and ensure we would be spared the indignity of another penalty shoot-out failure. It came from the boot of fellow substitute and man-of-the-moment Arjen Robben, who ghosted in to finish expertly for the third match in a row.

So that was that. Chelsea fans will consider it professional. I prefer fortuitous, but then I guess they can’t be relying purely on luck if they’re doing this week in week out.

We’re left having to wave goodbye to an eminently winnable trophy for another season, and to lick our wounds before the visit of Man Utd on Sunday. Let’s just hope we get our fair share of fortune against those red bastards, because we really could do with it.

(It gives me absolutely no pleasure to report that Chelseablog were right in their pre-match prediction. Or that their man Blingo Starr calls it “professional.)

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Seven months

Following the developments of last week, and seeing as Chelski are in town tomorrow for our League Cup clash, it seems a good opportunity to return to the Adrian Mutu story. Mutu has received a seven month ban for failing a "random" drug test, and confessing to taking cocaine.

The fact that his employers deliberately singled him out for the test, and then sacked him following his failure of it speaks volumes for them. It shows that as an employer they wanted to set a strong example to the other players, and that they didn't give a toss about Adrian Mutu as a person. For them to pay a player thousands of pounds a week, and then to simply cut him adrift when he takes advantage of one of the many temptations undoubtedly available to him, says it all.

To then bleat about how the FA has not sufficiently reprimanded him is also ludicrous. Having previously banned Rio for 8 months for missing a test, they couldn't have given Mutu as severe a ban – otherwise the message that they send out to players would be: If you take drugs, miss the test – that way you will only get an 8 month ban. The FA had to make a stand, because it obviously can't be seen to promote recreational drugs, but must be seen to be even harder on performance enhancing drug cheats.

I believe that following the Rio fiasco, they have upped their minimum sentence for missing a drug test to 12 months, and that the minimum punishment for failing a test for recreational drugs is 6 months, and for performance enhancers is 2 years.

With this in mind, Mutu got what he deserved. He has been banned for 7 months, and the FA has made rehabilitation a key part of his suspension. For Chelsea to complain about this, shows just what a bunch of shits they really are. My only hope is that Mutu returns a better player for this, and at some point scores crucial goals against Chelsea (preferably in a black and white shirt).

Monday, November 08, 2004


A fantastical voyage unfolded before my eyes on Sunday, as four men shaped the destiny of one of the most one-sided attacking performances I’ve ever seen from Newcastle, and also one of the worst results I’ve ever had the misfortune to witness.

Howard Webb, the referee acted like Fulham's twelfth man throughout, ignoring a blatant foul on Shearer in the build up to Fulham’s first goal of the match, and then ignoring a clear penalty, again following a foul on Shearer two minutes later. If he'd got both of those decisions right, we'd have been one nil up rather than one nil behind, and the I'm confident that the rest of the game would have panned out very differently. Howard Webb – the new Uriah Rennie?

Mark Crossley, the visiting goalkeeper was simply outstanding. Saving shots with hands, feet, and even face, he can rarely have played a better game in his entire career. Not since Schmeichel helped manure beat us to the title when he withstood everything Keegan's team threw at him several years ago have I seen a visiting goalkeeper give such a brilliant performance.

Andy O'Brien and Robbie Elliott, our centre-backs who were our only defenders to finish the game as Souness went for broke in the second half. Unfortunately they were also the two members of our team who had absolute shockers: O'Brien being culpable for Fulham's second, and Elliott for their third. The only way a clearer indication of where our weaknesses lie could have been displayed would be if they'd had a massive Lottery Hand point at them, and say “It's You”.

The frustrating thing is that I really believe we should have won the game. Our attacking play was brilliant at times, and once Robert replaced Hughes early in the second half, the quality of our set pieces improved dramatically. That none of them went into the net was down to dogged Fulham defending and Crossley's brilliance on the day. If only we could learn to defend as well, we'd be in a far healthier position than we are currently, but with the current resources available, it could be a long couple of months to January for those of us watching the shambles that can be our defence.

Listening to 6-0-6 after the match, you'd have thought we were bottom of the league the way some people were slagging off Souness, but to be honest he wasn't really to blame. Yes, taking off Bernard and leaving Jenas as part of a back three probably wasn’t the greatest plan (surely removing JJ would have been a better idea?), but apart from that there really wasn’t much he could have done, we simply need to hold our hands up, give credit where it is due, and chalk it up to experience.

At the end of the day 20 shots on target against 8 tells a tale of the game, but sadly the 1-4 scoreline is the only statistic that truly matters.

In the comfort zone

As Newcastle fans, it's not often we get to enjoy formality wins, with nary an alarm and few surprises. So, what to say about last Thursday evening's near-novel experience, a 2-0 victory at home to Dinamo Tblisi in the UEFA Cup?

The visitors were appallingly bad, though we still contrived to grant them a couple of presentable opportunities in the first half. Middlesbrough can consider themselves equally fortunate as regards the calibre of the opposition for their UEFA Cup tie – competition favourites Lazio, though, are a rather bigger name scalp.

The two decisive and sharply-taken strikes came from the boots of Messrs Shearer and Bellamy either side of half time, meaning that all ten of our goals in European competition this season have come from strikers.

How Kluivert and Robert failed to score once, let alone grab the hat-tricks they each could have notched up, will remain an eternal mystery. Indeed, how our incessant fluent and incisive attacking play failed to reap more than just a two goal reward is beyond belief. We could – and should – have racked up a cricket score, which would have propelled us into the forthcoming tougher home fixtures with greater confidence and vigour.

Bernard, restored to his customary left-back slot, proved his worth as an offensive asset, whilst Hughes looked much more comfortable at right-back, venturing forwards to good effect himself as though he’s been learning from his time sat on the bench looking on as Carr tears down the touchline time and again.

Three minutes to go, 2-0 up and cruising to a comfortable win, and Ambrose conceded a dubious free-kick near one of the Tblisi corner flags. Cue Souness gesticulating and chucking away his chewing gum in fury and disgust at the decision and / or the foul. That’s what we want to see in a manager: passion, from first whistle to last.

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Will Roman's Huth come?

According to the BBC, fat Freddie has made a phone call to Chelski, and inquired about the availability of crotch stomper Robert Huth. From what I've seen of him (which isn't much, cos he can't get in the Chelsea team) he looks a decent enough player, with a strong shot, although his attempts to cripple Shearer suggest he may be something of the defensive hatchet man.

Whether it comes to anything, we shall have to wait and see. In his favour he's a young, promising defender. However, is he really any better than the other young promising defenders we've acquired in the past?

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

Ready with the readies for Reid?

According to Nufc.com, Souness and Saunders spent their Saturday afternoon at the same place I did - at the City Ground, Nottingham, watching the upwardly mobile Watford notch a thoroughly deserved 2-1 victory over a woeful Forest outfit perched precariously above the drop zone.

Speculation may be rife over who the Newcastle management duo were there to watch, but Forest's lanky young centre-back Michael Dawson, a long-standing target if rumours are to be believed, did himself few favours. Far more impressive was Republic of Ireland winger Andy Reid, head and shoulders above all his team-mates and clearly a big fish in a small pond at this level, even in a game his side lost. Watford's star performers, of whom there were many, included Icelandic international Heidur Helguson, who scored two excellent headers from pinpoint Neal Ardley set-pieces, and keeper Richard Lee, whose brilliant late save ensured the Hornets got the points their performance merited.

What I can be sure of, though, is that Souness and Saunders will have enjoyed a fine afternoon's entertainment - though perhaps not as much as me, caught up in the boisterous and enthusiastic atmosphere of the away end with a Watford-supporting friend. It was quite enough to put the disturbingly commonplace morgue-like atmosphere of the St James's Park faithful to shame - though, of course, it's a different story away from home.

Monday, November 01, 2004


Everyone in football talks incessantly about luck, but sometimes you get what you deserve. Yesterday we deserved nothing.

The match at Bolton saw us face a side higher in the table for the first time since Souness took charge. Of course, it was simply destined to be the first time we lost under his command.

The Trotters ran out worthy winners, recording a 2-1 victory. Our passing was loose (Bowyer the prime culprit), our midfield lacked bite (the in-form Jenas was particularly missed) and our attack was worryingly blunt - Kluivert off-colour, Shearer and Bellamy barely getting a kick - while defensively we were flustered by Bolton's highly effective tactic of launching aerial assaults, particularly from long throw-ins. Their two goals may have been scrappy, El Hadji Diouf and Kevin Davies capitalising on shambolic scenes in the six yard box (and, in Davies's case, a rare error of judgement from Given), but were no more than their efforts merited.

The only bright spot of a mystifyingly bad Newcastle performance was Ambrose's splendid equaliser - a neat shimmy past two defenders followed by an unstoppable swerving piledriver from 25 yards which arrowed into the top corner. We're unlikely to cheer many better goals than that over the course of the season.

The taste of victory must have been all the sweeter for Gary Speed, perhaps Bolton's star performer against the club which he served so well but which deemed him surplus to requirements in the summer. Certainly he outplayed his replacement in the Newcastle engine-room, Nicky Butt - but then our players were outperformed all over the pitch.

I was as disappointed as Sam Allardyce to see Souness adopting the Dalglish and Robson approach in the post-match interviews, blithely sticking his head in the sand about our own shortcomings whilst taking the time to gripe about Bolton's style of play. Our defending was not solid, and neither did we display a great deal of spirit and enthusiasm. The first important step to getting things right is to admit there's a problem - ignoring the fact that we were beaten by the better team on the day does no-one any favours in the long run.

Bolton continue to be more than the sum of their parts, whilst all too often we are less.