Monday, February 28, 2005

Looking up

Whether it's a case of the Dubai trip working wonders, or simply that at last some of our players have realised that by putting in the effort they will get the rewards, but Sunday's game marked another step in the right direction for Newcastle United.

Despite taking the best part of fifteen minutes to find any sort of rhythm, we managed to produce enough moments of quality and sufficient pressure to overcome a fairly resilient Bolton side.

Our first goal came after Bowyer beat two players in the centre of the park, before knocking the ball out to Stephen Carr. Our right back then charged down the touchline before floating a right wing cross into the area for Bowyer to run on to – and plant a header firmly into the Leazes net.

However we once again failed to protect a lead, and with Titus off the pitch to have his finger seen to, the defence lost some of their organisation, and with Babayaro guilty of ball watching, Stelios Giannakopoulos was allowed enough time to equalise for the visitors as Gary Speed header fell his way.

Half time came, and the second half saw us push Bolton back and take a fairly firm grip on proceedings. Within minutes of the restart Dyer charged up the middle only to be cynically brought down by Fernando Hierro on the edge of the box. Whilst players and fans bayed for the red card, referee Steve Dunn showed astonishing leniency in giving out a yellow card. Laurent Robert curling the resulting free kick just wide of the right hand post.

However, Dyer was not to be denied, and following a block on a Shearer shot he belted the ball into the top corner of the Gallowgate goal and ran away, fist pumping in celebration.

From there it was a case of keeping Bolton pegged back in their own half, and not allowing them to get back into the game. Which we did with relatively few alarm bells being sounded.

Strong performances in midfield from Robert and Dyer bought good responses from the crowd, and Boumsong again looked tidy at the back. The three points moved us up to eleventh in the table, one point behind Villa and with a game in hand.

Whilst I still feel that we may yet come a cropper against a better side, and also that our confidence is still fairly fragile, I can't knock four wins out of four and only one defeat in 2005. At long last those players who for long periods have looked like they didn't care now appear to be showing the sort of commitment that Shearer has displayed throughout his career. If they can keep it up, then we can continue to focus on the teams above us rather than those behind, and start to look forward to games with a renewed level of anticipation.

Other reports:, BBC, Guardian

Friday, February 25, 2005

Heer we go

Last night saw our UEFA Cup campaign continue into the next round with little cause for anxiety. Leading 2-1 from the first leg, the tie looked far more comfortable after Breuer deflected a Laurent Robert cross past his own keeper inside the first ten minutes.

An Alan Shearer strike on 22 minutes, after Robert had rolled a free kick to him, gave us a 4-1 lead on aggregate and made the tie safe, and took Shearer one goal closer to Milburn's record.

It could, and perhaps should, have been a more comfortable lead at half time, as Shola Ameobi wasted three good chances before the interval, the first with a weak shot straight at the keeper, the second bringing a good double save, and the third a header which deflected off the post and out. The third appearing to prompt Souness to ask: "How the fuck did he miss that?" – a question echoed by all watching.

Half time saw Souness replace the energetic and impressive Dyer (one run from inside our half taking him most of the length of the pitch, and reminded me of the talented player we signed from Ipswich, not the lazy git we've witnessed in recent seasons) with Jenas.

Unfortunately, this move not only robbed us of a creative outlet, but also left the midfield slightly confused as to who was playing where, with variously JJ, Faye and Butt all finding themselves on the right hand side as the half progressed. Shearer was subsequently replaced by Milner – who huffed and puffed, but struggled to impose himself on the game, and finally Steven Taylor replaced Andy O'Brien in the centre of defence.

From memory I believe this is Taylor's first senior run out in his preferred position, and with only ten minutes he didn't really have time to settle, if anything appearing slightly nervy, and was caught on the ball as a result.

Almost his first action on the pitch was to argue with the referee following the decision to penalise an Ameobi handball with a penalty. There appeared to be little ground for complaint though, as Shola's hand clearly struck the ball. The penalty was duly dispatched, and another clean sheet lay in ruins. However, with two goals still to find in less than ten minutes, Heerenveen never really looked like they had sufficient quality to cause an upset. That didn't stop the last few minutes coming over as an edgy time, with players suddenly looked hurried on the ball, and lost some of the composure which they had displayed when 2-0 up.

Ultimately though, it's a case of job done with a minimum of fuss, and the early goals took away any jitters that might have surfaced had the visitors scored first. Decent performances from Dyer, Robert and Titus coupled with solid performances all around the park, with only Ameobi's profligacy in front of goal keeping the tie close.

Our third win in a row should hopefully boost the confidence of the team, even if we are to an extent winning ugly - and provided no injuries have been picked up we should be more or less at full strength when Bolton come to call on Sunday. As for the UEFA Cup, Greek outfit Olympiakos await us in the next round, a tie that promises to be far more testing but one which we can still be justified in believing we can win.

Other reports:, BBC, Guardian

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Righting Bobby's wrong?

Interesting to hear that Souness tried to resign Nobby Solano from Villa in the transfer window, and that he also wants between 3 and 5 players in the summer. Obviously the papers have picked up on the fact that he would like to see Michael Owen at St James, but who of us wouldn't?

Of the speculation for the summer, it seems apparent that a right sided midfielder is a priority, as is at least one top class striker. Whether Souness will also be chasing a left winger (back in for Boa Morte?) is open to debate.

The problem with chasing Owen is, why would he want to come and play for us? Unless we can offer the prospects of winning trophies, and Champions League football, are we really likely to appeal to a man who I doubt will just be looking for a lot of cash?

Whether Nobby will be allowed out of Brum is doubtful, and if he does leave, I'm betting it will be for more than the pittance we let him go for. In which case, Fat Fred is going to need to put his hand in his pocket and pull out a very fat wad of cash.

At a rough guess, a top class striker and a few other players is going to cost us somewhere in the region of twenty million quid – quite how we are going to raise this kind of cash remains to be seen.

Still, it's nice to hear that Souness wants to play 4-4-2 and also that he's hoping to land some big name players. The question will be whether or not he manages it.

Monday, February 21, 2005

Home sweet home

Apart from avoiding Man Utd and Arsenal, what we really wanted for our FA Cup Quarter-Final was to home advantage - and for the second time in two days our prayers have been answered. This lunchtime's draw has handed us a home tie against the winners of the replayed Spurs v Forest fixture.

There's no doubt that Forest would be the easier of the two opponents, and with them at home for the replay they've got a decent chance of turning Spurs over.

That said, our recent record against Spurs in the FA Cup is very good. We beat the Londoners 2-0 at Old Trafford with two Shearer goals to reach the 1999 Final, and I had the good fortune to be present when we dished out a 6-1 thumping in a Third Round replay at St James's in December of that year.

Could this be our year at last?

Winter wonderland

The snow fell on St James's yesterday as Mourinho's boys rolled in to town, but the sun was definitely shining down on Newcastle as Chelski limped home to concentrate on their Premiership, League Cup and Champions' League campaigns.

A brilliant fourth minute header from Patrick Kluivert (the product of a perfect Laurent Robert cross) proved to be the difference between the two sides, and booked us a place in the Quarter Finals of the FA Cup.

However, it could have been very different but for the boldness of the Chelsea coach. Having seen his side concede an early goal, and still be trailing at the break (despite Kezman's best effort coming back off the underside of the bar) he made a triple substitution and brought on Duff, Lampard and Gudjohnsson.

Unfortunately for the visitors, Wayne Bridge then suffered a bad injury that saw him stretchered from the pitch and leave his teammates a man short, and Duff was later left a virtual spectator following a clash with his own keeper.

This was just the piece of luck we needed (although I hope Bridge enjoys a speedy recovery) and allowed us to nullify the increased threat that Chelsea posed in the second half. With Souness having reverted to a 4-4-2, we were able to stretch the visitors' remodelled three man defence, and Robert in particular gave Glen Johnson a pretty torrid time.

Souness brought off Shearer to a chorus of boos midway through the second half, although it was subsequently revealed that he had undergone a late fitness test - and with Heerenveen in Toon on Thursday, it made sense to withdraw him from the fray. Dyer then followed his captain off the pitch shortly afterwards, as Souness tried to stretch Chelsea further with Milner introduced down the right.

Neither substitute had a great game though. Ameobi had one of those games where the ball seemed to keep bouncing off him and Milner drifted infield, much to the annoyance of his manager. Our other problem seemed to be an inability to retain possession - with passes repeatedly going astray.

However, in the last minute Shola was played in behind the Chelsea defence, and was cleaned out by Carlo Cudicini. Mark Halsey was left with no choice but to show the red card, and for Cudicini his early bath will rule him out of next week's League Cup Final. For us, it was a chance to test replacement keeper Glen Johnson from a free kick just outside the D, which Robert duly smashed past the wall, only to see it cannon back off the new keeper's legs.

At that stage, Mourinho appeared ready to concede defeat even before the final whistle. Souness though has seen enough of our defence to know that it's never over until the end, and looked decidedly reluctant to take Jose's hand. Fortunately, there was to be no last gasp goal for the opposition, and we made it in to the hat for today's draw.

Overall, a solid display from the lads, with Titus enjoying an excellent game (fortunately he was never afforded the time to dither on the ball) and Boumsong making a welcome return from injury. With Butt and JJ always competitive in the middle of the park, and a goal for our erratic Dutchman it was a good day all round. Quite how well we would have fared against a full strength Chelsea is a moot point: we beat the team in front of us, and it's our name in the hat.

Other reports: Talk Of The Tyne, BBC, Guardian

A Chelsea perspective: Chelsea Blog (The consensus seems to have been that Chelsea were unlucky with injuries but that they need to move on to Barcelona rather than dwelling on yesterday's result. Most are gracious in defeat - that is, apart from some illiterate called Rico, who had this to say: "newcastle didnt do anything i thought considering the circumstances we were still a better team, even with 7 fit players.newcastle were rubbish and the fans at the end acted like the won the lottery, i mean they really think they are goin to beat man u or arsenal". Did you see the game, my friend?)

Dirty Doug

When will he learn to shut up? Douglas Hall, resident of Spain and current director of Newcastle United was quoted in the Sunday Papers on the reasons why Sir Bobby was handed his P45. To be honest, this is the last thing anyone at the club needs. Whether there is any truth in what he says is irrelevant. Bobby’s gone, Souness is now in charge and we have moved on. Why we need to keep raking over old ground is beyond me, as is the reason why Dougie Hall feels the need to open his big mouth. The sooner he learns to just shut up, and spend his fat dividend cheque in silence the better things will be for all concerned.

Deja vu

There I was, thinking that by taking advantage of Newcastle's Saturday off and accompanying a Gillingham-supporting friend to Molineux I could avoid being reminded of the Toon's failings for an afternoon. But no. There was comically bad defending aplenty, of the sort even Messrs Bramble and O'Brien would be ashamed.

After a very flat first half in which Wolves dominated possession without ever seriously threatening the opposition goal, Gillingham came out much more determined and Darius Henderson gave them the lead after a cock-up from former Mackem defender Jody Craddock. Five minutes later Kenny Miller took advantage of slack marking to equalise.

Then, in the 90th minute, just as it looked like ending 1-1, Michael Flynn capitalised on another defensive error to lob Michael Oakes in the Wolves goal right in front of the away section.

But - in a fashion horribly familiar to Newcastle fans who watched vital points thrown away very late on in consecutive games at Birmingham, Blackburn, Portsmouth and Spurs last season - Gillingham inexplicably allowed substitute Leon Clarke to nick in and salvage a point for the home side.

Molineux is always a tough place to go and so a draw was a good result for a team in the Gills' predicament, third bottom of the league - but fans greeted the final whistle with a mixture of satisfaction at a sound performance and frustration at the knowledge that the two points lost might prove fatal to their chances of survival. Though Plymouth were stuffed 5-0 at West Ham, close rivals Coventry came from behind to beat Reading at the Madjeski Stadium, and so Gillingham actually found themselves worse off than before kick-off. Football can be a pretty cruel sport sometimes.

Friday, February 18, 2005

Double Dutch

Was it just me, or did settling down in front of the TV for last night's UEFA Cup game feel depressingly like being back at work after a refreshing holiday?

Certainly, our first half performance against Dutch outfit Heerenveen did nothing to dispel the now-familiar sense of dread that seizes me on match days.

It was the same old story. Despite having the lion's share of possession and looking dangerous outside the box, we failed to test 'keeper Brian Vanderbussche once. With three out-and-out strikers up front - Shearer and Ameobi with Kluivert, in for the unwell Dyer, tucked in behind - and three midfielders playing narrow, we lacked any real width, getting cramped in the centre of the pitch.

Shearer delivered one excellent cross that he'd have loved to have been on the end of himself, and just before half-time Ameobi flashed a low ball right across the face of goal, the skipper just unable to get a touch. The way we were playing put the onus of crossing on the two full-backs Babayaro and Carr. Both are adventurous and creative enough, but, aside from a couple of brief forays into enemy territory, they spent most of the half preoccupied with the threat posed at our own end.

Heerenveen's forward triumvirate - Ugur Yildirim on the right, Arnold Bruggink on the left and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar through the middle - proved that playing a 4-3-3 formation doesn't necessarily mean compromising on width. After 24 minutes it was Bruggink who dispossessed the dawdling Bramble to feed Huntelaar. The skilful youngster cleverly turned Faye and lashed a shot past Given off the underside of the bar, and so it was Heerenveen that held the advantage at the break.

Our initial brightness in the second period soon faded, Babayaro was taken off with a knee injury to be replaced by Hughes and the evening threatened to turn even more sour as chants of "Sack the board" became audible from the travelling contingent.

Mercifully, though, Souness saw fit to change things just after the hour mark by throwing Robert on, and the course of the game completely altered. The player withdrawn was Ameobi, whose poor control and wasteful finishing had merited his substitution, although Kluivert had been utterly anonymous too. It wasn't so much that Robert himself made the difference, but that his appearance signalled a shift to 4-4-2 and pushed Kluivert forwards alongside Shearer into a position in which he is more comfortable.

Both Robert and Kluivert were involved when the equaliser came, the former feeding the ball into the latter and the Dutchman expertly laying it into Shearer's path. Having had a very similar and presentable opportunity blocked a few minutes earlier, Carr's follow-up flying just past the post, Shearer made no mistake this time.

At last our tails were up and we sensed that victory was there for the taking. Robert and Kluivert also had a hand in the neat move that led to the winner. The ball found its way to Carr and Bowyer, arriving in the box for almost the first time in the match, cleverly flicked the cross into the bottom corner.

Of course, the eight minutes which remained was still plenty of time for us to try and throw the lead away. A Bruggink shot aside, Heerenveen had hardly threatened in the second half, but another appalling cock-up from Bramble presented the ball to their Finnish midfielder Mika Vayrynen. Given came to the rescue, brilliantly tipping the goalbound shot over and once again underlining his importance to the side. Then Bowyer got a second yellow card for a senseless handball and we had to cling on for the final whistle.

Shearer was excellent, especially in the second half, whilst Faye had a handy game breaking up attacks and holding things together. In defence, O'Brien produced some dashing interventions to offset Bramble's calamitous performance, and, though I was worried when the right-footed Hughes came on at left back to face the lively Yildirim, he turned in an impressively calm and assured display.

Progression to the next round is still far from a formality - Heerenveen caused us problems in attacking areas, even if they were lightweight defensively - but it's a real fillip to be able to take a just-about-deserved lead into next Thursday's second leg at St James's. The fans' vocal disquiet at the beginning of the second period was a warning to manager and chairman alike, though. Hopefully this game might have convinced Souness that we should be playing a 4-4-2 formation with wide midfielders, and that Robert deserves a decent crack in the side.

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

Thursday, February 10, 2005

View From The Away End

Towards the back end of December we asked opposition supporters for their thoughts as to who we'd be parting with cash for during the January transfer window, and who Souness would be showing the door. You can read the opinions and speculations of Pete of Round And White and Kenny of Parallax View here.

Now that the window has shut and the dust has settled, we invited them to offer their verdicts on what did actually happen...

Pete: "Before I comment on Newcastle's transfer window acquisitions, it's inevitable that I first turn to the Craig Bellamy affair. Back in October I wrote the following for this column: '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. 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.'

Unsurprisingly, Souness wasn't so forgiving the second time round and the gobby Welshman will now be continuing his career at Celtic. The whole situation has been handled badly by everyone involved. Bellamy has done his reputation no favours at all, and is now likely to see off his career in a footballing backwater. Meanwhile, Newcastle have lost an arguably very talented forward four months before Shearer's planned retirement and Souness's people skills have once again been exposed as being fairly minimal. The sale of Oliver Bernard to Southampton was unnecessary too.

The transfers of Boumsong, Babayaro and Faye are perhaps just what Newcastle needed and all three will add some steel to an occasionally wobbly defence. Faye is a suitable replacement for the injured Butt, while Babayaro will be keen to prove himself after his recent lack of opportunities at Chelsea. Whether Boumsong will become the commanding defender that Souness needs him to be is another question that will be answered over time.

However, none of these three players are the sort of players to push Newcastle to new heights (ie the Champions League). They're all useful and fairly solid, but the best result that can be hoped for is for the rest of the team to develop confidence in the back four, thus allowing them to get on with playing more efficient attacking football. In any case, it would seem sensible for Souness to concentrate on improving team spirit now, as apart from a shot at the FA Cup, this season can pretty much be written off.

Kenny: "In summary, my feelings are that there has been a lot of activity and money spent during the transfer window by Graeme Souness and yet the net result appears to be very little noticeable impact on the strength of the squad. Babayaro for Bernard is pretty much like for like, and with Celestine's playboy image I don't see this particularly helping the team's off-field behaviour patterns. Boumsong's a decent defender by all accounts but would have looked a better buy at half the price (which is what you might have got him for had you waited until summer).

Amdy Faye seems better value and yet appeared to be a panic buy due to Butt's injury, and now Butt seems to have miraculously recovered and in contention within weeks of the purchase it seems another buy of questionable relevance. Bellamy's departure to Celtic on loan will damage forward options but may improve dressing-room atmosphere. Reports that Kieron Dyer is looking more interested recently could prove a better bonus than any of the new signings.

Looks like a lot of short-term business as panic measures to keep Souey in the job a bit longer rather than cohesive long-term planning. Mid-table mediocrity beckons, I reckon, for this season and I don't see much better on the horizon with the current Shepherd / Souness management ticket.

Still, on the bright side, wouldn't surprise me if you beat Chelsea in the FA Cup next round...

We also canvassed opinion about Amdy Faye on the Portsmouth messageboard Fratton Faithful:

Blue Wozzy: "Would just like to say that you have a good 'un there, it's a shame that we are not 'big' enough (in his view) to keep hold of him. Hope he does well, except against us of course."

Raj: "When he's good he's very good, when he's bad he is VERY bad and when the transfer window opens and Newcastle are interested he is better than Patrick Vieira. The more games you get on Sky, the more consistent Amdy will be."

Nonsuch Mike: "Faye is a good player; on his day a brilliant player. I, for one, was sorry to see him leave the club, especially as the rumour was he was going to become a Villain with O'Dreary - a fate worse than death itself. I have been on record as saying that we need people of his creative skills to run the team from midfield.

Others say his agent is a double-dealing con artist who only wants Amdy to change clubs every six months so he, the agent, can con a fee out of all concerned. This, therefore, may put a doubt in people's minds about Amdy's loyalty to any particular club.

Our concern about the Toon is more manager-centred than over the vast depth of talent you have up there. Don't misunderstand me - I think Souness was a terrific player in his day. With his experience at a wide range of clubs, you should eventually be up there with the ManUres of this world. Everything takes time to gel. The key word in this last paragraph was 'eventually'.

Thanks to all those who contributed.

View From The Home End

The B&W&RAO reaction to the club's January transfer dealings...

Paul: "January came amidst a flurry of expectation and the arrival of two new players, and ended with two departures and a sense of frustration amongst those of us who ultimately pay the bills.

The early arrivals of Boumsong and Babayaro, and the later arrival of Faye, have given a clear indication of Souness’s priority. Not unsurprisingly, we’ve looked to stop the flood of goals which we’ve conceded so far this season.

Babayaro appears to have taken to the team like a duck to water, with a couple of promising displays and a decent goal showing what I hope will be signs of a long and prosperous career on the left hand side of our back four.

Boumsong looks like he may take slightly longer to settle and his hamstring injury won’t help him in that respect. However, there have certainly been signs of a quality player, and if he can stay fit and healthy we could have the makings of a reasonably solid defence. (Stop laughing, it could happen.)

The emergence of Taylor is perhaps the biggest positive to come out of the season so far (although if Kieron Dyer can continue to improve then his re-emergence as a footballer rather than a twat will also be a major bonus – he still some way to go though). Taylor’s development will now come with games, and hopefully he’ll be given the opportunity to prove himself in the centre of our defence alongside Boumsong over the coming months.

In midfield, it’s hard to judge Faye on a handful of matches. From what I’ve heard he tended to blow a bit hot and cold for Portsmouth, but at least he should give us a bit more depth in the defensive midfield department, and allow those more creative than him to get forward and hurt the opposition.

On the departures front, I’m personally sad to see Olivier Bernard leave. It’s been on the cards for a while now, and I’m not shocked that he’s gone. At least we got some cash for Bernard, which we weren't going to get when he tried to piss of to West Ham, or would have got if he had stuck around for another five months. Given his commitment to the cause (can you name more than one game where he hasn’t had the physio on due to his commitment in the tackle?) he should be afforded a decent welcome when our paths next cross.

Bellamy’s loan move to Celtic is perhaps the best outcome we could have got from the whole sorry saga that has been the Souness / Shepherd / Bellamy January subplot. He can’t score any goals that will hurt us (unlike LuaLua last year), and there is the always the prospect, however remote, that they might manage to resolve their differences in the summer. Failing that, we should still be able to sell him and get a replacement in when the transfer market reopens in June, when we can take our time to ensure we get the best price for a talented player whose ability is undermined by his personality.

Come the summer, I think we’ll be looking for strikers, with Shearer seemingly certain to depart and Kluivert / Bellamy unlikely to be playing in Newcastle next season. With Shola as our only remaining senior striker it’ll be no surprise to see us linked with every forward under the sun over the coming months. Still, it’s a change from usual crop of defenders!

Ben: "As expected, Souness moved quickly to firm up one of the leakiest defences in the Premiership, signing Jean-Alain Boumsong and Celestine Babayaro from Rangers and Chelsea respectively the moment the transfer window opened. The arrival of Amdy Faye from Portsmouth later in the month was unfortunately overshadowed by the Bellamy fiasco (more on that later), and he proved to be our final capture.

The signing of Boumsong had of course been on the cards for weeks before January came around. Rangers will no doubt be delighted to have got £8m for a player who cost them nothing in the summer, and my feeling remains that we've paid over the odds for him. That said, he arrives with a big reputation as someone on the fringes of the French national side, and should hopefully bring the rigidity and organisation we need.

Faye, though a midfielder, has also been brought in with the defence in mind. Butt's injury has often left us exposed, and he should give other more attack-minded players the freedom to venture further forwards in search of opportunities. Now that Butt is fit again, though the difficult choice facing Souness is whom to pick - it has to be one or the other, for the sake of our offensive ambitions.

Of the three new arrivals, Babayaro is the one who has excited the Toon fans most so far. A skillful attack-minded left back with a bagful of tricks, he's already caught the eye on a couple of occasions. I've heard some Chelsea fans complain that letting him go was Mourinho's first managerial mistake. Let's hope they're proved right.

However, the addition of the Nigerian was counterbalanced by the loss of Bernard to Southampton. Whether this was a teary farewell to a committed, talented and much-improved defender or good riddance to a money-grabbing little toerag is a matter for some debate amongst fans. I myself probably lean towards the former view. His refusal to sign a new deal meant he'd have been leaving the club anyway, but £400,000 isn't a lot to pocket given that we could have kept him as back-up for Babayaro until the summer. We're effectively back where we started, one injury away from having Hughes trying his best but ultimately failing to fill the left-back berth adequately.

Of course, January's real talking point was Bellamy's fatal bust-up with Souness over his selection at right wing for the game at Highbury. Though I'm no fan of the public way he conducted the whole affair, Souness had little option but to lay down the law and freeze him out of the club. However, though his departure to Celtic might be good for squad togetherness and morale, it still leaves an unfilled hole. With Shearer retiring in the summer and Kluivert unlikely to be offered a new deal, we need at least two strikers then - but, judging by the last two Premiership displays, we're already suffering from a chronic lack of attacking and creative options, desperately crying out for players who can unlock stubborn and resilient defences.

Typical Newcastle - just as problems are addressed at one end of the field, more rear their ugly heads at the other...

(What we said before the transfer window opened.)

Quote of the day

"I had one eye on the football as I quaffed ale in the pub last night – one eye more than was needed, as it turned out. Watching England has become like doing the hoovering. You know someone's got to do it, but you don’t want that someone to be you."

RotorGoat of Arsenal blog East Lower.

Glad I managed to avoid the England v Holland match and left it to others to watch - I don't think I could stand many more bore draws.

From a Toon point of view, it was once again bemusing to hear that Eriksson chucked on Dyer and JJ for Beckham and Gerrard late on. Not only are neither of our boys fit to lace the boots of those they replaced at the moment, this also meant Joe Cole, a creative player who could have changed the game, sat languishing on the bench.

Cheap PR?

Who'd have thought it, eh? Gary Neville speaking sense - aside from the comments about racism not being a problem in the English game, of course.

My natural cynicism has prevented me from welcoming the Stand Up Speak Up anti-racism campaign, and Neville has put his finger on the reason.

Still, his criticism of the campaign is hardly likely to endear him to team-mate Rio Ferdinand, or his club's kit manufacturers.

Monday, February 07, 2005

"I think the game may well be doomed"

A level-headed and well-argued look at the parlous state of football and the loss of any connection between players and fans.

These may be the thoughts of a Birmingham supporter, but they're ones I think many of us share regardless of the team we follow.

Bore draw

"Newcastle look every inch a mid-table team", began the reporter during one of Radio 5's visits to St James's Park on Saturday afternoon. Hard to stomach, perhaps, but absolutely true nonetheless.

Following hard on the heels of Wednesday's lacklustre showing at Man City, in which we managed precisely one shot on target all night, this performance was a further indication that whatever wind was left in our sails after a poor first half of the season and the Bellamy saga has now died away.

For the first time in months, Souness stuck with the same starting XI he'd selected for the previous match, and was rewarded with a carbon-copy display notable only for a rare goal by Kieron Dyer and the fact that we once again failed to keep a clean sheet.

We began brightly enough, Shearer proving a handful for the Charlton defence. In the early stages of the match he ensured that Dean Kiely wasn't a complete spectator.

But that impetus soon petered out, and despite a clear dominance of possession in the first half, we were unable to create any major chances, coming closest when Kiely almost palmed a thirty yarder from O'Brien into his own goal, the ball striking the top of the crossbar.

Our play was crippled by a distinct lack of imagination in attacking areas. Faye, making his home debut, was pulling all the strings in central midfield, but neither Dyer nor JJ was taking advantage of his presence to support the strikers in any useful way.

After a stern half-time talking-to by Souness, the team began the second period with renewed vigour. We took the lead when, as on Wednesday night, a long ball from Bramble found Shearer, but on this occasion he claimed the assist rather than the goal. Chris Perry failed to intervene, and Dyer was there to latch onto Shearer's header and knock the ball past Kiely (albeit with the aid of a slight deflection). Two goals in the space of less than two months - by his own miserable standards, he's on fire.

But barely a minute later we shot ourselves in the foot for the umpteenth time this season, O'Brien's terrible miscontrol presenting Dennis Rommedahl with the chance to level the scores from distance.

After another lull, the introduction of Robert and Kluivert briefly livened things up towards the death, and we had chances to snatch a win through Bramble and JJ. At the other end, though, the lively Rommedahl twice threatened to make the afternoon even more depressing. As it was, disgruntled voices were heard at both half and full times.

Charlton may have been unambitious, but for our attack to have been so comfortably contained by what is, on paper at least, one of the Premiership's most average defences is very worrying. We once again lacked width and looked one-dimensional in attack. At the moment we lack any guile in midfield, and as such are far too easy to defend against.

In the absence of creative ideas, pace is always a useful option to have, and it's perhaps telling that our goalscorer in the 1-1 draw at The Valley was a certain Mr Bellamy.

As Jack White once sang, I've said it before but it bears repeating now: unfashionable though they may be, we could do much worse than model ourselves on sides like Charlton. No big names with reputations and egos to match, just a quietly talented and efficient side with genuine team spirit and a hard-working ethic that doesn't seem to compute with our over-hyped bunch of white-booted poseurs - not to mention a tactically astute manager and an avoidance of anything approaching a bitter public squabble or a PR disaster.

Charlton are where they deserve to be, and so are we.

At the moment it's looking like becoming a dreadful season, with only the threat of relegation driving us forward. Progression to the business end of either the UEFA or FA Cups currently looks little more than a pipedream.

Fulham's replay with Derby in the latter competition means we have this coming weekend off, and so those not involved in international fixtures are jetting off for some "teambuilding" in Dubai ahead of next week's UEFA Cup fixture in Holland. It'll take more than papering over the cracks to get this club back on the right track.

Other reports: Talk Of The Tyne, BBC, Observer

A Charlton fan's view: All Quiet In The East Stand

(Report by Ben and Paul)

Thursday, February 03, 2005

A point gained or two points lost?

Well, in light of the fact that our only shot on target resulted in a goal; last night's game has got to be seen in a fairly positive light. Titus' cross field ball finding Shearer, who moved one goal closer to Milburn’s record with a fine shot past David James in the Man City goal.

The problem is that, whilst we then proceeded to huff and puff we couldn't fashion any more opportunities to carve open Man City's defence, and our failure to kill a team off once again came back to haunt us in the second half.

Shaun Wright Phillips was adjudged to have been fouled in the box by Bramble, and Robbie Fowler stuck the subsequent penalty past Given, with the Irishman going the wrong way.

With neither side playing particularly well, the game is only really notable for the return to the first team of Nicky Butt, who replaced Kieron Dyer midway through the second half, and Alan Shearer's 250th premiership goal. Otherwise it’s a simple case of one more point to the total, one more lead thrown away, and one more second half performance which was worse than the first. Quite why we can't keep playing well for 90 minutes is beyond me, but our repeated failure to score four in the opening 20 minutes has cost us yet again.

Whether Bellamy would have helped us to claim all three points is the inevitable question left hanging unspoken in the air.

I'll leave you to answer that one yourselves…

Other reports:, Talk Of The Tyne, BBC

Another Newcastle fan's view: Crinklybee (scroll down for inebriated match report)

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

The prayer for silence goes unanswered

On Monday, the transfer window closed with our gobby Welsh terrier being shown the door, packed off on loan to Parkhead for the rest of the season (more on that to come in the next couple of days).

After the traumas of the previous week, the last couple of days presented a good opportunity for the club to engineer a deft movement out of the intense media spotlight. Stilled tongues and closed mouths were what was required, to allow the healing process to begin after a very public mauling in the press.

And yet, just as the wounds were beginning to scab over, out comes Souness with another attack on Bellamy.

He just couldn't let it lie, could he? Couldn't resist the temptation to laud it over his nemesis, as the one still at the club following their bitter row.

Much as I like Bellamy (as a player, I might add), my sympathies were with Souness. As he's said, he couldn't be seen to waver or back down if he was to keep the players' respect - though it seems questionable whether he's ever had that, and certainly it sounds as though Bellamy wasn't willing to grant it to him from the day he arrived at the club. The bottom line is that Bellamy, as potent an asset as he is on the pitch, is a highly-paid professional contracted to the club and as such cannot be allowed to refuse to play in a certain position.

However, by raking over old coals when it really wasn't necessary, I'm sure Souness will have lost some of the sympathy he had with the Newcastle fans, which was already in short supply. This sort of arrogant crowing and belittling of a player who always gave his all when he appeared on the pitch (though a frequently disruptive presence of it) is unlikely to endear Souness further to those who are already sceptical about his talents as a manager and his ability to get the club back to where it should be.

Most irritating is the precise nature of Souness's jibe - that Bellamy isn't good enough for Newcastle, and that he isn't a frequent enough goalscorer.

Not only do many fans feel it's Souness who's not good enough for the club, it's also very strange to charge the striker with not being prolific enough - true maybe of previous seasons, but given that this term he's looked particularly sharp, finding the net on a number of occasions, it seems odd.

And even more bizarre when you take into account the number of times he was asked by Souness to play out of position wide on the right when, unlike at Highbury, there was no obvious tactical need for it...