Thursday, April 28, 2005

To the point

Home to the Smoggies, and another record goes. Sadly this time it's Boro's record of always conceding a goal at St James's in the Premiership.

On the positive side, we managed to draw nil-nil and pick up another point in our quest for safety (one to go to be certain lads), and stopped the rot caused by the five consecutive defeats that have firmly ruined our season.

The game itself was largely forgettable with little of the passion normally associated with Tyne-Tees games, and Boro in particular desperately seeking a draw. McLaren leaving Downing on the bench meant the midfield was a closely packed area, and this resulted in little creative space for either side.

With the first half providing few chances at either end (a fairly weak Milner effort being our best chance of the half) the most memorable moment was the sight of Kieron Dyer hobbling down the tunnel to bring down the curtain on a season which had begun with his refusal to play on the right at Boro and subsequently saw him resurrect his reputation on Tyneside with a string of fine performances, only to be involved in a fracas with a team mate and end it with questions abounding over the likelihood of him getting a new contract.

Shola's entrance, as his replacement, five minutes before half time almost bought a goal, with his header from a corner failing to worry the keeper when he really should have done better.

The second half saw a resumption of a match that neither side seemed sufficiently committed to win. We played a bit better than the first half, creating several reasonable chances, the pick of which saw Milner's powerful shot well saved by Brad Jones in the Boro net, and N'Zogbia shoot over in the final seconds following a fine cross from Shearer. For Boro, Hasselbaink's weak chip straight at Given when through on goal may well be a rued opportunity if Spurs finish the season strongly, but both teams will probably have ended the game reasonably happy. For Boro it's their first point on Tyneside in the Premiership, and for us it's an end to a losing streak that has crippled our season and left us worrying more about the teams beneath us than dreaming of glory in Lisbon or Cardiff.

In truth, the end of the season can't now come quickly enough. We need to get rid of some of the overpaid wasters and bring in some players who are hungry for success and won't be more concerned about scoring on the Quayside than on the pitch.

Souness has a major job on his hands, and nothing he'll have seen last night will have convinced him, or anyone else, otherwise.

Other reports: Talk Of The Tyne, BBC, Guardian

Text pest

We get rid of the Welshman to Celtic, and still he manages to drag us through the papers, ably assisted by Fat Fred! Apparently Bellamy's phone sent a message to Alan Shearer saying his legs were gone and that Bellamy would be returning to replace our number 9.

According to our chairman, Shearer is reported to have replied that if Bellamy did return to Newcastle that he'd be in for a beating.

Bellamy denies sending the text, claiming his phone was pinched. Whether that's true, or whether he is rapidly back tracking for fear of a beating from Shearer, who can say. What is certain is that we once again get in the papers for a non-footballing reasons and our chairman isn't really helping matters.

Monday, April 25, 2005

Pride but no points

After a horrific couple of weeks, the green shoots of recovery.

Yesterday afternoon's encounter with Man Utd might have ended in defeat, our fifth in a row, but the margin was much narrower than in last Sunday's FA Cup semi-final trouncing at the Millenium Stadium. The 2-1 scoreline flattered the opposition and shouldn't be allowed to detract from the fact that the players gave a robust and spirited display, one of which we could be justifiably proud for the first time in quite a while.

Of course, on paper it looked like lambs to the slaughter. Ferguson opted to rest Ronaldo, van Nistelrooy missed out through injury and both Scholes and Gary Neville were suspended, but the Man Utd teamsheet still looked formidable, even more so when set alongside our rag-tag side.

Deprived of countless players through injury and suspension, Souness opted to change formation to 4-5-1, giving several fringe players an opportunity to impress and pushing other more seasoned campaigners into unfamiliar areas. Ramage made his Premiership debut at right back, with a headbandaged Elliott on the other flank. Carr was pushed into a holding role in midfield, giving N'Zogbia and Ambrose license to venture forwards. Shearer spearheaded the attack, and Ameobi and Milner occupied the wide midfield positions.

Given his current form, it was a blessing in disguise that Butt injured himself in training on Friday, and it was also interesting that after recent showings neither Robert nor Kluivert made the starting line-up despite the number of faces missing.

At first, it looked as though our fears of a massacre would be fully realised. Giggs, back from injury, attacked with pace and incision, but Ramage, to his credit, gradually got to grips with the Welshman, as the whole team did with the game. Man Utd were huffing and puffing to no effect, and it was Ambrose who went closest in the opening stages, blasting a shot just wide of Tim Howard's goal.

Howard, as is so often the case, looked the weakest link in a strong Man Utd line-up, and Shearer was unlucky to see his header cleared away from the open goal by Rio Ferdinand when he'd leapt to beat the 'keeper to a high ball. In truth we could have possibly been awarded a penalty for Howard's clumsy challenge on the skipper.

We didn't have to wait long for the goal our play merited, though - and again it was Howard who helped us out. His scuffed clearance was seized upon by Ambrose, who took it off Ameobi's toes, burst into the box past two defenders and slid the ball neatly past the advancing 'keeper.

Ambrose went close again not long afterwards, and at the other end Man Utd had a penalty appeal turned down. Ignore Fergie's paranoid moaning about "sinister" refereeing plots - it wasn't given because it wasn't a penalty, Alan Smith having hold of at least as much of Andy O'Brien's shirt as the Newcastle defender did of his. By half-time, Man Utd had suffered the added blow of losing left back Gabriel Heinze, though the appearance from the bench of Ronaldo, our FA Cup tormentor-in-chief, brought a smile to no-one's face.

After the break the anticipated pressure from the home side surprisingly failed to materialise, and we continued to look comfortable - until, that is, Rooney crashed home the sort of swerving, dipping volley that takes the breath away. If I wanted to be hypercritical, I could point to the fact that Ramage's clearing header wasn't the best, but there's no denying the unstoppable nature of the shot.

From then on it was pretty much backs-to-the-wall stuff, with the lively Ambrose and N'Zogbia understandably fading as the game wore on. At 1-1, Milner had an excellent chance to reclaim the lead for his side after some uncharacteristic sloppiness from Roy Keane. Not for the first time this season, his shot sailed just over the bar, though - for a forward, his shooting is nowhere near accurate enough.

The winning goal, when it came, was a soft one. A sustained bout of pressure lead to a succession of corners, and from one Wes Brown profited from Ameobi's lack of concentration. N'Zogbia couldn't leap quite high enough to head the ball off the line, and Newcastle hearts sank.

Even then, though, in the absence of Shearer (withdrawn for the ineffective Kluivert before Brown's goal) we had a decent opportunity to level it through Ameobi, but his cross-shot skidded wide without receiving the glancing touch it needed.

A sterling effort from a makeshift side, then - one that should have been rewarded with a point. THAT's injustice, Fergie.

Other reports: Talk Of The Tyne, BBC, Guardian

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Troubled times

It's official! We are actually BETTER than our FA Cup foes Man Utd!

Forget that piffling 4-1 defeat the Red Bastards inflicted on Sunday - the real benchmark by which to judge is how the two teams fared against the Premiership's basement team Norwich.

Yes, we both lost with Norwich scoring twice, but we scored a goal and Man Utd didn't! By the logic of any reasonable person, we are thus the superior football team.

To assess last night's game more soberly: a patchwork Newcastle side failed in their bid to record only their third away win of the Premiership season against a team that just a fortnight ago looked doomed to relegation.

Of Sunday's defensive line-up, Babayaro and Taylor both missed out through injury, O'Brien and Elliott coming in to take their places, while in midfield N'Zogbia started in the advanced central role he occupied for the second half of the Man Utd match. Incredibly - or perhaps not so incredibly, given our current injury crisis - Butt and Robert kept their places.

There were chances at both ends in the first half. For us, Shearer missed a couple early on, Robert hit a volley straight at Robert Green and Ameobi fired narrowly over just before the break. At the other end Given was forced into a superb save to deny the "Canary Vieira", Damien Francis.

More chances came and went in the second period, and, with 68 minutes on the clock, it was the Canaries' former Coventry midfielder Youssef Safri who smashed home a shot from a preposterous distance to give the home team the lead.

Heads didn't go down, though, and it looked like we had salvaged a point when Kluivert, on for Ameobi, scored a scrappy goal in the final minute - harsh on Norwich, but a draw would have been deserved.

But there was still sufficient injury time - more than four minutes of it, to be precise - for Dean Ashton, Norwich's transfer window signing from Crewe, to get between Carr and Boumsong and nod Helveg's cross past Given.

A cruel blow at the end of an extraordinarily cruel seven days, and one which makes it four consecutive defeats (and five in six since returning from the second Dubai jolly).

And the nightmare isn't over just yet - there's a trip to Old Trafford on the horizon, where a Man Utd team seething after last night's nine man defeat to Everton will be out for our blood for the second time in a week. Anyone like to hazard a bet on a Toon win?

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

Monday, April 18, 2005

It all comes to nowt

An antidote to Paul's stoically upbeat report...

Two enormous games in the space of four days, and two soul-destroying defeats.

Anyone would think that with the amount of disappointment us fans have had to stomach over the years, a little more wouldn't stick in the throat. But no, it's no less painful to swallow.

Yesterday's first half was staggeringly gutless and disorganised, Boumsong manfully attempting to stem the red tide on his own but it was all in vain as we were systematically destroyed by Rooney, Ronaldo, van Nistelrooy and Scholes.

At least in the second half there was a bit of fight and spirit from the likes of N'Zogbia and Ameobi, but it was far too little - not only for a comeback but also as reward to the long-suffering black-and-white-clad supporters in the stands who roared the players on all afternoon.

In truth, though, I think most of us feared the worst after Thursday's defeat. Deprived of key players through injury and suspension, victory over a near full-strength Man Utd stung by last Saturday's humiliating 2-0 defeat at Carrow Road was always going to be a long shot, and so it proved.

Our best chance of success had seemed to be in the UEFA Cup, where we needed to fear no-one, and in Lisbon we had one boot firmly planted in the semi-final before the horrific late capitulation. That was probably the defeat that hurt the most - the thrashing at the hands of Man Utd was by contrast depressingly predictable, our recent record against the Red Devils making cringeworthy reading.

There's still no doubting we have a very talented squad - it's been organisation (especially in defence) and pure fight that we've been lacking all season long, and without those we'll never go anywhere but backwards.

We're now left with nothing to play for except pride (even I don't think relegation's a possibility), needing to avoid our lowest ever Premiership finish, but pride is something only the fans seem to prize, and even then it's in increasingly short supply thanks to successive humiliations like those dished up this week.

The summer must see a mass clearout, and a host of new faces, though our recent record in the transfer market has not been good. Boumsong aside, the players brought in over the course of the season have done precious little to impress - Butt has been atrocious in recent weeks, Carr's looked similarly awful, Faye has underwhelmed with his passing, Babayaro has flounced around ineffectively when fit and Kluivert's looked overweight and utterly disinterested of late.

Of course, whether Souness is around to oversee it all remains to be seen. How itchy is Fat Fred's trigger finger now?

Singing in the rain

Well, the wheels may have well and truly fallen off our season in the last few days, and yesterday's defeat at the hands of Man Utd was completely deserved, but I feel strangely upbeat.

The game itself was a pretty one-sided affair, with Newcastle allowing Manchester Utd far too much time and space in the first half, and it was inevitable that we would be losing by the break. That the first goal came after a Boumsong slip was unfortunate, particularly as he was our best defender, and that the second came just before half-time was really bad timing from our point of view. If we had only been one down at the interval, who knows how the second half would have panned out, but two behind was always going to be a mountain we'd struggle to climb.

In truth the first half seemed to fly by, with the massed ranks of Newcastle fans in great voice in the North Stand, cheering on a team who were being well and truly beaten by a superior outfit.

The second half started with Souness removing the ineffective Faye and the lacklustre Babayaro with N'Zogbia (whose collarbone obviously wasn't broken on Thursday) and O'Brien. Both subs brought some much-needed fight to the middle, with Charles looking to really get stuck-in in an advanced central midfield role, and looking far less overawed than he had done on Thursday night.

Unfortunately, Nicky Butt gave the ball away and from his error, his former team mates profited, Ruud van Nistelrooy scored his second, and we were dead and buried. Funnily enough, we then rallied, and Shearer and Shola combined well to send the latter through and his shot went through the legs of Tim Howard to bring some joy to the North Stand.

However, we never really looked like getting close to making a real game of it, and even with Kluivert on to replace Milner we looked easily containable. It came as no great surprise that Manchester United added a fourth when we were throwing people forward and it was Cristiano Ronaldo who got the goal that officially brought our season to a premature end.

We may still have seven league games to play, but apart from allowing some of the youngsters to gain more first team experience, I can't see anyone busting a gut over the coming weeks.

Despite all that, the atmosphere in Cardiff was electric, with the whole of the Newcastle end chanting their support for the entirety of the game. Man Utd may have had the better team on the day, but to paraphrase the singing, their support was shit, and at 4-1 up they still didn't sing.

The question has to be, if all our seats were sold to season ticket holders, and all the Newcastle fans were singing, why don't they all do it at home games?

However, regardless of the result it was a great day in Cardiff, and a wonderfully proud day to be a Geordie, even if the game was crap. Come the summer, Souness needs to clear out the deadwood and buy wisely on what will surely be limited funds, but that's a discussion for another day. Yesterday was all about the atmosphere, and it was magnificent.

Just don't get me started on the journey home…

Other reports: Talk Of The Tyne, BBC, Guardian

Friday, April 15, 2005

Learning the lingo

In an effort to help anyone going to Cardiff this weekend, we present the Black & White & Read All Over handy phrasebook. With thanks to Lisa for the translation.

So this is what a national stadium should look like
Well dya beth yw stadium genedlaethol i fod i edrch yn teg i

Two pints please!
dau pint plis or dau pint of gwrw os gwelwch yn dda

Can I have a pie?
Alla'i gael pie

Where are the toilets?
Ble mae'r ty bach?

We are the Geordies
Geordie dy'ni

Toon, Toon, Black and White Army
Toon, toon byddun du a gwyn

Same old Shearer, always scoring.
Y'r un Shearer trwy'r amser yn scorio

The Referee is a wanker
Mae'r Referee yw wanker

Graham Poll is a fucking arsehole
Graham Poll ydy yn twll din

He's fat, he's scouse, he'll rob your fucking house.
Mae'n tew, mae dod o Lerpwl a mae'n dwyn eith pethau
(Literally: he's fat, from Liverpool and will steal your things)

That man looks like a horse
Mae'r dyn yna yn edrych fel cefyll

Fuck off Fergie
Cer i grafi Fergie

Sit down and shut up
Eisteddwch i lawr a gae dy twll

We hate Cockneys
Rynyn ni'n casau y Cockneys

Don't worry about getting your pronunciation a bit wrong, the important thing is to have a go.

Any requests for translations should be left in the comments box, and we'll see what we can do.


Crashing out of Europe last night, we were completely blown away by an excellent performance by Sporting Lisbon. Carrying a one goal advantage into the game, things looked to be going smoothly when Kieron Dyer got through behind the defence, and nutmegged keeper Ricardo to rule out the possibility of extra time and leave Sporting needing to score three.

Having chosen to leave Laurent Robert out of the squad altogether following his ill-advised comments in yesterday's press, Souness instead had Charles N'Zogbia deputising on the left. Unfortunately, there were times when N'Zogbia’s lack of experience was painfully exposed and it must have been galling for Souness that through Robert's own selfishness we were deprived of a possible match winner.

Nonetheless, we were ahead, and our young team were doing a decent job of protecting our lead. Unfortunately Sporting were able to pull a goal back just before half time, with a powerful header from a corner by Niculae to leave the tie finely balanced at the break, but with the home side now buoyed by their goal.

Souness was forced to make a change at half time, bringing off the injured Jenas for James Milner, and fifteen minutes later it was Bramble who left the field after a decent comeback from his hernia operation (whether he's fit enough to play on Sunday is open to question). Unfortunately, we then lost the excellent Dyer to what looked like a reoccurrence of his hamstring injury, and from then on the game shifted dramatically in Sporting's favour.

With Dyer's pace removed from the attack, and replaced with a chubby looking Patrick Kluivert, we were unlikely to worry too many defenders, and Sporting were able to push further up the field, confident that we no longer had the pace to get behind them.

Similarly, with O'Brien and Taylor looking less comfortable than Taylor and Bramble, and with the added pressure now being exerted by Sporting it was perhaps inevitable that they would force a second goal, and Sa Pinta picked up the pieces after Given had made a good save from Barbosa to bring things level on aggregate.

However, with our away goal we were still in a position to progress when Beto scored to give Sporting the lead.

With Newcastle now forced to chase the game, Stephen Carr was unlucky to be caught trying to get the ball forward in the last few minutes, and from his error Rochemback was able run in on goal and put us firmly out of the competition.

The story of the night can be boiled down to our own inability to make things safe, with Bowyer, Dyer, Shearer and Kluivert all contriving to mess up goalscoring opportunities. Unfortunately for us, through a combination of injuries forcing Souness's hand in terms of substitutions, forced N'Zogbia to play on with a suspected broken collarbone, and Robert contriving to get himself dropped, we had nothing in the locker to turn the game around. With Dyer gone, it was perhaps inevitable that Sporting would really turn the screw, and when they did we were found wanting.

We can only hope that Souness can pick the side up for Sunday, otherwise our season looks like being finished in the space of four days.

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Fermez la bouche

With a series of solid performances during our eight match winning streak, allied to a new-found work ethic, Laurent Robert - a player for whom the word "mercurial" was invented - appeared to have repaired the bridge between himself and Graeme Souness brick by brick.

Two appalling Premiership defeats - and two early summons to the touchline to be substituted - later, and KABOOM! Our Gallic genius / groan generator has taken it upon himself to dynamite the whole carefully rebuilt construction with a few characteristically ill-chosen public comments.

"It is difficult for me at the moment. In the last three games I have been taken off after 55 or 60 minutes and I don't like that. I don't like it when the team plays bad football. I have not been happy when I have been brought off. I think everyone has seen that - it is very depressing. There is no communication and the manager does not speak to me face to face to tell me when I am playing badly, and neither does his staff. I read that he does not feel that I do enough but I feel like I have proved myself to him last month. You will have to ask him what he means by that. When everyone said I was playing well, I was getting many balls down the left. I have not been seeing so much of the ball recently."

Unsurprisingly Souness is not impressed, and has labelled Robert "selfish". He, like everyone else associated with the club (I imagine), is particularly upset at Robert's sense of timing, just in advance of two massive games which will mean the difference between a season of long-awaited success or one of dismal failure.

We've said it before and no doubt we'll say it again (though it's uncertain how much longer Souness and Shepherd will persevere with him): shut up and play up.

Monday, April 11, 2005

The Good Shepherd?

Judge for yourself, but Ian Ridley's article in Sunday’s Observer makes some fairly blunt points about those at the top of an organisation setting an example for their employees to follow.

It's pretty scathing in its assessment of Fat Fred, which is unlikely to surprise any of us.

Lightweights take a beating

Sometimes you have to admire our players. They have the uncanny knack of handing newspaper sub-editors their headlines and by-lines on a plate. After last weekend's St James's Park bust-up, they served up a performance at White Hart Lane which lacked anything remotely resembling fight or punch, allowing Spurs to gain revenge for last month's FA Cup defeat.

Butt and Robert, both experienced professionals, were particularly awful and were lucky not to be replaced earlier than the hour mark. Our midfield, without the attacking impetus of Dyer and Bowyer, looked worryingly inept, making a mockery of Souness's recent comments about it being the best he's ever had the fortune to work with.

At the back, Babayaro didn't have the best of returns, and a low-on-confidence O'Brien got himself into numerous scrapes and was thankful to Boumsong for continually clearing up after him. As unlikely as it might have sounded not too long ago, we're desperate for Bramble's return from injury. The only player other than Boumsong to emerge from a miserable afternoon with any credit whatsoever was substitute N'Zogbia, whose trickery and close control caused Spurs right-back Stephen Kelly plenty of problems in the last twenty minutes.

The contest's deciding goal was, appropriately enough, the consequence of a horrible error by another poor performer. Three minutes from the break Harper, in for the injured Given, received a Babayaro backpass under pressure. His attempted left-footed clearance struck Simon Davies and the quick-witted Jermain Defoe nipped in to score easily from close range. Harper, whose only other Premiership appearance this season came in the freakish 4-1 home defeat to Fulham, looked mortified and apologised to fans afterwards - a much more evidently sincere apology than that offered by Bowyer, it must be said, but little consolation nevertheless.

We had been a clear second best throughout the half - Spurs more lively, inventive and sharper in the tackle - but Ameobi had come closest to scoring with a header from a pinpoint JJ cross which he planted into the ground and which then bounced up, just cleared the crossbar and landed on the roof of the net.

Shearer, unusually anonymous, was replaced at half-time having taken a knock, and it was his replacement Milner who had the best opportunity of the second half. A comical mix-up between Paul Robinson and Ledley King allowed Milner to steal in but, with Robinson stranded yards from his goal, the shot sailed well wide. A heated debate between the two Spurs players followed, but no blows were struck.

Spurs made hard work of beating us, squandering numerous chances (Kanoute was particularly culpable) without forcing Harper into serious action. Only in the last twenty minutes did we begin to apply any kind of pressure to their back line, and even then it amounted to nothing more than some jinking N'Zogbia runs and a couple of free-kicks wastefully blasted into the wall by substitute Ambrose. An equaliser would have masked an abject performance.

With two defeats on the bounce our league season seems to be slipping ignominiously away to nothing, a UEFA Cup spot now practically unthinkable, and we approach this week's crucial cup fixtures with considerable trepidation. Play this badly against either Sporting Lisbon or Man Utd and we'll be embarrassed.

Other reports: Talk Of The Tyne, BBC, Guardian

Friday, April 08, 2005

It was never going to be Portugu-easy

After another extraordinarily turbulent week in the history of Newcastle United, last night's 1-0 victory over Sporting Lisbon went some way to repair the damage. It'll take more than that to help us to forget the disaster that was Saturday afternoon, but it's a start.

In the absence of Boumsong, Bramble and Babayaro, the defence took on a makeshift look, Taylor lining up in the centre alongside O'Brien with Hughes at left-back. But in the build-up to the game, the real speculation was of course whether Dyer or Bowyer would play after Saturday's fracas. In the event, Souness left Bowyer on the bench but selected Dyer for a midfield role, Ameobi coming in up front.

Ameobi it was who set about unsettling the Lisbon back line. Goalkeeper Ricardo was the ungrateful recipient of a boot in the head as Ameobi slid in for a ball that was 60-40 in the 'keeper's favour. It was frustrating that after the incident we failed to test someone is decidedly dodgy at the best of times. The closest we came was a wickedly swerving Robert corner which struck the outside of the near post, a defender frantically scrabbling across to cover.

As the half wore on, there was plenty to be worried about. Faye and JJ - the latter in headless chicken mode - were losing the battle in central midfield against a very skilful and technically adept side. Taylor, meanwhile, was looking a little rash in the tackle, a bit of a liability in the heart of the defence especially with O'Brien for company, but thankfully he calmed himself down and helped nullify the threat of their pacy forwards.

Around the half-hour mark, Shearer connected with a left-wing Robert free-kick to flick a header into the bottom corner only to see it disallowed, the ball having been crossed before the whistle was blown. Somehow Sporting failed to heed the warning, and when the situation repeated itself on 37 minutes, they left Shearer completely unmarked and the skipper duly powered a header past Ricardo. Certainly an interesting strategy for dealing with a player bidding to be our record goalscorer.

Bowyer and Dyer's spat (and Villa too) might have ruined Shearer's celebration of signing a new deal on Saturday, but this time nothing could spoil the day, even though Rui Jorge did his best, going extremely close after some sloppy play at the death of the first half.

At the beginning of the second, Joao Moutinho forced an excellent save out of Harper, on for Given who had succumbed to a hip injury, but it was us who carved out the majority of the chances. Substitute Milner, on for the disappointing Robert, blazed over when well-placed, while Ameobi squandered a good chance and was then pulled back for handball when he blocked an attempted clearance from Ricardo. Had the whistle not sounded, he would have had a tap-in in front of an empty net.

The only other moment of note in the second period was the carefully stage-managed replacement of Dyer with Bowyer on 63 minutes. For Bowyer to receive a standing ovation from the fans only five days after attacking one of his team-mates during a match is a sad indictment of our ability to forgive and forget the misdemeanours of those wearing black and white shirts. The little toerag will have to work very hard indeed to stand any chance at all of a place in my affections - I'd happily see him sold in the summer.

That we took an advantage to Lisbon next week was vital, and, though we could have done with scoring another goal against a team that are likely to be a very tough prospect on home soil, we did at least prevent them from getting an away goal. On the positive side, danger man Liedson will be suspended, but then so is Hughes, leaving our defence worryingly threadbare. We'll need to be on our mettle to progress.

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

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

View From The Away End

Saturday afternoon, 5pm, Waterloo Station. I’ve just learnt from the other half of B&W&RAO that our attempts to recover from a 1-0 half-time deficit at home to Villa have not quite worked out as we would have liked.

I look up to the heavens, half expecting to be shat on by a passing pigeon, but instead I see the smirking face of fate looking down on me.

You see, I had sent out an email a couple of days earlier asking our View From The Away End contributors for their thoughts on team spirit and team-building. Given our excellent run of form following the February trip to Dubai, and Souness’s decision to take the squad back to the Middle East over the international break, it had seemed like a good topic to choose at the time.

Not only that, but in my round-up of Wednesday’s international action I’d written: “it was good to see Kieron Dyer getting a run-out on familiar turf, if only because the contrast of the warm reception he got with the booing of the August friendly with Ukraine should remind him how far he's come and what it would be like to fall from grace yet again”.

And then he and Lee Bowyer decided to have a set-to in full view of more than 50,000 spectators.

In truth, Bowyer was the aggressor and can count himself very lucky not to have been booted out of the club with the minimum of ceremony. There’s a bit of a double standard in allowing him to stay, albeit docked six weeks’ wages, and freezing Bellamy out for an arguably lesser offence.

Dyer, on the other hand, can probably expect some sympathy from the crowd if selected for tomorrow night’s match with Sporting Lisbon. He’s worked incredibly hard to get himself back in favour with the fans and he was acting predominantly in self-defence.

If nothing else, the incident gave our contributors – Pete of Round And White, Skif of Hobo Tread and Kenny of Parallax View – plenty to write about…

Pete: “A dour Scottish manager and several young stars with disciplinary problems; all members of a team that's struggling to keep up with the cream of the Premiership. But enough about Man United for now.

It seems every time I'm asked by Ben and Paul to contribute to the next View From The Away End, a fresh incident throws the Toon Army's world into disarray and I'm forced to carry out a thorough rewrite. So perhaps I shouldn't be at all surprised at [Saturday’s] events given that this month's topic was to be Newcastle's team spirit.

Until [Saturday] afternoon, I was going to say that the recent trips to Dubai intended to be ‘team-building’ have been effective. Since February, United have performed well both in Europe and domestically. Furthermore, the trips have been incident-free and haven't ended as source material for an episode of ‘Footballer's Wives’ (a la Leicester City). Souness has apparently turned Newcastle round and his players are now doing what they're told. Even Laurent Robert understands the concept of a ‘team’.

I'm going to stick to that view. Lee and Kieron's punch-up was evidently the product of something personal that had been simmering away for a while and wasn't merely down to a refusal to pass to a teammate (although that didn't help). Perhaps Kieron was upset that Lee got to go to Dubai, while he alternately warmed the bench or set up his England teammates, only to see them miss a succession of easy chances. Who knows? However, given that everything has been going swimmingly of late, it can hardly be put down to anything that Souness has done.

Indeed, Souness came out from this incident with a great deal of credit by (publicly) reacting sensibly with the hasty press conference that saw both players apologise to ‘the fans, the chairman, the staff and everyone connected to Newcastle’, albeit with little sincerity and a suggestion of smugness on Kieron's part.

The two players are naturally on very thin ice now. Unfortunately, Lee has taken every possible step during his career to develop his reputation as a hothead. [Saturday] merely enhanced this and is likely to influence the decision taken by the powers-to-be regarding his punishment. Dyer, on the other hand, has seemingly pulled his finger out in the last few months, realised that he's a professional footballer and has accordingly produced some excellent displays in the Premiership and as a sub for England. He'll be staying put, but in view of Souness's previous approach to disruptive influences, don't expect to see Bowyer in a black and white shirt next season (unless he moves to Notts County that is).

So where now for the team as a whole? With any luck, the situation will be dealt with swiftly. However, with Dyer and Bowyer missing for a few games, including (perhaps crucially for Super Al) the FA Cup semi-final, it remains to be seen what will happen to the team spirit if Souness's recent success were to be undone.

Skif: “I guess when this question was posed at the end of last week the B&W&RAO crew did not know just how pertinent their timing would be!

Hansen had it right on ‘Match Of The Day’ when he said that human nature dictates that in any squad, there will be individuals who don’t get on, but that there should be respect for all of your team-mates.

You could say that you don’t learn to respect people on a beano to Dubai. Indeed, if professional players are spending most days training together, and rooming at away games, perhaps the last thing you need is more time cooped up with same group of blokes. You can’t choose who you work with, but you can choose who you drink with, they say. Familiarity breeds contempt?

However social time with those you work with is important and individuals not liking each other are less the issue of these junkets, as team-building is a different thing from hoping we can all skip through the tulips hand in hand. Clearly Souness sees the value in it, and my understanding is half the reason he was brought in was to bring a no-nonsense approach to sorting out the troublemakers in the dressing room. I don’t think team spirit is a major problem at Newcastle, the problem seems to be that too many out of control egos (but still a minority) are present in one space.

It could well turn out that Bowyer and Dyer cutting up rough this past weekend could be the best thing that could happen to Newcastle. I imagine Souness’s rod of iron could well now become white hot. Shearer’s commitment will also hopefully play a part in getting things back on an even keel.

In terms of team spirit at my club (Havant & Waterlooville), I guess it’s a different issue at semi-professional level, training together only twice a week, with one or two games. Furthermore, as we are on the South Coast and travelling to the London area for a great many games, a few of the squad often travel under their own steam. To compete at this level we have had to spread the net for players wider than most considering our geographical position.

Team-building trips would probably be ideal for clubs like us, but I doubt very many can afford them. I can only recall us staying overnight before games on three occasions. When we were in the Dr Martens League, I think two frighteningly long trips to Boston United and Kings Lynn were prefaced by some B&B action, as well as an FA Trophy tie at Colwyn Bay. While we may not have won all these games, certainly the spirit of fighting for each other was never an issue in any of them. I recall our team spirit was never in question in those days anyway.

The past couple of seasons though have seen a lower spirit mainly due to the apparent bullying tactics of a previous management team (although these same chaps also led us to our highest ebbs it should be noted) and a single disruptive influence in the dressing room. In this time, as far as I know, we have never had any overnights stops and we certainly we have had fewer and fewer players travelling on the team coach. I’d suggest a correlation, although two disappointing seasons performance wise have certainly not helped.

I’d say then that team building can be quite useful, but those that can afford it may not actually need it, as team-spirit owes as much to time apart as to time together, in my view. Also, if you have disruptive players in your side, a foreign jolly (however intense the training side) seems unlikely to bring them to heel.

Kenny: “I'm glad I didn't reply to this before [Saturday’s] (highly amusing for the neutral) turn of events!

Overall, I think it's very difficult to speculate on 'team spirit' without first-hand knowledge. Depending on the source of the problem, team-building exercises could help or hinder team spirit. Reading between the lines, the biggest factor in the squad getting on better is the exit of Craig Bellamy, who seemed to be getting on just about everybody's tits.

I don't think its important for players necessarily to get on off the pitch – it would be nigh on impossible for 11 highly pampered and egotistical individuals to do so – but I think it is important that as a squad they have a belief in the manager, the system of play and the worth of their team-mates to the common cause. Good results builds confidence in all these areas and petty grievances can easily be cast aside under a feel-good atmosphere.

Newcastle's dressing room seems imbalanced by one or two too many volatile characters in the mix. It won't be easy for Souness because these are, in most cases, his better players. Whatever their cup triumphs, this has been a poor season in the Premiership for United, and the summer transfer business will dictate the gaffer's future.

Thanks to Pete, Skif and Kenny for managing to stifle their laughter long enough to contribute to this feature.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

No excuses

Kieron Dyer has had his red card for violent conduct upheld, and as a result will miss the next three domestic games with a suspension. Obviously this will rule him out of the FA Cup Semi-final.

Bowyer has already accrued a four game ban, as Saturday was his second red card of the season, and this may rise pending an FA investigation.

In other news, the club announced that it had made £5.1 million profit for the second half of last year, and have agreed to give Sir Bobby £2.1 million to spend on Werthers Originals. Hopefully he’ll now stop doing crap adverts on the TV.

Monday, April 04, 2005


According to the BBC, Newcastle have fined Lee Bowyer 6 weeks wages, which is reported to be approximately £250,000, and have also appealed against Kieron Dyer’s sending off.

Souness has stated that the two have shaken hands and "spoken over the weekend and have had a laugh about it".

Now, I'm all for fining Bowyer, and also think we're right to appeal Dyer's sending off – if only because in my eyes he was acting in self defence.

I'm also pleased they've shaken hands and are trying to move on.

But they've "had a laugh about it"?!?

Which bit is funny?

The part where we lose one if not two of our better performing midfielders for crucial games at the end of the season?

The part where our chances of finally winning something have been greatly reduced?

The part where we become tabloid fodder again for all the wrong reasons?

The part where we show kids that it's OK to hit someone?

If anyone can shed light on the funny part, I'll be delighted to hear from them. Until then, Messrs Bowyer and Dyer should shut the fuck up and make sure that we win the UEFA Cup – the one competition where they aren't suspended from playing in. Only then will we have something to smile about.

Beating ourselves up

Villa came to Newcastle on Saturday, and left with all three points after an abysmal performance by referee Barry Knight made certain that we got nothing out of the game. Behind after sloppy defensive work had allowed Angel free to fire a shot past Shay Given after only five minutes, Newcastle worked their way back into the game only for poor finishing by Jenas preventing us from pulling a goal back.

However, it was the events of the second half that will live longer in the memory, and may well have irreparably damaged our chances of finishing the season with anything other than crushing feelings of regret and dreams of what might have been.

Firstly, the referee turned down our claims for a blatant penalty following a handball by Jlloyd Samuel. Then, Nicky Butt, who has certainly had better games in his life, gave the ball away inside our half and set Darius Vassell away to run on goal. He duly rounded Shay and shot at the goal, only to be denied by the outstretched arm of covering defender Steven Taylor. Taylor had to be dismissed, although his attempt to show that the ball had in fact hit him in the ribs, resulted in the best dive I've seen all season. Inevitably a red card was shown, and Gareth Barry fired the resulting penalty past Shay Given.

Two minutes later and a shoulder to shoulder challenge by Stephen Carr, outside of the box, resulted in another penalty to the visitors with the referee showing what can only be described as a strong West Midlands bias. Barry again fired past Shay to make it 3-0.

That was bad enough, with a pretty poor home performance allowing the side who were below us going into the game to leapfrog into the top half. However, much worse was to follow.

Dyer got the ball on the right, and rather than lay it off to Bowyer, elected to try and beat his man before passing infield. For whatever reason, Bowyer treated this as though he'd caught Kieron in bed with his mum, and squared up to Dyer. Dyer stood his ground, and Bowyer head-butted him, before throwing a couple of punches for good measure.

At this point players managed to intervene and pull them apart, although not before Dyer had thrown a retaliatory blow of his own. The referee was left with little option but to dismiss the pair of them and with only eight men on the pitch and seven minutes to go any chance of launching a miraculous comeback was long gone.

Both Dyer and Bowyer continued to argue down the tunnel, and were hauled in front of the press to apologise in the aftermath of the game. Sadly neither expressed their guilt (not the first time for Bowyer…), nor did they apologise to each other.

Where this leaves them is hard to say, although it's doubtful that both will be around next season – with Bowyer in particular unlikely to be well received in the dressing room. For Dyer, I have a certain degree of sympathy, as it looks like Bowyer went for him, and any punches he did throw were in self-defence. Whether that sees him avoid censure appears unlikely, and both look certain to miss the FA Cup Semi-Final, and probably take with them our best chance of overcoming Manchester United.

Quite how the players react on Thursday against Sporting Lisbon will speak volumes for their character as a team and also for the abilities of the coaching staff. We need a strong display of unity on the pitch, coupled with a good performance, to overcome a decent side. Whether either player will be involved remains to be seen, but if anyone is prepared to offer us money for Bowyer in the summer, I expect him to be heading out the door with Souness, Shearer and Shepherd all having firmly planted their bootmarks on his backside to help him on his way.

For Dyer the path forward is slightly less clear, as he appears to have been the victim of an assault by a colleague than the instigator. Of course, I don't know what was said in the build-up to the brawl – but it's hard to think of anything that would merit the reaction of Bowyer.

The frustrating thing is that having spent much of the season rebuilding the club's damaged reputation we see it dragged back into the gutter because of the senseless actions of two midfielders. Hitting people is never an acceptable way to settle an argument. Hitting a co-worker is never an acceptable way to do anything other than hand in your resignation. Whether we can afford to take such a step remains to be seen – but the prospect of Souness keeping hold of his highly valued pool of midfielders is long gone, and seemingly taking with it any hopes we had for silverware this season.

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

Friday, April 01, 2005

Same old Shearer, now he's staying!

According to reports, the club have confirmed that Alan Shearer has agreed to spend one more year running down the clock in the corner of St James' Park, and carrying his teammates to heights they could only otherwise dream about.

On a personal note, it's great to hear that the finest striker of his generation is going to carry on for another season, and with it should firmly break Jackie Milburn's record.

The only word of caution is that I really hope Shearer has another year in his legs.

This season he's looked in top form, and really given his all for the club. However at times last season he looked like he was dead on his feet, and it's to be hoped that the fitness team at the club can keep him in good condition next season.

Too often players refuse to bow out at the top, believing they have "one more year" in their legs when it's obvious to everyone else that they don't (witness Les Ferdinand at Reading this season as an example).

However, given the fact that we're likely to lose Bellamy and probably Kluivert in the summer, only needing to find two strikers over the summer must seem like a real bonus to Souness.

Shearer is irreplaceable, but if we find someone who might be able to do the job, they can spend next year learning from the master rather than simply being burdened by his memory.