Monday, January 23, 2006

How low can Sou go?

Newcastle 0 - 1 Blackburn

At Ewood Park last September, the stage was set for Graeme Souness's former club Blackburn, aided and abetted by his nemesis Craig Bellamy, to pile the pressure on a manager who had seen his side fail to win any of their first five Premiership games of the season, scoring only one goal in the process.

After an unpromising opening period, it proved to be something of a cakewalk. Shearer struck a belting free-kick, Owen notched his first for the club, N'Zogbia ran in a third and Souness breathed an enormous sigh of relief.

"The season starts here", we wrote.

Four months on, and nothing had changed (bar the fact that Bellamy's suspension ruled out his involvement - Souness should be thankful for such small mercies). We still went into Saturday's match an injury-struck goal-shy woefully underperforming side.

This time, though, there was no happy ending - just more misery.

Well, that and the distressingly familiar and rankling sense of injustice we've come to associate with the aftermath of our games this season, particularly those refereed by Howard Webb.

When we were last beaten by Blackburn, Paul Gallagher punched the ball into the net for a 1-0 St James's Park win. On Saturday it was the turn of winger Morten Gamst Pedersen - a player brought to Ewood Park by Souness, but whom the Scotsman wasn't around long enough to see the best of. Lucas 'The Thug' Neill's cross was nodded goalwards by giant Finnish striker Shefki Kuqi and Pedersen deftly applied the finish, appearing to push? pushing the ball over the line with both hands from point blank range.

Once again, then, Souness had a convenient excuse to bleat in the post-match interviews.

But, once again, that merely masked a multitude of failings. Our collective performance was listless, drab and without passion. (The same could be said of the crowd, though not of the angry mob gathered outside the ground in protest after the final whistle.)

Luque hit an early shot straight at Brad Friedel when well placed early on, but then did his customary vanishing act and was replaced by Irish winger Alan O'Brien just after the hour. Shearer, normally reliable in front of goal, missed a couple of presentable opportunities, while his strike partner Chopra, in for N'Zogbia, once again drew a blank. Bowyer at least carried the fight to Blackburn in the right way (for a change), but he too should have done better in front of goal.

At the other end, Given was forced into pulling off a splendid save to keep out a close-range effort from Paul Dickov. The odious little ankle-biter dislocated his shoulder later on and had to be replaced.

Time for a few home truths, I think.

Given aside, not a single player is in anything approaching form.

Our defence has long been shambolic, but we're looking very poor in front of goal too. Just two goals now in our last five Premiership matches, and both of those in the same game.

Our home form has been our salvation, our away record being little more than a catalogue of defeats, but now that seems to be deserting us.

There is no spirit in the side, the blame for which must at least in part be laid at Souness's door. The man couldn't inspire enthusiasm in Kriss Akabusi.

No matter how good we think we are, no matter how good our players think they are, no matter how much we paid for them, there are at present only three teams we could conceivably argue are performing worse than us: Middlesbrough, Portsmouth and Sunderland. (Incidentally, of course, the Mackems had the fillip of notching only their second Premiership win of the season on Saturday thanks to an own goal from Geordie and former Toon player Steve Watson - a fact I was reminded of several times in the company of a Mackem that night.)

Involvement in the scrap to avoid relegation is now looking a likelihood if not a certainty.

Can it get any worse? Of course - this is Newcastle Utd, after all. Saturday lunchtime's FA Cup match at Whaddon Road will be trial by television, the whole nation wanting us to fall flat on our faces. Given the respective statures of the two clubs, it should be like taking candy from a baby - but at present Cheltenham must be looking at us as the nappy-clad thumb-suckers. Fingers crossed that we aren't left bawling our eyes out at the final whistle.

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

[An observation from the Guardian report that had me cracking a wry smile: "Bramble said in advance, regarding criticism: 'I can see where the fans are coming from'. He was less good on opposing forwards".]


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