Saturday, September 30, 2006

Scotty beamed up

Congratulations to Toon captain Scott Parker, recalled to the England squad for the forthcoming European Championship qualifying games against Macedonia and Croatia.

It may ultimately be the consequence of Owen Hargreaves' leg break, but Parker shouldn't just be considered the beneficiary of someone else's misfortune - this recall is richly deserved and long overdue. Parker has carried on this season where he left off last term - driving the team forward and setting the standard for his colleagues to emulate in characteristically all-action fashion. It's a measure of just how good he's been that Shearer hasn't been missed, as a captain at least.

So, will Parker play? I certainly hope so. He's both a better player and in better form than our whingeing old boy Jermaine Jenas, but his main rival for Hargreaves' position is Michael Carrick. Both play in a deep-lying midfield role, bursting forwards on occasion, but otherwise they're very different types of players. Carrick is a skilful passer and very elegant on the ball, whereas Parker, though his passing isn't at all shoddy, is more of a terrier, not afraid of a tackle and working tirelessly on and off the ball for the side.

As such, Parker would make a more obvious direct replacement for Hargreaves. At home to Macedonia Steve McLaren might feel a defensively minded midfielder would not necessarily be needed, but in Croatia I'd hope Captain Scott would get the nod.

And if you do, Scott, just don't get injured...

Friday, September 29, 2006

Oba the moon

Newcastle 2 - 1 FC Levadia Tallinn

(Newcastle win 3-1 on aggregate)

Obafemi Martins scored his first goals at St James' Park as we shouldered Estonian champions FC Levadia Tallinn aside to ensure our progress into the group stages of the UEFA Cup. But Martins' goals came only after we'd survived a few scares in an otherwise moribund first period.

Mindful of Sunday's stern test at the DevilBowl, Glenn Roeder opted to rest captain Scott Parker and Craig Moore, while Damien Duff and Shola Ameobi had both recovered from injury sufficiently to be named among the substitutes, along with Parker and Moore. In came Nicky Butt, Steven Taylor, Charles N'Zogbia and Antoine Sibierski.

For the first 45 minutes Roeder's confidence looked questionable. Showing serious attacking intent, Levadia performed far better than they had in the first leg, and could have taken the lead when Vladimir Voskoboinikov glanced his header over from a great cross. Steven Taylor and Titus Bramble started nervily, the latter rescuing the former following what could have been a catastrophic slip. The possibility of our away goal advantage being eroded looked all too real.

Further up the pitch, Martins and Sibierski seemed as uncomfortable a partnership as Taylor and Bramble, nothing coming off for them at all. The greatest threat was carried by James Milner on the right flank, and by Emre whose dribbling and passing was superb. The Turkish international hit one free kick just too high, and another hit with pace and power from a narrow angle was palmed over by Levadia 'keeper Artur Kotenko.

The second period couldn't have started any better. Two minutes in Emre swung in an excellent corner (for a change) and amidst a clutch of players Martins escaped his marker to leap and flick a header into the corner. Cue the gymnastic celebrations in front of the Gallowgate crowd - many more of those, please.

Almost from the restart Levadia broke down the other end, Steve Harper forced into making a smart save once he'd left himself in no man's land, but in the 50th minute it was all over. Sibierski and Martins at last combined constructively, the Frenchman heading down to the Nigerian who lashed the ball in through a defender's legs and off the underside of the crossbar from 20 yards.

Levadia pulled a goal back fifteen minutes later when Tihhon Sisov was allowed far too much space on our left by N'Zogbia and crossed for substitute Indrek Zelinski, who had been on the pitch all of two minutes, to power a header goalwards. Harper will be disappointed he let the ball slip past him, but ultimately the goal was nothing more than a consolation, Levadia lacking the potency to cause us real problems and Bramble and Taylor having grown in confidence.

In truth, we could have had another, Nicky Butt racing onto a ball over the top and evading Kotenko only to see his shot brilliantly cleared off the line by a lunging defender. Parker, Duff and Albert Luque came on for Emre, N'Zogbia and Martins respectively, and the Spaniard at least showed some willing and a couple of good touches.

Perhaps inevitably it was Martins who picked up the man of the match award, but that ignored the fact that he looked out of sorts and often clumsy in the first period. A great disservice to Emre, certainly, who enjoyed perhaps his best game for us.

The draw for the group stage takes place next week, and it promises plenty to be concerned about. Our possible opponents this season look a lot stronger than they were two years ago.

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

Pavel is a Geordie - again!

Not content with resigning Olivier Bernard, Glenn Roeder has reached further back into Newcastle's history to reunite Pavel Srnicek with the club at which he spent seven years in the 1990s - one of the more remarkable transfer moves we've made in recent years.

Roeder has been impressed by the 38-year-old's fitness levels, but has suggested that the former Czech international's popularity at the club was a factor behind the decision too: "By bringing him back until the end of the year it will be great for our team spirit". Certainly he was something of a fans' favourite, and no doubt he'll be relishing the possibility of dusting off that "Pavel is a Geordie" T-shirt from the 1993 promotion-winning season, not to mention enjoying hooking up with Lee Clark again.

Pav will provide cover for Steve Harper while Shay Given is out injured, the highly-rated Tim Krul regarded as too young to be pitched into the Premiership fray just yet.

The move for Srnicek came after Ronald Waterreus turned us down. Roeder explained: "To be fair to the lad we asked him to come, but he felt he did not have the match fitness in the three months we wanted him for. He could have come here and taken the money and it is to his credit that he has decided not to do this. He has been extremely honest and you have to applaud him for this". A footballer not eager to line his own pockets at our expense? Thank you for bucking the trend, Ronald...

New face

... And a new addition to the B&W&RAO "squad" (OK, blogroll) too: Borodiary. It may be dedicated to coverage of the Smoggies, but, laying traditional rivalries and antipathies aside, all decent new football blogs are welcome round these parts.

I can't resist pointing out, though, that if it genuinely was a diary, "Watch 'The Bill'" would be written in for each Thursday evening this season...

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Bond booted out

Barely three months after leaving Portsmouth to join Newcastle as assistant manager, Kevin Bond has been sacked.

The decision follows the recent 'Panorama' investigation into illegal payments and corruption in Premiership football. Bond was caught on tape suggesting that he and 'Appy 'Arry would be prepared to accept favours of a financial variety.

While Bond is naturally aggrieved, commenting in a statement "Rather than waiting for this and the outcome of any FA investigation, NUFC have made their decision solely on the basis of a few sentences carefully selected and edited by 'Panorama'", the writing was on the wall when he was put on gardening leave. Bond has implied he was leading the undercover reporter on and that his comments on the programme have been taken out of context and grossly misrepresented - but that doesn't wash particularly well with me. There's rarely smoke without fire, and the evidence must be fairly compelling against those individuals and clubs the BBC did feel legally secure in outing - after all, they did bleep out the names of numerous others.

As harsh as it might be on Bond, I'm glad we've taken steps to avoid tainting ourselves by association. Of course, that isn't to suggest that those who remain at the club are whiter than white - far from it. Fat Fred should take a good hard look at himself, and at the company he keeps. For the club to clean up its act the broom needs to start sweeping at the very top.

'Keeper cover

The injury to Shay Given and the lack of experienced back-up to Steve Harper has led to us being linked to a number of goalkeepers on short-term loan deals, including former Coventry, Celtic and Sweden 'keeper Magnus Hedman (who has said he was flattered by our interest) and old boy Pavel "Is A Geordie" Srnicek. The man who seems to be on his way, though, is former PSV Eindhoven, Man City and Rangers man Ronald Waterreus.

Waterreus would bring with him a wealth of experience, and as such it would be a sensible move by the club. "Sensible"? Well, yes, there's a first time for everything.

Monday, September 25, 2006

"Dear Barry, Merry Christmas, love Glenn"

Newcastle Utd 1 - 1 Everton

It could - and perhaps should - have been better but, for the fact that we managed to garner a point at all, we should be thankful to Barry Sygmuta.

After the horrible 2-1 defeat to Fulham a fortnight ago, we couldn't afford another poor loss at home, but a previously unbeaten Everton side certainly weren't going to make it easy.

Titus Bramble returned from injury to take his place alongside Craig Moore in central defence, with Peter Ramage reverting to left back in place of the suspended Celestine Babayaro. Meanwhile, an injury to Damien Duff meant that Charles N'Zogbia was also restored to the side in his favourite position on the left side of midfield.

We started well with N'Zogbia and James Milner threatening on the flanks and Scott Parker soon imposing himself in the middle of the park in front of the watching England boss Steve McClaren. All the same, our goal owed a great deal to extraordinarily benevolent refereeing.

Roeder later claimed "We obviously prepare and watch the opposition and I noticed that on a few games recently Everton came screaming out on wide free-kicks", but the fact of the matter is that, from Emre's 13th minute dead ball, they executed it perfectly - only for assistant referee Sygmuta to forget about the existence of the offside rule and leave Shola Ameobi to shoot past Tim Howard. It's a measure of quite how far offside Ameobi was that he had time to pause and turn to look for a flag before hitting the shot. In the absence of that flag, referee Steve Bennett had little option but to award a goal.

Ameobi's afternoon was curtailed by injury shortly afterwards, number 23 leaving the pitch to great applause in the 23rd minute to be replaced by Antoine Sibierski. What ensued was a fast-paced and fluent game of football, with both sides showing more attacking intent than defensive discipline. Joleon Lescott came closest for Everton with a header, while Scott Parker nearly rounded off a great bit of Toon interplay with a goal, bursting into the box only to see his lob tipped wide by Timmy Tourettes.

Parker was putting in another typically committed all-action display, but, as Lee Dixon pointed out later on 'Match Of The Day 2', when Everton's equaliser came four minutes before the break it was Parker who was at least partly culpable. Having partially cleared a corner, he then lost his bearings, allowing Mikael Arteta acres of space to cross onto the head of the unmarked Tim Cahill. Steve Harper may have been embarrassed by Xabi Alonso in midweek, but there was nothing he could have done about this.

That ended the scoring, but the second half was even more open and dynamic than the first. Obafemi Martins continued to look dangerous but just couldn't produce the finish, denied on one notable occasion by Howard's chest, and Milner terrified Nuno Valente down the right wing, but Sibierski was poor at best. Everton posed a significant threat on the break, and though Andrew Johnson had few sights of goal he did worry our back line every time he got the ball.

After a confident start Bramble was looking increasingly nervous, and it was he who received the game's first red card in the 75th minute. His name had already been taken when he stupidly lunged into a challenge on the edge of our penalty area, flattening Leon Osman. In many ways it was an act of kindness on Bennett's part - kind for Bramble himself and kind for us fans too. That said, we might have been left cursing Bramble's foolishness had Tony Hibbert not got his marching orders for two bookable offences just two minutes later.

Roeder had been readying Guiseppe Rossi to come on before Bramble's red and was then ready to throw Steven Taylor into the fray before Hibbert's dismissal convinced him to revert to his original plan. The on-loan striker took a while to get a touch but looked very lively, forcing a couple of half-decent saves from Howard, and though Everton also had one or two late openings through Osman (denied by Harper) we were probably the more disgruntled supporters at the final whistle.

So, six games in and we have seven points, a tally that is unlikely to rise with next weekend's match against Man Utd. Worringly, we took 13 points from the corresponding games last season. The Liverpool game aside, all the others are matches we would have been disappointed not to have won. And most worrying is the fact that our defence is once again sphincter-looseningly lax - just in time for the trip to the DevilBowl...

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Pomp and circumstance

Following yesterday's draw for the Third Round of the League Cup, we'll be welcoming 'Appy 'Arry and his recent tabletopping side Portsmouth to St James' Park a month earlier than anticipated.

Backed by Alexandre Gaydamark's millions, Redknapp made a number of shrewd summer signings and has got his team playing good football whilst ensuring they are virtually impenetrable at the back (the only side to score against them thus far this season were Mansfield in midweek).

Even still, we have a good home record against the South Coast side, and once again this competition represents our best chance of silverware (oh dear, I've mentioned the 's' word...). I wonder if 'Arry would be prepared to accept a small cash payment in return for letting us win?

Friday, September 22, 2006

Unhappy slapping

In a move unlikely to surprise anyone, Celestine Babayaro has been charged by the FA following his slap on Dirk Kuyt's face on Wednesday night.

Apparently, Babayaro has until Monday to respond to the charge, by which time he'll probably have played against Everton, and Olivier Bernard has inched towards match fitness. I suspect our response to the charge will depend entirely upon the fitness of our prodigal Frenchman. If he's fit enough to play, then I imagine we'll let Babayaro get on with his suspension, whereas, if we need him, I imagine we'll try and contest the charge.

Update: Babayaro pleaded guilty to the offence and has subsequently been handed a three game ban. It only applies to Premiership games, though, so he will be allowed to feature on Thursday in the return leg against FC Levadia Tallinn.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Slip up

Liverpool 2 - 0 Newcastle Utd

Another league trip to Anfield, another journey home without any points. Last night saw a mixture of the inevitable and the downright freakish condemn us to defeat on Merseyside.

It was inevitable that, having shown a strong interest in the player during the summer, Dirk Kuyt would open his Liverpool account against us. His goal coming after Xabi Alonso had played an excellent ball inside Babayaro, for Finnan to knock the ball across, and Kuyt to get to the ball ahead of Craig Moore, and knock the ball past Steve Harper.

The downright freakish being Alonso's second half goal from 60 yards away. Having won the ball from N'Zogbia, he hit a sixty yard shot which Steve Harper would have saved comfortably, had he not slipped and fallen. Instead he was left to flap a despairing arm in the ball's direction as it hit the net in front of the Kop.

The other moment of inevitability came after the match, when Craig Bellamy was apparently involved in a bust up in the tunnel with his former team-mates.

Sadly for Newcastle, the fluency which we displayed on Sunday was lacking, and Parker was overrun in midfield, as Emre, Duff and Milner were unable or incapable of giving him the support which he needed in order to get control of the game.

Defensively, we allowed Liverpool too many opportunities, with Kuyt and Bellamy both guilty of wasteful finishing, whilst Luis Garcia hit the post, having already been booked for the most blatant handball "goal" for twenty years.

At the other end, Martins was unable to get the ball long enough to run at the Liverpool defence, and Ameobi, putting himself about with no little effort, unable to fashion a chance worthy of the name.

The game also featured several penalty shouts, the two most blatant being a handball by Carragher, and a later one by Babayaro - neither of which were picked up by referee Mark Halsey. The Nigerian was perhaps lucky to still be on the pitch, having slapped Kuyt in the face in the first half (although once again Halsey didn't see the incident).

Looking forward, it's frustrating that we allowed a Liverpool side who have been struggling for form to get the win, and whilst we were largely second best it took a moment of misfortune for Steve Harper to give the Liverpool the points.

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

A close call

Since last night's special 'Panorama' aired on BBC1, there seems to have been little talk of anything else (or is that just me?). So, did it really blow the world of football apart / shake it to its very foundations (depending on your preferred metaphor), or was it "all smoke and mirrors"? Only time will tell (though I suspect - or fear - that it won't ultimately have that big an impact).

It certainly came as something of a surprise and a relief to discover that, contrary to my worst fears, we were only grazed by the arrow of accusation - it was Sam Allardyce, Harry Redknapp, Frank Arnesen and a number of slimy unscrupulous agents who got it in the neck. The result of the programme makers and BBC lawyers being unsure as to exactly what they could argue and prove? Perhaps - the bleeped-out names might have been rather closer to home. But we were only really implicated twice.

Firstly, our current assistant manager Kevin Bond was caught appearing to be receptive to the possibility of receiving financial inducements when he was assistant to Harry Redknapp at Portsmouth. Bond intends to sue the BBC, his solicitor claiming that the conversation was presented in "a completely misleading manner". Paul has suggested that he could possibly argue that he was telling the fake agent what he wanted to hear, stringing him along before reporting him - but it still stinks of fish to me. If Bond does press ahead with libel action, it'll all be dragged out in the courts - at least it'll be Pompey's dirty washing rather than ours, though.

Secondly, Gateshead-based agent Peter Harrison was shown using his influence and contacts to impress the fake agent by getting the pair of them seats in the directors' box for last season's home game against Aston Villa. Harrison was the focus for the programme, and was shown openly discussing bungs and touting two of his players, Blackburn's Andy Todd and one of Middlesbrough's youth stars, to other clubs behind their clubs' backs. (He has since claimed that everything he said was "pub banter" and "gossip". Now if that isn't pathetic, then I don't know what is....) Given the contents of the programme and the nature of Harrison's business dealings, Fat Fred might just have to learn to take more care about those he associates with in future - though that's not to say he's not a greedy oaf with pound signs for eyes himself.

Overall, the programme could be regarded as a failure because no manager, chairman or chief scout was entrapped in the process of accepting a bung, and the evidence of other misdemeanours was often not clear-cut. But it did lift the lid on the murky goings-on behind the scenes (agents on the make, clubs talking about and to players behind their clubs' backs and, in Phil Gartside's case, chairmen not only misleading but brazenly lying to their clubs' fans) in such a way as to suggest that a more rigorous and thoroughgoing investigation could uncover some serious wrongdoing.

Of course, they'll probably all close ranks now and nothing will change. We can but hope otherwise, I suppose.

Update: I forgot to mention that we were also mentioned in connection with Nathan Porritt, the Middlesbrough youth player Harrison was touting around, though footage was only shown of meetings with Chelsea and Liverpool. Smoggie chief executive Keith Lamb is furious with Harrison, and chairman Steve Gibson has absolved us (and Chelsea and Liverpool too) of any wrongdoing: "We got wind of Nathan being offered to Newcastle, but the conversation was taking place at a fairly low level. Keith Lamb, our chief executive, rang Freddy Shepherd and told him what was going on. Freddy didn't know anything about it and his reply was, 'Right, I'll stop that immediately'. Within 30 seconds, Freddy had made sure that any contact with Harrison had ended and we got a commitment from Newcastle that they would never attempt to poach any of our young players". If only it meant something when Fat Fred says he'll give you his word...

Bitter and (claret and) blue

You may or may not have been following the debate about Glenn Roeder's actions on Sunday which has been taking place below and over at Footblog. Just to recap, Roeder was vilified by the West Ham fans for having the nerve to acknowledge the vocal support he was given by the travelling fans at Upton Park.

Today, talking to the Mirror, Roeder has revealed some of the abuse that was levelled at him by a minority of those around the dugout. If you're a Hammers fan I imagine it makes for very unpleasant reading - but not as unpleasant as it must have been to be the subject of taunts about cancer. Whatever failings Roeder might or might not have had at West Ham, nothing could have been so bad as to have deserved that.

Improbable is nothing

What were the odds of Liverpool's Xabi Alonso scoring from inside his own half for the second time in nine months (as he did tonight against, yes, us)? Well, rather better than the odds a few months ago would have been on Jean-Alain Boumsong scoring a goal - and for Juventus...

Update: Anything Alonso can do, FC United's Rory Patterson can do better (or just as well).

(Thanks to Lord Bargain for the link.)

Monday, September 18, 2006

The first of many?

West Ham Utd 0 - 2 Newcastle Utd

Two goals from new boys Damien Duff and Obafemi Martins ensured our first away win of the season on Sunday at Upton Park. Outshining the Hammers' two Argentinean acquisitions, neither of whom lasted the whole game, both Duff and Martins worked hard, and showed real signs of class as they helped Glenn Roeder to enjoy a satisfying return to his one-time home.

He may have been taunted by the home fans at times, and things turned a bit ugly when Roeder waved to acknowledge the travelling support and contrived to upset the locals, who presumably thought that a visiting manager acknowledging his supporters was, in some way, gleefully highlighting the inadequacies of the home team.

The lull, in which Roeder chose to acknowledge the chants, only came about because alleged summer target Marlon Harewood had clattered Shay Given, forcing the Irishman to leave the pitch with a stomach injury (which necessitated an overnight stay in hospital, and surgery on a slight tear to his stomach).

However, neither the injury to Shay (which saw Steve Harper come off the bench to replace him) or the angry reaction of the home fans should take the gloss off what was a fine Newcastle performance.

A promising first half, in which West Ham saws Tevez hit the woodwork with a free kick and Bowyer hit a fifty yard lob wide with Shay beaten, were matched by a strong performance in which Ameobi and Martins both went close - our number nine also showing plenty of neat touches and work across the park.

Goalless at half time, we started the second half as we finished the first, and it was Martins who made a strong run towards the West Ham box, before slipping the ball to Duff for the Irishman to slot the ball past Roy Carroll in the West Ham goal.

Shortly later, Alan Pardew (having already removed Tevez at half time) took off Mascherano, bringing Yossi Benayoun on and shifting Bowyer into the middle of the park. By that stage, Emre and Parker had begun to assume control of the midfield, and their dominance grew as the match developed.

With the match moving in to the last quarter, Martins pounced on a mistake by Danny Gabbidon to add a second, and in doing so ensured we left with all three points.

On the plus side, both Martins and Duff are now off the mark, and going forward we looked a very danger prospect at times. However, the loss of Shay is a blow (no matter how able a deputy Steve Harper might be) and our back line looks short of cover, with Moore and Ramage the last two experienced centre halves currently fit enough to play. Still, it's a good back to back wins (and clean sheets) going in to our trip to Anfield on Wednesday.

Highlights: Toongoals

A West Ham fan's view: Hammered

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

Friday, September 15, 2006

Cruise control

FC Levadia Tallinn 0 - 1 Newcastle Utd

Well, it'll do I suppose - a one goal advantage (and an away goal at that) and a clean sheet to take into the second leg in a fortnight's time. But it could have been so much better, had we gone for the jugular and not tired worryingly in the second half against very poor opposition. And even Glenn Roeder was aware it was hardly the supremely professional performance over which Channel Five commentators Tony Jones and Joe Royle were creaming their pants.

The only change to the starting XI following Saturday's horrible home defeat by Fulham saw the injured Shola Ameobi drop out to be replaced by Antoine Sibierski, making his debut following the deadline day move from Man City. The Frenchman operated in a curious floating role, used as a target man for our defenders' long balls but dropping deep when Levadia had possession.

Sibierski it was who had the first clear chance of the match with only four minutes on the clock. Charles N'Zogbia had started off with an electric run down the left, and, repeating the trick, he played a delightful low cross into his compatriot who somehow contrived to volley wide from six yards with the goal at his mercy.

Thankfully for Sibierski, he made amends six minutes later. Damien Duff swung in a perfect cross which eluded the Levadia 'keeper Artur Kotenko and Sibierski headed in via a deflection off his marker's head. The goalscorer's celebrations were about as muted as was the enthusiasm which greeted his arrival on Tyneside - but for all that it was a vital goal which settled our nerves and allowed us to play with a degree of freedom and confidence.

N'Zogbia was a livewire, while Emre continued to ping the ball all over the pitch with precision. Skipper Scott Parker had a left-foot shot well saved, and Obafemi Martins, looking much sharper than on Saturday, terrorised the Levadia back four with his pace, almost profiting on a couple of occasions.

But it wasn't all good news in the first half. At the back Titus Bramble was having another shocker, continually tumbling too easily to the turf when put under pressure by Vladimir Voskoboinikov. And Bramble it was whose concentration lapse allowed the otherwise hapless central defender Marek Lemsalu to drift in behind him and float a volley just wide of the far post.

Perhaps it was a blessing in disguise - for him and for us - when Bramble was forced off with an injury, but, with Steven Taylor and Celestine Babayaro already on the treatment table, it once again leaves us down to the bare bones at the back. Roeder pushed Peter Ramage infield to partner Craig Moore and instead of gambling on the unfit Olivier Bernard plumped for James Milner to come on. Duff switched to left back and Milner took up the Irishman's position on the wide right. Interesting that the significant role Roeder had promised Milner only materialised thanks to Bramble's injury...

The second period wasn't much of a spectacle, mainly thanks to the tiredness and lack of ambition of our forwards, and the surprising rigidity of our defence. Moore and Ramage repelled everything thrown at them admirably, to the extent that Levadia were frustrated into shooting from distance at every opportunity. Their only real chance of the half came when Voskoboinikov's shot was parried by Given and then blasted over the bar by Konstantin Vassilijev when it bounced up off Emre's thigh. Otherwise they were dependent on the referee for the award of some questionable free-kicks in decent positions, but never really threatened.

At the other end Martins was one of those looking sluggish, but he did at least have a few shots. Two were powerful enough but flew high, but he nearly registered his first for the club late on with a drive which flew just wide following a lovely flick from Parker. N'Zogbia had faded and Sibierski was horribly off the pace, but Milner looked lively on the right, skinning his man to deliver decent crosses on a couple of occasions, and at one point going down following something approaching an elbow from his marker and rejecting the proferred hand with a curt "Fuck off you prick" - words rehearsed with Fat Fred perhaps? Meanwhile Milner's fellow substitute Albert Luque hit a first-time volley narrowly wide.

But 1-0 it remained. I'd have taken that at the start - but, having seen what we were up against, it seems disappointing not to have dished out a thrashing and all but wrapped up the tie at the first attempt.

One final thought. Is it just me, or did anyone else notice that Levadia made four substitutions? The injured Kotenko was replaced in the first half, and they subsequently threw on three outfield players in the second. Perhaps European competition makes allowances for replacing your 'keeper in addition to making your three allotted outfield changes - I don't know. But if not (and it doesn't seem to have merited a mention anywhere online), they could be in trouble and the question will be why didn't anyone else spot it?

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Conn job

Following the revelations that we've been lying on forms and paying vast sums to agents, David Conn has dug deeper into the whole sorry mess. As I understand it, footballers pay agents to get them the best deal - which seems logical. It also transpires that clubs pay agents, in the hope that they will persuade their player client's to accept deals that fit in (or as close to) the club's wage structure.

Now, if I was a player, I'd be somewhat annoyed to find my agent was not only helping himself to a percentage of my income, but also being paid by the other party in the negotiation to ensure I wasn't paid as much as I might think I'm worth.

Obviously the big winners in all this are agents, who make sure they get their cash either way.

Irish eyes aren't smiling

If there's one gripe that most of us have about our ever-trusty custodian Shay Given, it's that he's not vocal enough with those in front of him. Well, no more.

"If you looked at the Sunday league football yesterday around Newcastle you wouldn't even see the kind of goals we gave away against Fulham. We've given one of the best players in the Premiership in terms of heading the ball [Fulham's Brian McBride] the total freedom of the six-yard box. It just isn't acceptable. They didn't even carve us open; we handed them the goals on a plate. It's amazing but we have to talk about it privately and get it sorted out within the camp".

Yes Shay, "talk about it privately and get it sorted out within the camp" now that you've publicly pointed the finger at our old friend Titus Bramble. But, to be fair, Bramble deserved it.

Strangely, just as Given seems to be rueing his insane decision to commit himself to many more games behind our back four, his back-up Steve Harper has opted to sign a two year contract extension tying him to the club until 2009. I can only assume he's basing his decision on the way Roeder got the defence playing at the back end of last season. Well, either that or Given finally reaching the end of his tether, sticking two fingers up to Bramble, Carr, Babayaro etc and riding off into the sunset...

In other news, Roeder has asked us to be patient with Obafemi Martins, who has looked less than impressive in his first two appearances in the famous number nine shirt. The manager's got a point - Martins is only just returning to full fitness after flu, and in any case no player should be judged on the evidence of less than two matches.

Also on the striking front, Michael Owen has been talking about getting back to his peak and the latest operation enabling him to extend his playing career - one step at a time, eh, Mickey? - and on-loan striker Guiseppe Rossi has hinted at the possibility of staying on Tyneside beyond January. I can't see Fergie consenting to that, and Rossi has to impress first, but it might happen if the Devilsox invest in a new striker in the next transfer window.

Meanwhile, recent comments from Roeder underline the fact that he's currently facing some serious man-management issues. Following the deadline day fiasco, James Milner was probably feeling in need of some TLC - being dropped from Saturday's squad probably wasn't what he had in mind. But there is some reassurance in what Roeder has said in advance of tomorrow's match in Estonia: "James will be involved in Tallinn and will play a significant part, and I am sure he will give us something down the right". Of course, the fact that he will only be claiming a place in the side because Nobby Solano has a hamstring strain is unlikely to make him feel much better.

And finally, one of our old boys continues to show sparkling form in the Championship. Having got Cardiff's consolation goal in a 2-1 defeat at Preston on Saturday, Michael Chopra scored twice and created another at Home Park last night. Unfortunately for him, second-half defensive hari-kari (including two own goals) saw Plymouth fight back for an improbable 3-3 draw, with Birmingham's win over QPR knocking the Bluebirds off their perch at the top of the table.

Har Har Har


Monday, September 11, 2006

No home comfort

Newcastle Utd 1 - 2 Fulham

Once again we battered Fulham at home, only to see the visitors head back to London will all three points. In November 2004 we suffered an almost surreal 4-1 defeat in one of the most one-sided games I've ever witnessed. On Saturday, we once again paid the price for poor finishing, as a game which we dominated for 80 minutes was cruelly taken from us during the last ten.

For much of the game we held sway, and with Fulham losing Jimmy Bullard to a knee injury sustained in an innocuous tackle with Scott Parker, we were able to dominate midfield. Parker was again magnificent, driving the team forward and displaying the energy and spirit which earned him the captaincy. Justifiably, his was the name on the score sheet, as he made a storming run into the box to meet a ball swung in from the right by Emre, and plant a firm header past Antti Niemi.

Thereafter, we were unable to grab the second goal which would surely have guaranteed us the points. With Obafemi Martins and Shola Ameobi up front we were unable to carve out the sort of chance that either could put away - Shola in particular looking laboured (once again raising doubts about his fitness).

In midfield, N'Zogbia and Duff were entrusted with the task of giving us width, Solano dropping to the bench, and Milner (despite a strong showing in midweek for England Under 21s) not even in the sixteen. However, we seemed incapable of wrapping up the game.

Despite looking in control against Brian McBride for most of the game, it was inevitable that as soon as Titus Bramble lost concentration, Fulham scored. Routledge got free down the Fulham right, as a result of Ramage (deputising for the injured Babayaro and unfit Bernard) losing his footing, and his cross went past Bramble (guilty of ball watching) to the waiting McBride, who promptly volleyed home.

With Parker having left the field injured, our spirit looked to have drained away, and with Fulham's tails up there was a depressing inevitability about their second goal. This time, McBride's header hit the cross bar, and fell on to Carlos Bocanegra who shinned the ball in from one yard.

Depressingly, we failed to beat a side whom we dominated for large swathes of the game, and once again our failure to keep a clean sheet cost us any chance of some points. Whilst we looked solid at the back towards the end of last season, we once again have begun to look vulnerable, and Roeder needs to ensure the defence spend some time on the training pitch if this isn't to become a regular gripe.

Highlights: Toongoals

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

Friday, September 08, 2006

Mil due a run in the side?*

England U21s have our very own James Milner to thank for ensuring they reached the European Championships play-offs, the youngsters recording a 3-2 win over Switzerland in Lucerne on Wednesday.

Half-time substitute Milner went close on a couple of occasions before snatching the vital goal shortly before the final whistle. Theo Walcott and Preston's David Nugent had given England a 2-0 lead by the 18th minute, but a defence containing Steven Taylor was unable to hold out against a Swiss side featuring several full internationals, both their goalscorers Johan Vonlanthen and Tranquillo Barnetta having appeared in Germany.

Milner has made a promising if not electric start to the campaign for club and country, but the whole deadline day fiasco threatens to derail his season at a very early stage. He needs and probably deserves a prolonged run in the Newcastle side, but it looks unlikely he'll get it, what with new signings Obafemi Martins and Guiseppe Rossi (both natural strikers) vying for what could potentially only be a single position up front against Fulham. Might he displace Solano on the right, though? Certainly Nobby hasn't been at his best so far, and Milner's ability to beat a man and deliver a decent cross could yet see him nudge ahead of the Peruvian to stake a place in the side.

* Yes, spot the horribly contrived pun...

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Gripes of wrath

According to our esteemed chairman Freddie Shepherd, signing a football player is "not like buying shoes off a shelf". Well, thanks for that Fred.

The fat bastard's comment appeared in this news item in which he defended the club's movements (or lack of them) in the summer transfer window. As ever when backed into a corner, Fat Fred somehow managed both to bury his head in the sand, insisting "We have nothing to reproach ourselves for", and to come out fighting with an attack on the concept of the transfer window itself: "It is absolutely ridiculous and really a restriction of trade, and I would like to see somebody challenging it. How can you stop someone from getting a job? What other business would allow this?". Strange how everyone else seemed to manage OK, eh Fred?

In any case, it seems that us fans weren't the only ones bemused and frustrated by our deadline day activities. Martin O'Neill and Villa were left fuming by our decision to recall James Milner to St James' Park having agreed to let him have talks with the Brummies (and after Milner had agreed personal terms) - and quite understandably so. Milner has looked more promising thus far this season, but he's unlikely to be a happy bunny now.

In other news, Michael Owen (remember him?) is finally ready for his second operation on that troublesome knee injury sustained against Sweden in the World Cup. Once again one of our key players will hopefully have cause to be thankful to the Colorado-based specialist Dr Richard Steadman - perhaps we should just add him to the payroll?

Owen has said: "The plan is to get as fit as I can through the rehab so I don't have to play in too many reserve or practice games and my obvious aim is to get back into the first team as quickly as I can". I don't know about you, but that looks like a recipe for disaster - that's where things went wrong last time, and there's no substitute for match practice.

On a cheerier note, Shay Given was in excellent form for the Republic of Ireland on Saturday, repeatedly denying the German attack before being beaten unluckily by a deflection. Flying left winger Alan O'Brien made another appearance in a full international, but with Damien Duff, Charles N'Zogbia and Albert Luque in front of him for a place in that position for our first team his opportunities on Tyneside look sadly limited. A shame, not least because it would be great to have a third O'Brien score against the Mackems...

Speaking of whom, isn't it marvellous to see how enthusiastic Dwight Yorke was to leave Sydney for Sunderland?

Monday, September 04, 2006

'Appy 'Ammers

Thanks to Ken for bringing West Ham blog Hammered to our attention. As you might imagine, there's been a lot of activity and excitement on there over the past few days.

Always good to be alerted to new football blogs - particularly because so many seem to have fallen silent over the last few months.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Will you start the plans, please

Imagine, if you will, that you are responsible for Fenwicks Christmas window.

You spend the whole year planning and building, before you unveil your display before the expectant Geordie public in November. Then, once Christmas has been and gone, the whole thing is quickly pulled down to make way for the January sales, and you start planning for the next year.

That's the secret: planning as soon as the window display comes down, to make sure that the next display is as good, if not better.

You don't spend time looking at other displays, or considering other options as late as October. Instead you formulate a plan early, work hard and make sure that it comes to fruition in good time.

If the people at Fenwicks can grasp this, why can't Newcastle Utd?

The transfer window has closed, leaving us once again bewildered and frustrated. (Probably not quite as bewildered and frustrated as James Milner, but close.) What we must do now is ensure that this doesn't happen again.

Now is the time to plan.

We've got four months until the next transfer window opens. In that time, we need to identify our weaknesses, scout for players who can be obtained to strengthen those areas in which we are lacking, and do everything possible to ensure that come New Year's Day, those players are signing on the dotted line.

What we can't do is wait until the end of January before panicking and throwing money at anyone who looks remotely available.

You don't see Fenwicks putting a bit of mangy tinsel wrapped around a ladder in the window on Christmas Eve, do you?

Saint Bernard?

Following yesterday's shambles, there is one (very dim) ray of light to report on: we've re-signed Olivier Bernard. As a player who had been released by Rangers and was a free agent, Bernard was allowed to sign after the midnight transfer deadline.

I'm not alone in thinking that Bernard was often a terrific player for us - sometimes positionally naive (the FA Cup defeat by Wolves in 2003 stands out), but always committed, a fierce tackler and often able to contribute positively in forward areas. His first spell at the club ended in January 2005 on a sour note, though, with him demanding more money than we were prepared to offer him (he had almost jumped ship in 2002 to West Ham - managed by one Glenn Roeder - because of the lure of improved terms), and since then he's drifted from club to club (Southampton, Birmingham, Bolton, Rangers, Sheffield Utd), his career prospects disappearing down the drain.

In some ways, then, it's a backwards step for us, and he's certainly no Wayne Bridge. But we were desperate for defensive cover. Anything would be better than Celestine Babayaro, and if Bernard can recapture his Toon form then he'll be back in the side before long. (Not to mention back frequenting the pubs and clubs in my home town Morpeth, as was his wont in his first spell...)

However, regardless of the Bernard deal, it's no great surprise to discover that we've been named the biggest losers of transfer deadline day by the BBC's Phil McNulty. Sunderland don't have the monopoly on being a national laughing stock, sadly.

Oooh! Aaah! Oh dear...

Forgive the extended metaphor, but yesterday's frantic transfer activity was like a fireworks display, clubs competing in a bid to out-wow each other.

So we ooohed as Portsmouth flashed the cash again, one of their three deadline day signings being the very promising young Croatian playmaker Niko Kranjcar.

We aaahed as Spurs snapped up Fulham's one-time Toon target Steed Malbranque, as well as Wigan's Pascal Chimbonda.

And we gulped and blinked in disbelief as West Ham announced that two of the world's finest young footballers, Carlos Tevez and Javier Mascherano, will be plying their trade at Upton Park permanently. (That last "firework" was so loud and so out of nothing that it might have been the Big Bang all over again. Seriously, what the fuck?!!)

So, what could we muster? A one year deal for Antoine Sibierski, a 32-year-old goalshy attacking midfielder who couldn't find a way into a Man City midfield which is inferior to our own. In other words, the equivalent of a cheap, crap sparkler.

And that was it. Nothing else. A fact which means, quite apart from being increasingly concerned about some of our opponents (and Paul and myself looking nervously at our pre-season predictions), that we - a club with a poor defence at the best of times - are still two defenders short. And a fact which leaves Messrs Roeder and Shepherd with egg on their faces, following the confident predictions of quality incomings a few days ago.

Of course they'll say they tried their best and it wasn't their fault. The Smoggies will no doubt take great pleasure in knowing they thwarted us at every turn, not only beating us to the signatures of long-term targets Jonathan Woodgate and Robert Huth but also denying us the opportunity of tempting big-boned Aussie striker Mark Viduka away to somewhere where his gas mask would be redundant. It must also have been difficult for us to follow up our long-standing interest in Wayne Bridge, given that Chelsea didn't seal the signing of Ashley Cole from Arsenal - in the most drawn-out and tediously inevitable deal since David Beckham left Man Utd - until midnight.

Still, we had a right to expect much better, and we now look forward to the coming months with more trepidation than anticipation.

That said, perhaps we - and Fat Fred - should have learnt from past experience. In 2004, having sold Woodgate to Real Madrid, he claimed to have a really big deal up his sleeve. We bid for Wayne Rooney, Man Utd promptly trumped us, off he toddled to Old Trafford and we were left with nothing. Which then meant that, with Graeme Souness at the helm, we made rash decisions the following January, signing Jean-Alain Boumsong, Amady Faye and Celestine Babayaro for a total of £11.5m. Only Babayaro remains at the club, and it's clear he's not up to the job.

So, yet more hot air from Fat Fred - though, to be fair, he's been blowing cold as well as hot. Just ask James Milner, who was granted permission to talk to Aston Villa about a permanent return and had reportedly agreed personal terms before being recalled to Tyneside at the last minute, the proposed deal scrapped. I'm glad we haven't sold him - he improved a lot while at Villa Park last season, not least in discovering the ability to cross a ball - but this whole sorry episode is likely to have unsettled him and, knowing he's considered dispensable, he may well take the opportunity to pack his bags come January.

All in all, then, another inglorious day in the life of Newcastle Utd.