Friday, August 31, 2007

Dissenting voices: Part I

About time we formulated some kind of response, rather than keeping quiet as the club has...

"Whilst I think the media has over-blown the Mido chants, the fact that a lot of the responses I've read have entered into a siege mentality convinces me a lot of Newcastle fans (or North-East fans? or Northern fans? or fans in "provinces" everywhere?) have a chip on their shoulder about *any* media criticism, justified or not, and have attempted to defend the indefensible in a way that, to be honest, makes me cringe (e.g."

The words of a fellow Newcastle fan in the comments thread to this Guardian blog post about the abuse dished out to Middlesbrough's new striker Mido by visiting supporters on Sunday.

It's not often that you'll find us being critical of, but this is one of those times. Their aggressively defensive stance on the issue, calling on everything and anything they can to support their case, is disappointing, suggestive of a persecution complex and bordering on a "political correctness gone mad" attitude of the sort peddled by "right-thinking" right-wing rags like the Sun and the Mail.

Let's look at some of the arguments.

Was the chanting racist, Islamophobic, both or neither? Much debate has centred on the semantics, which are very difficult to unpick. Paul raised the point that perhaps it's those who say calling Mido a terrorist is racist / Islamophobic who are themselves racist / Islamophobic - the logic being that they're the ones who make the explicit connection, not the chanters. But to suggest that the perpetrators of the chant - or the majority at least - weren't perfectly well aware they were insinuating an implicit connection is nonsense. Arguing about semantics obscures the issue - however you classify it, the chanting was surely very offensive, something many Newcastle fans (and the club itself) seem depressingly reluctant or slow to concede.

The fact that Mido subsequently shrugged off the incident, or responded with his own offensive gesture (for which he was booked), has been used to argue it's no big deal, nothing to get worked up about - just "part of the game". But aren't there parts of the game that we'd like to change or eradicate? We don't have to just accept them. That's what the Kick It Out campaign is all about. Remember Jimmy Hill standing up in defence of Ron Atkinson by claiming that calling black players "niggers" is just "part of the game"? If it is, it certainly shouldn't be.

Some fans have pointed at the sectarian chanting and bigotry exhibited at Old Firm matches, as if to deflect attention and say "Well, look what THEY get up to up there". It really is that childish. Just because there's a more significant problem north of the border (albeit one which is being tackled) doesn't excuse the behaviour of our fans.

But, it would be protested, it was only a small proportion of the away support who targeted Mido. That may have been the case (though there have been suggestions it wasn't), but again that's no excuse for the club not coming out with a statement firmly denouncing the chanting. It's up to them to take the lead, and, as Marina Hyde suggests, the silence has been deafening (something of which Kick It Out have also been critical, if only implicitly).

The most ludicrous argument has been that we're merely the victims of a media witchhunt led by the Guardian, whose witchfinder general Louise Taylor, it turns out, writes for a Sunderland magazine. Whether or not the force of her comments has been exacerbated by her Mackem allegiance has no bearing whatsoever on the rights and wrongs of the chanting. Neither does the dubious suggestion that she and Hyde (by virtue of being women, it's insinuated - a nice dollop of sexism there too) know nothing about football and so aren't qualified to pass comment.

So, I'm patiently waiting for the official denunciation of the chanting by the club and associated fan groups. I hope I'm not waiting too much longer.

Dissenting voices: Part II

With no one seeming to have a bad word to say about Ole Gunnar Solskjaer in the wake of his announcement that he's retiring, Paul and I thought we'd better rectify matters by commenting on this post on Cheer Up Alan Shearer. Let's just say Toon fans (or at least us two) have rather less love for the Baby-Faced Assassin than everyone else...

Not to be sniffed at

A warm welcome to the B&W&RAO blogroll for Sniffing The Touchline, a new general football blog named after one of Robbie Fowler's most memorable moments. We're particularly liking the Mascot Of The Week feature and the new What If... series.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Little Saint Mick

Newcastle Utd 2 - 0 Barnsley

Unlike someone who was until recently a team-mate for both club and country, Michael Owen looks to be approaching full fitness.

OK, so his goal in tonight's League Cup win - his first for the club since December 2005, and his first at home since September that year - came against Championship opposition and was the result of a rather scuffed shot that squirmed under Barnsley's German 'keeper Heinz Muller and over the line. But he outpaced the defence when running onto Shola Ameobi's threaded through-ball, continually got himself into dangerous positions and generally looked much more like the player we paid £17m for.

It was Owen's first start of the season in a Newcastle shirt. Also making their first appearances were Ameobi and Emre, with James Milner, Mark Viduka and David Rozehnal all rested, while Cacapa got 90 minutes in central defence, Shay Given was back in goal and Jose Enrique made his debut at left-back.

The latter trio had a comfortable evening, as a combination of Barnsley's complete lack of attacking ambition and our superior ability meant that there was precious little threat to our goal other than a piledriving first-half free-kick from the boot of Dominik Werling.

In the first half the classy Geremi ran the show and Charles N'Zogbia relished a more advanced role than of late. Owen had his chances, on-loan Barnsley defender Lewin Nyatanga got away with what looked like a handball in the penalty area and Nobby Solano probably came closest with a shot that bounced just past the left post. With both Carr and Ramage out injured (the latter for some time), I just hope we can persuade Nobby not to leave before the transfer window shuts - at right-back he's a definite asset. Despite having all the play in our opponents' half, though, we were unable to break the deadlock.

But we came out still believing that patience and quality would tell in the end, and sure enough Owen scored before the hour mark to the delight of himself, his team-mates, his manager, the club's owner (wearing a shirt with Smith's name on the back of it), and a healthy home crowd of over 30,000 (certainly in comparison with some of the pitiful four figure crowds drawn by other Premiership sides). Oh, and Steve McLaren.

Barnsley's gameplan never changed, suggesting they harboured no hopes of a recovery but were instead more keen to limit the damage - which they did, just, despite decent efforts from Nicky Butt (on for Emre) and the impressive Ameobi. Obafemi Martins it was who replaced Owen on 83 minutes and three minutes later made the win safe, swivelling to volley home a shot. Not as spectacular as his opening day strike at Bolton, but acrobatic nonetheless. Please, please, please let us not decide to cash in on him in the next couple of days.

So, the home goals hoodoo is broken, to an extent - but we still haven't scored at St James's in the Premier League since February. With one Titus Bramble being a probable starter in the visiting defence on Saturday, we won't have many better opportunities to break it properly...

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Right back where we started

With the news that Stephen Carr and Peter Ramage are going to be unavailable for a while, and with Nobby still hankering after a move south to be nearer the kids, the search for a right back must take priority for the remaining few days until the transfer window closes. The fact that rumoured target Juliano Belletti recently became the third player of the summer to favour the Chelsea bench over the delights of Newcastle has only increased the difficulties faced by Big Sam over the next few days.

Hopefully one player who will be joining us is Abdoulaye Faye of Bolton (who was again excluded from their squad on Saturday), although with the clock ticking, the fact that he has yet to make an appearance on Tyneside is a slight cause for concern.

The frustrating thing about the whole full back issue is that, at the end of last season, I could have told Allardyce that he needed a new right back, but he has not yet succeeded in bringing in some much needed cover. Given that he will also have to prepare a team for Wednesday night's league cup match with Barnsley this surely represents the first major test of his support staff. One possible option could see Geremi moved to right back, with an additional body being drafted in to midfield (although with Barton and Emre currently unfit and N'Zogbia filling in elsewhere this only moves the problem round the pitch without actually solving it).

In other news it is being reported that Albert Luque has finally found someone willing to pay his wages, with Ajax the lucky recipients of our most recent high profile flop.

Elsewhere, the FA have announced they are to launch an investigation into the alleged offensive chanting which was reported to be emanating from the away stands at Sunday's game on Smogside.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Zog smites Smogs but Arca proves point

Smogs 2 - 2 Newcastle

A curious game, this. For the most part the sort of game which gives the lie to the oft-parrotted view that the Premier League is the best in the world - but illuminated by four quality goals, the best two coming from the boots of Newcastle players. Our new defensive fortitude eluded us as twice we took the lead only to squander it soon afterwards, and to add injuries to insult both Stephen Carr and Peter Ramage were forced off prematurely.

Fat Sam kept faith with the side which drew yet another blank at home to Villa, which meant no start for Michael Owen despite his 57 minutes for England on Wednesday night, but we set about our task with a similar relish as we did at the Reebok on the opening day. Carr lasted just five minutes before being replaced by Ramage, but Obafemi Martins went close and Alan Smith, who chose to join us over Boro amongst others in the summer, was denied by arguably the Smogs' best player on the day, workhorse captain George Boateng.

When we deservedly broke the deadlock, it was with a brilliant goal. Charles N'Zogbia received the ball wide on the left, cut inside past two defenders and curled a shot high into the top corner from 25 yards out. And we all thought his right leg was just for standing on. That makes the Frenchman our joint top scorer this season, and while he's still fragile defensively and is unlikely to hold onto the left-back position once Jose Enrique is fully fit, he's certainly giving us some attacking thrust from the flank and is worthy of a place in the side in a more advanced position. Damien Duff, who can count himself lucky that N'Zogbia was off-form last season, should be worried.

We didn't have long to savour the goal, though, with defensive sloppiness allowing Mido the opportunity to collect Fabio Rochemback's through-ball, round Steve Harper and bag his second goal in two games since his move from Spurs. The Egyptian celebrated by holding a finger to his lips in front of the travelling supporters but, it has to be said, he was subjected to some pretty unsavoury chants by an idiotic minority of Toon fans.

The Smogs dominated the remainder of the half, with Rochemback in particular getting the better of Geremi and Nicky Butt and prompting and probing in central midfield. Harper was forced into making decent saves from both the Brazilian and Argentinian ex-Mackem Julio Arca before the half-time whistle blew.

We made a sluggish start to the second period, and our problems seemed to be worsening when Butt was booked for a rash challenge and then just before the hour mark Ramage went down in agony with what looked to be a knee ligament problem. It's doubtful we'll see him again for some time. But, with Steven Taylor shunted out to right-back, the position he filled when he first broke into the side, Cacapa came on and looked assuringly composed - good news, as it may well be that we're dependent upon he and David Rozehnal forming an instant partnership.

Gradually things improved, with James Milner making half-fit Smoggie debutant Luke Young rue the fact that he hadn't ruled himself out for another week and the out-of-sorts Martins trudging off to be replaced by Owen.

We regained the lead with a goal which couldn't have been better scripted. Ex-Smoggie loanee Geremi flighted the ball into Mark Viduka, who had his back to goal but who managed - with a combination of strength and extraordinary close control - to turn our old boy Jonathan Woodgate, tee himself up and volley low into the bottom corner. Viduka was mobbed but noticeably didn't celebrate in front of fans who had booed him all afternoon. Perhaps someone should have pointed out that the booing would have been better directed at the chairman and board who faffed around so long without offering him a new deal? If they can't make their club's best player feel wanted, then he's perfectly entitled to decide to go elsewhere.

Unfortunately for us, though, the scriptwriters had another plot twist up their sleeve. This time it took Boro only three minutes to hit back, a weak clearing header from a corner seized upon by Arca, who with no one around him had time to pick his spot with Harper a helpless spectator.

It was deeply disappointing, as we'd manoeuvred ourselves into a position of dominance only to throw it away. Even then, Owen could have grabbed a vital winner when he sneaked unnoticed into the six yard box - as it was, though, he made no connection and the ball sailed straight into Mark Schwarzer's hands.

Inevitably, we were left to rue having conceded the advantage twice, not to mention the injuries to two different right-backs, but this is a ground on which we've lost in the past so a point's better than nothing, even if the win would have had us sitting pretty in third.

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Fright night

It's OK - you can come out from behind the sofa now: the England game's over and Michael Owen managed not to sustain serious injury for the 57 minutes for which he was on the Wembley turf. Hallelujah.

Partnered in attack by converted Toon midfielder Alan Smith - who was preferred, rather bizarrely, to Jermain Defoe but who showed some neat touches despite being starved of possession - Owen could and probably should have scored twice late in the first half, once England had gone 2-1 behind. His first opportunity came from a lovely flighted cross but his diving header was brilliantly saved by Jens Lehmann. The Arsenal 'keeper was erratic otherwise, and presented Owen with a simple chance to equalise a few minutes later, but he somehow put the ball wide. At that range, and with an open goal, the excuse of rustiness doesn't really wash.

Owen and Smith were replaced in a double substitution by Peter Crouch and Kieron Dyer, who started brightly but then fluffed two fantastic opportunities himself so we can at least rest assured that he hasn't finally come good yet.

Judging by the Martins-to-Man-Utd rumours, we could be seeing Owen and Smith up front together on a regular basis. I'd be hugely disappointed if we were to flog Oba to Taggart, but Fat Sam seems to feel differently - his comments essentially constitute an invitation to make a bid: "I have had no contact from any club, either in this country or any other wanting to activate his clause". Perhaps he can't see beyond the prospect of raking in £13m to offset the cost of two or three new players (Abdoulaye Faye and Juliano Belletti among them).

Meanwhile, the club has had to deny speculation that Mike Ashley, having discovered the reality of the financial situation, is already looking to sell the club to an Icelandic consortium. So where's the stability we were all expecting or at least hoping for, then?

Could be worse, though - we could be Spurs fans...

Monday, August 20, 2007

Around the grounds

As if both to prove that last season wasn't a fluke and to flag up our folly in letting him go, Antoine Sibierski continued his excellent goalscoring form for his new side Wigan on Saturday, netting in his third consecutive game - a sound 3-0 thrashing for the Mackems that ended the honeymoon. And not before time.

His excruciatingly protracted move at last completed, Kieron Dyer enjoyed a fruitful debut for West Ham, helping the Hammers to a 1-0 win at Birmingham. Dyer played a key role too, by all accounts - the Little Waster better not finally come good now he's left us...

If Fat Sam sent Tim Krul on loan to Falkirk to get some experience, then it's certainly working out well. Being offered no protection whatsoever and having to pick the ball out of the net on seven separate occasions is certainly good preparation for a stint playing behind our defence...

Perhaps that's a bit unfair, though, what with Saturday's clean sheet against Villa meaning we've only conceded a single goal in our opening two fixtures. That's thanks in large part to the form of Steven Taylor, rewarded by Steve McLaren with an England call-up for the midweek friendly with Germany (albeit prompted by the absence or withdrawal of several key centre-backs). Congratulations Steven - keep it up, keep your head and caps should follow.

"A goal, a goal, my kingdom for a goal"

Newcastle Utd 0 - 0 Aston Villa

Whilst we aren't quite in Richard III territory yet, the lack of a home league goal since Nobby's penalty against Liverpool in February is currently a cause for concern. On Saturday, it was Aston Villa's turn to keep a clean sheet against our impotent strike force, as both sides cancelled each other out.

On the plus side, Newcastle benefited from strong performances by Steve Harper in goal (who produced several top class saves), and Taylor and Rozehnal in defence - the latter showing definite promise of a solid partnership. Unfortunately, going forward we rarely looked capable of unlocking Villa's back line, with our best chance falling to Rozehnal, only for his effort to be saved by Scott Carson. From an attacking point of view, Milner looked lively, but Martins didn't appear to relish the left-sided attacking role he was asked to play.

In the second half, Owen proved that he needs games before he returns to match sharpness - which is why any part he plays for England this week should be welcomed (assuming he returns injury free).

Allardyce talked after the match about the importance of clean sheets - and whilst he has a point I think there will come a time when our inability to score will see the crowd expressing their frustration in rather more vocal terms than they did on Saturday.

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Dyer tribe

Thanks to the Icelandic Biscuit Baron, Kieron Dyer is now on his merry way to London, to be reunited with his kids having today completed his move to West Ham for an undisclosed fee.

Obviously, Dyer now links up with former colleagues Bellamy, Bowyer and Parker as Alan Curbishley seeks to pack his West Ham team with the sort of players you'd want your daughter to bring home.

For my part, the King of Bling will be remembered as a player who promised much, but consistently failed to deliver (principally because he enjoyed the high life a bit too much and also suffered a string of illnesses and injuries).

On his day, a world beater, unfortunately his days were too few and too far between.

So long Kieron, you won't be missed.

Shopping spree?

According to the BBC site, Abdoulaye Faye is set to leave Bolton before the transfer window closes, the Senegalese player's most likely destination being St James' Park for a reunion with Fat Sam. Comfortable both in defensive midfield and as a centre-back, Faye would represent a decent addition to the squad as long as the fee is reasonable for a 29-year-old.

I was also (probably for the first and last time) delighted by something that appeared in the Daily Mail today - namely, that we're pursuing the signature of Barcelona right-back Juliano Belletti, which would mean curtains for Stephen Carr. Belletti, who has found opportunities few and far between since the arrival of Gianluca Zambrotta from Juventus last summer, is like his compatriot Cacapa the wrong side of 30, but it would be nice to have the scorer of a Champions' League final winning goal in the side, especially if he'll cost as little as the £3m quoted.

As for the rumours reported all over the place that we're interested in Phil 'Steptoe' Neville, all I'll say is that I'm glad there's next to no chance of David Moyes letting him go...

Kieron Dyer's move to West Ham looks as though it could be back on now that both parties have calmed down and stopped flinging mud at each other. It'd be better that we didn't have an unhappy player wasting away in the reserves while leeching his exorbitant wages, so the sooner a deal's done the better for all concerned - plus the money recouped could come in handy for any further purchases.

Antoine Sibierski and Agent Chopra continued their goalscoring form for their new sides tonight, both netting for the second consecutive game, while Andy Carroll endured a rather less auspicious debut than either of our old boys, coming off the bench to no avail last night as his new loan club Preston made an ignominious exit from the League Cup at home to league newcomers Morecambe.

Last but certainly not least, Roy Keane, unable to restrain himself any longer, has finally shattered that mask of managerial coolness and launched into a hilarious tirade about how players have been refusing to sign for Sunderland because their WAGs have turned their noses up at the array of shops in the city. The Sunderland Echo inevitably wheeled out the marketing manager for The Bridges for some defensive mutterings about how it's a Mecca for the Great Unwashed - but, to be honest Roy, I think players have plenty of reasons other than the local amenities not to choose to waste part of their careers on Wearside on an ultimately successful bid to break the lowest ever Premier League points total for the third time in three top-flight seasons...

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Forward thinking

Good news for us and - in the light of Wayne Rooney's latest dose of foot-knack - England: Michael Owen came through 60 minutes of last night's friendly against Newcastle Blue Star unscathed. Owen claims he could probably have lined up against Bolton, but was understandably (and rightly) cautious of aggravating the thigh injury unnecessarily. He's now declared himself fit for Villa's visit to St James' on Saturday, but given the way the front trio performed at the Reebok, I very much doubt he'll find himself thrust straight back into first team action.

While Owen was denied against Blue Star by a couple of goal-line clearances, Shola Ameobi - in many ways the forgotten man among our striking options - scored what proved to be the only two goals of the game. Other noteable presences on the pitch were wantaway midfielder Kieron Dyer and Brazilian centre-back Cacapa, making his first appearance in black and white in relatively untesting circumstances. Considering Shay Given's injury and the fact that Tim Krul remains on loan at Falkirk, Fat Sam will have been relieved that Fraser Forster avoided being struck down by injury too.

With Owen returning to fitness and Ameobi in reasonable form, Allardyce has decided the time was right to let Andy Carroll leave on loan to get some experience. Cardiff and Hull, who both suffered disappointing home defeats in their opening fixtures, were keen, but Preston won the race - thanks in part to Allardyce himself putting in a good word for the Lancastrians. Carroll has shown a measure of promise to date, so hopefully he might return to the club with some games and goals behind him, ready to challenge for the first team.

A less welcome departure would be that of Nobby Solano, but it seems increasingly likely. Having originally been mooted as part of West Ham's resurrected deal for Dyer, it now looks as though Nobby could be heading off down to the Big Smoke alone to team up with former colleagues Craig Bellamy and Lee Bowyer. In fairness to Solano, he appears reluctant to leave, admitting "Leaving Newcastle will be hard because I feel they are on the verge of something big here" - but, as Dyer claims, Nobby has said his sole motivation for swapping Tyneside for East London is to be with his family, who have recently moved. But if this was on the cards, it begs the question why we gave him a new one year contract in the summer... I hope he stays - and that Fat Sam puts him into the side at right-back - but only if his heart's truly going to be in it.

Aye I

The A-Z Of Football on Cheer Up Alan Shearer has got as far as the letter I. Like Shane, my chosen topic is intelligence, while Paul has gone for infiltration, taking the opportunity to recount the tale of a couple of classic yet contrasting away day trips we've taken together.

Monday, August 13, 2007


Bolton 1 - 3 Newcastle Utd

Dear Jim

Please can you fix it for us for the Premier League season to finish right now? We're top of the table, you see. I know it's a big ask, but you've worked near-miracles before.


Yours sincerely


PS While I've got your attention, please can you also fix it for yourself not to wear those horrendously tight running shorts? No one really wants to see a pensioner's meat and two veg shrink-wrapped in nylon...

That lie-down didn't change things. We really had just won - and won with considerable ease - on a ground where we've grown used to finding ourselves not only beaten but comprehensively outplayed, outharried and outmuscled.

Everyone - from chairman Phil Gartside, full of jibes about Fat Sam in the build-up to the game (about how Bolton had gone "stale" under his leadership - as if 5th place was somehow a disappointment), through Fat Sam's former sidekick Sammy Lee and the players right down (probably) to the groundsman and the tea lady - wanted to give our new manager a severely bloodied nose for thinking he had left the Reebok for a "bigger" club. The headlines were already half-written.

But, in the space of 27 glorious first-half minutes, we unwrote them.

Mark Viduka had already gone close when, on 11 minutes, Charles N'Zogbia - continuing in his unfamiliar left-back role with neither new signing Jose Enrique nor waste-of-space Celestine Babayaro fit - swung in a dangerous left-footed free kick from 40 yards out. David Rozehnal was inches away from making contact for a debut goal but the ball bounced straight past Jussi Jaaskelainen.

Ten minutes later and Obafemi Martins showed why we shouldn't be even contemplating the possibility of selling him - and why a certain Michael Owen faces a fight to get back into the team even when fit. Alan Smith knocked the ball back to James Milner on the left, his curling cross found the Nigerian with his back to goal and, with astonishing athleticism, Martins lashed an overhead kick into the roof of the net when almost any other player would have launched it high over the bar into the stand.

We survived a bit of a scare when Gary Speed tried to prove once again that we should never have offloaded him when we did (it's OK, Gary, we know), but Smith and Steven Taylor denied him the goal that would have ensured he has scored in every Premier League campaign since it began.

If Martins' first was down to skill (and, admittedly, slack marking), then his second owed a lot to good fortune. Taylor's pass encouraged him to run at the defence, and as the white shirts facing him backed off he tried his luck from distance. The shot, headed for the bottom right corner, glanced off a Bolton player and eluded the legs of the already-diving Jaaskelainen.

In truth, so poor were Bolton in the first period that we could have been five or six up if we'd shown a ruthlessness to match our tenacity and dynamism. It couldn't be as one-sided again in the second half, and so it proved, as the Trotters emerged with much more purpose. Inside the first ten minutes they had pulled a goal back, ex-Mackem Gavin McCann driving through the middle and enabling Kevin "Please Mr McLaren, believe my own hype" Nolan to pick out Nicolas Anelka. The Incredible Sulk was too pacey for Rozehnal and fired across Steve Harper into the bottom corner.

But - a measure of things to come, perhaps? - the dreaded collapse never materialised and we played out the rest of the game in relative comfort. Bolton certainly competed and made us work much harder than we had before the break, but, with Geremi and Nicky Butt superb in the middle of the park, we kept them at arms' length to hold on for a win that served as an eloquent riposte to Gartside and - with no other side scoring three or more and winning by two clear goals - sees us sitting pretty at the top.

Allardyce's choice of formation - 4-3-3 - wasn't a complete surprise, though I was intrigued by the fact that he went with Milner pushed forward and Smith, the alleged striker, part of the three man midfield with Geremi and Butt. In a 4-4-2 formation, the latter two would make for a pretty defensive central pairing, especially at home, but 4-3-3 worked well, giving us a stable platform but also allowing for some fluidity and flexibility in attack.

Our cause was not only helped by Bolton's uncharacteristic and mystifying lethargy in the first half, but also by Sammy Lee's decision to leave that eternal pain-in-our-backside El-Hadji Diouf on the bench. Even though he got on for much of the second period, the Senegalese Spitter has unsurprisingly spat out his dummy, Lee subsequently telling him that no one is an automatic choice. I do enjoy a bit of Schadenfreude, but this could backfire on us if Fat Sam, alerted to the fact that Diouf is unsettled, decides he'd like to bring him to Tyneside...

No, let's just concentrate on the positives. No doubt there'll be plenty of opportunity to dwell on negatives later on in the season...

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

Around the grounds

Coming on as a substitute, scoring the winning goal against Spurs in the very last minute and celebrating like a dyed-in-the-wool Mackem might suggest Agent Chopra is out to double-cross us. But I think not - it's all part of a masterplan to get the enemy onside, a classic ploy to gain their trust. Now he's definitely inside, he can begin to wreak havoc...

Chopra wasn't the only old boy who hit the back of the net on his debut for a Premiership side, Antoine Sibierski tapping home a consolation as Wigan went down 2-1 at Everton. Both he and Chopra had much better afternoons than Tim Krul, beaten four times as Scottish champions Celtic mauled his loan side Falkirk on their own turf. But even he won't be as gutted as our former right-back Neil McDonald, sacked by Carlisle after just one game of the season - a game they didn't even lose - with the board claiming to have "lost confidence" in him.

Having set about amassing a team of Newcastle rejects, Portsmouth seem to have made a complete U-turn. First Andy Griffin was sold to Derby, then Lomano LuaLua took one look at the clutch of strikers 'Arry has brought in over the summer and decided to do one to Olympiakos and now Andy O'Brien has left for Bolton for a fee rumoured to be around £1.5m. If Sammy Lee thinks O'Brien will shore up a defence ripped apart by our attack on Saturday, he's got a lot to learn...

Saturday, August 11, 2007

It's good to be back

A superb performance and comfortable victory at the Reebok to send us top of the table on the first day of the season? Full report in due course, but I think I need a lie down first...

Friday, August 10, 2007

The future: bright?

I doubt many fans of whatever hue would dispute the fact that our squad is stronger - perhaps significantly so - than it was when the fat lady sung at Vicarage Road on 13th May. Some of the dead wood has been cleared out and, although Captain Scott has headed back to the Big Smoke, we've bought astutely - with Alan Smith and Mark Viduka additional attacking options; Joey Barton a vigorous presence in centre midfield; Geremi a Swiss Army knife of a player; and Jose Enrique, David Rozehnal and Cacapa the well-regarded and desperately needed if little-known reinforcements for a defence notorious for being one of the flimsiest in the Premiership.

What's more, we've achieved all this without getting suckered into paying the sort of obscene fees that have seen the likes of Spurs plough through £40m in two months. Prudence is not something normally associated with Newcastle Utd, and certainly not with our spending habits, so this may mark a significant new direction.

I say "may" because it may be that Fat Sam's hands were tied. He spent most of July expressing his frustration that the revolving door at St James' Park wasn't exactly living up to its name, and demanding in not so subtle terms that the new Mike Ashley / Chris Mort regime cough up for some WD40. Allardyce claimed that numerous deals fell through because of the time it took for the dust to settle on the takeover; had things happened more quickly and smoothly, there's every chance we could have splashed out significantly more.

It might have been hoped that the departure of that pompous, moronic hot air balloon Fat Fred would herald a period of stability off the pitch, but the tensions between the outgoing chairman's managerial appointee and the new board over transfer activity suggests not. Relations may thaw if results are good, but if not, Allardyce's tenure could be short-lived.

For the fans at least, it's not all about results. Sure, Fat Sam got them by the bucketload at Bolton, often very much against the odds, but at the expense of footballing style which could most charitably be described as "robust". Winning regularly would be a habit we'd naturally all welcome - but not necessarily if that means abandoning any finesse. Of course, we had neither the winning habit nor any finesse last season, so in that sense things can surely only get better under Allardyce. 6th is still an achievable goal, but we will have to scrap against stronger Man City, West Ham and Portsmouth sides in particular, and the injury list already looks ominous.

Worth bearing in mind that the last time Smith and Viduka lined up alongside James Milner, they were playing in the Leeds side that was relegated from the Premiership. The Yorkshire club has since been relegated again to League 1, and today lost their appeal against a 15 point deduction for infringement of the rules about coming out of administration. Pause for thought, certainly - though I'm not quite as worried as if we'd brought the Curse of Hreidarsson upon ourselves, as Pompey have...

Thursday, August 09, 2007

View From The Away End

Back in May, we asked three fellow bloggers and fans of opposing clubs for their reflections on our fortunes during the 2006-7 season, and their thoughts on how the summer months might pan out for us. Now, with the new season almost upon us, they give their verdicts on activities at St James' Park since then, and speculate on our prospects for the forthcoming campaign.

Danny (Bitter & Blue)

As ever it seems, the new season brings a sense of new hope and anticipation to Newcastle. Previous seasons of struggle and incident could be a distant memory as a new broom has swept through St James' Park this summer.

First, Sam Allardyce rolled up as the new manager – and whilst not endearing himself to Bolton fans in the process, was seemingly not a universally popular choice at his new club either. Fears of aggressive long ball tactics are valid, but as he built a better side and had more talent at his disposal at Bolton, he did adapt their style – whilst not quite abandoning his principles though.

If he didn’t realise the scale of the job at the time, he must do now as although he has been backed in the transfer market to an extent, he has the cloud hanging over the possible futures of Owen and Martins.

Being an abrasive type, it didn’t take him long to butt heads with the new ownership group either – questioning Chris Mort’s footballing credentials recently.

As for his transfer activity – I don’t think too many will be spilling tears over the departures, even with Sibierski’s over-achieving last season as Scott Parker never achieved what was hoped (was he overrated even at Chelsea?) and as for Titus Bramble, enough said.

Players in – you have Joey Barton from ourselves before he suffered the metatarsal curse. He will provide energy, passion and drive for the midfield with the occasional off-field incident or skirmish, but ask most City fans and we were sorry to see him go and will undoubtedly miss him. He will be a good acquisition. Geremi will be a solid pick-up and Viduka perhaps as well offering depth in attack but I don’t see the logic with the Smith signing, as in attack this is one area you are fairly well covered – unless he is again to experience a position conversion back into midfield.

I can’t confess to knowing much about Rozehnal or Enrique but defence has long been an area where you have tried (and largely failed) to improve.

There is potential there this season, but perhaps like ourselves this will become more of a transition one whilst new managers (and owners) get a feel for the club and continue with the rebuilding. Allardyce though looks to be the best manager you have had in recent times and short of the new owners not being keen and wanting to bring in their own man, he has to be given time. Yes, at times it will be ugly, and this season there will be ups and downs as he instils himself on the team but given time (and money of course) I’m certain he can establish you as a perennial top six side challenging for the European positions.

This season it maybe a step too far though, and I see a mid-table finish but progress being made.

Pete (Round And White)

So Big Sam, he hasn't disappointed so far. With a bit of cash behind him and some sensible purchases the future looks bright; Viduka on a free? Bargain! Although Alan Smith and Geremi ... bargains? Hmmm ... we'll see. The same question might be posed of Allardyce's ability to tame Joey Barton (if the latter stays out of jail that is).

While his defensive acquisitions look promising, there's definitely a factor of the unknown there. José Enrique and Claudio Caçapa have good reputations, but they may need time to acclimatise to the cliché that is "the pace of the Premiership". PSG's David Rozehnal for £2.9m could be real steal though.

Nevertheless, while there's been a thorough clearing-out of the defence (Bramble, Moore, Bernard, etc), Allardyce is placing a lot of faith in who's been left behind (Ramage, Edgar, Huntingdon). Aside from the question of defence, the team looks solid provided that injuries don't rob them of Owen, Given, Emre and so (once they've returned from injury).

From a neutral's point of view, it'll be fascinating to see whether Phil Gartside's hint that Little Sam was behind Bolton's success is in any way correct. Probably just sour grapes though, eh, Magpie fans? Will Newcastle play like his old team, or will we be dazzled by Total Football? Either way, Allardyce will need time to shape the team and it'd be shame to see him walk out of the managerial revolving door that has been installed at St James' Park in recent seasons too soon.

Predictions time. Newcastle will take over Bolton's place in the Premiership, but 6th or 7th season after season isn't going to be good enough for the board in a few season's time. Still, I imagine that for now, an improvement on 13th and a cup run will be most welcome.

Shane (How-You-Say-It)

(Written last week)

In May, I was feeling broadly optimistic for Newcastle, and I was suggesting that the biggest summer signing would be a defender or midfielder – a leader who Allardyce would see as being cut from the same mould as himself.

As I write this, I’m listening to a very impressive and straightforward Alan Smith discussing his £6 million move from Manchester United. That, of course, is on the back of the capture of the Czech defender David Rozehnal (from PSG, £2.9 million), Geremi (from Chelsea, free), Joey Barton (from Man City, £5.8 million), and Mark Viduka (from Middlesbrough, Free). Understandably, speculation surrounds other possible signings – and I’m sure that there will be more by the end of August. In addition, backroom changes have seen Mike Ashley usher Mr Shepherd to his box with a cool £35+ million for comfort. Still though, Shepherd casts the evil eye over Michael Owen, who is reminded – as if he needed to be – that he still owes the club.

Thank you, Mr Shepherd, for that statement of the bleeding obvious. In summary, not the quietest of close seasons, but still Sam Allardyce wants more – probably a good sign. In terms of what we make of this, we have to look elsewhere around the Premiership. How does this compare to other clubs’ activities?

There has been a lot of movement – but very little of which has been for many millions of pounds, and very little of which has caused a real stir. On the whole, Newcastle have spent wisely – strengthening their squad, not overspending and not panic-buying. The departures of Scott Parker (to West Ham, £7 million) and Kieron Dyer (I presume to West Ham, for a similar fee) should not cause alarm.

For the forthcoming season, I expect Newcastle to sustain a bid for UEFA Cup
qualification. From The Away End, fans will think of Newcastle as among the "second tier" of the Premiership – a group that also includes Tottenham, West Ham, Blackburn, Portsmouth and Manchester City. Many of the Geordie faithful will quickly forget how desperate things have been in recent seasons. This will become obvious as the first injury of the season yields a barrage of complaints via Five Live’s 606 programme. But more fittingly, there will be serious progress in both cup competitions.

And then, as I review what is written above, I remember: this is Newcastle that we’re talking about - anything could happen!

Premiership: 6th.
FA Cup: Quarter-finals.
Carling Cup: Semi-finals.
Joey Barton: Fine and community service.

* * * * *

Thanks to Danny, Pete and Shane for their thoughts. Indeed - anything could happen, and probably will...

From top to bottom

Paul's prediction for the final standings in the Premiership table:

1. Man Utd
2. Chelsea
3. Liverpool
4. Tottenham
5. Arsenal
6. Blackburn
7. Everton
8. Newcastle
9. Portsmouth
10. Man City
11. Aston Villa
12. West Ham
13. Bolton
14. Middlesborough
15. Reading
16. Fulham
17. Sunderland
18. Birmingham
19. Wigan
20. Derby

Unfortunately he's on holiday at the moment - hence my posting this on his behalf - but I think we can safely assume that tipping the Mackems to stay up is just some kind of mistake...

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Know your enemies

With the first game of the new Premiership season now less than 72 hours away, it's high time we donned our previewing cap.

Over the next couple of days Newcastle's prospects will be assessed by both myself and opposition fans, while Paul will reveal how he thinks the final table will look. Before that, I run the rule over our opponents, wary that the potential for ending up with egg on my face come May is high - last time out I predicted that Chelsea would almost definitely walk the title race, Man Utd were in danger of slipping out of the top three and Jimmy-Floyd Hasselbaink would prove to be an excellent signing for Charlton...

Ben's guide to the rest

At last - Thierry Henry has finally left Arsenal for Barcelona. Relief from tediously persistent rumours for most of us, but a source of consternation to Gunners fans. Freddie Ljungberg has left too, proclaiming the sale of Henry indicated the end of an era and a lack of ambition. Arsene Wenger has replaced the Frenchman with unknown quantity Eduardo da Silva, and even though the Prof's the Premiership's undisputed master of unearthing and nurturing young talent, Arsenal will suffer without their talisman. They disappointed in the league last year, haven't made significant additions to the squad and will be looking anxiously over their shoulder and hoping Spurs eat some dodgy lasagne again this time around.

Aston Villa
Few Premiership managers are as thoughtful and tactically astute as Martin O'Neill - but he'll need to show all his nous if Villa are to improve this season. Nigel Reo-Coker is a decent signing, if a little overpriced, but Homer Simpson's Marlon Harewood's arrival at a cost of nearly £4m is baffling. At least they have a strong spine to the side in the form of Olaf Mellberg, Gareth Barry and John Carew. Villa fans will be expecting much more of mercurial Bulgarian Stilian Petrov this time out too.

How irritating to see Steve Bruce back in the Premiership so soon after waving him a cheery goodbye. I suppose we have just seen the back of Neil Warnock, so we were short of a buffoon. Ol' Cauliflower Face was delighted to sign up powerful midfielder Fabrice Muamba from Arsenal on a permanent deal, but must have hoped he could also persuade Wenger to part with Nicklas Bendtner. With a whole host of strikers, including recent addition Garry O'Connor rescued from his Russian exile at considerable expense, the suspicion remains that Bruce has no idea of his best front pairing - for Blues fans, though that's probably better than last time they were in the Premiership, when he persisted with a repeatedly misfiring Emile Heskey. Young Dutchman Daniel De Ridder could be one to watch.

Not to be outdone by his former Man Utd team-mate, Mark Hughes has signed up his own promising Dutch striker, Maceo Rigters, but most Lancastrian eyes will be on Roque Santa Cruz. Unfazed by the Paraguayan's poor goalscoring ratio in Germany for Bayern Munich, Hughes was dogged in pursuit and parted with what is a relatively large sum to secure his services. If his equally dogged ankle-biters are to continue to punch above their weight, much will depend on the form of star men Benni McCarthy, Morten Gamst Pedersen and Brad Friedel.

They should finish above their local rivals, though. Big Fat Sam has gone, leaving his Mini-Me looking rather vulnerable. A couple of good Scandanavian wingers - Christian Wilhelmsson and Daniel Braaten - won't be enough to arrest a slide down the table, what with their best defender Tal Ben Haim swapping black pudding for King's Road and green-around-the-gills Sammy Lee likely to be out of his depth without his mentor. To enjoy their demise more, I suggest we take bets on what happens first: The Incredible Sulk throws a temper tantrum or Kevin Nolan refers in his BBC column to people talking up his chances of playing for England, oblivious to the fact that it's only ever been him. They'll probably still beat us on Saturday, though...

Last August many people - myself included - thought that the back-to-back champions would cruise to a hat-trick of titles, the addition of Andriy Shevchenko and Michael Ballack rendering them untouchable. Of course it didn't quite work out that way, and this summer Jose Mourinho has been rather more cautious in recruiting Galacticos, but it's hard to see how a player like Steve Sidwell - good though he is in a lesser side - is going to propel them back to the top of the tree. Didier Drogba will have to play out of his skin if they're to stand a chance, though Florent Malouda will weigh in with plenty of goals and Michael Essien, if freed up from filling in at centre-back, will give the team more drive going forwards.

Derby County
I'm not sure what's more laughably tragic: Southampton indignantly rejecting Derby's £5m bid for Kenwyne Jones, or Derby thinking he was the sort of player to ensure their Premiership survival in the first place. Robert Earnshaw, on the other hand, is a shrewd purchase, even if he's not the most clinical of finishers. But with Billy Davies mystifyingly having signed red card magnet Andy Todd and released Seth Johnson, their captain and one of their only players with Premiership experience, the bottom of the pile beckons. Expect Giles Barnes to do an Ashley Young and impress in a struggling side before being offered the chance to flee the sinking ship in January.

Like a dozy driver going through a carwash, David Moyes only just seems to have realised the window is open, leaping into belated action. Leighton Baines is an excellent signing, someone for whom we were rumoured to have been angling ourselves, and he looks likely to be joined by a forward or two. Phil Jagielka's versatility will come in handy, and while expensive recruit Andy Johnson stole most of the headlines last year, in robust defender Joleon Lescott and skilful midfield craftsman Mikel Arteta the Toffees boasted two of the season's best and most unsung performers. Rarely spectacular, but always annoyingly tough to beat.

Or London (Northern) Irish, as they should be known. Newly-appointed manager Lawrie Sanchez has wasted no time in signing up familiar faces Steve Davis, Aaron Hughes, David Healy and Chris Baird, while he's also managed to coax the normally miserly Mohammed Al Fayed into parting with substantial sums for Diomansy Kamara, Hameur Bouazza, Paul Konchesky and Lee Cook (well, either that or taken advantage of Al Fayed's preoccupation with ludicrous conspiracy theories that the Daily Express perpetuates just to keep itself in business). So, £25m spent - or should I say squandered, for the influx of genuine quality has been conspicuous by its absence. When Al Fayed finally realises he's had his pockets picked, Sanchez is likely to receive his P45 shortly after.

Meanwhile, the preposterously goateed Rafa Benitez has spunked that sum on just one player, Fernando Torres. It was going to take something extraordinary to prise Torres away from his beloved Atletico Madrid, and it was an extraordinary fee - but if the Spaniard is going to settle in England, then the Costa del Scouse is as likely a place as any. Far less heralded has been the arrival of Shevchenko's Ukrainian strike partner Andrey Voronin, whose pre-season form promises great things. At £11.5m, Ryan Babel represents a pricey gamble (particularly given the cheapness of his Holland U21 colleagues De Ridder at Birmingham and Rigters at Blackburn), and I can't see Yossi Benayoun being anything more than an expensive benchwarmer. Clearly no fan of golf, karaoke or no-necked indisciplined runts, Benitez has taken the opportunity to offload boyhood Reds fan Craig Bellamy, and is set to preside over a concerted tilt at the title which, though destined to be ultimately futile, will bode well for the future.

Man City
With star men Sylvain Distin and Joey Barton having left and the club drifting rudderless through a protracted takeover, the future looked bleak for City. But now, with the deal complete and Sven-Goran Eriksson installed as manager, it's all go. The Swede has splashed in-no-way-dubious new owner Thaksin Shinawatra's cash in style, embarking on the sort of spree that would make Elton John look restrained. Elano and the two Bulgarian playmakers Valeri Bojinov and Martin Petrov in particular look set to shine, though for City fans the £8.8m signing of one season wonder Rolando Bianchi probably has the bad whiff of Bernardo Corradi and Georgios Samaras about it. Eriksson should be thankful that Jose Mourinho has surprisingly made no attempts to lure Micah Richards away, and could end up steering City to the UEFA Cup.

Man Utd
Much as it pains me to say it, Taggart's mob were magnificent last season, genuinely exhilarating (if unexpected, for me at least) winners of the title after two years of Chelsea efficiency and steel. With the addition of Owen Hargreaves, Nani and Anderson and with Carlos Tevez, the only Premiership player with less of a neck than Craig Bellamy, due to arrive permanently at Old Trafford any day now, they are an even more frightening prospect. Surely only serious injury to Ronaldo (it can be arranged...) and / or the continuing presence in and around the first team of Darren Fletcher, John O'Shea and Mikael Silvestre can upset their march to the title?

Gareth Southgate's success in persuading Jonathan Woodgate into penning a permanent deal with his hometown club may have made us envious, but at least we got revenge by tempting Mark Viduka away with a trail of Greggs sausage rolls and the prospect of fresh air. Jeremie Aliadiere and Turk Tuncay Sanli have pitched up on Smogside to bolster the attack, but the impact of their arrivals would be wiped out if Yakubu is sold. In charge of a squad with precious little quality as it is, Southgate would be left up a certain creek without a certain paddle and even that nice Mr Gibson might contract a bad case of itchy trigger finger.

The direct opposite of David Moyes, 'Appy 'Arry seems to have been under the impression that the transfer window closed around the end of June. Pompey were astoundingly quick out of the blocks in picking up Sylvain Distin to reinforce what is already a very solid defence inspired by Sol Campbell and David James, and an array of costly strikers in Sulley Muntari, David Nugent and John Utaka - so much for goal-shy Benjani being worthy of his place in the team through sheer hard graft. Everything points towards another successful season - except, that is, for the Curse of Hreidarsson. What are the chances of him being relegated from the Premiership with a fifth different side? Surely 'Arry should have spotted a pattern...

I very much doubt I'm alone in thinking Steve Coppell's boys are going to cop it this season. For a start, their midfield dynamo Steve Sidwell has left to keep Shaun Wright-Phillips company in the Chelsea dug-out, Kevin Doyle and Stephen Hunt can't possibly maintain last season's form and they've started to suffer from the same comically horrendous luck as the rest of us, what with Leroy Lita injuring himself stretching while getting out of bed. The extreme caution in the transfer market and the lack of new faces doesn't bode well for the Royals either - though it's perhaps worth bearing in mind that historically several sides, having comfortably survived their first season in the top flight, have subsequently invested heavily in a bid to push on, only to find that the new signings have destabilised the club's solid foundations and actually imperilled their Premiership future rather than securing it.

"So, what news, Agent Chopra?"
"Well, not content on squandering £5m on me - a diehard Geordie who's already proved he can't cut it in the Premiership - the Chuckle Brothers Quinn and Keane have splashed £2.5m on someone who couldn't get anywhere near the Reading team, £5.5m on the brother of that ghastly trollop from off of 'Big Brother' and £9m (yes, £9m!) on a 'keeper who's only ever proved his worth in the Mickey Mouse league north of the border! And to think Quinny's sounded off about rival clubs paying absurdly inflated prices and pushing the market up!"
"So, do you think you've got a chance of staying up?"
"Of course not."
"Good. Off you go, Agent Chopra - bomb 'em straight back to the Championship..."

Together with Liverpool and Man Utd, the summer's really big spenders - and as a result the most likely side to break into the top four. There's no denying, not even for Spurs fans, that they've paid way over the odds for Darren Bent, but that deal - along with those for Gareth Bale, Younes Kaboul, Kevin-Prince Boateng and Adel Taarabt - is indicative of a club intent on pursuing its policy of buying up hugely talented youngsters. That may not bear fullest fruit for a few years yet - in which case Martin Jol might yet find that his bosses are more interested in the short term than they implied - but it's arguable that in Bent, Robbie Keane, Jermain Defoe and one of last season's outstanding performers Dimitar Berbatov, Spurs have the best quartet of out-and-out strikers in the league. Perhaps the best we can hope for is that there's some disgruntlement once Jol decides upon his preferred partnership.

West Ham
Under Alan Pardew in the 2005-6 season, the newly promoted Hammers were the people's favourites, playing freely and without fear and within seconds of beating Liverpool in the FA Cup final. Now, in the wake of Tevezgate, they're among the most despised teams in the league. How to respond? By playing up to that reputation, selling the players who got them where they are now and trying to recreate Bobby's Borstal Boys of 2003 by reuniting Craig Bellamy with Lee Bowyer and then going after Bowyer's sparring partner Kieron Dyer. In between throwing around money wildly and buying French midfielders for one and a half times the fee any other club was prepared to shell out. To be fair, though, the signings of Scott Parker for £7m and Freddie Ljungberg for £3m represent good value, and mean they're unlikely to need to resort to cheating to survive this year.

There's no room for sentiment in football - hence Wigan's release of David Unsworth, barely weeks after his penalty against Sheffield Utd had kept them up. So what was Dave Whelan doing appointing Chris Hutchings as Paul Jewell's successor, as someone who has very little management experience and none of it good? And it shows - in his recruitment of Titus Bramble and his paying an exorbitant £5.3m for the admittedly talented Jason Koumas. Koumas is used to being a big fish in a small Championship pond - and that's probably what he'll be again by the time the 2008-9 season kicks off.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

A Month Of Saturdays: July 2007

In one respect, 1st August came not a moment too soon. One of Fat Fred’s parting gestures was – surprise, surprise – to allow his flabby great jaw to hang open and expel one last gust of hot air; but amidst that hot air was the nugget of information that the clause in Michael Owen’s contract allowing him to leave for just £9m expired at midnight on 31st July. With bidders queuing up for the injury-plagued striker in as great a number as there are Mackems in Mensa, Little Mickey must now be resigned to having to get fit and repay our faith and patience. Should another club express an interest, though, there’s still a possibility he’ll be sold – but only if the new hierarchy decide it makes good sense, and only on their terms.

In another respect, however, we had less reason to be thankful for the steady ticking of time. In July, Allardyce’s efforts on the transfer front bore as much fruit as an apple tree on Teesside – particularly disappointing after a promising June in which we made some decent signings and looked as though we might actually be operating according to some kind of pre-meditated strategy. No one was more frustrated than Fat Sam himself, who repeatedly underlined his awareness of our deficiencies in terms of sheer numbers as much as anything else and wound up laying the blame for the repeated failures in the transfer market squarely at the door of the takeover and the new regime: “Trying to get to where you want to get can be a little bit difficult sometimes, and I understand that because you’ve got to find everything out about the new business, but you can get frustrated from that point of view because it moves slower than you’d like. It’s Chris Mort I deal with now in the main, but he hasn’t had that much experience in football terms, so one would hope that now we’ll get even quicker”.

Publicly putting the pressure on Mort and Ashley, the incoming chairman and new owner respectively, probably wasn’t the smartest move on Allardyce’s part, not least if the rumours of a mutual antipathy are to be believed; neither are likely to have appreciated being told to get up to speed by a manager they didn’t appoint and apparently don’t rate, and both will have bristled at the thinly-veiled demands for them to dust off the chequebook, particularly given the parlous state of the club’s finances . It doesn’t bode well for off-pitch harmony that Mort and Allardyce have already held “clear-the-air” talks – even arch agent provocateur Jose Mourinho took over two years to aggravate Roman Abramovich. The speculation surrounding the possible return of prodigal sons Kevin Keegan and / or Alan Shearer may be fanciful, but it hints at a significant amount of behind-the-scenes unrest.

And to think we hoped all that might be a thing of the past with Fat Fred’s departure. On 25th July he finally waddled off into the sunset with his fists full of cash – £38m, to be precise – and Mort’s apparently unironic words of praise ringing in his ears, but of course declined to go quietly. Not only did he reveal that Owen’s escape clause had an expiry date attached to it, but he boasted he’d done “fantastically well for what was a hobby” and claimed that he would have fought the takeover had he been physically fit at the time. Having at first issued a gruff challenge to Ashley and then, upon receipt of the money, delivered a glowing verdict of the new regime, here was the fat songbird warbling a different tune again. Thankfully we won’t be subjected to his tweeting any more.

Amidst the backroom politics and the tangled threads of transfer rumour (including the drawn-out tedium of the Dyer-to-a-London-club-for-“family-reasons” story) – not to mention the formality of the stock exchange delisting, the raiding of the club by City of London Police investigating corruption in football and the arrest of former favourites Robert Lee and Warren Barton for drunkenly helping themselves to someone else’s limousine – it would be easy to forget that there was actually some action on the pitch too, for the first time since mid May. Having beaten Hartlepool in Fat Sam’s first friendly in charge, we stole a very late and unconvincing draw at Carlisle and then, in our finest schizophrenic style, went on to beat strong Celtic and Juventus sides comfortably.

While Geremi and Rozehnal settled in, Albert Luque surprised us all by looking moderately interested and scoring three times before surprising no one and getting injured. And he wasn’t the only one – Joey Barton broke his metatarsal against the Cumbrians, while Owen, Ameobi, Butt and Taylor were among those who joined him on the treatment table. Having promised on his arrival to get to the bottom of our annual injury crisis, Allardyce has now been presented with the opportunity to deliver; but, as fans who’ve had to put up with Fat Fred for the past fifteen years, we’ll know the feeling if he can’t.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Hola Jose

In a move which will presumably put an end to Charles N'Zogbia being forced to play out of position and hopefully bar Celestine Babayaro from displaying his own unique brand of commitment to the first team cause, Fat Sam has managed to secure the signature of Villareal's highly-rated Spanish U21 left-back Jose Enrique. Nevertheless, at £6.5m the deal represents something of a gamble, not least because of the ever-present danger of him turning out to be as successful as the last Spaniard we signed, one Albert Luque...

Enrique is not only young but he also has no experience whatsoever of the Premiership - unlike our other rumoured target Leighton Baines, who now looks set to join boyhood favourites Everton for slightly less. Time will tell whether we got the best deal.

Meanwhile, our other recent multi-million pound recruit Alan Smith got his Newcastle career off to a flying start yesterday with the only goal in our friendly win at home to Sampdoria. Smith, who headed in Geremi's corner on 59 minutes, was spearheading an attack comprised of his old Leeds teammates James Milner and Mark Viduka, the latter also making his first appearance for us. Shola Ameobi, Nicky Butt and Steven Taylor all returned from injury without any adverse effects, but Shay Given tweaked that pesky groin again to be replaced by Steve Harper - hardly good timing, what with Tim Krul busy making a victorious debut on loan for Falkirk against Gretna (and keeping a clean sheet in the process).

Fat Sam presumably wasn't too chuffed by that news, but he certainly wasn't happy about the collapse of Kieron Dyer's move to the Hammers, claiming "West Ham are not as upset as we are about West Ham". All rather baffling, as we were the ones who scuppered the deal - a fee had apparently been agreed until we suddenly decided to shift the goalposts and hoik the price up by another £2m. Personally, I wouldn't be surprised if Allardyce's anger is partly because he wanted to see the back of Dyer and is frustrated at having seen the deal wrecked by the new chairman stepping in to demand a higher fee.

Alan Curbishley has commented "It's the first time I can remember anything like this happening", "this" being the transfer of a Newcastle player collapsing "at the 11th hour, the 11th-and-a-half hour". Some of us have slightly longer memories than you, Curbs - we did the same thing to Villa last season with Milner. Let's just hope that our latest decision to do the dirty on a bunch of claret and blues pays off as well as it did the first time.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Rearguard action

After a month of frustrating silence, a flurry of activity.

No sooner had the arrival of Alan Smith been announced than we completed the free transfer signing of central defender Cacapa from five time French champions Lyon. He was on Tyneside yesterday for a medical, and has signed a two year deal. Frozen out of the Lyon side and the wrong side of 30, the Brazilian will nevertheless give us much-needed experience at the back.

He could soon be joined by fellow centre-back Ivica Dragutinovic of Sevilla, who is rumoured to have been the subject of a £2.5m bid. One quote attributed to the Serbia & Montenegro international should give us cause for concern, though: "This is the financial opportunity of my life and do not want to reject it". We don't want players who see us simply as a cash cow.

Meanwhile, Villareal are apparently claiming that a deal has been done for their Spanish U21 left-back Jose Enrique Sanchez Diaz. If it has (and there's been no word from the club yet), then someone's going to have to come up with a nickname and fast, because I don't fancy having to type that out all the time...

And on the subject of left-backs, we continue to be linked with Wigan's Leighton Baines, who - for my money - would be an excellent signing if we can get him for around the £5m mark. Baines, of course, recently rejected a move to the Stadium of Shite, and having poached Mark Viduka from the Smoggies and then pinched Smith from under their noses, it'd be nice to upset Royston Keane and the Mackems too...

Wor Al!

Confirmation today that Alan Smith has now signed a five year contract at the club, joining for a reported fee of £6 million pounds.

Presumably Allardyce has signed Smith as a replacement of the soon to depart Kieron Dyer, although as I mentioned previously there seem to be very few similarities in their play. Nonetheless, he replenishes the squad and will provide competition to both the strikers and midfielders, and as such is a welcome addition.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Situation vacant

Are you a 31-year-old defender seeking gainful employment and a nice juicy wage packet?

Do you have experience of European football, but no experience of playing in the English Premiership?

If you answered yes to all of these questions please contact Sam Allardyce c/o Newcastle Utd, St James' Park, Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

Two people apparently responding to the above advert (well, at least ticking all of the relevant boxes) are Cacapa and Ivica Dragutinovic, who are both rumoured to be Tyneside-bound.

According to Big Sam, former Lyon captain Claudio Roberta da Silva (or Cacapa to his mates) has been training with the club this week, and is due to undergo a medical today before arriving at the club on a free transfer. Whilst clearly a player with some Champions League experience, the fact that he has been frozen out at Lyon (apparently because he refused to sign a new contract), the fact that he is the wrong side of 30, and the fact that he is currently being chased by such footballing luminaries as Panathinaikos and Al Rayyan make me wonder whether he's going to prove a defensive stalwart next season.

However, to give Allardyce his credit, he's got a track record of drawing good performances out of ageing footballers, and at least his arrival should provide some additional defensive cover. So from that point of view it should be welcomed.

On the same subject, are suggesting that Ivica Dragutinovic is also on his way to Tyneside from UEFA Cup holders Sevilla. Again 31, Dragutinovic can play both centrally and at left back and should he arrive will again add some much needed depth to the squad. Reports would suggest that Dragutinovic is a typically uncompromising defender, and as such should bring some welcome grit to our backline.

Barton charged

Unlike recent events, this story relates to the current occupier of our number 7 shirt, who Greater Manchester Police have now confirmed has been charged with assault following his alleged fight with former teammate Ousmane Dabo.

Whilst this is hardly ideal from our point of view, it was always a risk given the club's decision to sign a player under investigation. How this is subsequently going to pan out, we'll have to wait and see.

Wor Al?

With the King of Bling (32 caps / 0 goals) on his merry way to join the Biscuit Baron's Hammers, there's a vacancy in our squad for a player with more England caps than seems sensible.

Thankfully, Big Sam has looked to plug this gap with Alan Smith (17 caps / 1 goal) who is (according to the ever reliable on Tyneside today for talks ahead of a £6m move.

In his favour, Smith is one of those players (like Barton) who always appears to be committed to his cause, albeit a player who has, at times, let his desire spill over into some slightly unsavoury on field behaviour. Whilst lacking Dyer's pace, his commitment and flexibility should at least mean the squad is no thinner for Kieron's departure.

Still no sign of any of the much needed defenders though, although hopefully last night's defeat at Hull should at least make Messrs Mort and Ashley aware of the scale of investment which is required in order for us to improve.


"My job now is to replace him, which shouldn't take too long I don't think, and then move on to other players in other positions as quickly as I can or at the same time." So, Sam, no concerns whatsoever about the imminent departure of Kieron Dyer, then?

Dyer, whose desire to leave the club for "family reasons" has seen a pointless hate campaign against him swing into action, looks set to join West Ham, with a fee having been agreed and talks likely to take place within the next day or two. What with Lee Bowyer already at the club and Craig Bellamy having signed earlier in the summer, Alan Curbishley seems to be busy assembling the Bobby's Borstal Boys side of around 2003-4 at the Boleyn. Good luck on keeping a tight rein on them all, Alan - you'll need it.

Allardyce's comments about Dyer came after tonight's friendly with Hull, which - after comfortably beating Celtic and Juventus in our previous two pre-season outings - we inevitably lost, going down 1-0 to a goal from former Spurs winger Dean Marney. Had Obafemi Martins had his shooting boots on, it may have been a different story, but as it was Hull outplayed our frighteningly youthful side - rather worrying, all told. The need for reinforcements has only been underlined.

Rumoured target Boukary Drame has left Paris St Germain but opted not to link up with former team-mate David Rozehnal, joining Sochaux instead, while former Magpies Andy Griffin and Giuseppe Rossi have both also been on the move, signing for Derby and Villareal respectively (the latter a particularly surprising transfer, given Taggart's oft-repeated fondness for the striker). Charles N'Zogbia continues to be linked with Fulham, but one Toon player going nowhere - at least not against the club's wishes - is Michael Owen, that worrying release clause in his contract having expired at midnight.

Rocking Walking all over the world

Well, almost. Toon fan and regular Black & White & Read All Over reader Iain Purdie aka Mosh has decided to return home after 16 months away travelling - and for the last 1000 miles of the journey, from Monaco to Newcastle, he'll be doing so on foot. It's all in aid of the Blue Dragon Children's Foundation for which he worked in Hanoi, which helps disadvantaged young Vietnamese people and families to escape the poverty cycle.

Details of how to support Iain's endeavours are available on a special blog, I Would Walk 1000 Miles, where you can also follow his progress via regular updates.