Saturday, September 08, 2007

A Month Of Saturdays: August 2007

And after the drought of July came the rains of August.

It might seem a bit perverse to describe July as an arid month when large swathes of the British countryside lay under water (sadly, though, the River Wear didn’t take the opportunity to burst its banks and sweep Sunderland away), but this is a website dedicated to Newcastle Utd rather than meteorological conditions, and, in footballing terms at least, arid July certainly was.

With no action off the pitch in the transfer market, to the increasing frustration and impatience of Fat Sam and the fans alike, and precious little of any meaning on it, we found ourselves suffering from hallucinations of Barcelona players in the arrivals lounge at Newcastle Airport just as a thirsty man suffers from hallucinations of oases.

But then the calendar flipped over to August and it didn’t just rain, it poured. It was as though we’d been waiting for some imaginary self-imposed transfer embargo to be lifted – or perhaps all energies at the end of July had been directed towards fending off clubs interested in activating the £9m release clause in Michael Owen’s contract. Either way, a few days into August and we’d welcomed no fewer than three new faces to St James’s Park.

The reasoning behind the signings of defenders Cacapa (free from Lyon) and Jose Enrique (£6.5m from Villareal) was obvious; the former to bring in experience and calm assurance in place of Titus Bramble’s carelessness and idiocy, and the latter to ensure that Celestine Babayaro never gets near the first team ever again. The arrival of Alan Smith from Man Utd at a cost of £6m was rather harder to fathom; no one would ever question his commitment to the cause (not least because if you did, he’d probably chin you), but it was a bit of a mystery as to why Fat Sam was so keen on bagging a “striker” whose goalscoring record is so appalling. The other half of Black & White & Read All Over had the answer: with Kieron Dyer set to depart for West Ham, we needed to ensure we filled our quota of injury-prone forward-cum-midfielders with "more England caps than seems sensible". In fairness to Smith, he then got his Newcastle career off to a flyer, scoring the winning goal on his debut in a friendly against Sampdoria.

The flurry of new arrivals seemed to suggest a loosening of the purse strings which presumably appeased Fat Sam, given that talk of a rift between himself and the new administration disappeared from the papers. All the same, we had to wait until deadline day, for further new faces; neither Habib Beye nor Abdoulaye Faye were exactly surprise signings, but both were welcomed for the additional solidity and experience they’ll bring to the back line.

In the meantime, frosty relations between Newcastle and West Ham had also thawed enough for Dyer to at last complete his on-off move to Upton Park, where he teamed up with a couple of familiar faces from his time on Tyneside: professional tosser Craig Bellamy and one-time sparring partner Lee Bowyer. Alan Curbishley is clearly either a brave or foolish man, and one wonders whether he made approaches for El-Hadji Diouf and Robbie Savage at the same time. I hear Lee Hughes is out of the nick, Alan, if you’re interested.

Curbishley had already bought Scott Parker, his former charge at Charlton, and came back for more just before the window shut, signing Nobby Solano, who like Dyer wanted a move south for “family reasons” (though in this case, more plausibly). I suspect Nobby, a player who over the course of two spells brought craft and guile to our right side and genuinely took the club to his heart, will be remembered rather more fondly than Dyer, who probably saw more of the treatment room (and the inside of assorted nightclubs and hotel rooms) than he did the pitch during his eight year (yes, eight year!) stay. Someone called Albert Luque also left at the end of August, for Ajax. Nope, me neither.

By this point, the season was well underway, having got off to a tremendous start at the Reebok. All of the signs had looked bad for us beforehand, but we waltzed into the lions’ den, somewhere we’ve been mauled horribly in recent years, and discovered that without Fat Sam’s guiding hand Bolton are a bunch of toothless, slothful pussycats whom we overcame with ease and didn’t even have to tranquillise into submission with negative football. On the contrary, with Smith in midfield and James Milner part of a front trio, our first half display in particular was as dynamic as the performances towards the tail end of last season were stale and stodgy.

Inevitably, though, the raised expectation levels meant that the ensuing 0-0 draw with Villa came as a real disappointment (though in truth we were actually fortunate not to lose), extending the horrendous run of home league games without a goal. A week later at a sparsely populated Riverside, and we were given an unwelcome reminder of old defensive frailties; twice we took the lead through brilliant individual goals from Charles N’Zogbia and Mark Viduka, and twice we allowed the Smogs to hit back almost immediately to salvage a point they probably deserved but should have been denied.

The match and result were overshadowed, though, by the unsavoury chanting directed at Mido. The club’s silence was as shameful as the Toon-affiliated fanzine writers and fans who quibbled over semantics, exhibited a persecution complex (not least through the labelling of the Guardian’s reporting of and subsequent commentary on the incident and commentary as evidence of a personal vendetta on the part of Louise Taylor) and generally sought to deflect blame in any way they could. We all have to do more than just pay lip service to the Kick It Out campaign – it’s about more than wearing a T-shirt.

Thankfully, there were soon happier thoughts to dwell upon, with Michael Owen marking his first full start on his return from injury with the goal that finally broke our ambitionless visitors Barnsley’s resistance in the League Cup. His replacement Obafemi Martins, who scored the second, can I think expect to claim a regular first-team spot alongside Owen in a forward three spearheaded by Viduka, but – with the injury list having cleared, at least up front – Allardyce currently has an embarrassment of riches from which to choose.

Of the new recruits, David Rozehnal showed early signs of having settled quickly into the English game, but most impressive has been Geremi – rarely a headline-grabber, but skilful, always hard-working and capable of making telling contributions all over the pitch. Even if we did pay £2m for him, that’s currently looking like money very well spent.

A final word about Mike Ashley, who’s taken to attending matches clad not in the swish suit of most billionaire owners but an away strip with “Smith” on the back. One of the lads, perhaps? Will he be getting his beer gut out and shoes off next? Probably not – it’s not everyone who can persuade the doormen at Blu Bambu to relax their no football shirts policy and then buy a round of drinks for every reveller in the place. So much for low profile…


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