Sunday, September 30, 2007

City give us El

Manchester City 3 - 1 Newcastle Utd

It's fast becoming a mystery of similar proportions to that of Lord Lucan's disappearance: what, exactly, is the point of Alan Smith? Throughout yesterday's game at Man City, he once again offered scant protection to the back four, passed poorly, created nothing and couldn't be bothered to bust a gut and get on the end of an Obafemi Martins cross to take the one very presentable chance that came his way.

Meanwhile, our hosts could boast, in the same position, the Brazilian Elano, who was quite simply a class apart all afternoon. Needless to say, I take no satisfaction whatsoever from being vindicated in that aspect of my match preview.

With Owen and Cacapa injured during last weekend's win over West Ham, Martins and Steven Taylor came into the side, while Allardyce made the significant decision to retain Shay Given in goal for his first league start of the season at Steve Harper's expense.

Given it was who nearly gifted Man City an early lead, the Irishman fortunate that his hurried clearance after a heavy touch from a backpass didn't ricochet into the net off Emile Mpenza. We broke swiftly down the other end, the move culminating in Smith not deeming stretching out a leg to divert Martins' low cross into the net to be worth the effort.

It wasn't long before Given got the opportunity to underline why he's been our first choice 'keeper for so long, a quick interchange of passes ending in Elano's 25-yard volley, which was spectacularly tipped behind for a corner. In contrast to Man City's fluid attack, Mark Viduka was having one of his lumbering days, though he did at least force Joe Hart, himself preferred to recent regular custodian Kaspar Schmeichel, into a sprawling save.

The real thrust of our attack was being provided by James Milner, marauding down the right wing to good effect. On one occasion he burst past two defenders before delivering a dangerous pull-back from the by-line, and on another he and we were baffled by referee Chris Foy's decision not to point to the spot following Micah Richards' clumsy tackle from behind.

The skilful and clever Elano, though, was prompting and probing our defence, which looked rickety with Taylor in particular making a series of Bramble-esque cock-ups. It wasn't all his fault, though, with Nicky Butt once again guilty of a dereliction of duties. What will it take for him to be dropped?

Our goal, when it came, was out of nothing - a precise curled ball from deep by Geremi, exquisite control from Martins and a neat lobbed finish with his right foot. The lead was nearly doubled shortly afterwards when Hart, who'd already looked decidedly uncomfortable, failed to control a routine backpass, only just managing to hack it away before it dribbled over the goalline.

It was an incident we were soon to look back on ruefully, as Elano's pass fed Stephen Ireland, who, having escaped the attentions of Charles N'Zogbia, fed the ball across the six yard box for Martin Petrov to apply the finish at the back post. It could then very easily have been worse, Given pulling off a vital save after Elano had once again slipped Ireland in on goal.

At half time, we'd seen enough going forwards to feel some optimism, but our defence was finding Elano and co harder to handle than a hot bar of soap, so I would have gladly taken a point. I would have even more gladly taken one two minutes into the second period, when a litany of errors - "defensive suicide", in Fat Sam's terms - handed Man City the advantage. A poor header in midfield was seized upon by Petrov, who easily outpaced Taylor down the left before delivering a cross which David Rozehnal misjudged, Mpenza reacting well to guide his diving header back across Given and into the bottom corner.

From then on, we never looked capable of mounting a recovery of our own. Martins was lively and had a couple more efforts on goal, but Sven-Goran Eriksson's side assumed almost complete control. Milner and Viduka were now anonymous, and though Elano was orchestrating things more subtly, Michael Johnson had become increasingly influential and Petrov, rampaging down the left, was giving Habib Beye an afternoon to forget. Allardyce hardly helped matters, again hauling Geremi off and allowing Butt to continue blithering around doing absolutely nothing of merit.

Mpenza squandered a handful of half-chances to put the game beyond us, though the two best opportunities fell, somewhat fortunately, to Richards, who was unable to cap his lung-bursting length-of-the-pitch runs with the required finish. When the third goal did eventually come, three minutes from time, it was one even the staunchest Newcastle fan would have found difficult not to admire. Butt gave away a stupid free kick 30 yards out, Elano arrowing the ball with incredible power right into the top corner. Game over.

Other results have seen us slide alarmingly down the table - as I type Everton are beating the Smoggies, and a Villa victory at White Hart Lane tomorrow night would mean we will have dropped from fifth to tenth. Everton are our next opponents, and the chances of them being a soft touch for us to regain our form and confidence are as good as of solving the Alan Smith mystery any time soon.

Other reports: BBC, Observer

A Man City fan's perspective: Bitter And Blue

Priority report

"I shall cling to the hope I can play for England but people must accept that Newcastle have to come first at the moment. They pay my wages and I have missed far too many games since joining them to put them at the back of the queue as far as priorities go".

Good on Michael Owen for at least trying to set things straight with the national media.

There does, however, seem to be some disagreement about whether he'll be fit to face Everton next Saturday. Fat Sam says there's a reasonable chance but Owen himself says almost definitely not, adding that "I'd rather remain cautious than set unrealistic targets". Would it be reading too much into it to suggest there may be a rift developing between the two?

Friday, September 28, 2007

Exceeding expectations

(Match preview written for Man City blog Bitter And Blue)

The appointment of Sven-Goran Eriksson and the flurry of quality signings shortly before the season kicked off had me confidently predicting that Man City would be one of our main rivals for the UEFA Cup positions, but even I’ve been surprised by how quickly the new arrivals have gelled into a side which is proving solid at the back and fluent and very easy on the eye in attack.

With Vedran Corluka a commanding presence in defence, Martin Petrov so trigger-happy he’s bound to score a hatful, Elano a majestic playmaker and Geovanni coming off the bench to score vital goals, it’s fair to say that The Side That Thaksin’s Filthy Lucre Built is shaping up very nicely indeed, as far as the blue half of Manchester is concerned at least.

But that would be to downplay undeservedly the contribution of players who were already at the club when the new owner and manager strode into town. Micah Richards is fast emerging as the most promising young English player around; our old boy Dietmar Hamann appears to have had a new lease of life, selflessly anchoring the midfield to the benefit of Elano and co; and Michael Johnson is holding his own in an expensively assembled side packed with creative forward-thinking talent.

All of which means it wouldn’t come as much of a surprise if Joey Barton was rueing his decision to jump ship before the revolution swept through the club. Barton is yet to make his competitive debut for us and, though he’s nearing full fitness, Saturday’s game is likely to come too soon. When he does finally make his first appearance, he’ll probably be paired with Geremi, who’s been a quiet revelation at the heart of our midfield since arriving from Chelsea.

We too had a very busy summer – a takeover out of the blue (Mike Ashley’s arrival precipitating the long-overdue departure of Fat Fred, the man who over the years has probably done the most to make us a national laughing stock) and a raft of new signings. My attitude to Sam Allardyce remains frosty at best, but at least he’s not only recognised our defensive frailties – as if that’s the hard part – but actually taken decisive action to redress them. Best of the new faces at the back has been Czech international David Rozehnal, like Geremi a reliable and committed team player of the sort we’ve had too few of in recent years.

Up front, we’ve continued to suffer from Michael Owen’s chronic injury problems – lethal for England, largely sluggish for us on the rare occasions he’s made it off the treatment table and onto the pitch – but at least Mark Viduka showed against West Ham last weekend that, in the mood, he’s significantly more than just a square-jawed pie-munching former Smog. After an explosive start to the season at the Reebok, Obafemi Martins has been the odd man out in recent weeks, the chances spurned against Arsenal and the Hammers when he did see some action suggesting a player lacking in confidence. Owen’s absence has presented him with an opportunity to rediscover some form, and that he does so is imperative if we’re going to get anything from our visit to Eastlands.

Whichever way we look at it, it’s a tough proposition – one we may or may not be up to. I’d say we couldn’t possibly be as bad as we were in our last Premier League away match, at Pride Park, but with Newcastle – as, I imagine, with City – you soon learn never say never.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Rubber ring inflated with hot air?

So, what of Chris Mort's claim that prior to Mike Ashley's takeover and the ousting of Fat Fred, the club was on the brink of "fold[ing] like a pack of cards"?

Well, it certainly suggests that our financial predicament was a lot more precarious than we thought. As was rumoured, Mort has confessed that he and Ashley were "surprised at how bad the financial position was — they were in big trouble. If the old board had not refinanced the club by the end of the financial year on June 30, it would have folded like a pack of cards". What's more, all the sponsorship money from Northern Rock had been spent before it came in, as had cash from a deal with Adidas.

Mort's attempts to downplay the significance of his comments were rather half-hearted and disingenuous: "I’m not criticizing the previous regime. [Er, it rather looks that way, Chris...] Their heart was in the right place as they were doing what they could to bring success to the club but we are approaching things differently". Hmm, you mean they didn't have a fucking clue how to run a successful business, then? That comes as no surprise to us, even if it did to you two.

But if Mort is implying, as I think he probably is, that he and Ashley saved the club from a Leeds-esque financial meltdown, then I think there's an element of overstatement and self-promotion in there. With neither of them Newcastle fans born and bred, and therefore both likely to be looked on with an element of suspicion as outsiders, it would of course be very convenient if they could quickly establish themselves as saviours of the club, knights in shining armour who galloped to our rescue - and, as bad as things were, I doubt they were quite THAT bad.

Out gunned

Arsenal 2 - 0 Newcastle Utd

Perhaps inevitably, given that we had played a game just two days earlier, we ran out of steam in last night's match, and Arsenal's youngsters were able to count on their superior fitness to knock us out of this season's Carling Cup. However, to simply criticise whichever idiot forced us to play the two games so close together does a major disservice to the Arse, who were much the better side for large portions of this game - only for our defensive organisation, and some quality goalkeeping by Shay Given, to keep us within touch.

With Viduka, Owen and Cacapa absent through injury, Allardyce chose to restore Martins, Ameobi and Taylor to the starting line-up, with Shola operating down the left hand side of a five man midfield. Unfortunately, despite our superior numbers, we were never able to control that area of play, and consequently our attempts to stifle Arsenal failed.

Martins did moderately well up front on his own, although his inability to once again find the net having rounded the keeper (this time his scuffed shot was cleared off the line by Senderos) is starting to prove a cause for concern, and he could have scored a couple of times from decent chances. However, with his shooting boots once again left at home, we lacked a real cutting edge up front, and it was depressingly inevitable when Arsenal finally broke the deadlock with Bendtner heading home Traore cross, and then Denilson adding a second with a strong shot from the edge of the area. By then, though, our legs had gone, and with them any chance of pulling ourselves back into the match.

Looking ahead to the weekend's game with Man City, it was pleasing to see Jose Enrique get a full game under his belt, and his inclusion should allow the Zog to provide us with an outlet on the left. Whether Allardyce chooses to employ two wingers away from home is however, doubtful - given his naturally conservative approach in away games. What is clear is that Martins is now looking like a man in need of a goal to reignite his season, and with Owen looking like he'll be missing for the next few weeks, he should get a run of games to re-establish himself in the side. Whether he grasps that opportunity we'll have to wait and see, but if he doesn't we could find ourselves struggling.

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

For an Arsenal fan's view of the game: Arseblog, East Lower

Monday, September 24, 2007

From zero to hero

Newcastle Utd 3 - 1 West Ham

On an afternoon which gave me cause to grimace at this post from last week, Charles N'Zogbia turned in a match-winning performance that was as brilliant as his showing at Pride Park last Monday was abysmal.

Twice in the first half the young Frenchman crossed perfectly for Mark Viduka to score before finding the net himself for the third time this season in the second period. I like to think that the threat of a public flogging was enough to spur him into bucking up his ideas...

In the wake of Monday's shambles, Shola Ameobi was nowhere to be seen, with Mark Viduka returning in his place and Habib Beye coming in for his first start at Steven Taylor's expense, Shay Given and Obafemi Martins once again left kicking their heels on the bench.

Warming up before kick-off, we offered some support to our supporters, wearing black Northern Rock T-shirts emblazoned with the message "Rock steady". Thankfully that certainly wasn't true of West Ham's defence, which managed to keep us at bay for all of two minutes. In truth, though, there was little they could have done about it, N'Zogbia's deep cross superbly headed just inside Robert Green's near post by Viduka.

We sat back expecting the shell-shocked Hammers to be taken apart - but no such luck. No doubt acutely aware of Given's breath on his neck, Harper will have been relieved to have pulled off a great one-handed save from Mark Noble, the youngster having escaped the attentions of Nicky Butt too easily. But Harper could do nothing about the equaliser, which saw West Ham's robust approach bear dividends. Dean Ashton and Carlton Cole were giving David Rozehnal and Claudio Cacapa a rough time, and Cole it was whose back header fell for Ashton to guide into the corner from close range.

Stung into action, we regained the lead shortly before half-time. N'Zogbia raced down the left, cut inside the full-back and sent a low cross skidding across the six yard area to Viduka, who appeared to slide the ball in with his shin. Given the quality of his first two strikes in a black and white shirt, the Australian could certainly be forgiven a scrappy one.

Michael Owen lasted all of six minutes at the start of the second half, succumbing again to his groin problem after a quick dart past a West Ham defender. After the game, Fat Sam admitted: "Even though the initial scan was clear, there's a persistent area which is causing him a problem. We need to look deeper into that. We will scan it again, get a specialist opinion and see where we go from there". Good news for no one but Martins, who entered the fray in his place.

Their morale boosted by the sight of Owen disappearing down the tunnel, West Ham pressed for a second equaliser, but fortunately it never came. Ashton went close, and Harper athletically saved a Lee Bowyer shot and afforded us the opportunity to see a scowl spread across the little runt's face.

N'Zogbia had been the thorn in the Hammers' side all afternoon, and three minutes after he was pushed forwards into midfield following the introduction of Jose Enrique for the not-yet-fully-fit Viduka, he grabbed the goal he deserved, tapping in from Martins' pass. With the Londoners deflated and on the ropes, the Nigerian then somehow contrived to miss an open goal having rounded Green, but given that three flattered us, a fourth would have put a deceptive gloss on what was a just about merited win in which N'Zogbia was the real difference between the two sides.

Tomorrow's visit to the Emirates Stadium, not much more than 48 hours after the final whistle at St James's Park, will hopefully see us take to the field knowing the League Cup represents our best chance of silverware, even when we're up against Arsenal's astoundingly talented foetuses, but it's Saturday lunchtime's clash against Sven-Goran Eriksson's resurgent Man City, two places above us in third, which looks like our toughest test yet.

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Owen: not crocked

It really is telling when the fact that Michael Owen ISN'T injured is worth reporting as news.

Responding to speculation over Owen's premature departure on Monday night and the possibility that he might miss England's vital European Championship qualifiers next month (never mind a few games for the club that pays his wages, eh?), Fat Sam insisted: "He does not need a hernia operation. I fully expect him to be fit to face West Ham on Sunday". Of course, Owen could be fit and in the form of his life and still endure a miserable afternoon if the service to him is as pathetic as it was at Pride Park.

Meanwhile, Allardyce has raised Scouse hackles (including those of John Aldridge) by claiming in an interview with Zoo magazine that "Rafa [Benitez] would be very lucky to be in a job if he hadn't got to two Champions League finals, because they have had some very, very poor finishes in the Premier League", and that "Being a foreigner, Rafa doesn't understand it's supposed to be Premier League first and Champions League second". Forget the latent xenophobia there, and consider the comment of one reader of the Guardian's Fiver: "Wise words from a manager for whom this particular conundrum will never be an issue"...

Still, the good news for Fat Sam is that he can probably take verbal pot-shots at his fellow Premier League managers without fear of them ever inviting him outside, Jose Mourinho having admitted that Allardyce is the opposing boss he'd least like to fight...

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Support for the supporters

Things now look to have bottomed out for Northern Rock, but one person quick to speak out in support of the bank was former Newcastle boss Sir Bobby Robson.

Robson, who made a point of opening a new account with them yesterday morning, was quoted as saying: "Northern Rock has been very supportive and has shown great allegiance to the sporting fabric of the North East for many years and I feel it is only right to support them at this moment".

Hard to argue with him, given that they currently sponsor the Falcons rugby team, the Eagles basketball team and Durham County Cricket Club as well as Newcastle Utd. And that's not to mention their charity work through the Northern Rock Foundation, which has donated £175m to date to good causes in the region. It would be a massive blow if the bank did ultimately go under, and not just for their thousands of employees and customers.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Generous to a fault

Derby 1 - 0 Newcastle Utd

Last time we played Derby at Pride Park, in April 2002, our hosts were bound for the Championship and we were heading towards fourth and a Champions League place. After a drab and goalless first half we were stunned to find ourselves 2-0 down and making relegation fodder look like world-beaters. But then, with 17 minutes remaining, Laurent Robert struck a masterful free-kick and from then on it was a rout. Robert hit the post, Jermaine Jenas - on for the injured Alan Shearer - hit the bar with a 30 yard volley, Kieron Dyer got an equaliser and then, in the last minute, Lomano Lua Lua got his first Newcastle goal at the umpteenth attempt to wrap up a 3-2 win which will live long in the memory. The two clubs' courses towards their final destinations remained unswerving.

Tonight we again fell behind, to a side that finished on the wrong end of a 6-0 mauling at Anfield in their last outing and that look like relegation certainties - but this time there was no fairytale comeback, just a humiliatingly appalling performance that made a mockery of all our pretensions towards a renaissance and a possible UEFA Cup spot. As the old adage goes, you can't polish a turd, and this was a turd of the most unpolishable kind.

Inevitably it was Rams debutant Kenny Miller, a £3m signing from Celtic, who did the damage - had Glenn Roeder remained in charge until the summer, he could well have ended up a Newcastle player. Our defence had looked relatively solid up until the decisive moment in the 39th minute, when they allowed a long kick from Derby 'keeper Stephen Bywater to bounce to Miller, who took one touch and hit a shot from 30 yards over the stranded Steve Harper and into the top corner.

By that point, having been relatively comfortable in containing the Derby threat, we should have been in front. Michael Owen, played in by James Milner, was forced wide by Bywater, but his low cross should have been buried by David Rozehnal, who only succeeded in driving it wide. Geremi's curling free-kick was pushed behind for a corner, and we should have been awarded a penalty for Dean Leacock's penalty area grappling with Rozehnal immediately before the Derby goal. Even after we'd gone behind, Shola Ameobi - in for the injured Mark Viduka - should have done better than prod harmlessly wide when well placed.

We hadn't played well, though - but even then I made the fatal mistake of imagining it couldn't get much worse. Oh yes it could, and certainly did after the break. We couldn't do anything - pass, cross, shoot, tackle, take set-pieces, control the ball. It was abysmal. Any opportunity we had was blazed high over the bar, while former Toon season ticket holder Steve Howard - the sort of square-foreheaded lunk who makes for an effective battering ram in the Championship but who is hopelessly limited in the top flight - could and should have plundered a hat-trick of headers.

Fat Sam has to cop some of the flak for his bizarre substitutions, as much as anything else. Owen may have looked a little sluggish, but to withdraw him after 55 minutes with us 1-0 down made no sense. He's a man in great form and it wasn't his fault the service was so poor - apparently he touched the ball 14 times all game. Even more mystifying was the decision to replace captain Geremi with debutant Abdoulaye Faye with half an hour remaining, when of the two central midfielders it was Nicky Butt who was "busy" turning in his most pathetic performance in a black and white shirt to date, seemingly intent on helping Derby's Stephen Pearson earn a move to Real Madrid.

Butt was merely the biggest culprit - Ameobi, Alan Smith and Charles N'Zogbia should all be publicly flogged for their displays too. The only player to emerge with any credit whatsoever was Rozehnal, who defended with guts and passion, and often also offered an attacking thrust from the back. He was unlucky to be denied a second penalty when Leacock again got all touchy-feely in the box. By the time dozy referee Peter Walton woke up to the situation and had words with Leacock, it was too late.

The result's not so much a cold shower as a dunking in an ice-cold plunge pool. Not only are we no longer unbeaten, but from this new vantage point our two victories to date look decidedly underwhelming - a late, late 1-0 win at home to Wigan, and the other a defeat of the side that now, thanks to tonight's result, props up the table. It could be a long winter after all.

It's worth bringing this tale of woe to an end with a brief note on the suitably farcical circumstances in which the two halves of Black & White & Read All Over experienced the game. Both of us were at that game five years ago, but tonight one of us was at an ante-natal class keeping tabs on proceedings via text updates while the other - yours truly - would have quite honestly much rather have been embarking upon a 12 hour labour. As if watching a televised defeat of the most ignominious kind in exile could be any worse, the pub I was in had one working TV out of about four - the small one behind the bar. Every time someone ordered a pint of San Miguel or John Smiths, my view was obscured by the barman's head.

A thoroughly shitty night all round.

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

Northern Rocked

I suppose it's fitting for a club that often seems to lurch from crisis to crisis (even if, at the present moment, things seem alarmingly stable) to find its shirt sponsors experiencing a major crisis of their own.

There's been no official word from Newcastle about what implications Northern Rock's predicament might have for the sponsorship deal, but suffice to say any collapse would be far more catastrophic for the thousands of people with accounts and mortgages with them than for the club.

We certainly wouldn't have any trouble in attracting a new sponsor, even at short notice, and today's News Of The World claims that Vodafone are a definite possibility - their deal with Man Utd having ended, they're apparently looking to lend their support to another Premier League side.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Double trouble joy

Reasons to be cheerful: not only did Michael Owen play another game without suffering any adverse reaction last night, but he also scored twice as England sauntered to a 3-0 win over Russia which against all expectations proved nearly as easy as Saturday's stroll in the park against Israel.

Owen's first was an opportunist finish, as he reacted with lightning speed to trap a ball that evaded the heads of players right in front of him and then fire in off the post. His second was a real corker, though; having pulled off his marker, he was found by Emile Heskey's superb flicked header and calmly lofted a powerful volley into the roof of the net from just inside the area. And then, to round things off, his clever pass put Rio Ferdinand in for the third goal towards the end.

So it looks as though we'll have got back a player who's both very nearly fully fit and in lethal goalscoring form - it's now five in four games for club and country. If I was a Derby defender, having conceded six on Owen's old stamping ground Anfield in my last outing, I'd be very worried about the prospect of facing him on Monday night...

Monday, September 10, 2007

Snouting for truffles

Barely a month after being gracefully escorted out of the Newcastle boardroom, it seems as though Fat Fred has set his piggy eyes on another football club.

Poisoned dwarf Ken Bates - along with Simon Jordan, one of the very few chairman to rival Shepherd in the unpleasantness stakes - today admitted discussing football over a lunch meeting with Fred. While claiming that nothing is imminent, Bates conceded that "he would like to get back in and I would like an investor, so the two fit in".

Leeds did a commendable job of taking away our mantle as the nation's biggest laughing stock some time ago, and now the fans have got to face up to the prospect of that buffoon getting his trotters on their club and things getting even worse. It's almost enough to feel sorry for them. Almost.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Three Lions, three goals

Congratulations to Michael Owen, whose splendid long-range (well, by his own standards, at least) shot on the turn into the top corner of the net helped England cruise to a comfortable 3-0 win over Israel in the crucial European Championship qualifier at the rebuilt Wembley, their first victory there.

In truth, Owen could and probably should have had a hat-trick. Played in by Joe Cole in the first half, he smashed the ball straight into 'keeper Dudu Aouate's face and then sliced the follow-up horribly high and wide. In the second period, he collected a clever through-ball from substitute Andy Johnson, rounded Aouate but saw his shot brilliantly cleared off the line.

Johnson had rather inexplicably come on for the surprisingly effective Emile Heskey, and given that Steven Gerrard was taken off once the result was safe, I can't imagine Fat Sam will have been too happy to see Owen left on the pitch for the full 90 minutes. The decision doesn't make a great deal of sense from an England perspective, either, if Owen's expected to lead the line again on Wednesday night against Russia.

Elsewhere, Shay Given had a very busy night in Slovakia, but couldn't prevent Marek Cech scoring in the last minute to salvage his side a point with a 2-2 draw. Given's club colleague David Rozehnal expended rather less energy as the Czech Republic easily beat San Marino 3-0. The Irish now need to win the battle of the two Republics on Wednesday night to stand any chance of qualification.

Also on international duty was Emre, who played as Turkey twice came from behind to get a 2-2 draw against Malta. With Nicky Butt and Geremi Allardyce's current favoured pairing in central midfield, and Joey Barton soon to return from injury, it may be a while before he sees serious action for his club.

One Newcastle player who didn't feature for his national side was Obafemi Martins, allowed to leave the Nigerian training camp to be with his ill child in Italy. Hopefully all will be well and he can return to Tyneside without any distractions, but at least we know Owen's very close to being back to his lethal best.

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…

Friday, September 07, 2007

Record breaker

Congratulations to James Milner, who tonight gained his thirtieth cap for the England U21s, surpassing Scott Carson's record in the 3-0 defeat of Montenegro U21s. Milner had a key role in England's opening goal, as did Steven Taylor, named as captain for the first time in his career and so equally deserving of congratulation.

How much longer Milner and Taylor are club colleagues is a moot point, however, with the Chronicle reporting today that the latter has rejected a five-year contract offer from the club.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

The end of the affair

You'll not find much love for Man Utd or their fans round these 'ere parts, but this post has got me extending my sympathies to Rowdies supporter Lord Bargain - or rather ex-Rowdies supporter Lord Bargain. Is this their Cup tickets scheme, a not-so-stealthy loyalty tax, a thing to come for all of us? Let's hope not.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Zog going nowhere

Following on from his recent good performances, it has been confirmed that Charles N'Zogbia has signed a new five year deal to stay at the club. No doubt, this will have involved a hefty pay rise for the player, but given his recent performances, and his undoubted talent this still represents an excellent move by the club, and which should finally ward off alleged interest from Fulham and Arsenal.

The fact that N'Zogbia was roundly (and deservedly) criticised for his texting exploits at the end of last season only emphasises how far the player has improved in recent weeks under the new regime. According to reports, this is in no small part down to Geremi, who has apparently taken the young Frenchman under his wing.

What the Zog's recent performances have shown is Allardyce's ability to coax the best out of players, for which we should all be grateful.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Late show sinks Latics

Newcastle Utd 1 - 0 Wigan Athletic

For the first time in my life, I'm happily writing a match report which contains the phrase "Titus Bramble's poor clearance led to the only goal of the game". Thankfully, Bramble's place in the heart of the Wigan defence made the difference in this game, which was far more one-sided that an 87th minute Michael Owen winner suggests.

In truth, we were much the better side, and created several excellent opportunities for Michael Owen, only to see Chris Kirkland produce one excellent save, the linesman to wrongly flag for off-side when Owen put the ball in to the net, and for Owen to loft one further chance over the crossbar. Coupled with the fact that Steven Taylor also rattled the woodwork and Titus seemed to get away with a handball inside the visitors' penalty area, it looked like being one of those games when your only worry is whether your inability to put the ball in the net will come back to haunt you in the second half.

After the break, Steve Bennett mystifyingly decided that Kevin Kilbane's clash of heads with Alan Smith was in some way malicious (presumably seeing an elbow which replays showed wasn't there) and sent the former Mackem from the pitch with a second yellow card (the first coming from a fairly clumsy foul on Taylor in the first half). Down to ten men, the visitors' limited attempts to press forward were further curtailed as they sought to grimly cling on for a point.

Allardyce sought to freshen things up, and it was the introduction of Martins for Smith which proved the decisive change, when, as the game drew to a close, Bramble's poor clearance fell to Taylor. His ball found Martins down the right, and the Nigerian's powerful cross was met brilliantly by Owen's head at the near post to give us a thoroughly deserved victory.

Going into the international break, we sit pretty in sixth, and Allardyce can take a great deal of comfort from the fact that we now look a far more solid team at the back (with Rozehnal and Cacapa enjoying excellent days at the heart of our defence today - Taylor filling in at right back), with additional defenders coming in prior to the transfer deadline, and a general feeling that we look a much more solid side, and the goal drought at home also finally broken.

As is always a case with international fixtures, it's now a case of counting them out and counting them back, hoping that none of our players pick up knocks whilst representing their respective countries.

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

The final flurry

Strange, isn't it, how football clubs - multi-million pound businesses - leave everything to the very last available minute? No fewer than five different transfers involving Newcastle were completed on Friday.

Most notable was the departure of Nobby Solano who, in his desire to move closer to his estranged wife and kids in London, has signed for West Ham, Alan Curbishley's latest acquisition in an apparent bid to reconstruct the Toon side of two years ago. The decision to let Nobby leave is one I find difficult to understand, particularly given the injuries to Stephen Carr and Peter Ramage. Solano proved himself an adaptable and reliable right-back last season, also providing additional creativity and craft on that flank. Since returning from Villa on deadline day 2005 he never quite hit the heights of his first spell on Tyneside, but remained a hugely popular player with the fans. Hopefully we'll get the chance to show our appreciation and say goodbye properly when the Hammers are our visitors in a fortnight's time.

Solano's loss has been partially compensated for by the arrival of Habib Beye from Marseille. The 29-year-old can play at right-back, and may well find that position is his before long. But with David Rozehnal and Cacapa looking capable of forming a strong partnership, it would be a shame if there was no place in the side for Steven Taylor.

Also pitching up on Tyneside on Friday, after weeks of speculation, was Bolton's Senegalese player Abdoulaye Faye, who can play at centre-back or add defensive steel to the midfield. With Geremi performing so well, it's Nicky Butt who's likely to find his place most under threat.

Meanwhile Paul Huntington was a surprise departee, leaving St James's for Dennis Wise's lovable and hard-done-to Leeds Utd. As Huntington's a promising England U19 defender who coped relatively well with being thrust into emergency first team action last season, it seems curious that Fat Sam has sanctioned a permanent rather than just a loan move. Presumably, though, the influx of defenders convinced him at least one of the youngsters was surplus to requirements - but a couple more injuries and we may be regretting that decision too.

If Solano's departure is likely to be mourned by many, few will shed any tears over the news that Albert Luque has signed for Ajax. A brilliant player when we bought him, Luque proved to be a spectacularly expensive failure whose attitude and application were always questionable and whose talent seemed to evaporate overnight. Just watch him turn it on for the Dutch side now, though...

(Wigan match report to follow.)

It's Gunner be tough

Oh great. Thanks to whoever made the draw for the next round of the League Cup which gave us the opportunity to be humiliated by Arsenal's reserve / youth team...