Wednesday, October 31, 2007

East Country boy

Congratulations to our former boss Glenn Roeder, today appointed manager of Norwich.

At Newcastle, Roeder was essentially a decent bloke a bit out of his depth last season, not helped by a bunch of players who either seemed to be out of form or unable to give a toss, and should instead be fondly remembered for doing a sterling job in erasing the nightmare of the Souness reign in guiding us to 7th in 2005-6.

So he goes into his new job with our best wishes - and he may need them, what with his new side lying bottom of the Championship and with a critical derby fixture against in-form rivals Ipswich as his first game in charge...

Sunday, October 28, 2007

A right Royal mess

Reading 2 - 1 Newcastle Utd

How is it that we could go from defending so stoutly against Spurs to turning in such a dismally uncoordinated display at the Madjeski less than a week later? Having contained well over £20m of striking talent (if that still serves as a description of Darren Bent...) with consummate ease, our back four were unable to handle a trio of forwards who cost a combined total of less than £2m - and had Leroy Lita had his shooting boots rather than his skewing/skying boots on, we would have paid a much heavier price than this narrow defeat.

Fat Sam's team selection once again baffled - not content with continuing to consign James Milner to the bench alongside our best defender David Rozehnal, Allardyce chose to accommodate the fully-fit Joey Barton by dropping Charles N'Zogbia, our other out-and-out winger and arguably our best player so far this season. And yet Nicky Butt continues to start no matter what - damn you, Tottenham, for making him look good.

The result, inevitably, was no width and precious little creativity, the onus falling squarely on Emre and his shoulders unable to bear the burden. Not only was this criminal in that it gave the recently porous Reading defence an easy ride, but it also handed the home side the initiative, Lita twice letting us off the hook in the first half. At no point was our fondness for making life difficult for ourselves more apparent, though, than when Cacapa - one of the heroes against Spurs - hit an extraordinarily careless backpass that Shay Given scrabbled to just about keep out. The sum total of our first half efforts, other than some occasional neat interpassing in midfield, was Michael Owen's extremely hopeful penalty claim under challenge from Reading 'keeper Marcus Hahnemann. Is it really any wonder he continues to look out-of-sorts, a frustrated figure, for us when the service to him is as shoddy as it was yesterday?

If the Royals didn't already know it, Steve Coppell's half-time talk must have made them appreciate that we were there for the taking - and, sure enough, eight minutes into the second period, Dave Kitson (who also did the damage back in April) found the top right corner of Given's net with a splendid left-foot shot from 20 yards.

Allardyce, perhaps rueing his initial selection, promptly threw on N'Zogbia and Alan Smith but little changed until the introduction of Milner. Two minutes after stepping onto the pitch his persistence by the corner flag won the free kick which Emre swung in for Michael Duberry to knock over the line with his gut. Not the first time Duberry, a definite rival for Titus Bramble in the haplessness stakes, has scored an own goal in our favour - perhaps he's a closet Newcastle fan?

Suddenly we were transformed, looking dangerous every time we got the ball and seeking out what would have been a most undeserved winner. As it was, we couldn't even hold on for a point - turned out that Coppell had a supersub of his own, Shane Long replacing the profligate Lita and firing past Given barely a minute later. In the build-up, any lingering smirks at the sight of Duberry's cock-up were wiped from our faces by the farcical mess Cacapa and colleagues made of clearing the ball. And with that the chance of fourth place was gone (it would have been fifth anyway, with Chelsea romping to a 6-0 win over Man City).

So, what did we learn?

1. We still can't keep a clean sheet away from home - for some reason, the defence turns to jelly as soon as they emerge from an unfamiliar dressing room. Puzzling - but something that needs addressing quickly. We won't get anywhere if we can't defend on foreign soil.

2. Fat Sam still doesn't seem to know his best midfield. Hopefully he'll stop tinkering with different permutations sooner rather than later - and realise that we need at least one if not both of Milner and N'Zogbia in the starting line-up. We've played with four central midfielders before, and it just doesn't work. If Owen's to look like someone other than a lost schoolboy enduring a games lesson on a freezing January day, then he's got to get some quality service.

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

Friday, October 26, 2007

It's all gone quiet over here...

... or, rather, it might in the next week or so. Paul's on holiday, and I'm about to move house so am likely to have limited internet access. We're sure you'll be able to cope without our match reports, witty insights and bitter humour (see below) for a while, though.

You've got to laugh

Armando Iannucci, the man behind 'The Thick Of It' and much of 'I'm Alan Partridge' and 'The Day Today', once opined on his own show that "there are only two things in the world that give us absolute total happiness: one is unwrapping a newly bought CD and the other is seeing other people fail". The former is a regular pleasure of mine, the latter the reason I've been so amused by developments down at the Reebok this season.

I'm still far from being Fat Sam's biggest fan, but so far he seems to be making a decent fist of what is a notoriously difficult job. His track record at Bolton suggested a manager capable of getting the very best out of a bunch of unfancied supposedly past-it journeymen. Every year I tipped his Bolton side for a relegation struggle, and every season they overachieved.

So Trotters chairman Phil Gartside's claim on the eve of Allardyce's return to the Reebok with Newcastle for the first game of the season that Bolton's football had "grown stale" was always likely to come back to bite him on the arse. We duly won the game 3-1 and at a canter.

Even more ludicrous than claiming routinely finishing in the European places constituted going "stale" for a club of Bolton's size and stature was Gartside's stated conviction that Allardyce's assistant 'Little' Sammy Lee would take them on to bigger and better things. Little more than two months into the season and, with the Trotters sitting ugly at the foot of the table, there was a polite agreement that Lee should get his coat.

If it wasn't hilarious enough that our old friend Graeme 'Soumess' Souness was then interviewed for the position of their saviour, he subsequently ruled himself out of the running, presumably considering the job beneath him. The fact that Gartside came out and claimed that he knew "he would have been an exceptional candidate for the role" suggests the extent of the man's delusions.

Could it get any better? Yes, he could go and and appoint Gary Megson, a man who (according to the Guardian's Fiver) 12 Bolton fans out of 699 surveyed by a local paper felt is the right man for the job.

Ex Toon player Megson, who has left Leicester after just six weeks in charge to leave Foxes chairman Milan Mandaric fuming, has a managerial record of having won seven Premiership matches out of 48 - just what's needed to take Bolton back to where they belong: the Championship. Early in the season, we were talking about Agent Chopra taking Sunderland down from the inside - well, it seems as though we can now talk about Agent Megson...

And if you find this gleeful wallowing in Schadenfreude distasteful, then please bear in mind how much of a relief and joy it is for the Premiership's laughing stock not to be us...

Off the hook

Damien Duff (remember him?) has been fortunate enough to have his speeding charge thrown out of court, having been clocked driving at more than 50mph over the speed limit on the A1. The reason? A vital piece of evidence - his response to the police confirming who was driving - was lost in the post. At least someone's got reason to be grateful for the current chaos in the postal system.

New kid on the blog

A warm welcome to the Black & White & Read All Over sidebar to Newcastle United Blogger, whose site does exactly what it says on the tin.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Bowled over

Newcastle Utd 3 - 1 Tottenham Hotspur

Last year's home fixture against Spurs, which took place on 23rd December, saw us beat them at a canter, giving Geordie fans a warm Christmas glow and sending Jermaine Jenas back down the A1 with chants of "3-1 to the goldfish bowl" ringing in his ears.

Tonight's game wasn't much different: same scoreline, same comfortable victory, another woefully hilarious performance from JJ (though this was arguably worse - he actually made Nicky Butt look good). True, it's not quite Christmas yet, but Spurs were certainly in a festive mood, gifting us all three goals.

Fat Sam decided to include both supersubs from the win over Everton a fortnight ago, Michael Owen replacing Alan Smith and Emre in for, perhaps surprisingly, James Milner. Meanwhile, he persisted with Abdoulaye Faye and Cacapa in central defence, once again leaving David Rozehnal, arguably our best defender so far this season, kicking his heels on the bench. Still, he didn't look as glum about it as Spurs' Dimitar Berbatov did...

Rozehnal's omission did mystify me, but to Allardyce's credit both the Brazilian and the Senegalese turned in superb performances. Faye's bonce, which smacked ball after ball away from the danger zone, came so close to giving us the lead at the other end, powering a header against the post from Charles N'Zogbia's corner with Spurs' reserve 'keeper Radek Cerny flapping about as if to show he really is Paul Robinson's understudy.

He did, though, make a great save to push away Michael Owen's low curling shot, one-time Toon target Michael Dawson having cocked up charitably (and not for the last time, it was to transpire). Geremi was unlucky to see a fizzing free kick deflected past the post, after which referee Steve Bennett, apparently blind to the ball's deviation, bizarrely awarded a goal kick. With Darren Bent once again making a mockery of his £16.5m transfer fee, all Spurs could muster was a couple of efforts from Robbie Keane, the first hacked away from just in front of the goalline by Habib Beye and the other comfortably saved by his compatriot Shay Given.

Obafemi Martins was struggling to get into the game, too often misjudging his leaps for high balls Andy Cole style and tumbling over his own feet, but when a mistake by Younes Kaboul let him in for a close-range shot that Cerny blocked, it proved to be a sign of things to come. With a disappointing 0-0 half-time score looking increasingly likely, Martins capitalised on Dawson's inability to clear a straightforward long ball from Jose Enrique to give us a deserved lead.

All too often we rest on our laurels and fail to build on a lead, so it was pleasing that only six second-half minutes had elapsed when Cacapa escaped Dawson's attentions to double our advantage from an Emre corner with his first goal for the club. The two goal cushion meant we could relax, and relax we did - to the extent that six minutes later Pascal Chimbonda was allowed time and space to cross onto Bent's head, the ball rebounding off the post for Keane to volley into the empty net.

For the best part of an hour we had been by far the better side, even without breaking a sweat, but all of a sudden Spurs sensed the possibility of snatching what would have been their fourth draw in four away matches. Suddenly the possession was all theirs. Thankfully, though, they managed to do a fine impression of the witless, guileless bunch of millionaires we sometimes see on the St James Park turf in black and white.

Joey Barton came on for Emre to make his competitive debut (and, I'm pleased to say, didn't mark the occasion by getting sent off, baring his backside or stubbing a cigar out in anyone's eye), and two minutes later fellow substitute Milner put Spurs out of their misery, miskicking horribly at first but then allowed by JJ to volley left-footed into the corner. With the Londoners slipping back into despondency, more goals were there for the taking, but we showed a degree of mercy.

It might prove to be the final nail in Martin Jol's coffin, and certainly it's hard to believe how bad Spurs were or that we'll come up against a more inept performance this season - but that's not for us to worry about (and certainly there was no sympathy for their plight from Jol's opposite number). Let's not look a gift horse in the mouth. Another three points - no higher in the table, but within striking distance of the upper echelons. It all depends on whether we can transfer our good home form into a strong showing away to another demoralised side, Reading, on Saturday. For Michael Dawson read Frank Duberry, perhaps? Sod's law that, after conceding seven to Portsmouth and four to Blackburn, the Royals' defence'll manage to keep us out...

A Spurs fan's perspective: The Shelf

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

Sunday, October 21, 2007

The ex-files

How pleasant to arrive back in Blighty and be able to unwind in front of the TV by watching West Ham beat the Mackems thanks to key contributions from Nobby Solano (making his Hammers debut) and Craig Bellamy. You can take the boys out of Newcastle...

And on the subject of old habits dying hard, the friends with whom we were staying in Toronto are fans of Toronto FC, whose inaugural season in the MLS drew to a close yesterday. Mo Johnston's side recovered from two goals down to draw against the New England Revolution, managed by former Liverpool utility man Steve Nicol, but I just couldn't get wholeheartedly behind the home side - partly because their star players are Welsh midfielder and stand-in skipper Carl Robinson and Danny Dichio, both ex Mackems... Having also notched his side's very first MLS goal, Dichio it was who spawned the injury time equaliser - and this after the Revolution's Michael Parkhurst had opened the scoring by lobbing TFC 'keeper Kenny Stamatopoulos from inside his own half Beckham-style...

Back to the real business tomorrow evening, though.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Summer of rest looming

After the European interlude, it's refreshing to be able to sit back and savour the positives.

Seemingly, all our players survived their jaunts to represent their countries unscathed. England's "five minutes of madness" in Russia means that, barring an Israeli miracle (and despite a fine assist last night) Michael Owen will finally get a restful summer. On Under 21 duty, James Milner extended his appearance record and scored a goal, hopefully finding a bit of form along the way, all under Steven Taylor's captaincy.

Further afield, Shay Given got some more game time under his belt (whilst Stephen Carr remained an unused squad member) for the Republic, but will also be putting his feet up over the summer.

David Rozenhal's Czech Republic have reached the European Championship, where they may yet be joined by Emre's Turkey.

Perhaps the most significant development from all of this is that McClaren's grasp of the England job looks likely to slip permanently, in which case the FA might come knocking on Big Sam's door. Of course, with a certain London based Portuguese manager out of a job at the moment, they might decide to ask Jose before heading North.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

20 games

According to reports, Big Sam isn't rushing to offer Michael Owen a new contract. With Owen no longer having the benefit of a buy-out clause, it looks like he'll be staying put for a while yet, although as Allardyce points out, the chances of him getting a new contract hinge on him being able to actually string a run of 20 games together in a black and white shirt (not unreasonable given that he's only managed about 20 games for us in the last two years).

With rumours suggesting Sven is waiting in the wings to take Owen off our hands, it's reassuring to know that any deal will be done on our terms or not at all, and it's to be hoped that Owen can start to turn out for us on a weekly basis.

Personally, I'm just hoping he survives his jaunt round the astroturf tonight without anything more than a grazed knee for his troubles.

Sam's the man?

With news that Sammy Lee has "left Bolton by mutual consent" what price him joining our coaching staff in the near future? Reputedly a good coach, it would appear that Lee, like several top class coaches before him (Brian Kidd springs instantly to mind) has failed to make the step up to management. The recent spat with toon old boy Gary Speed can't have helped.

On that subject, who seriously believes in the idea of leaving a job by mutual consent? Surely the impetus for the departure has to come from one party or the other (and I strongly doubt it was Lee). Why don't people just say, Bolton have asked Sammy Lee to sling his hook, offered him some money to go, and he's taken it and headed for the travel agent?

Friday, October 12, 2007

Stomach upset

"I will bust a gut to play in any game, for Newcastle and England." Not the best choice of words there from Michael Owen, seeking to dispel rumours he's only rushed back to action after stomach surgery so he can feature for England in the forthcoming European Championship qualifiers against Estonia and Russia.

I don't want to add to any mischief being made, but there are definitely hints of a rift, or at least a tension, between Owen and Fat Sam. The latter, in urging caution, has effectively been casting doubts on the fact that Owen is fully fit, while the player is insisting the only opinion he's interested in is that of the surgeon. If he emerges from the international fixtures unscathed, and it certainly looks as though he'll have a big part to play, then we'll be able to lay the issue to rest for a while - but if not, it could really blow up. On the one hand, it won't be Owen's fault if he plays on the advice of the surgeon and picks up another injury, but on the other both the club and the fans are understandably keen to see a greater return on what has been a significant investment and another injury would go down like a particularly heavy lead balloon.

Monday, October 08, 2007

A Month Of Saturdays: September 2007

With Ben currently swanking around the New York on the other side of the Atlantic the task of briefly assessing our fortunes in September has fallen to me...

As autumn winds started to blow around St James' Park, it was our form which appeared to mirror the leaves on the trees and could best be described as changeable.

We started September brightly, with our first goal at St James' Park since February bringing a home win against Wigan and a Michael Owen goal to boot. This was followed at home by a home win against West Ham (courtesy of Marc Viduka and Charles N'Zogbia). In the case of that game, it proved that Viduka was a cracking summer signing, with his strength and goalscoring ability ensuring a torrid afternoon for Anton Ferdinand and co, and for the Zog it was further evidence of his excellent start to the season, and confirmation that his new five year contract was thoroughly deserved.

Owen also proved his worth for both club and country, adding three goals to his England tally whilst also appearing threatening when paired with Viduka for us, and at long last told the press that his priority is to play for the people paying his wages (regardless of what certain elements of the press might think). However, his subsequent injuries which necessitated further surgery were evidence of the injury carrying ill wind which continues to blow through St James' Park.

The handful of positive elements of our performance this month were more than mirrored by the bad, with our changeable form seeing us capitulate horribly away to Derby in a performance devoid of wit, width and wisdom, and further defeats to Arsenal's youth team in the League Cup and Sven's foreign legion in the Premiership. All three performances ensuring that our feet remain resolutely fixed to the floor, and left Sam Allardyce under no illusions as to the problems he still needs to address, in terms of both defensive organisation and the introduction of some creative flair into the midfield.

With our former chairman reportedly looking to use some of his massive payoff to get into bed with Father Christmas look-a-like Ken Bates at Leeds United it was seemingly inevitable that his replacement would start to mouth of in the press about what a shoddy job Fat Fred had made of balancing the books - presumably Fat Fred was first in the queue outside Northern Rock when our kit sponsor enjoyed a turbulent few days.

Against this backdrop, our supposedly reclusive chairman became an increasingly regular match day attendee, still sporting his Alan Smith replica shirt, and looking every bit the man of the people. However, given Smudger's recent performances labouring around our midfield with plenty of energy but bugger all creativity, defensive cover or even basic tactical awareness it remains to be seen whether the one remaining person in the crowd who apparently still thinks he was worth the money will persist with that choice of attire or start opting for a shirt bearing the names of N'Zogbia or Rozenhal (given his stature, perhaps Viduka might be even more appropriate).

From where I'm sitting Smith's inclusion in the team has been symptomatic of the circumstances in which Allardyce has found himself. Forced, as he has been by a raft of injuries in midfield, to focus on the team on the merits of effort over guile. Of course, the acid test should come when players such as Barton, Emre and Duff are available, or at least until Jose Enrique is deemed up to the challenge of the Premier League, at which point N'Zogbia should be given the chance to press forward from midfield. If Smith retains his place then the season looks like being one high on effort, but low on creativity and results and by the time the clocks go back and the leaves are no longer attached to the trees our aspirations for the season will also be lying in the gutter awaiting the first signs of snow.

Turk that

Newcastle Utd 3 - 2 Everton

Back on Tyneside after a rough time on the road, and Newcastle returned to winning ways with a flurry of goals at St James' Park yesterday.

Opting to reshuffle his defence after the poor performance against Man City last weekend, Habib Beye was joined by the returning Cacapa, with Abdoulaye Faye and Jose Enrique handed their first league starts for the club. With Enrique in the side, Allardyce was finally able to push N'Zogbia into midfield, and give Milner a run on the right, whilst up front Smith joined Martins with Owen on the bench mere days after his latest bout of surgery.

It was the home side who started the brighter too, with Smith setting Martins through on goal only for our number 9 to shank his shot horribly wide. The Nigerian seemingly capable of the breathtaking, but less proficient when putting away more mundane chances. With Butt and Geremi performing solidly in midfield, and with Everton having both Johnson and Yakubu on the bench the visitors didn't appear to threaten, and it was a strong Newcastle performance in the first half which finally saw the deadlock broken when the Toffees failed clearance fell to Butt on the edge of the box, who controlled the ball before astutely lifting the ball over his one-time colleague Tim Howard into the far corner of the Leazes net.

Half time saw Johnson introduced from the bench, as David Moyes sought to press for an equaliser, which duly arrived moments later when the former Palace striker was allowed to slip away from Cacapa and Enrique to slot home from close range. Inevitably, this roused the visitors who sought to press home their advantage, and Newcastle began to look far less certain.

With fifteen minutes left to go, Allardyce opted for fresh legs, with Owen replacing Martins (to a chorus of boos, at least some, but not all, of which came from the visitors) and Emre on for Milner.

Immediately into the fray, Owen looked lively and forced a smart save from Howard having cut in from the left. However it was the Turk who had the bigger impact. Clearly demonstrating the vision and guile which our midfield has so far lacked this season, Emre seized on control of the match. His first significant contribution being the twenty five yard belter he fired into the goal to restore our lead, before minutes later lofting in a free kick from the left onto the shoulder of the unmarked Owen to knock into the Gallowgate net.

There was still time for Given to palm Arteta's lofted cross into his own goal, but with seconds remaining on the clock Newcastle were able to play out the remaining moments without further cause for alarm and go into the international break having overhauled Everton to take up ninth in the table.

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Football crazy, football mad

(Originally posted on Silent Words Speak Loudest, but I thought it would be equally at home here...)

Enjoying Harry Pearson's brilliant 'The Far Corner' was something I should have done long ago - not least because no fewer than three different friends had at different times extolled its virtues to me. Jonathan is a self-professed fan and Skif has openly conceded that it was one of the main inspirations behind his ace football / travel blog Hobo Tread, while the other half of Black & White & Read All Over was so insistent that I should read it that he bought me a copy.

And I'm rather glad he did.

Pearson is a Billy Bragg lookalike and Guardian journalist with the misfortune to have been born in a village near Middlesbrough called Great Ayrton, whose most well-known son is the explorer Captain James Cook. Thankfully, he's also got a sense of humour about it: "It's quite poignant, when you think about it, that the most important figure in my home town's history should be famous for getting as far away from it as was humanly possible". Pearson also suffers from the connected misfortune of being a fan of the Smogs ("because I'm a glory-seeker", he deadpans), and 'The Far Corner' is a book which follows the ups and downs of the 1993-4 football season in his native North-East.

It may have been the year that my beloved Newcastle returned to the top flight thanks to the fantastic First Division winning season under the guidance of the messianic Kevin Keegan, and the book does duly kick off at St James's Park on that gloriously sunny day in mid August when the bubble of our optimism was pricked by a solitary Teddy Sheringham goal for visitors Spurs, but generally speaking the glossy football, bright lights and roaring masses of the upper echelons of the professional leagues are not for Pearson.

On the contrary, he's far more interested in lower league cloggers wallowing in mudpools of pitches, decrepit stands and one-man-and-his-dog "crowds": "The Gateshead International Stadium is immaculate. It has comfortable seats with adequate leg-room, excellent sight-lines, easy access, a roof that keeps out the rain rather than funnelling it down the back of your neck, a snack bar that doesn't smell like the biggest burp in history and clean toilets. In short it's a completely unsuitable place to stage a football match. Call me a romantic, but unless I've waded up to my ankles in urine, got wedged behind a pillar and had boiling hot Bovril spilled down the back of my legs by a fat bloke who's been poorly advised on the breath-freshening qualities of fried onions, I just can't settle down and enjoy myself".

It's a curious type of romance, to be sure - a kind of marriage that often seems loveless on both sides but is nevertheless founded on a deep affection: "Football is the only subject that can induce a bloke to swank about his fidelity". Loyalty is a particularly important source of pride in the North-East, Pearson reporting that moving back from London brought home the fact that the region's passion for football isn't some laughable myth but a concrete reality. But that's not to say that North-Eastern fans can't be fickle - which is why he claims of the return of Kevin Keegan, formerly a messianic figure as a black-and-white-shirted player, to St James's Park as a manager, that "tightrope walking across a cheese-wire without his trousers on might have been a safer option".

It's imagery like that which set Pearson apart from - in other words, above - other football writers. Surveying the terraces around him, he identifies two very different types of amateur commentator: the time-delay expert, who predicts something after it's already happened ("I think the delay comes because of the unusually long distance the thought must travel from his brain to the part of the body he speaks out of") and the Master, who glibly and fluently reels off mundane football cliches. Ever inventive in his phraseology, Pearson himself is certainly not a Master, and his cutting comments about those who are have made me try to raise my game considerably when it comes to match reports.

As you might have gathered, the imagery, similes and metaphors through which the action is narrated simply begs to be quoted. Of one player: "When the leather came in contact with his pate it made a solid splatting sound like a Greek fisherman tenderising an octopus". Of another: "He'd keep getting the ball and knocking it into spaces around the penalty area, gently, testingly, as if he were a doctor examining a patient, and every pass was a gentle prod with the question 'Is that where it hurts?'" By comparison, Pearson's own childhood talents and those of the rest of his school XI are described as being rather more modest: "If a film had ever been made of us a suitable soundtrack would have been a recording of a knock-kneed cat running up and down a glockenspiel".

Pearson's attention is often distracted from events on the pitch, though, directed towards everything from "those special football pies with asbestos-grey pastry that cracks to release the odour of a 1,000-year-old tomb" to old-fashioned commentators with accents "as crisp and glossy as fractured toffee, tagging on words like splendid, swift and superb, as if he'd got a job lot of sibilant adjectives on the cheap and was eager to get rid of them before they went soggy".

Comments (usually abusive) directed at players by spectators are faithfully transcribed, Pearson evidently appreciating the underrated inventiveness and dry wit of the fan on the terraces, as well as the absurdities football throws up - not least the Darlington chant "Quaker aggro": "I guess it would probably involve inviting opposition fans for a post-match cup of tea, then making them feel guilty for moaning about the lack of biscuits by asking them to sit silently for five minutes thinking about Somalia".

Pearson's ground-hopping - everywhere from Middlesbrough's Ayresome Park to Spennymoor Utd's Brewery Field via Hartlepool Utd's Victoria Ground ("not so much a theatre of dreams as a Punch and Judy stall for insomniacs") - makes 'The Far Corner' almost as much a travelogue as it is a book about football, and as such it's a hilariously frank depiction of the region. Thus Durham's coal coast is described as "a picturesque landscape, but only if the picture you had in mind was by Francis Bacon", and Hartlepool as "like a set from 'Mad Max', only it was colder".

Such comments aren't simply reserved for the "old" North East, though: "I suspect that in Conrad's 'Heart Of Darkness', when Kurtz cries out 'The horror! The horror!' he is not recoiling from the black void at the centre of the human soul, but simply recalling a trip to the Gateshead Metro Centre". Efforts to make cultural and financial capital out of the region's industrial past meet with equally short shrift: "Real heavy industry had been superseded by Industrial Heritage Centres in which you could go down a lead mine, ride on a tram, operate a threshing machine, catch consumption and die a premature death".

There are passages when the tone turns more serious - such as with the discussion of the racial abuse Andy Cole had to endure, even from his own fans - but Pearson knows to play to his strengths and it's not long before indignation has been put in check and sides are being split again. That said, it's these diversions which make it the charmingly "mazy dribble" of the subtitle - his observation that "I don't know who it was that invented egg mayonnaise sandwiches, but I suspect it was someone with a heavy investment in the dry-cleaning industry"; the time he spends reporting on the unofficial Love-Bite Championship of the World he conducted on a trip to Crook, won by a young chap who "was spindly, with wispy ginger hair, a velcro moustache and an Adam's apple so prominent it gave him the appearance of a cartoon ostrich which had just swallowed an alarm clock".

Hell, even the index is hilarious, featuring such entries as "Bugger, Fat; libidinous effect on aquatic mammals of, 145", "Keegan, Kevin; celebrated on midi-organ, 19", "Fitzgerald, F. Scott; gratuitous and pretentious mention of, 177" and "Sandwiches, alfalfa and tahini; manhood undermining properties of, 83". But then if you've got this far through the book without snorting food / coffee / bodily organs out of your nose in laughter, you must be dead.

The work of a gonzo anthropologist, sociologist and travel writer written out of a deep love of the region, the people and the sport - and a very funny one at that - 'The Far Corner' is a book to insist on pressing into the hands of everyone you meet, whether a fan of the beautiful and not-so-beautiful game or not. Thanks to Paul for pressing it into mine.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Taking the credit

Thought Elano, Martin Petrov and Micah Richards were the agents behind Saturday's defeat to Man City? Think again. Or that the appalling displays by Nicky Butt, Alan Smith and Steven Taylor were responsible? Nah. The main culprit, apparently, was Joey Barton - by his own admission.

Barton - obviously unhappy at being out of the limelight - has claimed that his performances were key to keeping City in the Premier League last season, therefore making them an attractive proposition to Thaksin Shinawatra and Sven-Goran Eriksson and thence to Elano and co. Hmm. Well, thanks for that, Joey. How's about keeping your trap shut and getting on with getting fit so you can make it onto a football pitch so we can apportion praise or blame to you more directly? Just a thought.

Perhaps we shouldn't treat this lightly - perhaps Barton's suffering from the bizarre form of OCD which was highlighted on the programme 'The House Of Obsessive Compulsives' by the case of the man who was so terrified of confessing to crimes he hadn't committed that he had a pathological fear of pens and paper (not ideal, given that he was a teacher). If so, what will Barton be unable to help himself confessing to next? And, more to the point, hasn't he got enough misdemeanours in his past to own up to without claiming responsibility for the few things he hasn't actually done?

(Click here for a City fan's reaction.)

The long march

A hearty congratulations to regular reader and commenter Mosh, who is due to reach St James' Park (and more particularly the welcoming arms of the Strawberry) at around noon today.

Obviously getting to the Strawberry, even on foot, wouldn't normally merit much of a glance, let alone some congratulations. The difference being that Mosh started walking to St James' Park from the south of France, and has racked up 1,000 miles in the process - all the while seeking to raise sponsorship for the Blue Dragon Children's Foundation in Vietnam. If you want to find out more information and give some money to this very worthy cause, then click here.

Congratulations Mosh - a job very well done.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

The Iceman cometh?

Recent rumours have it that Bolton's Icelandic 'keeper Jussi Jasskelainen may be on the way to Tyneside. It may be a case of putting two and two together and getting five, though - Jasskelainen has refused a new contract at the Reebok, his former boss Allardyce is now the gaffer at St James' etc - and certainly I find it hard to believe we'd be prepared to accommodate another 'keeper when Shay Given and Steve Harper are duelling it out for the starting place and Tim Krul is off getting valuable experience (in other words being offered no defensive protection at all up at Falkirk). Good player and all that, but we've got more pressing needs.

Like getting Joey Barton fit so that dropping Nicky Butt and/or Alan Smith is the only option available to Fat Sam, for instance. It seems as though sightings of the cigar-chomping midfield dynamo in and around the first team squad on recent match days have given rise to false expectations of an imminent return to action; he may still be as much as "four or five weeks" away from full fitness, according to Allardyce.

Better news on the Michael Owen front, though, with his surgeon Ulrike Muschaweck claiming he could be fit again within the next couple of weeks. Of course, despite Owen's comments over the weekend, the potentially swift recovery period has inevitably been reported by countless media outlets as something of a relief or joy for England, rather than for the club that actually pays his wages. Martin Samuel in the Times has somehow managed to acknowledge that fact while claiming that it's only right and proper that England should come first, and that we should stop our bleating. Thanks to for drawing the article to our attention - we'll join them in delivering a hearty fuck you to Samuel.