Thursday, November 29, 2007

On unstable ground

If Sam Allardyce's latest comments are anything to go by, it seems as though Liverpool aren't the only Premiership club with a manager and owner(s) / chairman conducting their private political wrangles in public: "Only our bosses can be more stable and be more supportive and I believe there will be no knee-jerk reaction from my bosses. They are very stable and very supportive, and I hope that remains the case".

Living more in hope than expectation, then, Sam? I don't blame you if you're not totally convinced by your own words, what with the managerial merry-go-round currently spinning at breakneck speed and the dreaded verbal vote of confidence having emanated from the chairman's mouth in the wake of Saturday's calamitous display. Historically speaking, Newcastle Utd is not the place to be if you want stability (and there could be more trouble on the horizon - see below...).

It's perhaps also revealing that Chris Mort's own recent comments hint at a reluctance to make significant funds available to the manager for the transfer window: "We have got to get the team performing on the pitch as a unit and I don’t necessarily think new players will sort that out. Sam’s working hard with the coaching team to get the current squad together as a unit and I think that’s the first priority". Which, put crudely, essentially translates as "You ain't getting any spends in January, so you'd best get polishing the turd you've got"...

Too close for comfort

The news that Harry Redknapp was arrested today - not for bearing a son who is incapable of understanding the meaning of the word "literally", or for scaring small children with the folds of flesh that hang off his hound-dog face, but on suspicion of conspiracy to defraud and false accounting as part of the ongoing investigation into alleged transfer irregularities following Lord Stevens's inquiry - is bound to have unnerved some senior figures at Newcastle.

In addition to Redknapp, Portsmouth chief executive Peter Storrie and their former chairman Milan Mandaric, agent Willie McKay and alleged footballer Amady Faye were also detained. This specific investigation appears to be centring on transfer deals involving Faye, who of course left the south coast for St James's Park in the transfer window of January 2005. In Lord Stevens's report this deal was one of four involving Newcastle described as "uncleared", with there being "inconsistencies in evidence" given by then manager Graeme Souness. For his part, McKay - whose close ties with the club have been longstanding - was ticked off for showing only "a degree of co-operation".

Of course all involved have claimed it's all routine and has nothing to do with Portsmouth, and Newcastle haven't been named, but it's all a bit too close for comfort - and Sam Allardyce, who was first fingered along with Redknapp in the infamous 'Panorama' programme, is presumably preparing himself for a knock at the door and an "'Allo allo'" any day now and may need to call upon a defence of a different kind.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

No joke

Newcastle Utd 0 - 3 Liverpool

A month or so ago, we were grateful for our strong home form which had compensated for some indifferent displays on the road and propelled us towards the upper reaches of the table. Now, after a second successive crushing defeat on home turf, it looks rather less like Fortress St James's and rather more like Bouncy Castle St James's, to which visiting teams are welcomed, allowed to enjoy themselves and then sent home with a party bag containing three points.

Every now and again you have to hold your hands up and accept being beaten by a better team - which Liverpool were today. But you expect to see at least some signs of resistance and endeavour. What we witnessed today was another performance of staggering ineptitude, the cluelessness all-pervasive from back to front - and on the bench.

Facing up to the loss of Steven Taylor through injury on England duty (five words we're sick of seeing together in the same sentence), which compounded the absence of Claudio Cacapa and Abdoulaye Faye, Sam Allardyce opted for an unfamiliar 3-5-2 formation: Habib Baye, David Rozehnal and Jose Enrique across the back; Geremi, Nicky Butt, Emre, Alan Smith and Charles N'Zogbia across the middle; and Obafemi Martins and fit-again Mark Viduka up front. Yes, that's right - no place for James Milner even in a five man midfield...

Of course it goes without saying that the experimental switch was not a tactical masterstroke but an absolute disaster.

Booing Steven Gerrard from the very first whistle in the light of Wednesday's nightmare was always likely to come back to bite us in the arse, and sure enough he bossed things throughout, so dominant that Momo Sissoko and Lucas Leiva alongside him could play so badly it looked as though they were auditioning for roles in our midfield. We never had the energy or ability to get the ball from Liverpool, and on the rare occasions it did come our way we were both profligate and lacking in imagination in the extreme.

Alan Smith had our only notable effort of the first half, firing a volley just wide from the edge of the box. By that point, we were already behind to Gerrard's thunderbolt, and could have been further adrift soon afterwards, when Shay Given, stranded outside his area, was perilously close to saving Fernando Torres's shot with his shoulder. A presumably shell-shocked Torres then charitably hit the post with an open goal beckoning.

The let-off that would gee us into bucking our ideas up and push for parity? No. Less than two minutes into the second period, Dirk Kuyt shinned in from a corner and it was all over. Substitute Ryan Babel's goal, following the sort of flowing move we're utterly incapable of, only served to underline their superiority. If it hadn't been for below-par finishing and Given's best efforts, Torres could have bagged four or five.

If anything, that second period was worse than the first. Allardyce bizarrely chose to introduce Joey Barton before Milner, and then, when he finally turned to the Yorkshireman with the game long since lost, it was our other winger N'Zogbia who made way rather than Geremi, Butt or Smith. The latter got the man of the match award, proof that amidst it all someone still had a sense of humour - as did the fans who, in their disgruntlement, took to singing "Allardyce for England"...

The situation is this: our defence is no better now than it was under Roeder; our midfield is a creativity-free zone, staffed by players who just don't look like they give a toss; our forwards, demoralised by the appalling level of service, have given up making even an semblance of effort themselves; and our manager seems incapable of organising and inspiring his squad, or even making the most obvious of decisions about team selection. Forgive me if I don't find that funny.

So, where to look for light relief in times of strife? The Mackems' 7-1 hiding at Goodison Park didn't even come as any consolation, reminding us how bad they are and how comfortably we should have beaten them a fortnight ago.

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Duff enough?

The long-awaited return to fitness of a handsomely remunerated player who's a star for his country but has continually underachieved for his club? Not a certain Mr Michael Owen, but Damien Duff, who is back in full training after seven months on the treatment table with a foot injury.

Allardyce seems to be clinging to the prospect of the Irishman's return with a great deal of hope - rather rashly, I have to say. Once you're back, Damien, perhaps you could think about finding the back of the net to double your current goalscoring tally for us?

So, anyway, that's about it. It has been a very slow news day. Anything else of any import happened in the world of football today?

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Thigh and not so mighty

"Steve McClaren is a good friend of mine, but from our point of view this did not look to be a very important game and we've ended up losing one of our biggest players for several weeks". The words of Sam Allardyce after - surprise surprise - Michael Owen injured himself in the first half of Friday's pointless friendly against Austria. Is that a little frost I can see forming on that friendship, Sam?

Owen's thigh strain will keep him out for around six weeks, a blow to England, who could have done with him now that Wednesday's fixture against Croatia is once again meaningful, but (needless to say) more importantly for the club that pays his wages. The first Premiership match he'll miss is Saturday's encounter against Liverpool, and given our indifferent form of late (to be polite), we could have done with him sticking a couple past his old side.

The fact that Alan Smith was considered for the squad and made an appearance from the bench illustrates that McLaren really is utterly clueless.

Also on England duty over the weekend were James Milner and Steven Taylor, both very much fixtures in the England U21 side these days. Taylor captained the team, but it was Milner who shone brightest, crossing for Villa's Gabriel Agbonlahor to score the first and then slotting home a penalty for the decisive second against their Bulgarian counterparts. Good thing he scored from the spot, what with Theo Walcott throwing a temper tantrum at being overlooked for the job...

Elsewhere, David Rozehnal and Shay Given played for the Czech Republic and the Republic of Ireland respectively, while Emre captained Turkey to an away win in Norway, doing his bit by smashing home an equaliser.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Happy birthday!

Congratulations to Paul and Lisa, and a very warm welcome to the world for Newcastle's youngest supporter, Benjamin, born in the early hours of this morning - much to the surprise of his dad, who, being at home rather than in hospital, had to help out with the delivery. Apparently this primarily involved catching, but fortunately he showed a pair of hands as safe as Shay's.

Needless to say, you'll just have to make do with my witterings for the foreseeable future, as I understand this fatherhood malarkey swallows up time and energy like Fat Pat Kluivert used to swallow up Greggs pastries...

Smog on the Tyne?

Looks as though we could have a new recruit from Smogside any day now, with Middlesbrough goalkeeping coach Paul Barron in talks over switching clubs. That's "Barron" with two r's - just as well, because I don't suppose incompetent club owner Paul Baron would be much good in the job...

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Crossbar challenge

sunderland 1 – 1 Newcastle Utd

A somewhat fortuitous goal by James Milner ensured that Newcastle left the dark place with a share of the points and extended our record of not having lost on Wearside to 27 years.

Welcoming Marc Viduka back into the side, and having reshuffled his defence following last week’s shambles, it was yet another different starting eleven which took the field for the lunch time kick off on Saturday. However, it was the hosts who started the brighter, and in what was an incredibly scrappy first half they enjoyed the better chances, with Agent Chopra in particular looking determined to fully ingratiate himself with his new employers, looking particularly lively upfront. Thankfully, David Rozehnal and Abdoulaye Faye were managing to keep things relatively quiet, with Faye in particular winning the aerial battle with Kenwyne Jones.

With Alan Smith enjoying a decent game in a holding role, Newcastle looked reasonably solid, without ever really managing to string enough possession together to threaten Craig Gordan’s goal.

Following half time it was noticeable that we started to involve Emre in the game, with the Turk’s increasing involvement coinciding with our game improving. Unfortunately, having managed to establish ourselves in the game, we promptly gifted the mackems a goal when an attacking throw was worked backwards, and chasing back to clear the ball Rozenhal foolishly tried to hook the ball back to Harper rather than knock the ball out for a throw in. His pass didn’t get anywhere near the keeper, and taking a quick corner, the mackems found our defence unorganised, allowing Danny Higginbotham a free header at the back post.

Thankfully, rather than see our heads go down, the goal finally sparked us in to life, and our play went up several gears as we pressed forward, and started to keep the ball better in their half of the pitch. However, when it came, the goal still had an element of luck. Milner, cutting in from the left, curled a low cross to the back post, which evaded everyone and found its way in off the woodwork and sent the away fans (including Smith-shirt-wearing Mike Ashley) in to joy and silenced the forces of darkness.

With the game opening out, it was sunderland who fashioned the best chance, Agent Chopra hitting the underside of the crossbar (a piece of finishing which suggests that either his precision (to avoid scoring) is immaculate, or proving we were right to let him go…).

Changing the largely frustrated Owen for Martins, Allardyce almost saw his substitute take all three points, only for him to stray offside when well placed.

Looking at the game as a whole, it was heartening to see Taylor enjoy a much stronger game than he did a week ago, and in the centre of defence Abdoulaye Faye was outstanding. Further up the pitch, Viduka again showed what we miss when he is out injured, and I thought Smith enjoyed a decent game.

However, the draw shouldn’t mask over the problems we still have, principally the need to find a settled team and a consistent pair of central defenders. Faye showed his experience and aerial strength, but to my mind Rozehnal made errors which a player of his international experience should avoid. Going it to the break, there remains work to be done on the defence, but Milner’s fortuitous goal should buy Allardyce the time to work on the team.

Other reports: BBC, Observer

Friday, November 09, 2007

A Month Of Saturdays: October 2007

Claudio Ranieri tried it at Chelsea, made a fatal mistake during a Champions League semi-final against Monaco and wound up getting the boot. Rafa Benitez is alternately praised and pilloried for doing it at Liverpool. And now Sam Allardyce seems to have embraced it wholeheartedly.

Tinkering, that is.

Tinkerman Sam: well, it's got a ring to it.

In some respects, it makes sense - after all, with the treatment room emptier than at almost any other time in the past three years, and therefore with more players at his disposal, Allardyce's apparent decision to adopt a squad rotation policy seems reasonable. Until, that is, you appreciate that the squads Ranieri and Benitez have had to rotate have been far superior to ours, and haven't included Alan Smith, whose precise function still remains a mystery even after over three months at the club.

Of course, all the tinkering could just be indicative of a manager who genuinely doesn't know his best side. The issue seems particularly pronounced when it comes to the midfield. According to the usual rationale of picking a team, you don't drop your best performers. So Allardyce's decision to omit Charles N'Zogbia and James Milner - both of whom have more often than not given us thrust, pace and trickery down the flanks this season - from the side that took to the pitch at the Madjeski was bewildering to say the very least. Of course, it was entirely predictable that we'd have no width or guile at all across the middle, and we slumped to a demoralising 2-1 loss. And all the time Nicky Butt continues to be a fixture in the side. Perhaps he's got compromising photos of Allardyce's wife he's threatening to upload to the internet?

In truth, though, the back line was equally culpable for the Reading defeat, gifting Shane Long his winner through an inability to deal with a simple hoof forwards. The guilty parties Cacapa and Abdoulaye Faye had again been preferred to David Rozehnal, who continues to pay the price for a below-par display at the City of Manchester Stadium. Surely I can't be the only one to feel the Czech has been harshly treated? Up until that point, he'd shown real signs of being the commanding presence we'd lacked since Jonathan Woodgate was stretchered off to Real Madrid, and he was unfortunate to come up against a City side in a rampant mood. Everyone should be excused one off-day. But no, he's been picking splinters out of his arse ever since. It seems it's a selective rotation policy.

October saw a fully-fit Joey Barton finally make his competitive bow for the club, coming on as a substitute at home to Spurs and then starting at Reading - his inclusion being a prime reason N'Zogbia and Milner were squeezed out. But, for all the impact he had, he might as well not have been on the pitch. Indeed, if his claims are to be believed, he's been rather more influential for his old club this season; apparently he - and not Sven-Goran Eriksson, Thaksin Shinawatra or Elano, as you thought - is the real driving force by Man City's revival... So, let me get this right, Joey: you attack your team-mate on the training pitch, get suspended and fined, and embroil your club in a court case, and they're supposed to be grateful?

But, lest I get accused of dwelling on the negatives, it should be noted that October did also see us notch up wins in our other two games, at home to Everton and, a fortnight later, at home to Spurs. Towards the end of a tight game, the Toffees were sunk by goals from Emre and Michael Owen, both substitutes. Few could begrudge Allardyce taking credit afterwards for making the changes - certainly his claims were less laughable than Barton's.

The other game, by contrast, was a walkover, a staggeringly inept Spurs display proving that the table never lies. The Londoners' cause wasn't helped by the "efforts" of Jermaine Jenas, returning to the goldfish bowl and performing like, well, a fish out of water. Now THERE was a player lending a helping hand to his former club, Joey...

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Know your enemy

Stephen Caldwell may have moved on / been forcibly moved on to Burnley, but there are still two familiar faces in the Mackem squad who could well come back to bite us in the arse in the derby on Saturday.

Agent Chopra hasn't scored in eleven appearances - and what better stage for him to convince the Great Unwashed that he really is one of Them now? The fear is that he may actually turn out to be a double agent...

Meanwhile, one Andrew Cole - whom you may remember from such chants as "Andy Cole, Andy Cole, Andy Andy Andy Cole, gets the ball and scores a goal" - has been busy returning to fitness by scoring in the reserves and is now in line to make his first team debut against us at the Stadium of Shite. The script's written...

Some positive news? Nicky Butt's suspended - hooray! With any luck, that'll mean Fat Sam starts with Geremi AND both wingers - but I'm not holding my breath. Joey Barton hasn't exactly excelled so far, but he would probably be more use in this fixture, particularly away from home, than Emre, even allowing for the latter's brilliant winning free-kick against them at St James's two years ago.

Sod's law that I'm going to be on a train for the duration of the entire match - not the best example of forward planning, it has to be said...

Nag nag nag

Reading the news recently, us Newcastle fans could be forgiven for wondering which sport is Michael Owen's true passion.

OK, so the service to him has been dreadful in recent weeks, but he's not exactly looked that enthusiastic and committed either. By contrast, he seems to be remarkably wrapped up in the world of horse-racing - as the trial of jockey Kieren Fallon on race-fixing charges has revealed: "Michael Owen, every day texts me ... Most guys, like I say Michael Owen, would only ring to talk about races".

So, next time that long ball is hoofed over the top and you feign interest, Mick, we'll know your mind is really on the 3.25 at Haydock. And given all that cash we're paying you every week, it's neigh joke...

Lee (a)way

One of Glenn Roeder's first moves as Norwich manager has been to entice Lee Clark to join him as assistant manager. Clark's been speaking about his ambition to manage a club himself in the near future, so it's not surprising he jumped at the opportunity, even given his personal ties to Newcastle. All the best to the pair of them - the Canaries' current predicament, rock bottom of the Championship by four points, doesn't look good, and the positive performance in the East Anglian derby on Sunday will be quickly forgotten after yesterday evening's docile capitulation at home to league leaders Watford.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Four shame

Newcastle Utd 1 - Portsmouth 4

Shambolic defending from the start against a visiting Portsmouth side who hadn't won at St James' Park in over 50 years saw Newcastle slump to their first home defeat of the season. Despite threatening early on with a good effort by N'Zogbia, the visitors effectively wrapped up the points in a three goal five minute burst which completely knocked the stuffing out of the home side.

With Allardyce choosing to send out a side featuring Milner on the left and N'Zogbia on the right (presumably with instructions to cut inside their opposite full backs) and with Steven Taylor returning to the starting line up at right back, it was a slightly unbalanced Newcastle side which took to the pitch at the start of the match.

On 7 minutes, a Portsmouth corner part-cleared by stand-in captain Nicky Butt to Noe Pamarot, who hammered a blistering shot past Steve Harper. Almost straight from the resulting kick-off, a wayward Abdoulaye Faye pass allowed Portsmouth to float a hopeful ball downfield, and Benjani was able to easily shrug off the attentions of Cacapa before placing the ball past Harper.

Minutes later, and a long ball forward down the left skimmed off Steven Taylor's head, allowing John Utaka through on goal. He easily went past Cacapa and slotted the ball past Harper. With the ground stunned, the game was effectively over inside 12 minutes.

A come back of sorts briefly threatened to erupt, as Owen's shot was saved by David James only to rebound off Sol Campbell and give us a brief glimmer of hope.

Unfortunately, we were unable to really regain the initiative by forcing a second goal. Allardyce hauled off the woeful Cacapa to be replaced by Rozenhal after 15 minutes, and we looked far more assured with the Czech in the defence. However, nobody in a black and white shirt was enjoying a decent game, and Portsmouth were able to contain us for the remaining 75 minutes.

We did create several decent chances, the best of which fell to Martins (on for Jose Enrique) whose header from two yards was blocked by David James. But the boost which that goal would have given us was never to come, and from a free kick on the left (following a foul by Barton) Niko Kranjcar's in swinging free kick deflected off Taylor's shin and past Harper. That Taylor was simply wafting a leg at the ball was symptomatic of a lacklustre defensive display by the whole team.

What is clear is that a similar performance next weekend at the dark place will not be good enough and the murmurings of discontent will become howls of anguish.

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

Thursday, November 01, 2007

You've got a nerve...

Well, the silence was golden - that's all I can say.

I think we all knew it wouldn't be long before Fat Fred heaved himself back into the limelight, generously sharing his enlightened opinions with us. And sure enough, here he is, given a platform on the Guardian Sport blog to debate with George Graham on the subject of "Are Premier League clubs too quick to ditch managers?". No prizes for guessing which side of the fence the man who sacked Sir Bobby Robson after four games of the 2004-5 season is sitting on - even if he did subsequently claim "I didn't want to be known as the man who shot Bambi".

Shepherd starts out sympathetically enough - "Getting rid of a manager is the last thing any chairman ever wants to do" - but it's not long before he reveals his true colours: "And let's not feel too sorry for these guys. They are the only people in the world who get paid handsomely for failure". As a few commenters have hinted, that's not strictly true - after all, there are chairmen, too, aren't there Fred? Remind me what your annual salary was again? The best part of £600,000? And what did we win, exactly? In his case, we can add to failure the never-ending capacity to embarrass, humiliate and appal the average Newcastle fan.

As an aside, the claim "I am still friends with all my managers, except one" is interesting. I'd assume he's referring to that fuckwit Souness - but given Robson's criticisms of his chairmanship in his autobiography, it's not certain.

One person Fat Fred's certainly not friends with at the moment - if the Mirror is to be believed - is Mike Ashley, who is alleged to have effectively banned him and his brother Bruce from St James's Park. Well, it's one way of Ashley stamping his authority on the club and signalling that times have moved on...

There's yet another mention of Fat Fred buried deep within this Guardian piece on Martin Jol's sorry demise at Spurs: "He also does not understand why the club would not grant him permission to talk with Freddy Shepherd when the then-Newcastle chairman enquired about his services earlier this year." It's not substantiated with any quote and is the first I've heard about it, but the precise meaning of "earlier" is intriguing. Was the enquiry made when Glenn Roeder was still in charge, meaning Jol was involved in the same sort of cloak-and-dagger operation that he's now fallen victim to - or did the enquiry come after Roeder's forced resignation, meaning Fat Sam wasn't our first choice for his replacement?

Quote of the day

"Nobody's suggesting Keegan is up there with the likes of Ferguson, Arsène Wenger or the Special One. But then again ... who outside of south-west London is going to remember Chelsea's 2005 vintage in 10 years' time? Keegan may have failed when it comes down to brass tacks, but he brought excitement and romance in abundance to English football's top table, and for that he should be afforded love - and, more importantly, more deservedly, respect - for ever more."

So often pilloried for his tactical naivety and the lack of mental toughness that led to THAT outburst against Sir Alex Ferguson live on Sky, Kevin Keegan finally gets his dues, courtesy of the Guardian's Scott Murray.

Personally I was proud when he came out fighting in that interview - it was great to see someone with their heart on their sleeve, showing the same amount of passion as the fans in the stands. So well said commenter MikeN: "As for everyone wondering why Keegan's 'Love It' diatribe is remembered more farcially than anything else, remember that history is told by the victors. If Newcastle had won the league, then everyone would remember that little soliloquy as an inspiration, but United won, so it's clearly the most obvious sign of Keegan breaking under the pressure".

And naturally it had me watching the YouTube clip of the thrashing of Man Utd - Ginola's thunderbolt, Shearer's taunting of the away fans, Albert's chip... If I was back in Cardiff with access to my video collection (remember them?), I'd be sorely tempted to dig out my copy of 'Haway-5-0' and relive the full 90 minutes...