Monday, December 31, 2007

Robbed by the blind

Chelsea 2 - 1 Newcastle Utd

'Tis the season to be jolly?

Well, not after being robbed of a point by the worst piece of officiating we've seen since Graham Poll lost count at the World Cup. Offside, you say - well you'd be right. Unfortunately the incompetent imbecile supposedly assisting the referee decided that rather than do his job he'd help the team in blue by failing to point out that Salomon Kalou was a mile offside we he slotted home Chelsea's winner with less than five minutes to go. I had hoped that leaving writing this report for two days might have given me a sense of rationalism and perspective, but no, I still think it was an abominable decision which saw us royally screwed over at a ground which has been a miserable hunting ground for us for years.

On the plus side, we played much better than we had done at home to Derby or away to Wigan, and performed with as much fight as Joey Barton in a Liverpool McDonalds. Needless to say a midfield of Butt, Faye and Smith still lacks the creativity that we need to really begin to improve as a side, but Butt in particular enjoyed a strong performance, involved all over the park, and forcing home our equaliser after Michael Essien had given Chelsea a first half lead. Butt it was who, moments previously had almost scored a spectacular own goal, hammering a Cheslea cross goalwards, only for Given to save well.

Shay, as always, enjoyed a good game between the sticks and was unlucky to be on the losing side, undone by a deflection which left him prone as Essien scored their first, and exposed by the shocking decision of the linesman.

Up front, it was heartening to see Owen return from the bench, and he may well get more of a game against Man City - hopefully accompanied by Viduka in a 4-4-2 formation. Of course, with the transfer window upon us, it will be interesting to see whether Allardyce persists in his seemingly preferred 4-5-1/4-3-3 in which case I would anticipate our number 10 looking for a new place to land his helicopter.

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Barton behind bars - again

Here's one for you...

You're an overpaid, underperforming and short-fused midfielder with a big ego and even bigger gob who has recently labelled your own team's fans "vicious" and whose side has (in your absence through injury) just suffered a fourth consecutive humiliation at Wigan.

Do you:

(a) remember what you said upon signing for the club about second chances and being a changed man, keep your head down and your nose clean and knuckle down to some serious hard work

(b) get yourself arrested outside a McDonalds in Liverpool city centre at 5.30am and subsequently charged with common assault and affray

Hope spending New Year in the slammer gives you plenty of opportunity for reflection, Joey. Like on who might be bothered to take a punt on you in the January sales if Sam Allardyce does the decent thing and puts you on the transfer list.

In the last few matches we've once again visibly lacked the stomach for the fight - but somehow I doubt this is what Allardyce had in mind...

Look to the future

The present may be very far from rosy, but unless I'm much mistaken it looks as though the club really IS beginning to look beyond the end of next week. Following the signing of Ben Tozer from Swindon, we're now being closely linked to a move for another teenage prospect from the lower leagues, 15-year-old striker Luke Freeman of League One outfit Gillingham.

Freeman has already been invited for a trial, and according to Gills boss and ex-Newcastle full-back Mark Stimson "had a fantastic day". However, he's also been to Arsenal and is due to pay a visit to West Ham too, and will only be allowed to leave on his current club's terms, so it's far from a done deal - indeed, I doubt any young player with the opportunity to go to Arsenal would turn it down, knowing the way they continually nurture raw talent.

As for two of the young prospects already at the club but currently out on loan, both Andy Carroll and Tim Krul are due back at St James's at the beginning of January. While Krul continues to enhance his reputation with Falkirk and is likely to stay for the remainder of the season, Andy Carroll has had limited opportunities to impress in a struggling Preston side and may well join Krul north of the border in January, pitching up at Mark McGhee's Motherwell.

In other news, after talks between club officials it looks as though lanky South Korean striker Jae-Jin Cho won't be leaving Japanese side Shimizu S-Pulse for Tyneside, while old boy Gary Speed, frozen out following Gary Megson's arrival at the Reebok, has agreed to join Sheffield Utd when the transfer window opens.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Christmas puddings

Wigan 1 - 0 Newcastle Utd

Apparently bookies were offering odds of 15/2 on a 1-0 home win before yesterday's game. OK, so Wigan had collected all three points just once in their previous fifteen games and seem to have a pathological aversion to clean sheets - but (a) we were the opponents (b) we've lost by that very scoreline on our previous three visits to the JJB Stadium and (c) it was Boxing Day. God knows why I decided not only not to take a punt on it but also to travel and witness the shitfest in person. In the home end.

It was, quite simply, an absolutely atrocious display in which we registered a grand total of one shot, an ambitious overhead effort early in the second half from the otherwise lumbering Mark Viduka which, with Wigan 'keeper Chris Kirkland stranded, was headed off the line in front of the Newcastle fans by none other than Titus Bramble. Of course, you could also have safely bet on our old friend enjoying a good game for our opponents, and Antoine Sibierski acquitting himself well too.

Relegation-threatened Wigan were nothing better than awful, but then they didn't need to be. Ryan Taylor's goal midway through the second period, a curling right-footed free-kick following the umpteenth committed but clumsy tackle from the useless Alan Smith (named as captain), was utterly out of keeping with the game itself. It seems Taylor saves up his set-piece specials for when we roll into town, exactly the same having happened in February.

Encouraged by his goal, Taylor tried his luck from distance shortly afterwards only to be thwarted by Given, while Nigerian substitute Julius Aghahowa hit the side-netting in injury time. Other than that, the closest they came to adding to their tally came when Given, pressurised into action by a bouncing Steven Taylor backpass and the close attentions of Marcus Bent, bizarrely hooked the ball over his shoulder and narrowly wide of the post for a corner.

On the final whistle Sam Allardyce laid the blame for the performance elsewhere - "The level of form the players have dropped to is unacceptable" - while claiming to be "a top man in my field". If that's the case, Sam, then you'd better start proving it.

Dropping five players from the pre-Christmas disappointment at home to Derby is fair enough, but when two of those five (Nicky Butt and Obafemi Martins) were among the few who did themselves justice it's curious to say the least. Of the players drafted in, Geremi was a waste of space, Emre too deep and too easily knocked off the ball, and Damien Duff too frequently driven back into his own half.

Our sole tactic seemed to be the big lump forwards, greeted every time by the locals with cries of "Hoof! and giving rise to a painfully accurate rendition of "Are you Bolton in disguise?" One particularly animated bloke in front of me - dressed in a white boiler suit bearing the words "Rex Crayma - Danger Seeker" who arrived wearing a motorbike helmet - enjoyed the afternoon more than most, vociferously reminding Allardyce that it may not be long before he has to mark Giro Day on his calendar.

The away fans, meanwhile, were magnificent as ever, their vocal presence bearing no relation whatsoever to goings-on on the pitch. Martins's name rang out occasionally to indicate to Allardyce what most made of the decision to leave him out, while there was pogoing to keep warm and a chant of "You only sing at the rugby" directed at the near-silent home fans, no doubt mortified at having paid £25 for what was classified as a Category A game and (judging by those around me) more interested in keeping tabs on other Premiership scorelines than in the fortunes of their own team.

The lads at have claimed that there was a chant of "We're shit and we're sick of it" towards the end of the second half, and they were no doubt better placed to verify it than me, but what I heard - "We're shit and we're still singing" - was more cheerily stoical than impatient and angry. That's what the Wigan fans heard too, generously turning to applaud the travelling support's attempts to inject some life into a dreadful afternoon.

Perhaps inevitably, the loudest cheer of all came for the announcement at half-time that the Mackems were 3-0 down at home to Man Utd, though there was also warm appreciation for the portly Wigan fan who bared his man boobs on request. And on the subject of bare flesh on display, spare a thought for the chap dressed as Borat in the green shoulder-strapped thong for the half-time fancy dress competition. At least he got a prize for his efforts, though - the away fans had no such consolation.

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Vid-eo nasty

Newcastle Utd 2 - 2 Derby

At a time of year when the TV schedules are awash with adaptations of Victorian tales, it was nasty Mark Viduka who, like a cackling Scrooge snatching sweets back from a poor grubby-face orphan child ignoring his plaintive cries of "But please, mister , 'ave a 'eart...", managed to ruin Derby's Christmas. If it hadn't been for the Greggs-sponsored hitman's two clinical strikes, the second three minutes from time, we would have gift-wrapped the East Midlanders their second three points of the season. No prizes for guessing who gave them their first.

Viduka's inclusion was the only change from the side that, after a painfully awful game, contrived to beat Fulham last Saturday, Geremi dropping to the bench, and we couldn't have hoped for a more opportune fixture in which to record a third successive victory. Sure enough, we were on the front foot from the off - only for Derby to stun us with their first attack. One away goal all season became two when alleged Toon target Giles Barnes fired into the bottom left hand corner under pressure from Joey Barton.

For a while we staggered around punchdrunk, misplacing passes and mistiming tackles, but we gradually reassumed control and were nearly as stunned as by Barnes's goal when referee Andre Marriner refused to award a blatant penalty, Alan Smith bulldozed over extremely crudely when lining up an overhead kick.

The chances then began to flow thick and fast. Obafemi Martins, looking lively on the right hand side of attack, was unlucky to see his header cleared off the line, Barnes seemingly eager to remain at the heart of the action. Meanwhile, Habib Beye, who enjoyed another solid game at right back and contributed usefully in forward areas, saw his shot saved by Derby 'keeper Stephen Bywater.

An equaliser was inevitable, though, and Viduka got it. When his former Leeds team-mate Alan Smith somehow scrambled the ball to him just inside the area, the big-boned Australian's finish was unerring. More reasonable half-chances came and went before the break, but 1-1 it stayed.

We came out sluggishly for the second period, though, and were duly punished when David Rozehnal, once again never wholly comfortable or convincing in the centre of the defence, allowed one-time target Kenny Miller to skip past him and fire beyond Given. Two shots, two goals - and the first time the league's basement club had scored twice in a game since the opening day. We had every reason to feel embarrassed.

Unlike in the first half, there wasn't the same positive response, and in our eagerness to press for a second equaliser we looked alarmingly fragile at the back against a powderpuff attack, susceptible to quick moves on the break to which Derby couldn't quite apply the finishing touch. Martins was denied by Jay McEveley, as Sam Allardyce replaced Rozehnal with Steven Taylor and then surprisingly threw caution to the wind by sending on Damien Duff for Nicky Butt, the Irishman marking his first appearance in eight months with an interesting mullet.

Our luck seemed to be out, though - until Viduka latched onto Darren Moore's weak headed clearance and steered the ball past Bywater under no pressure. Derby could still have claimed all three points had Marriner given them a penalty for Cacapa's clumsy challenge on Tyrone Mears (though it was nowhere near as clear-cut as Mears's foul on Smith in the first half), and Duff forced Bywater into a sprawling save when everyone else left or missed his cross-shot.

With the whistle almost between the referee's lips, Emre, on for the dreadful Barton (much to the fans' pleasure), had an opportunity to make it a third straight injury-time win but sent his shot wide, and it wasn't to be.

Given that we were only a few minutes away from a particularly humiliating home defeat, perhaps I shouldn't grumble - and in truth we have played worse this season (last week at Fulham springs to mind). But dropping five points against a side of Derby's calibre is hardly satisfactory, and once again new signings Barton, Cacapa and Smith did next to nothing to suggest they're worthy of a place in the side.

Boxing Day's trip to the JJB should really garner us three points, but this result gives us plenty of cause for concern - as does the memory of our three previous visits, all of which have ended in 1-0 defeats...

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

Friday, December 21, 2007

Bum deal

Fans of aggressive but only sporadically effective midfield enforcers in black and white shirts rejoice: Nicky Butt has signed a one year extension to his contract, taking him up until summer 2009.

The player famously named by Pele as the real star of the 2002 World Cup looks to be trying to win the supporters over by gradually morphing into a certain sheet metal worker's son from Gosforth as he gets older. Don't believe me? Just look at the photo that accompanies the BBC's news article...

In other news, it seems that the indignity and shame of being beaten by us at home - even by a last-minute goal - is so bad that it merits the boot...

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Young guns? Go for it!

Earlier in the week the news broke that we're close to completing the signing of Swindon Town full-back Ben Tozer, having successfully fended off rival interest from Everton and Portsmouth and agreed a fee that could end up being in excess of £1m.

While it's certainly true that cover at left back would be useful, with Charles N'Zogbia currently playing out of position, Jose Enrique out of form and Celestine Babayaro finally off the wage bill. But given that Tozer is only 17 and has only figured in seven games at League One level for the Robins so far this season, it's very unlikely that he will be expected to step straight into the first team frame at St James's Park. Indeed, Sam Allardyce has already been talking about sending him out on loan to gain some experience.

What's most interesting about the move, though, is the hint that we might be starting to pursue young talent more aggressively. Too often we have paid hefty sums for players already in their prime, while Arsenal, to pick an obvious comparison, have amassed and developed a whole shadow squad of highly promising youngsters for next to nothing. Whereas Arsene Wenger always seems to see the bigger picture (certainly much more clearly than he sees the majority of fouls his sides commit), Fat Fred and his managers have lacked vision, constantly preoccupied with short-term solutions and quick fixes. Youth and reserve fixtures have apparently been below our scouts' radars.

The snaffling of N'Zogbia from Le Havre, albeit in acrimonious circumstances, and the capture of Tim Krul, currently on loan at Falkirk, are the recent exceptions that prove the rule - but, counting a couple of chickens, it would be heartening if the signing of Tozer marked the beginnings of a concerted effort to scour both foreign shores and England itself (a la Spurs) for the bright young things that can grow, blossom and in time displace the current superstars at a fraction of the cost.

Immortalised in song

Congratulations to Habib Beye, whose goalscoring exploits in the last minute against Birmingham have earned him, like fellow defenders Philippe Albert and Andy O'Brien before him, a chant of his very own. Can you guess the tune?

"Sunday, Monday, Habib Beye / Tuesday, Wednesday, Habib Beye / Thursday, Friday, Habib Beye / Saturday, Habib Beye, rocking all week with you!"

Expect our Senegalese full-back to start wearing a leather jacket, slicking back his hair and flirting with Mrs Cunningham some time soon...

Sunday, December 16, 2007

The late, late show

Fulham 0 - 1 Newcastle Utd

The statistics might suggest otherwise (I don't know - you don't seriously expect considered opinion and well-researched articles here, do you?), but it certainly seems as though injury-time winners in games involving Newcastle are nearly always for the opposition. And so for it to have been us celebrating a late, late triumph in our last two games feels very strange.

Yes, yesterday's game at Craven Cottage was absolutely dire, not so much a feast of football as a rancid Scotch egg of football - but we came away with all three points so it could have been much worse, even if we'll never get back the time spent watching/enduring it...

Deprived of the services of Steven Taylor through injury, Sam Allardyce called on the much-maligned Cacapa, and the Brazilian was one of our better performers, standing firm in defence and getting in some vital blocks and interceptions.

We started off like the proverbial train, bombarding Fulham with no fewer than five corners in the first ten minutes. From one, curled in by Geremi, we were unlucky not to take the lead, Simon Davies' header hitting the outside of his own post under pressure from last week's last-gasp hero Habib Beye. David Healy's shot forced Shay Given into a full-length save, although it was probably heading wide, and Antti Niemi made a smart save low at his feet to prevent a Joey Barton header from creeping in at the far post, after James Milner had bamboozled his marker out on the left.

The remainder of the first half was so awful and incident-free that late-night Christmas shopping seemed a much more attractive proposition.

But the second half could have been even worse, in truth. As so often happens at the break, our opponents seemed to waken up to the fact that we were sitting ducks waiting to be shot, and came out more determined to cause us problems. Particularly lively was Hameur Bouazza on the left flank, who thankfully finished about as well as the most amateurish DIYer around and continued to shoot from improbable positions, while American lunk Clint Dempsey put himself about to David Rozehnal's discomfort. Our only real opportunity came when a central free-kick was curled into the area by substitute Emre, but Nicky Butt couldn't head the ball beyond Niemi's reach.

But the lifeline finally came two minutes into stoppage time, when right back and birthday boy Elliot Omozusi showed the inexperience of youth in making a challenge on Alan Smith that was clumsy rather than downright malicious, but worthy of Howard Webb's award of a penalty all the same. With Obafemi Martins already withdrawn and looking frostbitten on the bench, Barton took responsibility and found the bottom right-hand corner, with Niemi guessing right and inches away from getting a hand to it. Such are the margins between moderate success and thudding disappointment.

So, at last, a goal from our Scouse miscreant. Now all we need out of him is a good performance...

Other reports: BBC, Observer

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Beating the Blues

Newcastle Utd 2 - 1 Birmingham City

Three games in eight day, three performances packed full of effort and endeavour, and at the third time of asking, three points to Newcastle.

In truth, this was probably our worst performance of the three, with poor starts to both halves seeing us go behind to a soft early goal, and almost concede a second after the restart. The visitors' goal came after a long aimless punt forward was not dealt with by Rozehnal, who let the ball slide across him for Cameron Jerome to nip in and slot the ball past Given. This was the low point of a pretty torrid afternoon for our Czech international, who needs to spend some time learning to take responsibility for dealing with long balls forward if he is to succeed in this division.

However, as with the game against Arsenal, the early goal didn't see our heads go down, but rather galvanised us in to action. James Milner, in particular, enjoyed a strong attacking game, repeatedly sending in quality crosses, or cutting inside and threatening to score from longer range. Our ascendancy, which saw us raise the tempo of our passing, saw us create chances, only for Milner and Martins to fail to force the ball home point blank range.

Withstanding wave after wave of pressure, it was perhaps inevitable that Birmingham would eventually crack, and finally Martins was caught in the box to win a penalty. Martins it was who stepped up to slot home our first penalty of the season - via Maik Taylor's outstretched fingers and the inside of the post.

1-1 at half time and it looked like Newcastle would push on and take the win. However, we didn't start the second half the way we had ended the first, and instead allowed Birmingham to dictate the midfield. Having lost Butt midway through the first half, Geremi and Barton struggled to stem the tide, and it was only when Allardyce pulled Alan Smith back in to the midfield, and introduced Emre for Geremi that we managed to get back into the game.

With Birmingham pressing for a winner, we still had chances to nick one ourselves, Martins in particular looking lively, and drawing a smart save from Taylor with one snapshot on the turn. As the clock ticked down, N'Zogbia's surging run forward was ended abruptly on the edge of the box, and from the resulting free kick we should have been awarded a penalty, as Jerome clearly handled Emre's dead ball kick.

Fortunately, that free kick wasn't to be the Turk's final contribution, as it was his corner in injury time that Habib Beye met at the near post, to send the home side in to raptures, and give us three much needed points.

What was again apparent from this match is that hard work on the pitch will see greater support from the stands. Obviously, what we need to do now is turn the last three performances into the norm, in terms of hard work, whilst increasing the fluidity of our play. Long balls forward only get us so far, but our best spell in this game was during the first half, when Birmingham couldn't live with the tempo and accuracy of our passing. If we can do that, then we will have turned a corner, but if we fall back into our old ways, the pressure will soon be back.

Other reports: BBC, Observer

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Pride - and no fall

Newcastle Utd 1 - 1 Arsenal

"If we play with passion like that we won't go far wrong".

The words of Alan Smith in the wake of tonight's draw at home to league leaders Arsenal. It was quite a night, all told: the team turned in a gutsy performance that, for the players' determination alone, perhaps merited even better than a return of a solitary point; much of the pressure which has heaped up on Sam Allardyce over the last fortnight was relieved; owner Mike Ashley was left grinning and rubbing his hands with excitement rather than cold on the final whistle; and Smith himself at last showed what he might be useful as - a target man, of all things.

In the wake of the positive if ultimately fruitless display at Ewood Park on Saturday, Allardyce only made one change to the side and that was enforced, the injured Abdoulaye Faye replaced by Steven Taylor - and Taylor it was who proved to be the player at the centre of much of the game's key moments.

We got off to the worst possible start, though. Only four minutes had elapsed when Charles N'Zogbia made a present of an attempted clearance down the line, Emmanuel Eboue whipping the ball in for namesake Adebayor to control on his chest and volley expertly home. The goal sent the Togo striker back to the top of the Premiership scoring table, so the lack of close attention afforded him was all the more inexplicable.

Thankfully, though, our response was positive and swift. Captain Geremi was inches away from equalising with a header, supplier of that excellent cross James Milner began tormenting Bacary Sagna and Smith set about winning aerial ball after aerial ball, giving Kolo Toure and William Gallas a much tougher game than they might have anticipated. In the Gunners' goal Manuel Almunia was perhaps rather fortunate to save Geremi's skidding free-kick, having been unsighted by his wall, though he deserved the thanks of his team-mates for tipping Taylor's header from a corner onto the post and out to safety.

All the same, Arsenal looked dangerous on the break and could easily have extended their lead but for some poor decision-making in advanced areas. Gilberto, restored to the visiting side in the absence of the injured Cesc Fabregas (some reserve, eh?), should have done better from a Tomas Rosicky corner.

So, only 1-0 at the break and some encouraging signs - but, mindful of how quickly 1-0 had become 2-0 in our last home game, against Liverpool, I was still fearing the worst. So it was gratifying to see us come out and carry on where we left off, N'Zogbia firing in a rocket of a shot that, fortunately for the Gunners, was straight at Almunia.

When the equaliser came, around the hour mark, it was thoroughly deserved. Usually so comfortable and confident on the ball, Arsenal hadn't bargained for our hustling, harrying approach and, trying to play his way out of defence, Eduardo gifted the ball to Habib Beye whose cross was flicked on by Smith (another outstanding leap), dummied by Obafemi Martins and finished neatly by Taylor at the near post. Cue much fist-pumping.

Fired up further by some play-acting from the likes of Sagna, we pressed forwards and looked the more likely side to win it. Substitute Mark Viduka (on for Geremi) delayed his shot too long when well placed and saw it deflected over the bar, while Taylor came close to getting a second during an extended spell of pressure when we forced three corners in quick succession. Even after that, though, our impetuous centre-back could have seen yellow or maybe even worse for being the last man and cynically blocking Adebayor's route to goal. A late winner for the visitors would have been very harsh desserts.

Afterwards Arsene Wenger was relatively gracious in parity: "Physically and mentally we've had a very hard night. They fought for every ball. No matter what differences there are in the club, Newcastle had made a unity, everyone was on board and they made a fight for 90 minutes." But he couldn't quite resist slipping in a dig about our style of play: "They were exactly the same as Bolton. They were very, very direct." The fact is, Arsene, that when you're on a poor run and you're up against a better side, albeit one shorn of key players through injury, you have to pull out all the stops to get anything from the game. Some of our challenges were robust, but there wasn't much that was unfair. Admit it: Allardyce's sides may flounder against lesser teams, but they continue to have the Indian sign over yours.

Needless to say it wasn't all good from our perspective: David Rozehnal was sloppy, nervous and short of confidence; Martins, playing predominantly on the right, repeatedly wasted good positions; and after positive beginnings Barton's performance soon dropped off, the big-gobbed midfielder seemingly incapable of finding team-mates with a pass.

But he couldn't complain about the fans being "vicious" - on the contrary, the 50,000 present were enthusiastic, passionate and vocal in their support for the team. Of course it helped that they had plenty to cheer.

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Feelgood TV

There just aren't enough references to classics of European cinema on Black & White & Read All Over. Just as well, then, that Jonathan's on hand to give his reflections on Joey Barton's latest outpourings...

* * * * *

On the same day that Joey Barton used an interview with the Independent to lambast the support for its negative mentality, I decided that tuning into 'Match Of The Day' in order to catch the highlights of a 3-1 defeat to Blackburn might be just too depressing, and instead slotted in a rental DVD of Ingmar Bergman’s ‘Through A Glass Darkly’ - a work which even its most cheerful reviewer describes as "a stark, unflinching portrayal of the effects of schizophrenia".

As anyone unfortunate enough to remember the mercifully brief black and white careers of Frank Pingel and Jon Dahl Tomasson will be able to confirm, this is by no means the first time that elements of the Geordie diaspora have been exposed to journeys deep into the dark heart of the human soul in the company of a misunderstood Scandinavian auteurs. However we must concede that matters have taken a bleak turn indeed. With the Premiership table showing Allardyce’s men hovering a mere seven points above the drop zone, Barton’s interview - which at a more secure time we might choose to disgregard as the ill-advised rantings of a career motormouth - perhaps merits a moment of sober reflection.

It is easy to pick holes in the midfielder’s arguments - so let’s start by doing just that. So Kluivert, Jenas and Parker were destroyed by a crowd "vicious enough to eat players up"? To my recollection the latter two were Premiership journeymen whose unremarkable contributions over a pair of seasons were met, on the whole, with nothing more vicious than morose disillusion. Only Kluivert was picked out for anything approaching stern treatment by the Gallowgate - and it might be argued that the boo boys had a point, given that the Robson signing’s single worthwhile contribution in a black and white shirt - the exemplary leading of the line in a quarter-final FA Cup victory over nine-man Chelsea - must be viewed against a backdrop of performances lacklustre enough to give strength to persistent Tyneside rumours that our Dutch starlet spent harder nights down the Quayside than he ever put days in at the training ground.

In other words, the boy was found to be taking the piss - and this is one digression that fans as passionate as ours will find hard to forgive. As Barton points out elsewhere in the article however, passion cuts both ways - when a vociferous crowd gets behind their team it can feel like that team has a twelfth player on the pitch. But this does not just happen; the players need to earn the respect of the crowd. Curiously, a start in this respect seems to have been made on Saturday afternoon at Ewood Park - accounts of the game are unanimous in admiring the visitors’ combativity, with the display of delirious unity between away end and team (with Barton to the fore) following Martins’s opening strike picked out for particular attention.

There are testing times ahead, sure enough - already, the Third Round cup tie at Stoke looks like make-or-break time for the beleagured Allardyce. But maybe what we saw on Saturday could be the start of a long, much-needed recovery. Maybe when we lift the Cup in May we will look back with fondness on the harsh but prophetic words of Joey Barton which stung us all into midwinter action. It’s equally possible, of course, that the boy is talking through his arse, we’ll get knocked out 5-1 again by lower-league opposition in front of the cameras, the manager will be out of job by February, and we’ll finish seventeenth. Who knows?

One thing is for sure. If matters don’t take a turn for the better pretty damn soon then I’ll be spending more Saturday evenings than is possibly good for me acquainting myself with the oeuvre of Ingmar Bergman. Only the Newcastle United squad has it in its power to deliver me from this bleak midwinter prospect - let’s hope, for my sake and everyone else’s that they can handle the pressure, because I’m not sure that I can.

Rebellion: lies?

It's not every day that your two 'keepers issue a strongly worded statement in defence of their manager - but that's just what happened today.

Infuriated by the suggestion in the Sun that they were part of a three-man deputation of senior players who paid a visit to Sam Allardyce to voice their discontent (which apparently constitutes a "revolt"), Shay Given and Steve Harper claimed: "The story that has appeared is total and utter nonsense. Sam Allardyce has the full backing and support of every Newcastle United player and we are all working together as one to bring success to the football club".

Those of a particularly cynical persuasion might suggest the statement may have been extracted under duress from the powers-that-be, but even setting that aside, it's clear from Allardyce's own comments that unanimous and unwavering support from the players simply doesn't exist: "When you’re having a bad time there are always elements and factors trying to make a big deal of things. Somebody will have a problem with something or other, whether it’s how you go about the week, wanting to play, or an off-the-field matter. There’s always something a player doesn’t like. Some of it sneaks in the papers. Whoever did it might think it’s making a point, but it will only make me more resilient and stronger. I just find it disappointing it ends up in the paper — but that’s life today".

Washing our dirty linen in public again - we hoped we'd seen the last of that when Fat Fred left.

Allardyce, meanwhile, is sounding increasingly exasperated and aggrieved, resorting to the old "I know best" attitude that spelt the end of the reigns of Ruud Gullit and Graeme Souness: "I’m the man who knows what’s right for them and I know it more than they do. That’s why I sit in this chair". For the time being, Sam, yes. I'd love to see you succeed and have to eat my words - but just at the present moment that looks a distant possibility.

A Month Of Saturdays: November 2007

Apparently November was a bad month to be an England fan - something to do with getting a reprieve, blowing a glorious second chance in spectacular fashion, a wally with a brolly and missing out on an invite to the big boys' party in Switzerland and Austria next summer. Well, call me parochial, but it was pretty much a picnic in the park compared to what us Newcastle fans had to endure.

First there was the startlingly rude shock of Portsmouth, pre 'Appy 'Arry's arrest, rolling into town and deciding for once that, no, they weren't going to play their customary role of cannon fodder, instead blitzing their way to a 3-0 lead inside the first quarter of an hour and running out worthy 4-1 winners. Fortress St James's suddenly looked more like an unstable castle built on shifting sands, the remodelled defence of Cacapa and Faye providing foundations no more sturdy than Messrs Bramble, Moore and co.

Then came the pitiful 1-1 draw at the Dark Place. But for the luck which was with us when James Milner's free-kick drifted in at the far post to equalise, and again when the crossbar reverberated from old boy Michael Chopra's shot, we would have lost to the Mackems - a good thing even Fate hates them, eh? As it was, the result was humiliating enough when put into context by the 7-1 thrashing Everton dished out to the Great Unwashed on their very next Premier League encounter.

What was needed was a performance which called upon deep reserves of strength, mental resolve, courage and passion. What we got - after a fortnight of waiting while England briefly glimpsed hope before pressing self-destruct - was the phenomenally gutless 3-0 capitulation at home to Liverpool that, regardless of the quality of the opposition (and it's worth remembering quite how awful the likes of Momo Sissoko got away with being), is already shaping up to be one of the season's lowest points.

Sam Allardyce may not have sought or asked for assurances his position was safe, but circumstances were such that Chris Mort subsequently felt it necessary to give them anyway, publicly at least. As if that - and the suggestion that the funds to be made available to him in January will stretch about as far as Shola Ameobi for a half-chance - wasn't worrying enough for Big Sam, there was also the rumour of murmurings of discontent in the dressing room when he confronted the players about whether or not they liked him and his managerial methods. Lose the confidence of the board and you're in trouble; lose the confidence of the players and you're a dead man walking. The arrests which took place as part of the ongoing investigations into financial irregularities in the wake of the Stevens report may well have given a man implicated in some "uncleared" transfers additional cause for concern.

Oh, and Michael Owen got injured while on England duty - this time during an utterly meaningless friendly.

All in all, then, the sort of month that only the boo boys can have enjoyed.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Stoked up

Sunday afternoon bought the draw for the third round of the FA Cup, and we were duly drawn away to Stoke City. There were certainly easier ties out there, although given our home result against a Championship side at the same stage last season, maybe an away tie isn't the end of the world.

The match is due to be played over the weekend of 5/6 January and given the media's love of seeing us face potential humiliation in the cup at the hands of a lower league team, I'd expect to see it appearing on a television near you be it on the Beeb or on Sky.

The draw in full can be found here.

I see pride...

Blackburn Rovers 3 - 1 Newcastle Utd

There's a scene in the film 'Cool Runnings', in which the downtrodden member of the Jamaican bobsleigh team stands in front of a mirror psyching himself up by repeating the mantra "I see pride, I see passion, I see a bad-ass mother who don't take no crap off of nobody!". As people who've seen the film will know, they go on to have a small amount of success before the whole thing comes crashing down around their ears, but having earned the respect of the bobsleigh world in the process.

Considering Saturday's performance, the analogy seems pretty apt. For once, we saw pride in the shirt, and passion on the pitch, from a team of players who all too recently have looked like they couldn't be arsed. Partly in reaction to that, and I suspect partly in reaction to some pretty pathetic "support" at home (as highlighted by Joey Barton) the travelling support really got behind the team, and it really made a difference. We looked a decent side who, despite being in a slump, look like they are doing their all to get out of that and turn things around.

Yes, the wheels may still fall off at times (although in truth there was little that could be done about any of the three goals we conceded to an equally committed Blackburn team), and we still contrive to shoot ourselves in the foot - Rozehnal's refusal to hoof the ball in to Row Z when pinned in his own corner, and consequently giving away the ball in a dangerous position springs to mind - but we're definitely going in the right direction.

Despite losing both Faye and Carr to injuries during the match, we still kept at Blackburn and David Bentley's two goals (one a cracking free kick, the other a fizzing drive) were both strikes of quality, whilst Tugay's last minute finish came when we were pressing forward searching for an equaliser. Had we taken any of the chances that fell our way earlier in the game we could well have come away with at least a point, but the fact remains that if we can produce that level of performance and commitment both home and away over the coming weeks (and I'm talking as much about fans as I am the team) then we'll be upwardly mobile very quickly.

Other reports: BBC, Guardian