Wednesday, May 28, 2008

View From The Away End

Back in August, Shane of How-You-Say-It cast his eye over our summer comings and goings under Sam Allardyce and, with a tempered degree of confidence, predicted we'd finish the season sixth after good runs in both domestic cup competitions.

Ten months, one manager, several drubbings, a lot of heartache and a defeat to officially the Premier League's worst ever side later, and things look rather different. Over to Shane...

* * * * *

On a lengthy train journey, sitting opposite a smartly-dressed chap who was reading the Guardian’s report of Newcastle’s final game of the season:

Chap: (sighs)

Shane: "Doom and gloom?"

Chap: "Nothing changes – like bein’ stuck in a bad marriage."

Shane: "One of the faithful?"

Chap: "Season ticket holder - last twenty-odd years."

Shane: (winces)

Chap: "Aye."

Shane: "Verdict on 07/08?"

Chap: "Bloody hell! Got t’ look back, haven’t y’ – Allardyce spent a fair whack last summer – they didn’t do much."

Shane: "None of them?"

Chap: (thinks) "Beye - Habib Beye - he might be worth keepin’, and Viduka has his moments - in a part-time sort o’ way, but we still need an engine – Gerrard-style, kind o’ thing. Wi’ Allardyce it was always gonna be ugly, but I thought it’d be a bit more effective – was like watchin’ some o’ these Championship teams that get promoted."

Shane: "I was at the FA Cup game at Stoke."

Chap: "Ha! Whisker away from public humiliation – talk about on the ropes!"

Shane: "Nicky Butt seemed to have a good attitude."

Chap: "‘Attitude’ – that’s one thing."

Shane: "Mm. Seemed a bit weird, Keegan coming back."

Chap: "You’re not kiddin’ – it’ll end in tears."

Shane: "Mm."

Chap: "Thing is, when he’s not seein’ eye-to-eye wi’ Chris Mort or Ashley, then what kind of a player’s gonna sign – helps if the manager’s settled and confident – and looks like he’s enjoyin’ it."

Shane: "Sounded like he was just taking the edge off expectations – releasing a bit of pressure."

Chap: "We’ll see."

This brief chat summed up Newcastle’s latest plight. Whilst the final league position (12th) could have been a hell of a lot worse, taking a closer look at the table speaks of something that really didn't work – namely, defence. A fifth worst goal difference, of -20, cannot be overlooked. When the football isn’t working, then it’s fair to look about the fringes for signs of optimism or small successes. But again, it is of no consolation that Newcastle were robbed at this year’s British Soap Awards. 'EastEnders' my arse!

* * * * *

Thanks to Shane - largely for having the courage to strike up a conversation about Newcastle Utd with a disgruntled fan. He could have found himself inadvertently pinned to the wall of the carriage with a whole lot more invective than that...

A higher calling

Is there some unwritten rule that Newcastle strikers of the early 90s must take up unique new challenges in far-flung places once their careers have run their course?*

First Andy Hunt went to Belize to set up and run a luxury tourist resort.

And now Gavin Peacock has announced he's quitting his job as a BBC pundit to emigrate to Canada and train for a career in the church.

The fact that Peacock is a committed Christian is no secret, but all the same it's a surprising change of direction - not to say disappointing, given that of all the young turks spread across the terrestrial channels and Sky, he's the only one who talks sufficiently sensibly and insightfully to be considered Alan Hansen's rightful heir. Mind you, if I had a choice between being the Right Hand of God and being on Carlton Palmer's right-hand side, I'd probably plump for the former too.

So, what's next? Alex Mathie running for election in New Zealand? Ned Kelly going into orbit on a Russian space mission?

* Well, there's always one exception to the rule...

Monday, May 26, 2008

The long goodbye?

Over four days have passed since it was first reported that Chris Mort is set to step down as chairman, and yet there's still been no official word from the club of either confirmation or denial.

Should Mort return to his day job with law firm Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, his replacement could well be Derek Llambias, a close friend of owner Mike Ashley who already holds the position of deputy chairman and who, like his pal, has been photographed in the stands wearing a Toon shirt. All this despite allegedly being a West Ham fan...

Reactions to Mort's departure would likely be mixed. On the one hand, he's not a football man and has rarely come across as having the requisite passion for the club that we would expect from someone in his position. On the other, he's been quietly efficient in helping to stablise the club off the field following the turbulent reign of Fat Fred and, unlike the previous incumbent, has appreciated how to conduct himself with dignity as well as when to open his mouth (usually in support of Keegan to dampen the nonsense spouted in the press) and when to keep it shut.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008


The BBC is carrying reports that Joey Barton has pleaded guilty to assault and affray (in relation to the incident outside McDonalds in December), and has been sentenced to six months in prison. The BBC states that Newcastle are apparently considering the verdict.

What this means in practical terms is that, if we keep Barton (which I'm assuming we will - how often do you throw away (sack) a 6 million pound asset?) he'll probably be out on parole in about 12 weeks.

By my reckoning that means he'll miss the whole of pre-season and be back in training around the start of September. Hardly a disaster in footballing terms.

Regardless of the rights or wrongs of whether we choose to stand by the player because he's a reformed character, or simply because we'd lose a 6 million pound player if we ditched him, the short fact is I'll be amazed if we do anything other than show our support for him (and equally uphold the British justice system).

It just goes to show how well Sam Allardyce was able to manage a player who he convinced the board to sign, arrogantly sure of his own abilities to reform Barton. There can't be too many on Tyneside (or for that matter away from the Sky Sports studio) that are surprised that the Fat oaf failed. Again.

Still, I suppose a few weeks of porridge makes a change from two weeks in Ayia Napa as a way to spend your summer holiday.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Rammy off, Smudger to follow?

With the league season now over, the rumour mill has rolled into overdrive as the summer begins.

However, before we move on to the tittle-tattle, one piece of news is that Peter Ramage has signed a three-year deal with QPR (where he'll be able to gaze on the attractive visage of Iain Dowie, newly installed as first team coach). Undoubtedly a trier, Ramage will, I'm sure, do well the Championship where his solid tackling and commitment will more than compensate for his occasional defensive lapses. He will perhaps wonder whether a new contract at St James Park might have been forthcoming had he not been injured so early in the season, particularly as our defence shifted on an almost daily basis under the early stewardship of Fat Sam. However, the move is definitely the right thing for all concerned, with the player likely to be a regular starter in the Championship, and with the hope that our defence will be bolstered by better players arriving in the coming weeks.

Turning to spurious rumours, the Guardian today wins the prize for story I'd most like to see happen, with reports of the monsters of smog being keen (!) to take Alan Smith's unique brand of goal-shy striker play/headless chicken midfield running to the Riverside.

Allardyce wasn't joking when he signed Smith as a replacement to Kieron Dyer, with Dyer equally adept at collecting massive wages despite contributing very little in the Goals For column. Quite why Gareth Southgate wants in him, God only knows, but let's all keep our fingers crossed that the deal goes through.

In other tales, apparently we've finally opened talks with England sub Michael Owen, but are only offering him £80,000 per week, which represents a £40,000 pay cut for our revitalised captain. Unsurprisingly, presumably in the hope that the club will stump up more cash, he's now being linked with moves to such glamorous locations as Japan and Everton. Clearly a case of watch this space, as far as the club are concerned.

Mind, if we can shift Alan Smith's reported £60,000 off the wage bill, I'd happily see most of that augment Owen's salary, on the basis that he has, at least, proved himself capable of scoring goals.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Look to the future

Everton 3 - 1 Newcastle Utd

A couple of months ago, it looked as though our season really could come down to the last game. Thankfully it didn't. Our recent record at Goodison Park is dreadful, and today's showing did nothing to improve it. Matters weren't helped by the fact that for Everton it was still a meaningful fixture - they kicked off knowing a point or better would fend off Villa's challenge in the race for 5th place and UEFA Cup football next term.

The recent stability of the side was unsettled by the absences of Mark Viduka, Obafemi Martins, Geremi and ASBO, with Andy Carroll, Charles N'Zogbia, Damien Duff and (groan) Alan Smith coming in to replace them.

Carroll had a decent early opportunity saved by Tim Howard, but it was N'Zogbia - in all probability making his final appearance for the club (though sincerely I hope not) - who carried our biggest threat, his crosses causing consternation in the penalty area. Ex-Smog Yakubu was the Toffees' danger man, and, having already shot wide when well placed, he capitalised on Duff's stupid foul by directing his header from the resulting Manuel Fernandes free-kick beyond Steve Harper.

Harper was definitely the busier 'keeper in the first period, saving brilliantly from Leon Osman and also preventing Victor Anichebe from repeating the trick of last year's fixture, when he plundered a couple. But, for all that pressure, N'Zogbia came close to scoring with a free-kick, and was instrumental when the equaliser did come, two minutes into the second half. His mazy run into the area was brought to an abrupt halt by Joseph Yobo's leg, and ref Peter Walton pointed to the spot. Owen's penalty was hardly decisive, but slipped underneath Timmy Tourettes anyway.

For a while, we weathered the subsequent storm, Harper diverting a pair of Fernandes free-kicks away from danger, but with 20 minutes left we found ourselves behind again, Joleon Lescott rounding off an impressive season by guiding home a far-post volley. The quality of the finishing was again high, but again the free-kick was given away needlessly, this time by Little Saint Mick, who compounded his error by absent-mindedly giving Fernandes time and space on the edge of the area to pick out the central defender.

Osman, who had been a menace to our back four all afternoon with his running, was then felled by Steven Taylor's leg in the area and Yakubu sent Harper the wrong way from the spot with his club's first penalty of the season to ensure we left Merseyside empty-handed. There can't really be too many complaints about the result, either - though we can certainly gripe about the performance of a certain Mr A Smith, as anonymous as his surname would suggest.

It's hard to believe that, after the horrible season we've had, our 12th place finish actually represents progress on last term, when we ended up in 13th. There's obviously a huge amount of work to be done in the summer, something that the generally positive end to the campaign can't mask. King Kev was spot on in his post-match comments: "If ever we needed a team to look at we were in the right place today. If Everton can finish fifth, why can't we? We have a bigger stadium and more fans, but they all play for each other and that's the spirit we don't have. If we can get that with the players we've got there's no reason we can't challenge for that spot next season." If anyone was concerned about Kev's lack of optimism and ambition after the Chelsea game (and I'm not joining in with the media reports that Mike Ashley was, I should add), then that should be reassuring. Interesting too that there was no mention of money - it might be a matter of about nurturing and developing team spirit, rather than (by implication) spending lots of cash. Presumably that means we can expect to see the back of ASBO, then? Hopefully he might take Smith with him...

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

Friday, May 09, 2008

That way madness lies

In the light of the rather bizarre furore stirred up by his comments about the difficulty of breaking into the top four, King Kev's come out on the defensive: "I know people might be disappointed by me saying we might not win the league, but there would be a real danger of me being whipped off to the old nuthouse if I started saying that".

Inevitably, the media seem to have understood "people" as a reference not to themselves but to Mike Ashley, and billed the pair's meeting on Friday as a "summit meeting", as though Keegan's been summoned to London like a naughty schoolboy.

Shame that Chris Mort's reaction to Keegan's initial statement flatly contradicts the view that there's some kind of split between manager and hierarchy, then: "I thought Kevin's comments were quite sensible. I'm not sure what people's expectations are but I don't think most Newcastle fans would be greatly surprised by what he had to say. There are those who are naturally optimistic but it does no harm to come out with some realism and say that if we get fifth we will have done well. He's right. I wasn't taken aback by Kevin's comments. He says what he feels. We have just come out of a relegation battle so you can't have people surprised when the manager says we aren't going to get into the Champions League."

Of course, there are things that need to be ironed out - most significantly, our summer transfer targets and the budget we'll have to spend on them - but that's far from meaning the pair are on collision course...

In other news, the surgery Mark Viduka needs for his niggling Achilles injury could sideline him for up to six months. Might that just edge Peter Crouch further up towards the top of our shopping list?

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Latest releases

The Stiffs' back four is set to have an altogether more aesthetically pleasing look to it next season, with the news that Stephen Carr and Peter Ramage will be accompanying Australian teenager James Troisi out of the St James's Park door in the summer.

On paper, signing Carr from Spurs back in 2004 for just £2m was something of a coup, but, as though exhausted by the move up to the North East, the Irishman suddenly seemed to decide that crossing the halfway line to support attacks in any meaningful way was too much effort. What's worse, his defending left much to be desired too. Mercifully, what with his injury problems and the splendid recent form of Habib Beye, Carr has rarely figured this season, and no one will shed a tear for his departure.

While the sight of Peter Ramage also packing his bags is unlikely to make anyone misty-eyed either, there is always a touch of disappointment when a local lad fails to make the grade. Older than Steven Taylor, with whom he came through the ranks, Ramage is leaving in search of the first-team football that King Kev has openly admitted he can't offer him. Capable of the odd outstanding display, Ramage could more often be something of a liability at the back - though in the Championship, where some defensive mistakes go unpunished and robustness of tackling is prized, he could do well.

Who might be coming in to take their places and strengthen the back line is anyone's guess. But, with the summer not even yet upon us, Chris Mort has already been voicing his concern about our inability to attract the "top-notchers" Keegan spoke about last week: "It is frustrating that Modric, like Woodgate before him, should take less money than we offered to move to the bright lights of London and European football with Tottenham next season". There you have it: to counter the not inconsiderable charms of our rivals, all we can offer is wheelbarrows full of cash. No wonder that as fans we're constantly plagued by the feeling that we're supporting a team of underachieving mercenaries...

Canny Kev

King Kev's comment in the wake of yesterday's defeat by Chelsea, that the Premier League "is in danger of becoming one of the most boring but great leagues in the world", seems to have ruffled a few feathers in the media - see, for instance, Phil McNulty's rather indignant piece on the BBC site. No great surprise there, though, given that an exciting league is what the media craves (and strives to portray the Premier League as, whether the reality fits or not).

As McNulty grudgingly hints, however, Keegan's personal agenda for saying what he did in the context shouldn't be ignored: "Keegan may just be indulging in a spot of expectation management to calm the ambitions of Newcastle owner Mike Ashley, and if this is his motivation it is actually a clever move". By rejecting rather than merely downplaying our chances of breaking into the top four next term, he was being realistic, and preparing the ground for a season in which we again fall short - but at the same time he still urged Ashley to make the financial commitment necessary to strengthen the side so that fifth is an achievable target.

Perhaps it's that realism that's been such an affront to everyone? After all, it hardly tallies with the caricature of Keegan the naive and optimistic dreamer. The comments may not be as clever as McNulty suggests, though, if a disgruntled Ashley interprets them negatively as defeatist - and to the ears of some fans used to being inspired and invigorated by Keegan's words they may have that depressing ring too.

A spring in his Steps

Hobo Tread, the site of our favourite itinerant Havant & Waterlooville supporting football fanatic Skif, is no more. But fear not - it's simply been renamed Dub Steps, so you can still read about the quality of cups of tea the length and breadth of the country, and enjoy comparisons between Arundel manager Richard Towers and "a tottering town-centre slag"...

Monday, May 05, 2008

Almost over

Newcastle Utd 0 - 2 Chelsea

All good things must come to an end. So it came to pass today, as our seven match unbeaten run finally ground to a halt as we came up against a Chelsea team chasing Manure all the way to the wire.

With Abdoulaye Faye the only change to our side, returning from injury to resume his partnership in defence with Steven Taylor, it was a chance for the recent return to form to be tested against a title chasing team.

For 45 minutes, we not only contained Chelsea, but we had the better opportunities - the best falling to Owen who, after a strong run by Martins led to a scramble in the box, was presented with a golden opportunity to take the lead only for John Terry to clear off the line. At the other end, for all Chelsea were passing the ball well, Steve Harper was barely extended throughout the half.

Half time saw Smith replace Viduka, but it was Avram Grant's team talk which clearly had the most stirring impact on the match. For 13 minutes, Newcastle could barely get a touch on the ball, and when Terry's powerful header cannoned back off the crossbar it looked as though we had weathered the storm. However, a Drogba free-kick from just outside the box was cleverly flighted in, and Ballack was afforded a free header from six yards, to give the Blues the lead.

Having been resolutely pegged back, we managed to get back into the game, and with Chelsea starting to sit back, we enjoyed our best spell of the half, with Martins' pace proving a particular problem for Chelsea. However, for all his potency on the break, it was Owen who had our best chance, narrowly failing to connect with a lofted ball in and restore parity. That miss unfortunately was the end of our resistance, and shortly afterwards Malouda was able to slot home past Harper to guarantee the points for Chelsea.

For them, it ensured the title race went to the wire. For us, it showed both the scale of the journey we've been on in recent weeks, and also the work which needs to be carried out over the summer if we're to begin next season with the hope that we can seriously challenge for a place in Europe next season.

A Chelsea fan's view: Chelsea Blog

Other reports: BBC

Friday, May 02, 2008

A Month Of Saturdays: April 2008

If, back in the desperate days of early March, you’d given us two wishes for the remainder of the season, we would have all answered in exactly the same way. Firstly, to somehow escape the spectre of relegation that was looming as large as a hungry Mark Viduka striding purposefully towards his local Greggs. Secondly, to beat the Mackems at St James’s Park.

With the benefit of hindsight, though, that second wish would have been wasted – of course we were always going to put the Great Unwashed to the sword, no matter how badly we were playing, no matter what our predicament at the time. But all the same, how sweet it was that both wishes came true at the same time, the largely effortless 2-0 victory securing our top flight status. Michael Owen might still have the odd doubter in the stands, but by almost single-handedly firing us to safety and condemning the wretches from down the road to deserved defeat he can hardly have done more to win them over.

Suddenly a season that has been, for the most part, unremittingly awful faded from memory. Anxiety and depression gave way to beaming faces and lustily joyous renditions of unsavoury songs about Roy Keane’s intimate relations with his faithful canine companion. Natural order had been restored.

Inevitably, every other game in April was a footnote by comparison – even the confident and comprehensive demolition of Reading in what was nominally a relegation crunch match. Buoyed by the thrashing of Spurs on their own patch, we set about the Royals with gusto, and the afternoon ended with all three prongs of King Kev’s dynamic strikeforce on the scoresheet for the first time. As against the Mackems, though, the unsung hero was Habib Beye – solid defensively and a secret weapon in attack. Could it be that Fat Sam’s legacy isn’t all bad? Certainly, it’s a cheering thought that Stephen Carr is unlikely to get anywhere near the first team ever again.

Sandwiched in between the wins over Reading and Roy’s rabble was the trip to the English Riviera to play Portsmouth. It proved to be the only time Owen has blotted his copybook since the ultimately costly clutch of missed chances against Blackburn – even if he was extremely unlucky to see his close-range volley clear the crossbar via a deflection off David James’s afro. Thankfully Jermain Defoe chose the same afternoon to be equally wasteful, and we managed to escape Fratton Park and that fucking bellringer with a point.

The derby victory the following weekend made it three consecutive clean sheets – a remarkable achievement in the light of some of the humiliations we’ve suffered this season, even allowing for the calibre of the opposition – but of course it couldn’t last. Half an hour into our visit to Upton Park and we were fortunate to be only the two goals down. But riding our luck and clinging on for dear life like a cowboy on a bucking bronco, we staged an improbable comeback to draw level and extended our unbeaten run to seven games.

The ease with which a West Ham side lacking confidence opened us up will have served as a useful reminder to Keegan that much work remains to be done in the summer – and, to his credit, he seems to have made it his priority this summer to sign the commanding centre-back we’ve lacked ever since Jonathan Woodgate was stretchered off to Real Madrid. Of the players in whom he’s been credited with an interest, Sol Campbell is the wrong side of 30 and possibly set to see out his playing days in the sun with Villareal, while Real’s lanky German international Christophe Metzelder would be expensive. Carlos Cuellar of Rangers might be our best bet, though many more performances like the one in tonight’s UEFA Cup semi-final second leg against Fiorentina and he’ll join the ranks of the “top-notchers” Kev’s confessed are unfortunately out of our league. (That said, we’ve already tried signing a central defender with a big reputation from the Gers, and look how that ended up...)

The season’s not yet over, and we’ve already had the bitter taste of missing out on one “top-notcher”. Defence might be the priority, but we’re also in definite need of a consistent attacking midfielder, and so it was hugely disappointing when Croatian international Luka Modric plumped for one of our closest rivals, Spurs. Hopefully we won’t have to go head-to-head for players too often this summer – Kev’s powers of persuasion are strong and his infectious enthusiasm potent, and cold, hard cash always has an allure, but, with no European football to offer, we could find ourselves repeatedly left empty-handed.

But at least we’ll still be kicking off in the Premier League next season. And one thing’s for certain: if, as has been rumoured, Stoke will owe us £4m for Shola Ameobi if they’re automatically promoted, we’ll be laughing all the way to the bank...