Tuesday, August 05, 2008

A Month Of Saturdays: July 2008

It was quite fitting in a month when the papers and internet were abuzz with talk of the Caped Crusader's return to the silver screen in 'The Dark Knight' that Kevin Keegan should come to the conclusion our squad could do with a superhero and duly make Spiderman our first major signing of the summer.

An Argentinian winger bought from Real Mallorca for an undisclosed fee rumoured to be anything up to around £10m, Spidey - Jonas Gutierrez to his parents - has earned his nickname by virtue of celebrating his rare goals in the Spanish league by whipping a mask out of his socks. Rather unusually in these days of endless media speculation, the move seemed to come out of the blue - an irony that there was precious little on the web to suggest Spiderman's arrival was imminent, perhaps?

The move prompted the BBC website to trot out a piece assessing how our previous South American imports had fared - it's a wonder Julio Geordio didn't feature. Fingers crossed Gutierrez is more Robledo and Nobby than Cordone or, worse still, Fumaca...

But, just as in 'The Dark Knight' Batman was upstaged by the villain of the piece, a deranged lunatic who seems to enjoy causing chaos just for kicks, so was Spiderman overshadowed by our very own one-man tornado of trouble. The player known round these parts as ASBO or latterly Porridge - Joseph Anthony Barton to his parents and the law courts - earned his nicknames by virtue of being a vicious little toerag who spent most of the month behind bars following his conviction for assault.

While pleasuring Her Majesty in Strangeways (not an image you wanted, I suspect), Barton received a further four month suspended sentence for his attack on former Man City team-mate Ousmane Dabo. Things didn't get much better for him when he was once again at large, either: though Keegan disappointingly pledged "to give him another chance and back him", within two days of his release he'd lost his £40,000 boot sponsorship deal with Nike and been charged by the FA for the Dabo incident.

Deliberately sidelining him when he's on £60,000 a week would, I admit, be cutting off our nose to spite our face - but then why not sack him to get him off the wage bill altogether? C'mon Mike - give him a canoe, point him in the direction of Panama and tell him to do the decent thing.

Amidst all the brouhaha surrounding Barton, it may have escaped the casual observer's attention that Gutierrez wasn't the only new face at St James's in July. At first sight, neither hardworking but essentially prosaic Liverpool midfielder Danny Guthrie nor the similarly unproven Metz central defender Sebastien Bassong exactly fit the bill of what we need, but let's just hope they turn out to be quite the dynamic duo.

Gutierrez's arrival inevitably resulted in speculation about the futures of our other three first team wingers. You suspect it wouldn't take much (a firm bid from Arsenal, for instance) to have Charles N'Zogbia forgetting all about professing to be perfectly happy on Tyneside, while when the summer's most tediously drawn-out transfer - Gareth Barry to Liverpool - finally goes through, the Milner-to-Villa rumours are likely to follow soon after. Damien Duff, for his part, briefly hinted he might rise to the challenge posed by the newcomer by scoring a hat-trick in a friendly against the Monkey Hangers, but seems to have been lazily content to bask in the glow of Keegan's post-match praise ever since. A (Blackburn) Rovers return may yet be on the cards.

Still, at least he found the back of the net. If our pre-season preparations have been characterised by anything, it's by a conspicuous lack of strikers. Of the "big three" who helped fire us to safety last season just when things were looking sticky, the biggest (Mark Viduka) has been injured, the most unpredictable (Obafemi Martins) back in Nigeria following the death of his mother, and the most prolific (Michael Owen) both struggling for fitness and embroiled in contract intrigue. Negotiations have dragged on into August without a resolution in sight.

One of the most persistent rumours of the month was that, barely a year after taking charge, Mike Ashley was ready to sell up - rumours he and the club have repeatedly sought to quash, sometimes with wry good humour. Meanwhile Fat Fred was trying to get back into football, but ultimately found himself frustrated in his attempt to buy a controlling share in Real Mallorca. No wonder Spiderman was so keen to get away - that would have been a dark night indeed...


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