Thursday, September 11, 2008

A Month Of Saturdays: August 2008

If August seems like a long time ago, then that’s partly because it is. This column’s tardiness is, I hope, excusable in the light of everything that’s gone on since the calendar flipped over to September. So, cast your mind back, if you can, to a time when calmness and relative sanity prevailed and we weren’t once again undisputedly the most farcical football club in the land…

The month began with a dispiriting display in the Mallorca Summer Cup, our efforts to step up preparations running into the brick wall of sterile 1-0 defeats to Hertha Berlin and our hosts. Thankfully, there was a marked improvement when PSV Eindhoven came to Toon, but we still contrived to squander our early two goal advantage with characteristic defensive generosity, and only managed the win over Valencia in our final pre-season friendly four days later with a pair of late goals as the Spaniards’ lack of match fitness told.

By the time our season kicked off for real on the 17th, Mike Ashley could safely wear his Fabricio Coloccini shirt without fear of feeling foolish – we’d finally wrapped up the signing of the Argentinian and his impressive mane for a fee rumoured to be in excess of £10m. But it was a case of one in one out, Abdoulaye Faye heading off after just a year on Tyneside to try and keep the good ship Stoke City afloat on the choppy Premier League waters.

An international defender of some distinction Coloccini may be, but handing him a debut in our curtain-raiser at Old Trafford looked less like throwing him in at the deep end and more like giving him a pair of concrete boots and chucking him into a lake full of piranhas. But after a nervy start, he grew in confidence and stature, while in the centre of midfield Danny Guthrie was understatedly effective. Of the three debutants, though, it was Spiderman who impressed the most, exhibiting a genuinely exciting turn of pace in attacking his full back and an almost equally admirable dedication to defensive duties. A superheroic performance if ever I saw one, and it was key to our claiming a draw that was as deserved as it was unexpected.

The home win over Bolton was much more of a slog, the Trotters expertly frustrating us and even threatening to steal the points. Shay Given was the superhero on this occasion, though, brilliantly keeping out Kevin Nolan’s spot-kick to give a semi-fit Michael Owen the opportunity to step off the bench and grab the winner. Supersub Owen repeated the trick three days later, as we beat Coventry in extra time to set up a League Cup Third Round meeting with holders Spurs.

If we’d ridden our luck in those first three fixtures, then we were very definitely unseated in the fourth. Arsenal cantered to a 3-0 win that couldn’t have been much more comfortable, the game only really notable from our perspective for the return to the fray for ASBO, introduced as a late substitute. Christ knows why he had a smirk on his face – the FA’s six match ban may have still been lying in wait just around the corner, but he did know that former Man City trainee Jamie Tandy, the victim of Cigargate, and the victim of the Boxing Day assault in Liverpool that landed him in the slammer were both pursuing legal action against him. Perhaps it was just the thought that his wage packet would be able to absorb the blow. (Incidentally, is ASBO the only person ever to go to McDonalds and get porridge?)

OK, I’ve got so far without mentioning the ‘H’ word, but now I’m afraid it’s inevitable. With the benefit of hindsight, there were perhaps two events in August which hinted at the ructions and drama which was to come.

Firstly, on the eve of the Arsenal game, James Milner was sold to Aston Villa for £12m. When I wrote about the persistent rumours, it was to tempting fate: “As far as I'm aware, our winger's "long-term admirers" are still yet to make a firm approach for him - really, it's like being at a school disco and watching some bespectacled nerd sitting lustfully and nervously in the corner and downing can after can of coke in the hope they might be able to pluck up the courage to talk to the object of their affection. Hopefully, if it happens Milner will tell them to talk to the hand.” Of course, what actually happened was that Milner slapped in a transfer request, the bespectacled nerd Martin O’Neill reacted like he’d been flashed a thigh and made his move, and within a couple of days the deal was done.

To sell him – even for that sizeable sum and even given his transfer request – looked daft. Milner had a promising pre-season, shining against PSV and getting one of our two against Valencia, and terrorised Coventry’s back four when we didn’t have a single striker in our starting line-up. His reasons for wanting out were (and still are) inscrutable, though the general feeling is that he felt undervalued by the club. Either way, King Kev’s insistence that he’d sanctioned the decision sounded so suspiciously like a case of protesting too much that you began to wonder whether he’d had any say in it at all.

And the second? The little-reported and abrupt departure of Arthur Cox. One of Keegan’s closest allies, Cox was responsible for bringing him to Tyneside in 1982 and was himself one of Keegan’s first appointments during that first golden spell in charge. Little did we suspect at the time that Keegan and Terry Mac would soon be following Cox’s lead and making their own exits…


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