Thursday, November 27, 2008

Zog still on the Tyne - for now

As declarations of commitment to his employers go, Charles N'Zogbia's hardly ranked up there with the most convincing: "In an ideal world, I would want to stay with Newcastle United. Obviously I am not happy that I have hardly figured in [JFK's] starting line-up recently, but that is up to me to put right". As Newcastle fans, we know well enough it's far from an ideal world...

The cynic in me saw this story and immediately assumed he'd been forced by JFK into making a statement to dispel the recent rumours of a move back across the Channel to Paris St Germain - but if anything his half-hearted commitment fuels them.

In other news, it came as a surprise to no one at all that JFK's been hit with an improper conduct charge for labelling Martin Atkinson a "Mickey Mouse referee". First Coco the Clown, now Mickey - who's next in line to be the subject of defamatory comments?

Today's papers linked us with loan moves for Arsenal's Alexandre Song and Johan Djourou - what with the reported interest in Denilson, are we trying to sign their entire squad? Big egos, dressing room unrest - yep, sounds like they'd fit in on Tyneside...

Also mentioned (once again) is our pursuit of Blackburn's Stephen Warnock, as well as his built-like-a-brick-shithouse team-mate Christopher Samba, who opened the scoring in his side's 2-1 victory at St James's Park at the tail-end of September. Presumably we've had a scout around for goalscoring centre-halves in the Premier League, and decided to pass on re-signing Titus...

And finally Mark Viduka might be fit to make a belated first appearance of the season against his old club on Saturday. Surely the lack of match fitness will dictate that he only starts on the bench, but it'll be interesting to see what JFK does once he's up to speed - will he stick with the 4-4-2, or switch to the 4-3-3 that accommodates Viduka, Little Saint Mick and Obafemi Martins which worked to such good effect to drag us up and out of trouble last season?

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

To have and to hold

With news on any possible sale of the club conspicuous by its complete absence, JFK's been getting his feet firmly underneath the table to such an extent that he's submitted a wishlist of players he'd like to bring in in January, evidently feeling sufficiently secure to put the pressure on Messrs Wise and Ashley to deliver.

Rumour has it that the two names at the top of the list are John Arne Riise and Denilson. While the former wouldn't be too much of a surprise - the Norwegian hasn't enjoyed the best of times since leaving Merseyside for Serie A side Roma in the summer - the capture of Denilson, even on short-term loan, would be an eyebrow-raiser in light of Arsenal's recent woes. It may be a commanding defensively-minded midfielder that the Gunners are desperately in need of if they're to cling on to their place in the top four, but really they need all the bodies they can get.

Meanwhile Shola Ameobi has labelled Shay Given "world-class" - presumably his next trick will be to let us know about the toiletary habits of bears. Is it just me, though, or is there something interesting in the pointed comment "We're delighted that he is here"? With Giovanni Trappatoni playing Given's pimp to a host of Italian clubs, doesn't it sound suspiciously as though Ameobi's been put up to this by JFK?

For his part, JFK's also been talking about clinging onto what we've got - and not in relation to Little Saint Mick, no doubt to his relief. Yesterday's subject was Charles N'Zogbia, by and large a fringe player since JFK's arrival at the club.

Am I alone in being disappointed that N'Zogbia isn't accommodated in the team more often? I appreciate that Duff hasn't been playing too badly of late in the Frenchman's preferred position on the left wing, but N'Zogbia has more thrust and directness to his game. While he's not a natural left back (his positional sense from a defensive perspective is still suspect), he would give us an added attacking option in home games against sides likely to sit back and absorb pressure, and would also be worth a more central role in midfield as long as someone like Nicky Butt was in there too for the meat-and-potatoes work.

JFK has also been quoted as saying that Wise "has been given the task of removing some of the players that I feel are not good enough for the club". So, who's he identified as being surplus to requirements? Hard to say. Geremi, perhaps, and maybe Cacapa? He's probably seen enough of the Xisco Kid and Gonzalez to want rid - i.e. very little...

Taff trail

Our surely unprecedented streak of six consecutive televisually altered kick-offs through October and early November meant a succession of free Saturday afternoons. What better way to spend them than indulging in the escapist pleasure of watching other sides to whom you've got no real connection?

I could've sworn that Cardiff's ultimately costly gift of two goals to their opponents was familiar, though. Still, at least I had Michael Gray's every sliced pass to laugh about...

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Roman wall

Chelsea 0 - 0 Newcastle Utd

For the first time in seven years, we avoided getting stuffed at the home of the Russian billionnaire and his merry band of Blues. In terms of results, this was an incredibly pleasant surprise, and one which should rightly be hailed as a victory for pragmatism, discipline and hard work.

True, we never looked like getting more than a point, with only a couple of half breaks by Obafemi Martins, and a weak effort from Jonas Gutierrez to show for our offensive efforts. This was very much a Newcastle team which came with the intention of setting up two solid walls in front of our goal, and forcing Chelski to play in front of us, and try and find a gap. It was all hands to the proverbial pump, and that meant the returning Little Saint Mick, in for Shola Ameobi, operating predominantly in midfield and not having even the faintest whiff of goal.

To be fair, though a few moments of individual brilliance saw them create a handful of chances, all of which Given was equal to (demonstrating once again why his international manager seems intent on hawking him round Serie A), the home side singularly failed to rip our defence apart. Fabricio Coloccini finally had the towering game we've been expecting of him, but was ably supported by those around him.

Last year we were cheated out of a richly deserved and much needed festive point when, having fought our way back level, the referee and linesman conspired to allow Salomon Kalou's offside winning goal to stand. This year, thankfully, the officiating was rather better when it came to the game's two key decisions: Joe Cole's goal celebrations were cut short by a linesman's flag when he followed a blocked shot from Florent Malouda to tap into the net under pressure, while Given was rightly adjudged not to have carried a free-kick from Lampard over the goal-line (though it was heart-in-mouth close).

Nerve-wracking and not particularly pretty to watch, but definitely a point to savour - how often are we described in match reports as "wonderfully organised and feverishly committed", as the Guardian's Dominic Fifield did? The fact that our league position has actually worsened (as a result of Wigan's win over Everton tonight) doesn't really matter - it's so tight anyway, and it's where we sit come May that counts. By then, we could well be hailing this as a crucial point in our quest for survival.

A Chelsea perspective: Chelsea Blog

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

Thursday, November 20, 2008

A (very) partial success

What's the best you can hope for from a clutch of meaningless midweek internationals?

1. That your players, released from the shackles of club commitments, can thrive in different surroundings and come back refreshed and full of confidence.

2. That they all come back injury-free.

Let's take a look back at yesterday evening's action.

Spiderman: An assist for the only goal in Argentina's win up in Scotland, but other than that utterly anonymous - and, given how much he's seemed to tire in second periods lately, he would probably have benefited from the rest.

Fabricio Coloccini: Spent the whole evening picking splinters of the Hampden Park bench out of his arse.

Shay Given: Conceded three goals as the Republic of Ireland lost at home to Poland, and touted around to half of Italy by his international manager Giovanni Trappatoni.

Damien Duff: Hauled off shortly after the hour mark following a hat-trick of squandered chances.

And what of Michael Owen? Forced to look on from a distance as England recorded a 2-1 win in Germany. For Little Saint Mick it was a far cry from last time we took them on on their own turf...

But at least neither he nor any of our other internationals picked up injuries, eh? That's the life of a Newcastle fan - learning very quickly to be thankful for even the smallest of mercies...

So, bring on Chelsea - can't wait!

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Unwise words

Perhaps you have to forgive them (it's been a while since there's been any scraps of speculation to feed upon, after all) but the media have got themselves into a right lather over the possibility - nay, likelihood - that Alan Shearer is on the verge of becoming our new manager. And all of it extrapolated from an interview Rob Lee's given to The Mag, the justification being that, as the pair are close friends, "Lee's comments are highly significant and can be interpreted as coming directly from Shearer". Is it equally possible Lee may just have got carried away and started telling his interviewer what he thought they wanted to hear?

It all hinges on rather a lot of hypotheticals: IF Ashley continues to struggle to sell the club and contemplates staying on, "IF the job is how [Shearer] wants it, without all the silly games going on that have killed it" - which would mean Ashley losing face by backing down and dismantling the off-field system he put in place, resolutely stuck by in the confrontation with Keegan and then robustly defended to the fans.

You have to wonder whether Lee's just intent on talking himself into a coaching role - something which I and most other fans would naturally welcome but which isn't likely to be forthcoming if he continues to dispense public advice to Ashley, no matter how sound that advice might be: "Mike Ashley would solve a lot of his problems by appointing Alan and accepting that mistakes have been made. Alan could be a priceless get out of jail card. Now is the time to make the club what we all want."

Someone else who's once again been busily lecturing our chairman on what to do, though out of an orifice that plainly wasn't his mouth, is Wigan's Dave Whelan, who obviously is in no way motivated by being his business rival. There was a bit of everything in the comments he made in the wake of Saturday's match: straightforward sniping ("Is he being greedy now? Yes"); a bit of patronising I-told-you-so ("I said 'Mike, just get your money back and step away. Football's a very difficult game. If you sack the golden boy Kevin Keegan you are in serious trouble'"); and yet more talking-up of his own manager to such an extent that you'd think he was gladly offering him to us on a plate ("I don't want to lose Steve but in the end I suppose I'll have to, one of the big clubs will come for him. He's been linked with Newcastle before. He's from here. He loves Newcastle").

Most priceless of all, though, was Whelan's statement that "Hopefully Freddy will come back. I rated him very highly. I don't think Newcastle fans realised how great a chairman he was." Yes, you read that right. We were blind to Fat Fred's charms and talents, apparently. No wonder Whelan admires Shepherd - how could he not be admiring of one of the few people in football able to spout off even more shite than him?

Monday, November 17, 2008


Newcastle Utd 2 - 2 Wigan

If you'd told me before 3pm on Saturday that Wigan would come to Tyneside and score twice, and then asked me to name the Latics' scorers, my reply would have been instant: Ryan Taylor and Titus Bramble.

Curling free-kicks from Taylor's boot condemned us to defeat on both our last two visits to the JJB Stadium, something Steve Bruce clearly remembered in drafting him into the side following their 3-0 thrashing by Arsene Wenger's Foetus FC on Wednesday. And sure enough Taylor was on the scoresheet with a spectacular shot with just three minutes on the clock. That's five goals for Wigan now, three of which have been against us.

Meanwhile his teammate, possessor of the largest arse in football, slyly waited to strike his own even more devastating blow until a minute from time, heading in to give the visitors what even the staunchest Toon fan must concede was a fair share of the spoils.

On an afternoon ultimately best described as eventful, our first half performance was largely a non-event. Cacapa paid the price for the cock-up that gifted Fulham the advantage last time out, with Sebastien Bassong becoming Fabricio Coloccini's third different partner in as many games, but our real problems were further forward. ASBO injured himself in a crunching challenge with former Smoggie hardnut Lee Cattermole - his knee ligament injury expected to keep him out of action for up to eight weeks - but neither his replacement Danny Guthrie or his teammates could muster up anything much resembling a chance. The closest we came was when Bramble gave Obafemi Martins a sniff of goal shortly before the break, but he could only shoot straight at Chris Kirkland.

The second period was ten minutes old when referee Andre Marriner showed a yellow card to the Bramble's already-booked central defensive partner Emmerson Boyce for what with the benefit of replays was a clean challenge on Shola Ameobi. So, yes, Brucey, an unfair dismissal - but we suffered a similar fate when Habib Beye was wrongly sent off against Man City and in any case it got your cauliflower face turning the same shade of puce as your mentor's at Old Trafford, so in that sense totally justified.

Even with that helping hand, though, we didn't look like making a breakthrough so JFK turned to the bench, throwing on Little Saint Mick and Charles N'Zogbia for Jose Enrique and Spiderman. Our glum-faced striker - well, so would you be if you were being kept out of the starting XI by Shola - made an instant impact by missing two splendid openings, and we were very fortunate to escape when Wigan substitute Henri Camara coasted past Coloccini with alarming ease and planted his shot against the post. But with time running out parity eventually arrived courtesy of some poaching par excellence by Owen, who profited when Ameobi's shot was parried to his feet by Kirkland.

Relief soon gave way to elation, as Owen's fellow sub N'Zogbia made great strides forwards from left back and slid the ball into Martins inside the area, the Nigerian revelling in the space afforded to him by walloping a shot past Kirkland.

Just three minutes for us to hold out - but that was one minute too many. Habib Beye conceded a needless corner which Daniel De Ridder swung in for Bramble to glance home. Who to blame? It was N'Zogbia whom Bramble out-jumped, but surely it should have been Ameobi picking him up? And what's the point of having a man on the post if Duff is going to do a bit of a Kieron Dyer "I'm a little teapot" impression and not keep the ball out?

Whatever, even though we'd have been grateful for just a point ten minutes earlier, it was a very hard knock to take - the difference between finishing the day in 11th and, as was the case, climbing asthmatically to 17th, perched precariously above the danger area with our annual hiding at Stamford Bridge looming large on the horizon...

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

Friday, November 14, 2008

Mickey Mouse, the star-spangled banner and Ranger the danger

(Yes, OK, it's a shameless round-up post with no coherent topic to compensate for the lack of postage over recent days - rumbled...)

To nobody's surprise whatsoever, JFK has been asked by the FA to explain his branding of Martin Atkinson, the official in charge of Sunday's defeat at Fulham, as a "Mickey Mouse referee". In fairness, given JFK's past form with name-calling, it could have been a lot worse than being labelled a cartoon mouse with big hands...

Amazingly (or perhaps not, if the FA are hovering over him with the threat of another touchline ban), JFK is now actually sounding contrite: "I'm sorry if my post-match comments at Fulham caused any offence, and I'll ring Martin Atkinson in person to tell him. ... I have accepted that some of my comments were inappropriate".

The Guardian's Harry Pearson thinks JFK was onto something, though: "a constant complaint from League managers such as Steve Bruce, Dave Jones and Paul Ince is that they cannot relate to current referees, not something that could be said if Goofy, Droopy and Foghorn Leghorn were in charge of games, surely?"

JFK's appointment on a longer term basis, or alternatively his departure to make way for a permanent replacement, still look no closer, despite speculation this week that we might be going the same way as Man Utd, Liverpool and Aston Villa in raising the star-spangled banner and placing ourselves in Yank hands.

In other news, there's been the usual doom and gloom: JFK claims we need four players to be sure of staying up (and since when have our transfer targets ever worked out?) and, according to yesterday's Sun, Villa are keen to sign Little Saint Mick in the January transfer window and won't take no for an answer. While I'm on the subject of the perenially injured, loan signing Ignacio Gonzalez, whose Achilles heel is proving to be his, er, Achilles heel, won't be adding to his 38 minutes of competitive action for us until March at the earliest following an operation.

On a more positive note, an article in yesterday's Guardian named our very own Nile Ranger among the 20 best English footballers under the age of 18. Prolific striker who formerly lined up for Southampton - sound familiar? Looking forward to seeing him in competitive action.

A trio of ex-Newcastle players have hit the news this week: Craig Moore, who it's been revealed is undergoing treatment for testicular cancer (all the best to him); Darren Huckerby, who's been named Best Newcomer in the MLS since swapping San Jose for Norwich, scoring six times and getting four assists in 14 matches to help his side to "a 4-0-4 record" (whatever that is); and Andy (or should I say Andrew?) Cole has quit hometown club Forest and announced his retirement. Cole, second only to a certain Mr Shearer in the Premier League's all-time scoring chart, has said he couldn't decide between Peter Beardsley and Dwight Yorke, most recently of the Great Unwashed, as the best player he's played with.

And to end on a suitably nostalgic note, yesterday was six years to the day since we recorded that famous last-gasp 3-2 win over Feyenoord in Holland to become the only side ever to qualify for the later stages of the Champions League despite losing the first three fixtures. Exciting times, to be sure. Just look how far we haven't come since then...

Monday, November 10, 2008

Paying the penalty

Fulham 2 - 1 Newcastle Utd

Just three months into the season, it must be a sight Shay Given is already heartily sick of: an opposition player placing the ball on the spot. Our back four's complacent if often well-founded confidence in Given's abilities to save their bacon really has gone too far now. Today's penalty - conceded by Fabricio Coloccini for an ill-advised rather than malicious challenge on Fulham's Andy Johnson, and converted by Danny Murphy - was the sixth we've conceded this season, our Irish custodian having repelled only the first, from the boot of Bolton's Kevin Nolan in the first home game of the campaign.

So, just like last season's fixture, it was a spot-kick which determined where the points ended up, only this time we were on the losing side. Our now customary sluggish start had already nearly been punished by Jimmy Bullard, whose toe-prod forced Given into a sharp save at his near post, and by a couple of headed efforts from Zoltan Gera when we generously handed our hosts the lead in circumstances that made us wince and everyone else watching piss themselves with laughter.

Claudio Cacapa - in for the injured Steven Taylor, just as he was last season, curiously enough - had the luxury of letting Bullard's curling cross go through into Given's arms, but instead panicked and headed the ball off his partner Coloccini's back for it to fall perfectly for Andy Johnson eight yards out. Given's worked miracles many times before, but not this time, and the half-volley flew through his legs into the back of the net.

Despite being hamstrung by ASBO's anonymity (not knowing he was on the pitch - who'd have thought it possible?) and Jonas Gutierrez's malfunctioning passing radar, we drew ourselves together and mounted a response of sorts. First the in-form Obafemi Martins fired wide with zero backlift, and then Damien Duff went even closer, crashing a shot with his lesser-spotted right foot off the base of Mark Schwarzer's near post.

We began the second period the way we left off in the first - threateningly. Great balls in from the left from Gutierrez and Jose Enrique were begging for someone to have gambled on getting into the six yard box. Shola Ameobi it was who got the equaliser, firing past Schwarzer when the ball dropped fortuitously at his feet at close range. As hints of offside go, this one was as unsubtle as they come (worth bearing in mind given what subsequently transpired), but we gratefully accepted the gift and set about finishing the job off. ASBO had a skimming shot brilliantly pushed round the post and Nicky Butt snatched at a similar opportunity, as Fulham began to look ragged and all but beaten.

Then, against the run of play, came the penalty incident. Coloccini could have few complaints about the decision itself, but JFK was fuming over Johnson's shove on Cacapa that went unspotted in the build-up, and labelled Martin Atkinson a "Mickey Mouse referee". Which raises an interesting point: would dressing up as Disney characters garner refs more respect? Somehow I doubt it. Either way, though, expect JFK to be watching the next few games back in the stands.

Fulham retaking the lead put a great big stick through the spokes of our resurgence and after that we never again showed the same conviction that we might be able to go on and win. On 70 minutes Michael Owen came on for Gutierrez (even though Duff was the prime candidate to be replaced, having run into blind alleys all afternoon) and no doubt soon wished he hadn't, managing what was by his own high standards an incredible miss from very close range in front of the watching Fabio Capello. His only excuse can be that he thought Ameobi would apply the finish instead, and he must have been praying for an offside flag to spare his blushes, but it never came.

Martins remained lively, but we looked vulnerable on the break, often stretched by Bobby Zamora and very nearly punished by a curling Simon Davies shot, while Atkinson angered our bench further by giving a foul against Habib Beye for a perfectly good tackle and then booking him for his protests. Anger was just about all we could work up, though, and that was that.

Results elsewhere, including unexpected wins for Bolton and Spurs at Hull and Man City respectively, meant we once again slid back down into the relegation zone. There's no consolation in being above the Mackems when they're in 19th, believe me, but it's so tight that a crucial win against Wigan next weekend would see us rocket up the table again. A psychological boost more than anything, to be sure, but that's what we need after witnessing our recent revival hit the rocks.

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

Saturday, November 08, 2008

A Month Of Saturdays: October 2008

If the events of September made the club seem like the Titanic, sinking fast following the iceberg-like impact of Kevin Keegan's shock departure, there were signs in October that she might just be patched up enough to hold watertight until able to reach the relatively safe waters of next summer. In the long term, steadying the ship (as unsexy as it sounds) is exactly what we need on and particularly off the pitch - and in the short term, at the start of last month, it was equally essential.

At first, the signs certainly weren't good. 2-0 down at Goodison Park for the sixth game in a row courtesy of some supremely laissez-faire defending, we were having a good hard look down both barrels of yet another defeat. But then, with the whistle already between Howard Webb's lips, a passage of uncharacteristically quality play from Geremi and Steven Taylor hauled us back into the game. As loathesome as the expression "a good time to score" might be (mainly because it's the sort of thing Mark Bright trots out in his sleep), for once it was justified - we never looked back, equalising very early in the second half and going on to have the better chances to snatch the win. JFK was credited as the inspiration behind our recovery, despite contriving to miss both goals.

A 2-2 draw, then - something we started to make a habit of with our next fixture, at home to Man City, after a fortnight-long international break during which Michael Owen had managed to injure himself even though he'd been omitted from Fabio Capello's England squad. That left us relying far more heavily than we'd have liked on Shola Ameobi, when the opposition could boast Brazilians by the bucketload as well as an in-form Shaun Wright-Phillips. Things looked even bleaker when Habib Beye was incorrectly sent off for a fair tackle on Robinho before the quarter-hour mark.

But Ameobi it was who got us level, albeit with a sliced stroke of luck, and City's Richard Dunne charitably smashed home what looked like our winner until Stephen Ireland popped up to piss on our chips at the last. The fact that our Senegalese full-back's unjust dismissal was subsequently rescinded came as little consolation for the scant reward we'd got from a tremendous performance.

There followed what will almost certainly rank as our worst defeat of the season. Not the heaviest, to be sure (though it could without a doubt have been heavier), but any defeat by the Great Unwashed, no matter what the margin, is necessarily the source of shame and humiliation. Ameobi scored again, but goals before and after from Djibril Cisse and Kieron Richardson on a pitch that resembled a rubbish dump condemned us to our first loss on the old enemy's turf since 1980. JFK decided the circumstances were right to reintroduce ASBO to first team action - cue an enthusiastic confetti reception of bottles, coins and other projectiles from his red-and-white-shirted intellectual equals in the stands.

That made the home game with West Brom three days later a must-win - and thankfully we managed it. Again I don't want to sound like Mark Bright, but it was a classic game of two halves. In the first, we were confident, direct, penetrative and thoroughly deserving of the 2-0 lead given us by an ASBO penalty (followed by obligatory badge-kissing) and a deflected Martins header. In the second, nerves took over, the lack of confidence came creeping back, we handed the Baggies the initiative and were mighty fortunate they didn't exploit our charity more effectively. All the same, the win - only our second of the Premiership season - was still a win, even if it did come as much of the rest of the country was rooting around in the vegetable drawer for suitably proportioned carrots for their snowmen's noses.

Back in September, the decision to entrust the position of captain responsible for steadying the good ship Toon and being a sober influence on an unruly and demoralised rabble to a man with a volatile temperament who can't even keep his mouth in check seemed very curious, to say the least. (JFK's expletive-festooned press conference tirade made a refreshing change from the usual reeling off of glib platitudes, perhaps, but, like Sir Bobby Robson, I was far more inclined to view it as just the latest in a long line of incidents to drag our name through the mud. Way to go, Joe - I'm sure branding specific hacks very rude things to their faces is mature, adult and not likely to entice them into retaliatory savagery at all...)

But for whatever reason (and I'm still reluctant to attribute it to the JFK factor), October was far more promising than September and the prospect of our interim manager becoming the real deal grew by the day - not least because, after the manic speculation of the previous month, everything fell surprisingly quiet on the takeover front. Since his public announcement putting the club up for sale, Mike Ashley has wisely kept out of the limelight. The recently formed Newcastle United Supporters Club expressed their dissatisfaction with the pace with which the sale was proceeding, despite the efforts of one Keith Harris. Perhaps if he'd been able to devote his whole attention to hawking us around rather than being employed to do the same for Everton, we may have changed hands again...

The one significant off-pitch development was the departure of Tony Jiminez, our Vice President (Player Recruitment) for less than ten months. Is it a vacant position that'll be filled, or will it be scrapped for good? That's the question for Ashley. Does he take a leaf out of Daniel Levy's book by dismantling the relatively recently established hierarchy and reverting to a more English management style, possibly paving the way for King Kev to return for a fourth time? Or does he stick resolutely to his guns?

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Aston Martins

Newcastle Utd 2 - 0 Aston Villa

A fine brace from Obafemi Martins ensured Newcastle climbed six places up the Premiership table (and in so doing assumed our rightful place above the Great Unwashed).

With Villa the Premiership's form team going into this match, I (like Ben) was prepared for the worst. However, the green shoots of recovery glimpsed against West Brom proved that they might just be the first sign of an early spring after the Ashley-inspired winter of our discontent.

What we needed if we were to stand any chance against Villa was a team performance, and that's precisely what was delivered - both on the pitch, and in the stands. With ASBO and Butt starting in the centre of midfield and Owen returning to the bench, JFK is clearly starting to see the benefits of having players available after injury and suspension. In truth, not one person had a bad night and with Gutierrez in particular looking lively down the flank.

However, in the first half, Villa certainly gave as good as they got, with Laursen and Young both wasting good chances to open the scoring - the former heading against the woodwork, while the latter fluffed a great opportunity when clean through on goal.

At the other end, Martins looked dangerous, but wasn't quite clicking with his team mates.

ASBO was delivering a typically energetic performance in midfield, and has subsequently managed to generate a massive media storm by touching the face of Gabrial Agbonlahor with his finger tips. Apparently Graham Poll in his infinite wisdom proclaimed to all and sundry watching on Setanta that Barton should have been sent off for that (presumably it equates to three bookable offences) however, Steve Bennett either missed the incident of ignored it, and no action was taken (something which the FA have now confirmed they won't be following up).

Some stirring words at half-time saw the team tighten up at the back, and ASBO finally clicked with Martins, finding the Nigerian with a decent ball which allowed him to turn Nicky Shorey and fire into the corner of the net from just outside the area.

One up and going well, there was always a worry that Villa might catch us on the break, but our defence held firm, and with about ten minutes to go Gutierrez ghosted past Nigel Reo-Coker on the right before cutting in and finding Martins two yards out, allowing the Nigerian to double his tally for the night and secure our first back-to-back wins of the season.

The victory lifts us to fourteenth, which puts a bit of breathing space between us and the bottom three. However, we need to carry on our good form and pick up some more points before we can really start to think we're anywhere near safe.

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

Sunday, November 02, 2008

The only way is up

With us not playing until tomorrow night, there was always a chance we'd kick off bottom of the league, though I really didn't think it would come to that.

But then Wigan won, Stoke won and West Brom picked up a point. And with 'Arry at the 'elm at White 'Art Lane we can no longer rely on Spurs to prop us up, their 2-1 victory over the table-topping Scousers a real sickener. And then to just to wrap up a miserable weekend, Bolton beat the irritatingly inconsistent Man City at the Reebok. Clearly Richard Dunne decided it would be unfair to give one struggling side an advantage over another, and so duly put past his own 'keeper to the Trotters' delight just as he did in spectacular fashion at St James's a fortnight ago.

All of which means tomorrow's game with in-form Villa is even more vital. Win and we go 14th, above the Mackems (whose 5-0 trouncing at Stamford Bridge was our only real source of cheer); lose and we could find ourselves further adrift at the foot of the table by the time we kick off against Fulham on Sunday. One thing's for certain: Martin O'Neill's side are far more potent than West Brom were, and their forwards will be far more ruthless when it comes to exploiting defensive weaknesses. Plus, of course, James Milner will be out to prove a point. Fingers crossed he doesn't do so and we can nick all three.