Thursday, February 28, 2008

"A very interesting and exciting idea"

So there I was, scoffing at the crass eagerness of the Smogs' chief exec Keith Lamb in enthusiastically embracing the Premier League's ludicrous idea of a 39th game, when an automated response to my email opposing the proposal arrived in my inbox. It had been sent to all clubs via the Football Supporters' Federation website, and this reply just happened to be from Newcastle...

"Dear Ben,

Thank you for your email.

First of all may I send you a link to our website story concerning the proposal to create a new international round of fixtures, just to ensure you have the correct information to hand. Read the article
[This is a hyperlink].

Hmm, patronisingly suggesting we're all ignorant and would see the genuine benefits of a 39th game if only we were in possession of the full facts isn't a great start, is it?

"I can appreciate that from a fan's perspective any suggestion of additional fixtures may cause an immediate response in terms of how it will affect existing competitions, indeed fixture scheduling is an important issue and one that has been identified by the Premier League as critical in progressing the proposal."

"An immediate response"? So now the suggestion is that the contempt and disdain with which the idea's been met is just a knee-jerk reaction on the part of the fans. Given some time to reflect on it soberly and maturely, surely we'll come to see the light...

"However, this is a very interesting and exciting idea which if structured correctly will have great benefits for football and its communities."

And so to the crux: the club's very thinly veiled endorsement of the proposal. Are those pound signs I can see in your eyes?

"Having said this, you can be certain that before any firm decisions are made, the Premier League and its clubs will examine all facets of the proposition to ensure that the integrity of the league and the interests of its fans are taken into consideration.

Thank you for taking the time and trouble to write to us with your views, when appropriate the club will add further comment on our website.

Kind regards,

Simon Esland
Head of Customer Operations

Well, of course, Apparatchik Esland - heaven forbid a decision was to be taken in the world of football without due consideration of the fans...

Thankfully, with Premier League chief Richard Scudamore's cancellation of a scheduled meeting with Sepp Blatter to discuss the issue, hopefully we've just hitched our wagon to a dead horse.

Monday, February 25, 2008

(Mis)take that

Newcastle Utd 1 - 5 Man Utd

If, before this game, Kevin Keegan was still under any illusions that the club he returned to last month is the same as the one he left, then after it he certainly won't be.

In October 1996, three months before he quit the St James' Park hotseat, we inflicted the famous 5-0 defeat upon the defending champions, gaining a measure of revenge for the way they'd sneaked up to rob us of the title the previous season. Twelve years later, and the Red Devils dished out a second pummelling in the space of a month and a half, this one all the more painful for being on home turf.

The only people laughing at the Two Ronnies' latest exploits - a brace each - were the Man Utd fans, who seemed more interested in taunting Keegan than in any celebration of their own side's performance and whose own wit was barely worthy of the description.

Neither, though, was our defence fit to be labelled as such, the visitors' first four goals - two either side of half-time - coming as the consequence of appalling mistakes and ruthlessly unerring finishing.

Goal number one, 25 mins: A bit of trickery on the wing from Cristiano Ronaldo and a great cross to the back post. Charles N'Zzzzzogbia chose an inopportune moment to catch forty winks, leaving Shrek to wander into the six yard area unmarked and volley past Shay Given.

Goal number two, 45 mins: Joey Barton gifted the ball to an opponent, Geordie Michael Carrick sent a precise pass through the back line like Brutus plunging the knife in, and Ronaldo coolly finished.

Goal number three, 56 mins: Abdoulaye Faye contrived to win the ball from Ronaldo, then lose it to Fletcher who fed it back to the Portuguese. Steven Taylor's laughable challenge hardly needed evading, and Steve Harper (on at the break for the injured Given) was duly rounded and the ball knocked home.

Goal number four, 80 mins: Alan Smith - for whom a chant of "SMITH? HUH! WHAT IS HE GOOD FOR? ABSOLUTELY NOTHING!" must surely ring from the terraces soon - sliced an attempted clearance straight to Shrek, who hit a curling shot from the edge of the area which somehow missed all the bodies apparently in its path and found the back of Harper's net.

It was then left to goal-shy substitute Louis Saha, who for a time wore black and white, to rub salt into the wounds with the injury-time fifth.

Faye's 79th minute close-range strike can hardly be described as a consolation, because (a) it was no consolation for the extent to which we were outclassed and also contributed to our humiliation and (b) it only proved that Man Utd had been toying with us for the previous twenty minutes and, like a cat with a wounded mouse, could choose to pounce and finish us off at any time they liked, their fourth goal coming barely a minute later.

As at Old Trafford, it could have been worse - Carlos Tevez missed a sitter of a header in the first period, and Harper made a pair of brilliant saves in the last ten minutes. Ferguson had shown just how much of a challenge he felt we posed by selecting Darren Fletcher in the starting XI, and then added insult to injury by bringing John O'Shea on at half-time and playing him out of position at left back. It pains me to admit that he was spot on in his judgement - a whole team of O'Sheas could have won at a canter. It was very hard to believe that we were the side that had had a fortnight's rest, while they'd played two tough cup ties, against Arsenal and Lyon, in that time.

It seems churlish to look for bright spots in another awful display, but please bear with us - we have to, just to have something to cling on to. Aside from Harper's saves, which suggested Given won't be missed too badly if he's ruled out for a few games, Damien Duff was lively on the left wing, allowed some space by Wes Brown and fashioning a good chance with a neat turn and shot early in the second period, when, with the score at 2-0, a goal back might possibly have triggered an unlikely comeback. James Milner tried hard too, but to limited effect.

We can once again breathe a sigh of relief that our position hasn't actually worsened, Blackburn and Villa's victories over Bolton and Reading respectively ensuring we remain six points clear of 18th place. Our goal difference is now -22, though, the third worst in the division after Derby and Reading, and we can't keep relying on those below us to keep losing. At some point we've got to start winning ourselves - and, with a trip to Anfield looming large, that needs to be on Saturday with the visit of Blackburn. It's hardly going to be easy, though, given the fact that it was their comfortable win on Tyneside last season that got Glenn Roeder the boot, and that the once-again in-form Benni McCarthy will be coming up against a back four choreographed by Benny Hill...

Other reports: BBC, Observer

Friday, February 22, 2008

Fog on the Tyne

Best wishes to Gazza from all at Black & White & Read All Over.

It's grim dahn Saaarf

"House prices are a joke, they are. It's unbelievable. When you are looking about and you see some of the houses, you think 'What?'"

Regretting your decision to plump for London ahead of Tyneside are we, Woody?

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Boum on song

How galling given our current predicament to watch a defender whose name, during his time on Tyneside, was most charitably prefaced with the word "hapless" keep Wayne Rooney remarkably quiet for 90 minutes. But that's just what Jean-Alain Boumsong did tonight, lining up for Lyon in their Champions League clash with Man Utd following his departure from Juventus.

An aside: can I be the first to suggest the appropriateness of a player who sounds like a skin condition being all over the Man Utd defence like a rash?

Saint Nige

Little more than a week after his departure from St James' Park, Nigel Pearson has taken charge of the rudderless ship that was Southampton in a move that has left Saints fans and former players rather bemused.

The new man at the helm didn't get off to the best of starts, either - tonight his side, no doubt still reeling after the FA Cup defeat to Bristol Rovers at the weekend, were torpedoed at home by Plymouth, whose manager Paul Sturrock - whose own posterior rested briefly on the Saints' hotseat - no doubt enjoyed every minute.

Southampton currently lie six points off the relegation places and are in desperate need of a win - sound familiar?

Sunday, February 17, 2008

My life story in ... Newcastle Utd

What with the players having enjoyed a not exactly well-deserved break this weekend thanks to our earlier FA Cup exit at the hands of an Arsenal side who went on to be cannon fodder at Old Trafford, things have been a bit quiet round these 'ere parts. So, to fill the hole, here's a post courtesy of occasional Black & White & Read All Over contributor Jonathan, originally posted on his own blog Crinklybee.

* * * * *

It is a question that I imagine my grandchildren asking: "So where were you, Grandad, when you heard Keegan had come back?". In a kitchen in south Manchester, will be the answer. I had turned on the radio to catch up on the Stoke City replay, and when the commentator took advantage of a break in play to inform "anyone who has just spent the last two hours in a cave", that the Messiah had made a shock return to the St James' Park helm, sent Tyneside into a frenzy, and put twenty thousand on the gate to turn a humdrum midweek Cup replay into a St James' sell-out, it was all I could do not to fall into a swoon right there at the sink and end up the first casualty of the Third Coming of Keegan, a Fan Drowned In Fairy Liquid.

And that close shave with mortality got me thinking about where I was at other "Kennedy Assassination" moments of the club's last thirty years...

1978: Relegation from the old First Division

I was only eleven, had only been going to games for three months, and was not really ready for this sort of trauma yet. Nevertheless my parents had let me tune in, on a schoolnight, to live Radio Metro commentary on the decisive game, away at West Bromwich Albion. We were in our old house in Hadrian Road, Fenham and for some reason (perhaps during the preceding three months spent listening to crackling broadcasts of away defeats from all over the country I had formed the conclusion that all the other rooms in the house were unlucky) I spent the second half pacing up and down the upstairs corridor like an expectant father. If this manic activity was indeed an effort to placate the footballing gods, it was to no avail. As Albion's second goal went in, the commentator intoned that "the last nail has just been put into Newcastle's coffin". The language did not strike me in any way as overly dramatic. The next day I burst into tears during double Geography, and passed it off as hay fever.

1982: The first coming of Kevin Keegan

It was the summertime, and we were on holiday with our cousins somewhere on the North East coast. Every night the rain would hammer down on the metal roof of the caravan, and as you lay on the top bunk (a privilege afforded to you as the oldest cousin present on this particular holiday) you would be lulled to sleep by the rhythm of the bingo caller plying his trade in the social club next door. "On the blue, Two Fat Ladies, eighty-eight. On the green, Key to the door, twenty-one." Earlier that evening you had been playing consequences with your cousins when the newsflash had come on Radio Metro (so we can't have been anywhere exotic like Seahouses, it was probably Whitley Bay, or Gosforth). In a move that had shocked the world of football, England captain Kevin Keegan had signed for second division Newcastle Utd. Your cousins were acting like they weren't impressed, but then they were Sunderland fans so that was their only option. Already you were making plans to spend the last precious Monday of the school holidays standing in a sweltering queue at St James' to get your hands on a ticket for "Wor Kev"'s' sell-out debut versus Queens Park Rangers. You would be succesful in your quest, but on the day would miss Keegan's winning goal as you were still trying to barge your tiny fourteen-year-old frame through the terrace throng with your half-time steak and kidney pie. This last detail is one which stands to be be airbrushed from later accounts delivered to rapt gatherings of grandchildren.

1985: The sacking of Jack Charlton

It's summertime again and Phil Weightman from Linden Avenue, who is in charge of these things, has decreed that we are going to have a one-week cricket season. You have just been adjudged LBW after misjudging the flight of the ball while attempting an ambitious lofted off-drive over a passing number 12 bus. This idyllic scene is interrupted by Phil Weightman's dad, who is running across the field with the desperate, ungainly gait of a man escaping a chip pan fire. "Jack's away!", he is yelling gleefully to anyone who will listen. "Fucking Jack, he's away, man!". It's fair to say Phil Weightman's dad was never a great fan of Jack Charlton's selection policies and he is maybe allowing the excitement of the moment to override his innate sense of decorum. Back at the crease, Rob 'The Horse' Maughan from Almond Place comes in to bat and makes a tidy fourteen before being caught in the deep by a bloke coming out of Oxley's chip shop.

1992: The second coming of Kevin Keegan

You have left Newcastle, and via Wolverhampton Polytechnic, ended up in San Sebastian, northern Spain, where you spend the days teaching English and the nights consuming squid sandwiches and cheap lager in a backstreet bar. It is the days before mobile phones so your parents keep in touch by placing regular international calls to the payphone of the backstreet bar. One day the crackling voice of my dad tells me: "Ardiles is away - you'll never guess who they've bloody brought in". I come away from the payphone grinning like Phil Weightman's dad, and order squid sandwiches and cheap lager all round. None of us really know yet, but The Glory Years have begun.

1995: The selling of Andy Cole to Manchester Utd

You have returned from Spain, and in a series of events which made sense at the time, ended up as a supply teacher of Modern Languages in Oldham. It is half-term and you have resolved to spend the day preparing lessons for your difficult fourth-year GCSE class. In reality this means sitting on the floor of your tiny shared-house bedroom flicking absent-mindedly through a pile of flashcards while listening to dance classics on Manchester Kiss 102 Radio and debating with yourself whether you have enough money left to afford three bottles of Hooper's Hooch from the cornershop. Suddenly your torpor is interrupted by an announcement. Manchester Utd have captured the Premiership's top scorer from their deadly North-Eastern rivals. Back in Newcastle, angry Geordies are besieging St James' Park in their thousands to confront Keegan on the main stand steps and demand an explanation. You briefly consider splashing out on a train ticket north, then content yourself with running across the road to breathlessly break the news to your your mate from Whitley Bay who works in the university bookshop.

1999: The second of the two disastrous FA Cup Finals

This time, though, you have come home from Manchester especially - just like you did last year, when you had sat in your mate Mark's front room and watched Dalglish's team being systematically picked apart by Wenger's all-conquering Arsenal. This year it's going to be different, though. It's only Manchester United this time - and in a cunning move you have switched the viewing venue from Mark's front room (which was obviously unlucky, like all the rooms in the Hadrian Road house, the tiny bedroom in the south Manchester houseshare, and the province of Guipuzcoa) to your mam and dad's front room just round the corner. At least that's what you hope. In reality, Manchester Utd canter to an easy 2-0 victory and you spend the Sunday drowning your sorrows in town with your mate Mark before getting the last train south. It's pissing down, which is wholly apt. At some point in the afternoon the team, their Wembley suits sodden with rain, creep by shamefacedly on the prearranged open-topped bus from which they had hoped to parade the Cup to the adoring masses. Instead the adoring masses consist of you, your mate Mark, and a smattering of other hardcore types who couldn't bring themselves to stay away but, on the other hand, cannot quite bring themselves to look. The glory days, it seems, have well and truly come to an end...

2008: The third coming of Kevin Keegan

... Until now, of course. Let's see what this latest resurrection brings. You never know, this time we might really end up with something to tell our grandchildren about. Keep the faith, as we say in the Geordie diaspora. Just keep the faith.

* * * * *

We're trying, Jonathan, we really are... Thanks for the memories, as they say.

Remember where you were and what you were doing when news of any of the above broke?

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Making plans for Nigel?

One news story that has thus far evaded mention on this site is the departure of former assistant manager Nigel Pearson, who left the club on the eve of the Villa match having reportedly had a difference of opinion with Kevin Keegan over tactics and training, and who may now be sent to Coventry, having been linked with the vacancy there following Iain Dowie's dismissal.

As yet Pearson has no managerial experience, though he was in charge of Newcastle for three games over two spells as caretaker - the first the awful draw away to Watford in the last game of last season after Glenn Roeder's sacking, the second the 6-0 drubbing at Old Trafford and the third the 4-1 win over Stoke on the day of Keegan's return to the club. So, not exactly a glowing CV and unlikely to be a great loss to us, either.

In other news, Joey Barton has escaped punishment after the FA dismissed reports he had struck out at Villa's Shaun Maloney during Saturday's game. Needless to say I was hoping for a ban, so I'm not best pleased.

Meanwhile, as Keegan tries desperately to inspire something, anything out of the rabble he's inherited, he must be tempted to reminisce about the good ol' days of his first spell in charge, when Andy Cole seemed to bang in hat-tricks week after week. The increasingly distant past for Keegan, perhaps, but still very much the present for Cole.

And lastly, just to placate the anonymous Leeds fan who keeps lurking in the comments boxes in the hope that he might then piss off and focus attention on his own club's faltering attempts to get out of the third tier, credit to the supporters who came up with this little ditty to express their delight at the wee man's defection: "Dennis Wise, he's a knob, he left the Leeds for an admin job..."

He wouldn't let it lie...

Another day, another smugly self-exonerating blast of hot air from Fat Sam...

"When you get sacked, reflection is a difficult scenario. The one thing you have to evaluate first and foremost is how much of it was your fault.

I think you can accept it a lot more if you can come to terms with the fact that a good percentage of it was your fault - but that doesn't apply to me at Newcastle.

The usual rubbish that goes when someone like me is sacked from a club like Newcastle is that the job was too big for me. That's just not true.

If I'm honest the reverse is probably true. Newcastle probably wasn't big enough for me - it didn't live up to my ambitions in the short time that I was there. And because it didn't do that the club missed a chance to realise its own ambitions.

Just who exactly does he think is going to buy this shit?

No to GAM£ 39

Disgusted by the insatiably money-hungry Premier League's "ludicrous, insulting and greedy" proposal that the season should be extended by one game, to be played on foreign soil and with the top five clubs being seeded? Register your dissent by by signing up to the Football Supporters' Federation No to GAM£ 39 petition. Whether the powers-that-be will pay any attention is another matter, of course, but we do have to at least try to make ourselves heard above the clanging din of cash registers.

They don't make 'em like they used to

Before 'Byker Grove' and 'Goal' there was 'Sissy's Antjog 'Jossy's Giants', written by none other than darts commentating legend Sid Waddell. And it just so happens to be the subject of Paul's latest A-Z Of Football piece on Cheer Up Alan Shearer, which - as you may have guessed - has reached the letter J. "Football's just a branch of science"? Now there's a sentiment Sam Allardyce and his backroom team might agree with...

I chose Judas as my topic, while others include jumpers for goalposts and Peter Taylor's bizarrely strong faith in Junior Lewis's footballing abilities - a faith shared by precisely no one else.

Monday, February 11, 2008

It was like watching the rugby

Aston Villa 4 - 1 Newcastle Utd

Seemingly taking their lead from the English rugby team, Newcastle turned in a second half performance so abject that a game we could have won rapidly became a scoreline which suggested we were completely outclassed.

At half time, and following a solid first half performance in which Michael Owen had scored a good goal with a near post header from James Milner's cross, and which featured plenty of short passing and movement from a team of fragile confidence, we looked reasonable value for our lead. The hosts simply didn't appear to fancy the game, unable to impose themselves on Newcastle.

At half time, both side made changes. Villa introduced two substitutes, Newcastle simply changed their attitude. Out went the will to win, to be replaced by a bunch of overbloated grouse on August 12th, queuing up to be shot. After Wilfred Bouma's weak shot took a fortuitous deflection off Habib Beye and past a stretching Shay Given, the entire side deflated. Moments later John Carew added a second after some terrible defending by Damien Duff (if your job is to mark the post at a corner, the ball shouldn't get between you and the woodwork) and the game was already drifting out of sight. With Keegan refusing to change things, Villa continued to press forward, and more abysmal defending saw the ball pinging about the box before Carew was able to head home his second and give Villa a two goal cushion.

Only at 3-1 did Keegan replace the ineffectual Joey Barton with Emre, and at no point did it look like Mark Viduka would be called upon to replace Alan Smith, despite the fact that the latter did nothing of merit for the whole match.

With seconds to go, Stephen Carr (playing at left back, where his lack of a left foot was painfully exposed, despite Jose Enrique's presence on the bench) needlessly handled the ball, and Carew was able to complete his hat-trick, firing the ball past Harper (who had replaced Given - the Irishman picking up a groin strain as he slipped trying to reach Bouma's deflected shot).

Looking forward, it's difficult to find positives. In the first half, we passed the ball quite well, without ever really threatening to add to our opening goal. Michael Owen remains a quality striker when he has decent service, but contributes little when we can't pass the ball to him. Emre remains our most creative central midfielder - but apparently is behind Barton in the pecking order.

With Faye back from the ACN he must replace Cacapa in the team, and equally Viduka must surely replace Smith in the side if we are to stand any chance of picking up the points we need to avoid being drawn into the relegation battle. We aren't too good to go down, and the sooner the players realise this and start battling for the ball and each other, only then will we be able to start planning for next season with any confidence. Until then, the risk of us facing away trips to Sheffield and Leicester remains a very real one.

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

Thursday, February 07, 2008

A Month Of Saturdays: January 2008

Even for a club with a recent history as notoriously unstable off the pitch as ours, January was quite a month.

First, on the 9th, Sam Allardyce was shown the door. Rumours had sprung up as early as July that the new hierarchy of Mike Ashley and Chris Mort were less than impressed with the manager Fat Fred had saddled them with, and relations were hardly helped when Allardyce griped very publicly that the length of time the pair were taking to settle into their new roles had resulted in several high-priority transfer targets moving elsewhere. Clearly, a few bad results would be all it would take for Ashley’s trigger finger to get very itchy indeed – and four consecutive Premier League defeats, culminating in a 2-0 loss at home to Man City who hadn’t collected three points on their travels since the opening day of the season, was more than enough.

If, as was claimed, the decision was "mutual", then the word certainly has a very different meaning to the one I thought it had. Allardyce had responded to criticism by loudly, and boorishly proclaiming himself to be right (and, by implication, everyone else – including the players, who hadn’t rebelled against his tactics, nosirreee – to be wrong): "I’m the man who knows what’s right for [the players] and I know it more than they do. That’s why I sit in this chair". So how we were expected to believe he came to an amicable agreement with the owner and chairman and quietly cleared his desk is beyond me.

Even after having his fingers prised off the doorframe of the office and being sent down Barrack Road with Ashley’s footprint on his arse, he was alternating blaming everyone else but himself and whistling ‘My Way’ to anyone who’d listen. Yes, Sam, you DID do it your way – and not only didn’t it work, it bored everyone to tears. Certainly to more tears than your exit moved anyone.

If there was an element of surprise about the timing of Allardyce’s departure – in his last game, billed as "make-or-break", we had narrowly avoided defeat at Stoke in the FA Cup, after all – then that was as nothing compared to the identity of his replacement.

On the day of our replay against Stoke, the 16th, a week later – a week of the papers being awash with "will he? won’t he?" stories about ‘Appy ‘Arry Redknapp, and a few days after a 6-0 drubbing at the hands of a Man Utd side who set about us with all the relish of a hungry lion about a wounded gazelle – came the extraordinary news that Ashley had been up to Glasgow and managed to talk Kevin Keegan (that’s King Kev to you) into returning to Tyneside for a second spell in charge of the club he loves. It was so unexpected that his name wasn’t even seriously considered when we on Black & White & Read All Over were mulling over the merits and deficiencies of the prospective candidates for the vacancy.

One wag described the appointment as being like putting a manic depressive in charge of the Samaritans. Someone else suggested KK was swapping one Soccer Circus for another. Nearly everyone implied he was mad to volunteer to drink a big draught from the poisoned chalice. But, like us, they were all salivating at the prospect of genuine entertainment. Suddenly, the feelgood factor was back, signalled by beaming black-and-white faces and tooting car horns. Keegan’s mere dodgy-leather-jacketed presence in the stand was enough to inspire a team hitherto devoid of confidence and flair to a thumping 4-1 win over a side who just over a week earlier had been within inches of condemning them to another ignominious defeat, and that playing with 10 men, Emre having been sent off on the half-hour. Even Michael Owen got on the scoresheet.

By contrast Keegan’s first game in charge, at home to Bolton, came as a disappointment – 0-0, with plenty of endeavour but not a single shot on target, and the point only secured by Shay Given’s brilliant close-range save from Jlloyd Samuel in injury time. The 3-0 FA Cup loss to Arsenal, our booby prize for shouldering Stoke aside, was in many ways more palatable, not least because the team – reportedly sent out by Keegan with just one instruction: to out-pass their opponents – showed no fear and actually took the game to the illustrious home side, fashioning a number of opportunities and only admitting defeat in the final ten minutes.

Then came news of a development as unexpected as King Kev’s return – but certainly more of a shock than a pleasant surprise. It was understandable that Ashley felt the need to implement a new managerial structure, modelled on the European style, particularly to help us to compete with the likes of Arsenal and Spurs in terms of the recruitment of the brightest young talent around, but his decision to appoint Leeds manager and professional workie ticket Dennis Wise alongside Jeff Vetere and Tony Jiminez was as incomprehensible and baffling as the incoming trio’s job titles – Executive Director (Football), Technical Coordinator and Vice President (Player Recruitment) respectively. After all, Wise’s diminutive physical stature pretty much matches his stature in world football (something of a hindrance given his new position, you might think), and we don’t really need someone to swap notes with Joey Barton as to how best to assault a team-mate. How will the new system work? No one’s sure, not even Keegan, who confessed: "I just do not know enough about it".

Suckers for punishment, we returned to the Emirates three days after the FA Cup exit, and the Gunners duly repeated the trick, Emmanuel Adebayor again the chief architect but this time with far more ease. Resignation, automatically assumed inferiority – not qualities one readily associates with a Keegan side.

And amidst it all the transfer window opened and closed. Despite reports that Ashley would make £30m available to Keegan immediately, hastening a flurry of rumours, the expected (hoped-for) reinforcements never came. Spurs stepped in to scupper our attempt to resign Jonathan Woodgate, while Arsenal, not content with beating us twice in four days, won the race for 15-year-old Gillingham striker Luke Freeman, Arsene Wenger’s bag of sweets unsurprisingly proving more tempting than ours. Our only signing was 17-year-old left-back Ben Tozer from Swindon, who, judging by his gushing schoolboyish comments on being allowed to train alongside the likes of Alan Smith, is still some way off pushing for a first-team place, and that was a deal that was already in place at the tail end of last year. Indeed, we probably have a weaker squad now than when the window opened, David Rozehnal having spared us the sight of him being skinned time and again by joining Lazio on loan on deadline day.

All told, then, the initial euphoria of Keegan’s return has pretty much worn off. He must be realising what we already knew but were reluctant to admit: he’s come back to a very different club from the one he left. What he’d give now for the 7-1 and 3-0 wins that prompted him to quit in the first place.

Lucky Jim

Congratulations to James Milner, whose two goals for England U21s on Tuesday night helped his side (skippered by Steven Taylor) to a comfortable 3-0 victory over their Republic of Ireland counterparts. The first has been credited in some quarters as a Stephen O'Halloran own goal, but the second, a low shot from distance, was very definitely his.

Milner has looked rather jaded of late, and was rested (or dropped) against the Smogs. On the one hand, he could perhaps have benefited from another night off, but on the other it will be good to have a player once again brimming with confidence returning to the training ground.

By contrast, one man whose confidence and pride will have taken a knock is Michael Owen, left unused on the bench by Fabio Capello, who opted to employ a lone striker and dynamic five-man midfield in his first game in charge against Switzerland. A blow, especially as he's started to look sharper of late under Keegan, and proved on Sunday that with quality service he's still one of the most lethal finishers around, even with his head.

Finally, do I really need to tell you that Shay Given made a number of blinding saves in the Republic of Ireland goal last night to keep Brazil at bay, but that pressure and class eventually told and he ended up on the losing side? International duty really must be a busman's holiday for him...

Zog off?

Oh joy. Now it seems as though our brightest prospect may be set to jump ship in the summer.

Kevin Keegan's been quoted by L'Equipe as saying: "Charles came to talk to me about speculation that there was interest from Spurs. We'll look at it in the summer as the signs are he is not happy here."

The Zog's departure would be little short of a disaster - particularly given the new emphasis on identifying, nurturing and developing young talent. Along with Steven Taylor and the ever-dependable Shay Given, he's been one of our best performers so far in what has been a hugely disappointing season, the one player who's regularly carried a genuine attacking threat even when picked out of position at left back. His chief rival for the left wing spot, Damien Duff, has improved of late, but if it came down to a straight choice between the two I wouldn't hesitate to plump for N'Zogbia.

Little wonder that it's Arsenal and Spurs who are reported to be chasing his signature - after all, Londoners are renowned for liking a bit of Charlie...

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Passing the buck

I didn't think it'd be long before Fat Sam started sounding off about his brief spell on Tyneside, and sure enough...

"Looking back over that short period of time I don’t think any of it was particularly my fault".

Nice to see you've gone away, reflected on your failings and decided to face up to responsibility there, Sam.

"We didn’t have as much money as I expected. I came to Newcastle to spend big".

So Mike Ashley's to blame, then? Correct me if I'm wrong, though, but didn't he give you £18m to spunk on Alan Smith, Jose Enrique and Joey Barton, all of whom have been consistently appalling and one of whom may well have landed himself a jail sentence?

"I told the owners we’d get stick at some point and obviously they haven’t been able to withstand that".

Accusing Ashley of being weak and yellow-bellied as well as miserly, are we? Interesting, coming from someone whose gruesomely negative tactics are the epitome of cowardice.

"As a manager, you’re dependent on two sets of people - your owners and your players. Life is not in your hands".

Because of course as soon as you sit down in a managerial hot-seat you lose all ability to shape your own fate.

"It was the agitators who were the problem, the press and one or two of the ex-players. All the old managers that I’ve spoken to have said the same."

So you can't influence results and performances as manager, but the press and ex-players (who could he be referring to, I wonder...) can? I see. Strange how Keegan's been quick to get ex-players more involved with the club, isn't it? And my guess is that by "all the old managers" you really mean Graeme Souness, another embittered buffoon who failed miserably but refused to admit culpability at any price.

"I don’t think the fans didn’t like me".

Wrong again, Sam, I'm afraid.

The Messiah - or just a very naughty boy?

A new blog on our radar: The Return Of The King. Here's a sample extract:

"Mike called last night. Said he caught the second half and that he openly wept at the nostalgia of watching a Newcastle team plough on with total disregard to defending a lead. He didn't say anything about bragging rights over Steve Gibson. There's only one chairman who he hates, and that is Whelan. At our first meeting in Glasgow, he told me that he didn't give a shit about winning the Champions League or the Premiership or the Cup. He just wants to hammer Wigan every game and if that meant chasing them down to the Championship or below, he didn't care. Apparently they fell out about shoes"

Satire, I believe they call it.

(Thanks to the commenter going by the name of Mick McKenzie's Ghot for the link.)

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Smiles better

On the pretence of checking on Geremi's form but actually simply because I was procrastinating again, I found myself watching the entirety of this evening's African Cup of Nations quarter-final between Cameroon and Tunisia (extra time included).

Our man turned in a solid performance and scored a brilliant curling free-kick as Cameroon eventually ran out 3-2 winners of what turned out to be a very entertaining game to claim a place in Thursday's semi-final against hosts Ghana.

But what fascinated me the most was the fact that the African fans armed with horns in the sparsely populated stands seem to think the tune 'If You're Happy And You Know It, Clap Your Hands' is appropriate for a football match. Let's just say I can't see that one making itself heard on the terraces in England any time soon, and in any case there certainly wouldn't be much clapping in response at St James's Park at the moment...

Monday, February 04, 2008

Progress (of sorts)

Newcastle Utd 1 - 1 Monsters of Smog

A goal (well, actually three goals) by Michael Owen saw the new era on Tyneside finally ushered in, before the failings of old highlighted the areas which still need work, and Robert Huth headed an equaliser at St James's Park yesterday.

Starting brightly, Newcastle should have taken the lead after five minutes, with Owen stabbing home an Emre corner from two yards after Mark Schwarzer dropped the ball. Unfortunately referee Mike Dean decided that the diminutive striker had somehow hampered the 6'-plus Aussie keeper, causing him to drop the ball, and awarded a free kick to the visitors, robbing us of an early lead.

The first half as a whole saw Emre returned to the centre of midfield and Barton start on the right, with Milner dropped to the bench. However, the Turk was unable to get sufficient time and space on the ball to inflict any damage with his range of passing, not least because the smoggies seemed intent on leaving their mark on any and every player in a black and white shirt with a string of robust tackles. Our only other decent chance game from an Owen header from an Emre corner, which was ruled out because the ball had swung out of play before swinging back in and on to the head of our captain.

Boro's first-half aggression, and determination to stifle any attacking threat, meant that for all our possession in the first half we were too often cramped in our own half, and reduced to humping long balls towards Alan Smith, who was dwarfed by Huth and Wheater, and consequently was unable to win or hold on to the ball for long enough for Owen (or anyone else) to get close enough to trouble Schwarzer.

The second half bought a more open game, as Boro started to push forward, and in turn allowed our midfield more time on the ball. As a result, chances started to come, and when Luke Young was adjudged to have fouled N'Zogbia, Emre's free-kick was met at the near post by Owen's header, and at the third time of asking Owen scored his first goal in weeks to give us a deserved lead.

Keegan then replaced Emre and Smith with Milner and Viduka, seeking to press home our advantage, and Damien Duff had the ball in the net, only to be called back for a marginal off-side. With Barton and Owen also missing good chances to double our lead, it was depressingly inevitable that we'd be unable to keep a clean sheet.

With minutes to go, a Julio Arca ball to the back post found Huth unmarked and able to loop a header over a flat footed Given and into the far corner. (Although there's a fairly strong argument to suggest that the goal should have been ruled out for offside). Worse could have followed, as Lee Dong-Gook fell over, and from the resultant free kick, Stewart Downing hit the post for Jeremie Aliadiere to knock home the rebound, only to see his effort ruled out for offside.

In terms of positives, the return of Emre from suspension, and Barton following the change to his bail conditions, bolstered our midfield, and with Senegal and Nigeria now out of the African Cup of Nations, Messers Beye, Faye and Martins should return to strengthen the squad. There was some good play between N'Zogbia and Duff, whilst Owen has also picked up a goal. Hopefully, Owen will survive appearing for Inglaterra next week, and we can look to pick up points at Villa Park (one of our happier hunting grounds). However, we still need to add more discipline to our defensive play - or at least take more of our chances. Nonetheless, it's an improvement, and for that we can all be grateful.

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

Friday, February 01, 2008

That's all, folks

And so January's over, managers and chairmen alike have finished acting like panicked and giddy students suddenly realising there's a deadline looming, and the rumour mill can stop grinding for a bit. The transfer window has slammed shut on a day of feverish activity - feverish, that is, for pretty much every Premier League side other than us.

Prior to today, the only movement all month in terms of playing staff concerned the arrival of a 17-year-old from Swindon Town. And now, the dust having had two and a half hours to settle, it seems as though the only deal involving us was the one which has taken David Rozehnal to Lazio on loan, with a view to a permanent move in the summer.

That Rozehnal has been defenestrated isn't really a great surprise. The Czech international arrived in the close season with a good reputation, but, after a fairly promising opening few games, his form soon dipped, he lost his place to the likes of Steven Taylor, Abdoulaye Faye and Cacapa, and he's most recently has found himself pressed into action in an unfamiliar defensive midfield role, a situation with which he recently declared his dissatisfaction. With his Bambi-esque legs, inability to stay on his feet and utter ineffectuality in stopping opponents, he had started to resemble Jean-Alain Boumsong - though mercifully he was a fraction of Boumsong's price, at least.

So, no other defensive reinforcements (our plans no doubt scuppered by Jonathan Woodgate's decision to swap Smogside for the Big Smoke and Spurs), no new creative influence in midfield, and no significant bolstering of a shot-shy attack that hasn't scored in the league since Nicky Butt's fortunate equaliser at Stamford Bridge on 29th December - not even 15-year-old striker Luke Freeman, who was met at the school gates by Arsene Wenger before we had the opportunity to bundle him into the car.

Time and again, in spite of ourselves, we look on the mid-season transfer window - and the summer - as our salvation, and time and again those hopes are dashed. We may have got what we wanted in January in terms of a change of management, but that's about all.