Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Dog day afternoon

Newcastle Utd 1 - 2 Blackburn Rovers

Having slept on this report for a couple of days, writing it hasn't got any more palatable as time has passed. So, without further ado, I present the B&W&amh;RAO guide to the Blackburn match:

First half

We were unbelievably unutterably shit.

After an early chance was cleared off the line by Sebastien Bassong, Blackburn pounded us for much of the half and eventually got the breakthrough when giant centre half Christoper Samba headed in a free kick. The fact that he was offside appeared to be a mere inconvenience to the blind fool running the line, but in practice the goal was depressingly inevitable. That Blackburn were then able to add a second when more rank defending meant that Roque Santa Cruz was able to find space to head in from Brett Emerton's cross merely compounded the misery.

Half time

JFK, banned from the touchline for his sins in a past life, uttered some stirring words - probably featuring many words beginning with J, F and K (well one out of the three anyway).

Second half

We were less crap. In our brighter moments, which generally involved a resurgent Damien Duff, we almost looked like we might be able to scrape something. Michael Owen was clouted from behind by Kiwi thug Ryan Nelsen and duly got up to slot home the resultant penalty past the visitors debutant keeper. Before that, we should have had a penalty when Martin Olsson blatantly handballed, only for the blind linesman to completely ignore it.

However, having got ourselves back in the match, with half an hour to go, we then singularly failed to capitalise and apply any sustained pressure to the visitors, with only a strong Duff run which finished with a horrible mis-control by Geremi to show for it.

It's going to take a lot more than JFK throwing some tea cups at the dressing room wall for him to turn the club around, but his minimal input at least suggests that he might just be able to slow the descent.

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

Friday, September 26, 2008

JFK in the hotseat - for the time being

"Where were you when JFK was appointed?" I know where I was - at work, scratching my head in disbelief.

One of the criticisms of our appointment of King Kev was that by his own admission he'd been completely out of the game for too long - well, Joe Fucking Kinnear (as .com have taken to calling him) last worked in football four years ago. What's more, if his hoof-and-run Wimbledon past is anything to go by, we aren't going to be any more attractive to watch either - though we've got to concede, grudgingly, that beggars can't be choosers and if he can stabilise us and get a few points on the board from his six to eight games in charge, starting with the home game against Blackburn tomorrow, then we'd have to be grateful for that. If he can't, we'll all be lining up at the window of the book repository for a shot at him.

Kinnear's comments have helped clarify exactly what he's on Tyneside to do: not to hold the fort while a new manager is sought (to avoid another Souness-style panic appointment), but to keep the seat warm for Keegan's return: "I am aware that the new owners have Kevin Keegan and possibly Alan Shearer parked around the corner". That would explain why El Tel's request to be given time was refused, and why he subsequently turned down the role. So amidst all the mess there remains the consoling possibility of King Kev being back on the throne before the end of October, and working within a system in which he calls the shots. We can but hope.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

"The delay of the inevitable"

Newcastle Utd 1 – 2 Spurs

Yesterday morning I stumbled, slipped and went arse over tit on the walk to work, in full view of the drivers of several stationary cars and the passengers of a couple of buses. Once in the office I lurched from minor irritation to major irritation to crisis. And then in the evening I found myself trapped in my jacket thanks to a faulty zip. With hindsight, the result of our League Cup Third Round tie against Spurs was really never in doubt, was it?

Paul’s half-time text message: “Turgid shit so far. But at least we aren’t losing!

My full-time response: “Right, time for a pact. Let us never, ever tempt fate by half-time text message again.

His reply: “Yeah OK. Although to be fair it wasn’t tempting fate, it was celebrating the delay of the inevitable.

And yet, to some extent, the outcome WASN’T inevitable.

In a first half which was indeed “turgid shit”, both sides were as dispirited, disjointed, dejected and stupendously awful as each other – that much WAS a certainty given our respective league positions. The only man in black and white to show any real desire, Nicky Butt, was quickly rewarded for his honest efforts with a yellow card by referee Chris Foy, as Spurs players demonstrated a keen interest in examining the St James’s Park turf at close quarters at every possible opportunity with the sort of tumbles that put mine to shame. The only chance worthy of the name fell to an unmarked Roman Pavlyuchenko, who headed wide – his other contribution being to respond to a couple of hefty reducers from Fabricio Coloccini by delivering a forearm smash to the Argentinian’s nose.

But within three minutes of the restart we could have been ahead, one-time Spurs target Damien Duff slipping the ball past Heurelho Gomes only for Jonathan Woodgate (who else?) to slide in and deflect it wide of the post for a corner. Soon afterwards our old boy again came to his side’s rescue, pressuring Michael Owen into snapping his shot too close to Gomes when bearing down on goal. Could it be that we might muster enough self-belief and determination to win the game?


Those two incidents, it turned out, was all the inspiration the visitors needed to do so themselves, and shortly after the hour mark Pavlyuchenko drifted free of Coloccini to nod Aaron Lennon's cross wide of Shay Given’s reach from close range. Fair play to Steven Taylor, though, who considerately decided to deflect the heat away from his central defensive partner by gifting Jamie O’Hara a second with a mistake so bad it would have made even Titus Bramble cringe. If he’d gone down like he’d been shot then, it would have been far more plausible than in that game against Aston Villa.

There was to be no way back, and we plodded on producing football of the calibre that had me yearning for the glory days of Allardyce’s reign. Spurs brought multi-million pound talent on from the bench, while Chris Hughton had to resort to Xisco and David Edgar; I’m not sure either of them touched the ball once. Little Saint Mick’s 89th minute strike, an unerring finish into the top corner from six yards after Gomes could only push a low cross out to his feet, was witnessed by significantly fewer than the pitiful official attendance of 20,577 (our lowest since 1992) and was only a consolation in the sense that having clean pants on when you get hit by a double-decker bus is a consolation.

So, no disgrace going out of the League Cup at the hands of the holders, you might think – but you’d be wrong. Our current crisis really is worthy of the name when we can’t even beat the one team over whom we’ve seemed to have the Indian sign.

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Groundhog day?

How things change.

According to yesterday's papers, we're considering replacing Kevin Keegan with Kenny Dalglish, presumably because it was such a success last time round. Just a case of the media assuming (with some justification) that it’ll happen because of our chronic inability to learn from our mistakes? Why don’t we just skip Dalglish and Gullit and move on to Sir Bobby, under whom we at least played some decent football? God help us all if we really are trapped in some kind of groundhog day and are destined to suffer the second comings of Souness and Allardyce...

But today's papers - well, the Daily Mirror - brought the reports that a Nigerian consortium are close to agreeing a deal to buy the club and would be keen to reappoint Keegan if successful. To meet Mike Ashley's £400m asking price, though, they need up to an additional £100m - so keep an eye on your inbox for a glut of emails asking you to deposit money in a Lagos account...

Man behaving badly

Perhaps it was because we’ve hardly featured in the papers at all lately, and certainly not as a club to point and laugh at. Perhaps it was because the imminent trip to West Ham and rendez-vous with Messrs Bellamy, Bowyer and Dyer had him reminiscing fondly and determined to resurrect our bad boy reputation of yore. Perhaps it was because he’s been spending time with an ex-con team-mate for whom assault is a hobby.

Whatever the reason, a pat on the back and gold star are due to Andy Carroll for upholding a fine tradition of Newcastle players publicly disgracing themselves, having earned himself a police caution for assaulting a woman near the Bigg Market on 14th September.

Given the opportunities Ameobi’s had of late, and the way he’s been playing, Carroll can’t exactly have been excelling himself on the training pitch either...

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Clarets give us the blues

West Ham 3 - 1 Newcastle Utd

"You stole my holiday" may have been the chant of the day from the away fans, but "you screwed my team up" might just as equally have been directed at the Fat Controller who watched our latest debacle from the comfort of an executive box.

It was a poor game between two teams who've both lost managers due to the reported interference of other members of their club's hierarchy. However, whilst the Hammers were able to replace Curbishley with Gianfranco Zola relatively quickly, we remain in limbo with Chris Hughton picking a team of dispirited individuals and sending them out like lambs to the slaughter.

Whilst West Ham's first goal took a fortunate deflection off Taylor, the bottom line was that the Hammers were repeatedly able to get time and space in midfield, with our combination of Butt and Cacapa looking decidedly pedestrian, and equally Taylor and Coloccini doing little to justify their significant pay packets.

If Di Michele's first goal for West Ham was fortuitous, the second was down to terrible defending, and with Taylor selling himself short, and Coloccini turning away from the challenge.

What was more frustrating was the fact that Carlton Cole was made to look a world beater. Carlton sodding Cole.

In the second half it was initially a case of more of the same, with N'Zogbia once again proving that he's not a left back and allowing Di Michele to once again get in on goal. The Italian's quest for a hat trick was hampered by his awful shot, but his miscue fell into the path of the onrushing Etherington who knocked it into the net from point blank range.

Bizarrely, having rolled over so terribly, we finally started to get our act together, and Cacapa's through ball saw Michael Owen show Fabio Capello what he can do, finding space inside Lucas Neill and slotting the ball past Robert Green. Both Duff and Cacapa had chances to make the watching Hammers even more nervous, but their shots were tame and Green was able to save relatively easily.

At the other end, Luis Boa Morte made an early entry in the "miss of the season" competition putting his one-on-one wide.

Scratching round looking for positives to take into our League Cup match with Spurs is pretty tricky. Hopefully the emergence of Bassong from the bench might finally see an acknowledgement that he must start ahead of the Zog at left back, allowing the Frenchman to enjoy a run out in his preferred midfield berth. Another goal for Owen again demonstrates that, given service, he can and will score goals. Otherwise, we're left hoping for speedy recoveries from Spiderman and others to try and give the team a lift.

In reality, the quicker the club is sold, the better. Too big a delay and Ashley could be looking for a buyer for a team destined for the Championship.

West Ham fans' perspectives: Parallax View, West Ham Online

Other reports: BBC, Observer

Friday, September 19, 2008


West Ham are the next side to rub their hands at the prospect of a meeting with our dishevilled and disjointed mob, and to mark the occasion Vinnie of West Ham Online was kind enough to ask us a few questions by way of a preview. You can read it here. Fairly safe to say that, as supporters of a side who made a promising start to the season only for their manager to leave in a row over transfer control, Hammers fans are probably the best placed in the Premier League to feel our pain...

Top four?

Gleefully leaping on an opportunity to slag off a business rival, Wigan Chairman Dave Whelan has been spouting off about the Fat Controller.

To be honest, I wouldn't really bother to mention this, he's simply taking great delight in sticking the knife into someone who he doesn't get on with. Kicking someone when they are down isn't big or clever (regardless of what ASBO might think).

However, there's slagging off the Fat Controller, and then there's just plain delusional bollocks.

Can you guess who Whelan is talking about here:

"One day he will get a big-four job - I realise that, and I think the whole country realises he is one of the best four managers in the world."

Yes, that's right, Steve "Cauliflower Face" Bruce.

The world's worst Geordie is apparently one of the best four managers in the world. Not just in the Premiership, but the world.

So he's better than at least four of Fergie, Mourinho, Scolari, Wenger, Capello, Benitez and Rijkaard. I could go on, but frankly it would take all day before I reached Steve Bruce on my list of greatest managers in the world.

Seriously, Dave, if you can't say anything even vaguely intelligent, don't say anything at all.

What I would say is that Cauliflower Face would probably come narrowly ahead of David O'Leary, one of the latest names to be linked with us (at least in the short term while the club is tarted around the Middle East). Let's just hope that's absolute crap, or an already terrible season could get a whole lot worse.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Oh Danny boy

Given the tackle on Craig Fagan that landed him an instant red card on Saturday, Danny Guthrie can consider himself very fortunate indeed to have escaped without an extension to his three-match ban on a technicality. The FA spokesman's comments suggest that, had the option been available, it would have been taken, and they're actively considering amending the rules for cases like this.

All that said, the incident may yet have more serious repercussions for Guthrie than simply undoing all his good work so far and missing the games against West Ham, Blackburn and Spurs, as Fagan, whose leg was broken, is rumoured to be considering legal action.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Tiger (de)feat

Newcastle Utd 1 - 2 Hull City

I'd love to say that this result came as a surprise, but after the two weeks we've had, it really didn't.

On a day of protests, which clearly seem to have done their job in galvanising the fat controller to invite offers for the club, it was a shame that the exhortations from the stands couldn't galvanise the team to greater things.

With the game evenly matched, a Geremi free-kick landed on the head of Michael Owen, only for Hull keeper Boaz Myhill to save well and keep the Premiership new boys in the match. A goal at that stage, and the vocal majority in the stands would surely have roared the team to victory. As it was, it was Hull striker Marlon King who was to have the decisive influence on the game.

Firstly, King gave Hull a barely deserved lead when he converted a penalty at the Gallowgate end after Nicky Butt had been somewhat unfortunate to be penalised for a foul on Peter Halmosi.

However, whilst we might have been a tad unfortunate to be one down at half time, there was nobody to blame but our own suicidal defensive tendencies after the interval when, with forty minutes to go we committed the cardinal sin of not keeping the extra man back at a corner. With two on two, Hull broke swiftly, and King was able to evade N'Zogbia's non-challenge and fire Hull into an unassailable lead.

Whilst N'Zogbia was partly to blame for the second, he was at least able to turn provider at the other end when his shot rebounded off the post into the path of debutant Xisco, and the man whose transfer may have been the straw to break the camel's back, netted a consolation goal with eight minutes remaining.

Unfortunately, Newcastle could do little to threaten a time-wasting Hull team, and when Danny Guthrie's frustration boiled over into a vicious kick at Craig Fagan (which has apparently left the Hull man with a broken leg) it was no surprise to see him red carded. Whilst his frustration was perhaps understandable, by lashing out Guthrie has merely contrived to further weaken our already stretched squad.

With Ashley's post match announcement showing that, at least at board level, it's a case of message received, attention must now turn to the pitch where the task of managing the club during a period of uncertainty is going to prove a testing one, during which we all need to pull together to carry the team forward.

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

Sunday, September 14, 2008

The hard sell

For sale: Premier League football club based in the north-east of England. Thousands of passionate fans, millions of pounds of debt. History of near-success and spectacular implosion. Buyer should have lots of money and in all likelihood a very GSOH...

The club is not even as attractive a prospect as it was when Mike Ashley bought it. The frankness and candour of his statement, which is also at times irritatingly emotive, may have been designed to convince the fans of the scale of the problems he's found himself confronted with, and the work he's done behind the scenes to resolve them, but is also likely to be rather off-putting to anyone daft enough to contemplate lodging a bid. We don't want prospective buyers knowing exactly what they'd be letting themselves in for, really, do we?

Ashley's decision to sell up was inevitable, really. He claims he's "no longer prepared to subsidise Newcastle": "I am not stupid and have listened to the fans". But if he knew that forcing King Kev out would lead to the fans doing the same to him (as he surely must have if he isn't stupid), why did he not just put the club up for sale with Keegan still as manager and avoid the shitstorm he's stirred up?

In the statement, Ashley also takes pains to refer to Keegan as "a legend at the club and rightly so", but also reiterates his commitment to the current set-up, which was again the subject of discussion when he and Keegan met for surprise talks on Friday: "One person alone can't manage a Premiership football club and scout the world looking for world-class players and stars of the future. It needs a structure and it needs people who are dedicated to that task. It needs all members of the management team to share that vision for it to work."

Look, Mike - no one said it could be done by one man. But one man - the manager - has to have the final say, or it has to be very clear that responsibility for transfer activity is not in his hands. Clearly, neither was the case at Newcastle.

(In case you're after a match report, Paul will be picking over the bones of yesterday's appalling defeat to Hull tomorrow.)

Friday, September 12, 2008

Power to the people

Following the events of the two weeks, there's been plenty of discussion about how best to show the Fat Controller and his poisoned dwarf what the paying public think of what's happened.

Essentially, the question seems to boil down to whether or not tomorrow's match against Hull should be boycotted.

In my opinion, the answer is no.

If you are a season ticket holder, then you've already paid to go to the match, so Ashley's got your money, so non attendance won't actually hurt him.

The only people you'll be hurting by not attending are the team, who probably need all the help they can get given the state of their morale, and the fact that Hull will doubtless fancy that they can get a result.

What can be done to show Ashley what it means is boycotting all food outlets inside the ground and the club shops (together with those of all his other companies*), by loud and vocal support for the team and the former manager, and equally vocal expression of the frustration and anger which has arisen at what has happened.

I know different people have different views on what is a very emotive subject, but from my point of view, I was supporting Newcastle United long before Mike Ashley purchased the club in haste, and I'll be supporting the club long after he's sold it on. It's part of who I am as a Geordie.

I'm not going to shun the team because I can't stand the owner and the direction he's taking the club (all the way down the A1(M) given half a chance), but I'm certainly not going to give him any more of my money in the mean time.

* thanks to nufc.com for the link


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…

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Mcjob vacant

So long then, Terry Mac, with the club's "restructuring" in the wake of Keegan's departure unsurprisingly seeing the departure of his faithful friend, together with reserve team coach Adam Sadler.

Dubbed "black box" for his ability to survive the frequent managerial upheaval at the club (well that's the party line, for my money it sounds suspiciously like a joke about his pubic hair...), McDermott has now found himself surplus to requirements his departure was inevitable following on from Keegan's departure, with the Ashley / Wise quango doubtless keen to bring in their own (yes) men.

Having been there under the leadership of the good (Keegan), the bad (Souness) and the ugly (Fat Sam) McDermott will no doubt be greatly missed by all around the club (well, those not in control anyway), and his departure represents another indication that Ashley is keen to remove anyone with any links to the fans, or the past. With reports currently tipping a host of ex-Chelsea players with the managerial vacancy it seems clear that an understanding of the club is nowhere near the criteria for filling the managerial vacancy.

However, rather than return to his burger van at the horse races, I wouldn't be surprised to see Terry Mac appearing alongside Jeff Stelling on a Saturday afternoon before too long. He's got to be better than Matthew Le Tissier, for starters.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Long live the King

Three days have now passed since King Kev abdicated from the Newcastle throne for the second time, and so it's about time we straightened ourselves out and collected our thoughts on his eight month reign.

A week after the very welcome departure of Fat Sam came the even more welcome announcement that Keegan was back. The media and opposition fans generally reacted with a mixture of relish and derision, heralding the return of a real character and the prospect of kamikaze football while at the same time claiming the appointment was a mistake which would end messily. We, on the other hand, were delighted, for the first time in years both excited and proud to be Newcastle fans. Being swept up in the sudden tidal wave of optimism and positivity that engulfed Tyneside that Wednesday night in January, as the team thrashed Stoke in an FA Cup Third Round replay, was absolute bliss.

The next two months were sobering, though, as it took rather longer for the returning hero to turn our fortunes round than we'd hoped and expected. With Fat Sam behind the wheel we had been going nowhere fast, but trundling steadily in the direction of the relegation abyss. In his first game in charge, against Bolton, Keegan managed to stop the rot and prevent a fifth straight Premiership defeat, but it wasn't until 22nd March, when Fulham were the visitors to St James's Park, that Keegan notched the first league win of his second spell in charge. In the intervening period, the quality of the football had improved marginally, but in adopting a more open and offensive typically Keegan-esque style we had exposed our vulnerable underbelly, which resulted in heavy and dispiriting defeats to Aston Villa, Man Utd and Liverpool.

The Fulham win was the springboard we desperately needed, as we went on to thrash Spurs on their own turf and record a seven match unbeaten run that included a win over the Great Unwashed and comfortably (and in some style) saved us from relegation, only coming to an end with defeat to Chelsea in the final home game of the season. And that, if nothing else, is something to stuff down the pipe of any clueless arsehole intent on declaiming that Keegan's second reign was a failure.

The real turning point was arguably the previous game, the 1-1 draw at Birmingham which saw us fight back from a goal down to dominate, because that's when Keegan hit upon the magic formula that kept us up. His hand may have been partly forced by circumstance and by the players available to pick from, but the decision to give Michael Owen a free role behind Obafemi Martins and Mark Viduka was inspired. It was no secret that Owen had been critical of Keegan in the past, and the manager knew he had to work hard to win his star striker over - and he did, building bridges, getting him fit and deploying a formation in which he was able to thrive. Keegan the master tactician - who'd have thought it?

Man management is Keegan's real forte - his own passion for the game can't help but rub off on those in his charge, and he's one of the best there is at instilling belief in players short on confidence. They knew they would always have someone prepared to fight their corner. I may not have agreed with his stout defence of and support for Alan Smith and ASBO in particular, but his dedication to his squad is admirable.

That squad had been improved by the time we started the new campaign with the additions of Jonas Gutierrez and Fabricio Coloccini, and an unexpected but gratefully received point at Old Trafford had us dreaming of a bright future. We then notched up a pair of useful victories against Bolton and Coventry, the only blot being a comprehensive defeat to an on-fire Arsenal side. Sadly, that was to prove the last game of Keegan's tenure, his departure only marginally less surprising than it was back in January 1997.

There had been signs of friction in the wake of that Chelsea game, when Keegan made the entirely reasonable observation that we're far from being able to mount a significant challenge for a top four finish, an observation which apparently aroused Mike Ashley's displeasure and resulted in the manager being summoned to a meeting in London. At the time we dismissed it all as overblown nonsense, though - surely the only possible reason for Ashley to react like that would be because it was so unlike King Kev to be so brutally frank and realistic, and soon-to-be-outgoing chairman Chris Mort gave his public endorsement to the comments.

As it turned out, the crucial issue wasn't excessive expectations but control over transfer affairs. When we suggested the sale of James Milner was a bad piece of business, we were criticised for being negative by some readers - and it's true that, with hindsight, £12m for a wantaway player probably wasn't such a bad move. But the situation should never have been allowed to get that far - the board should have recognised Milner's contribution to the team (much more significant than that of either Smith or ASBO, for instance, both of whom are on much higher salaries) - and Keegan's subsequent claim that the decision to sell was his and his alone just didn't ring true, sounding as though Ashley had a gun to his head.

The straw that broke the camel's back, though, was the deadline day arrival of Uruguayan midfielder Ignacio Gonzalez and Spanish striker Xisco - as Keegan made abundantly clear in his resignation statement: "It's my opinion that a manager must have the right to manage and that clubs should not impose upon any manager any player that he does not want". Those who argue that this is just another instance of Keegan showing he's a serial quitter who can't handle the pressure are totally wide of the mark - he's simply an honest person with principles. Little wonder that, in the world of football, that makes him stand out...

The root of the problem, then, was a fundamental lack of clarity over the roles of individuals, particularly Dennis Wise and Tony Jiminez, whom Ashley brought in shortly after Keegan. As Paul said at the time, the new structure could have worked "provided everyone involved (Keegan included) knows their role and the expectations upon them, and sticks to their remit". Sadly, that was obviously never the case.

The smug told-you-so brigade will insist they always knew it would all end in tears, but it's almost as though Ashley actually WANTED it all to end in tears. How else could you possibly explain the lunacy of appointing an absolute legend and then interfering to the point of forcing him out, plumping for Wise when put in the position of making a choice between the two?! As Mosh has commented, Ashley has done a staggering job of becoming as hated as Fat Fred in a fraction of the time - it's almost as though he hatched this plan with that objective in mind.

Inevitably, the club have reacted to Keegan's comments by seeking to refute any suggestion that there was interference - but not only does no one believe anything the St James's Park PR machine grinds out anymore, it's also appalling to witness the present hierarchy engaged in a public attempt to discredit and denigrate one of the most important figures in our club's recent history. When King Kev returned, we noted dismissively that some commentators were claiming you should never go back and that he could only tarnish his halo - little did we know that the man hailed for bringing him back to Tyneside would be the one doing the tarnishing. Keegan has been treated shabbily, and for that the club should be utterly ashamed.

The general view is that Ashley's position is now untenable, and speculation is rife that he's now looking for a quick sale. Several of today's papers carried the frankly amazing story that one of the interested suitors, Anil Ambani, would be eager to reinstate Keegan. That might seem utterly fanciful and ridiculous were it not for the fact that in the crazy world of Newcastle Utd anything is possible...

Hit for six

Amidst all the Keegan-related kerfuffle, it may have gone unnoticed that ASBO had his latest wrist-slap on Friday, the FA handing him a six match ban for the training ground assault on Ousmane Dabo. Should he land himself in hot water again in the future - and let's face it, he will, being a serial offender - he'll be hit with a further six match ban.

The ban will mean the first game ASBO'll be eligible to appear in is the visit to the Stadium of Shite, where he's guaranteed a warm welcome. Of course, with his principal apologist having left the club, and those left none too enamoured with him, his future on Tyneside is far from assured. Perhaps even the enormous black cloud of the last week might have a tiny sliver of silver lining...

Friday, September 05, 2008

The end of the affair

The inevitable end of what has been one of the darkest weeks in the club's history came last night, with the announcement that Kevin Keegan had resigned as manager.

The power struggle between Keegan and Dennis Wise finally bubbled over, and with Keegan unwilling and unable to work with the poisoned dwarf it was clear that one of them had to go. That Ashley and Llambias have backed the latter speaks volumes for their contempt for the views of both the supporters and the players.

At some point this week I had intended to review the transfer window as a whole, but that exercise seems somewhat pointless now. Suffice to say, we didn't get the players Keegan wanted, and the backroom dealings which reportedly saw us touting the entire squad round the Premiership on deadline day was the straw which clearly broke the camel's back.

Keegan's gone. Southern based media will doubtless add the word "again" to that sentence, but in any walk of life it is nigh on impossible to work under the constraints imposed by a hierarchy at odds with your outlook, and apparently seeking to undermine you at every turn.

I wouldn't bank on seeing Mike Ashley in with the fans, or out on the toon anytime soon, and indeed suspect that he'll now be actively pursuing a buyer to take the club off his hands (if he hasn't already been doing that for the last year). Equally, I can't see how Wise's position is anything other than untenable. He'll presumably become manager for a brief spell, but given the vitriol that will surely come his way from the stands, can't see how that will last.

By failing to back Keegan, Ashley's ruined everything he'd been trying to build in the last year. The team presumably aren't happy, the fans can't stand him, nobody's going to want to replace Keegan given the level of interference from other parties, and the dwarf couldn't be hated anymore if he tried.

To think, I thought the previous Chairman was a fat incompetent fool out of touch with the views of the supporters...

Thursday, September 04, 2008

No news = good news?

After the tumult of Tuesday, the silence coming out of St James's Park yesterday was deafening. All we know is that talks between King Kev and the club's hierarchy are ongoing. That at least offers a glimmer of hope, but obviously if Keegan does stay, patching things up is going to be extremely difficult, with the already fractured relationship liable to break down again at any time. We'll see...

Meanwhile, it was interesting to Keegan is something of a trendsetter, Alan Curbishley citing a lack of control over the club's transfer policy (and the sales of Anton Ferdinand and George McCartney to the Mackems in particular) as his reason for resigning from his job as manager of West Ham, despite the club's best start to a campaign in years. Perhaps he also had money on himself to be the first casualty of the season and thought he'd better get in there quick before Keegan did?

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

In limbo

2nd September 2008: just another extraordinary day in the extraordinary history of an extraordinary football club.

So, what do we know (at the time of writing, I should stress…)?

1. King Kev has not been sacked.

2. The club has professed to be keen to retain his services as manager.

3. According to League Managers’ Association chief exec Richard Bevan, he hasn’t resigned either.

But precious little else is certain or even clear.

The first mutterings that all was not well appeared in the Daily Heil. The paper’s claim that crucial meetings between Keegan and the board took place on Monday night were echoed by other usually reliable news sources yesterday. They then reported that the noises coming out of the club suggested a subsequent meeting had resulted in a parting of the ways – something the statement released yesterday evening seemed to contradict, making splendidly euphemistic reference to Keegan having “raised a number of issues” while keeping alive the possibility that these issues might yet be worked through.

The “issues” in question are rumoured to be his dissatisfaction with our dealings in the transfer market – a dissatisfaction that is entirely understandable. I read between the lines of Friday’s statement about the sale of James Milner, feeling Keegan protested too much about it being a decision he had himself sanctioned – it just didn’t ring true. The deal done and the money in the bank, he then set about appeasing the fans, claiming we had no fewer than four signings lined up for what remained of the transfer window. When Mike Ashley and Dennis Wise then managed to deliver only two players – Uruguayan midfielder Ignacio Gonzales and rookie striker Xisco (of whom more later) – it must have been an embarrassment and a source of frustration.

It’s also being reported that much of the disagreement stems from Keegan’s refusal to sanction the inclusion of Joey Barton in a swap deal with Blackburn, which would presumably have seen long-time target Stephen Warnock arrive in exchange. As regular readers will be well aware, I’m certainly no fan of ASBO – I’d gladly see the back of him, and am of the view that Keegan’s faith in him and his rehabilitation is sadly misguided – but if the club hierarchy really are surprised and affronted at Keegan’s stubbornness in the face of their attempts to ride roughshod over his wishes, then there’s a major problem.

As far as Keegan was concerned, the job he took in January was one in which he would be given advice and even recommendations, but that decisions affecting the playing staff would still ultimately be his. Little wonder, then, that he might be unhappy at having some such decisions wrested from his grasp, much like Jose Mourinho, whose departure from Chelsea was the result of the interference of Roman Abramovich and the board (most notably with the purchase of Andrei Shevchenko).

So, if Keegan hasn’t quit or been sacked, then where is he? Has he staged a temporary walk-out? It wouldn’t be the first time he’s protested about a lack of support from the board in that way – remember the aftermath of the Swindon game in 1992. If so, then I’d like to think it’ll be portrayed in the media as a legitimate demonstration of grievance by a passionate man rather than the laughable foot-stomping of a petulant toddler – but I don’t hold out much hope.

In giving the fans what they want and bringing Keegan back to the club, Ashley has in a sense made a rod for his own back. No one of a black and white persuasion had any sympathy for Sam Allardyce when he was dismissed, but if Ashley didn’t know already that sacking Keegan would likely herald his own downfall (not least when results and performances are showing signs of promise), then today’s protests at St James’s Park should have really rammed it home.

If Keegan does stay at the club, it’s going to take more than a bit of Savlon and a few sticking plasters to heal the wounds and set things right – otherwise it’ll only be prolonging the inevitable. At very least, the roles of all parties will need clarifying – ever since the appointments of Wise and Tony Jiminez, there’s been the suspicion that they were all making it up as they went along, with no clear division of responsibilities and duties.

But, amidst all the uncertainty, one thing is certain: since Keegan’s return there has been a positive change at the club – more positivity on the pitch, more positivity in the stands. Positivity is what Keegan radiates – that, enthusiasm and passion. What we need – and want – is someone in the dug-out who actually gives a shit. And that, I hope, is what we’ve still got.

Monday, September 01, 2008

An unwanted man - by some

Michael Owen's omission from the England squad announced yesterday has raised more than a few eyebrows - not least because Fabio Capello's opted for just four strikers, one of whom (Theo Walcott) plays his club football on the wing.

OK, so he's not fully fit, and his cause can't have been helped by the performance Capello witnessed in person on Saturday, when he was off the pace and dropped too deep and too wide (although given no assistance whatsoever by Shola Ameobi), but he could easily do for England what he's already done for us twice this season - come off the bench to score a vital goal. The game against Andorra should be a romp (I stress the word "should" - it'll probably be a dreadfully dull 1-0...), but it's the match with Croatia when his instinct for goal could have proven key. We'll see how things pan out, but it could be a decision the Italian comes to regret.

Of course, from a Newcastle perspective, it's probably to be welcomed - OK, so he won't get more opportunity to improve his match fitness, but equally there won't be any danger of him picking up a fresh knock - and so, given his track record with England since joining the club, I think most of us are quite glad he's nowhere near a white shirt.

Unlike Capello, one man who very much does want Little Saint Mick in his squad is Kevin Keegan, who has helped push for the new contract now on the table. The pay increase is bound to be attractive, but I wonder if he won't be looking for a deal lasting longer than just three years?

Quote of the day

"Michael was offered a drink which he was told was non-alcoholic and he took it in good faith".

A club spokesman responds to the news that Mike Ashley was given a slapped wrist for his pint-downing exploits at the Emirates on Saturday. As ludicrous defences go, that's right up there with some of the best.

Welcome back Harry

Arsenal 3 – 0 Newcastle Utd

Well, I think we all knew it was too good to last.

Our promising opening to the season was curtailed in clinical fashion by a slick, fluid Arsenal performance which would have been enough to beat us even if we hadn’t welcomed our old friend Harry Kari back into defence. All that prevented us from being on the wrong end of a cricket score was another brilliant display from Shay Given, the only Newcastle player to emerge with any credit other than perhaps Jonas Gutierrez, who did at least demonstrate his determination to make lung-busting runs in the performance of his defensive duties as well as in forward areas.

The Irishman had already made one superlative save, pushing Kolo Toure’s low shot round the post, when a penalty was awarded against Charles N’Zogbia for handball, a decision we had no grounds to protest about but did so anyway. Unfortunately for us van Persie placed his spot kick right in the corner, Given unable to repeat last Saturday’s heroics against Bolton.

A second followed shortly before half time, Emmanuel Eboue slipping the ball inside for van Persie to crash a shot into the roof of the net from close range. A Dutch double, then – and it looked as though double Dutch was what our defenders were talking to each other. Presumably glad of the opportunity to evade further embarrassment, Jose Enrique limped off shortly after, to be replaced by Sebastian Bassong.

It was the same story after the break, the only surprise being the fact that the ball only found its way into our net once more, some particularly clownish defending letting Denilson in for a shot which skimmed off the underside of Steven Taylor’s foot.

The "things could have been so different" brigade (of which I’m occasionally a member) will no doubt point to Michael Owen’s shot which supposed strike partner Shola Ameobi helpfully deflected wide of the post when it was 1-0, and to Nicky Butt’s shouldered effort which diverted yet another poor corner onto the face of Manuel Almunia’s crossbar before Denilson sealed the victory.

But that papers over the facts that we were second best in every department (up front, where Owen was on medium wave and Ameobi on his own unique frequency, as well as in defence and midfield), that van Persie very nearly completed his hat-trick with a rocket smashed off the underside of the bar from an audacious angle, and that Given was forced to come to our rescue repeatedly. Little wonder, then, that up in the stands Mike Ashley felt the need to drown his sorrows by downing a pint in 13 seconds.

And just when I thought the evening couldn’t get much more depressing, on came a grinning Joey Barton for his rehabilitation…

True, a bit of perspective wouldn’t go amiss. The fact remains that if we’d been offered four points from an opening three fixtures which included trips to Old Trafford and the Emirates, we’d have taken them gladly. We’ve got those two games out of the way early and only been outclassed in one of them. There’s no denying, though, that Ashley and King Kev need to pull some rabbits out of hats before the transfer window closes tonight.

An Arsenal fan’s perspective: East Lower

Other reports: BBC, Guardian