Strange things are afoot on Tyneside. Once upon a time - well, up until the beginning of November, to be precise - you were more likely to come across clean sheets in the bulging morning-after washing basket of a highly frequented multi-storey bordello. In twelve matches we’d achieved one shut-out, at home to Bolton in the first game of the season. But November saw us quadruple that tally - and not just by virtue of extreme good fortune, either.
Not before time, mind. When you’ve got a misfiring if potentially deadly attack that has only scored three in a game once this campaign (and that courtesy of two own goals at Championship side Coventry in the League Cup), you can’t expect to win many games if your back four is as notoriously philanthropic as ours. A major problem when, as happened, other results after our morale-boosting but nervy win over West Brom at the tail-end of October conspired to leave us rock bottom at kick-off against Villa.
Prior to that game the Villain’s pacy attack had been rampant against opponents with defences traditionally more solid than ours, but the likes of Ashley Young and Gabriel Agbonlahor were mystifyingly but mercifully off-form - though even then our clean sheet was only preserved at one point by Shay Given’s face. Allied to Obafemi Martins’s two second half goals as we got stronger and more confident, the shut-out brought our best win of the season
. That’s not saying much, admittedly, but shooting up to the heady heights of 14th, one place above the Mackems, certainly wasn’t to be sniffed at.
More impressive, though, was the 0-0 draw at Stamford Bridge
, scene of so many massacres it’s a wonder there aren’t little black and white crosses all over the pitch. JFK turned to the A-Team for inspiration, rummaging around and making use of whatever he could find to construct a heavily armoured bus which he then parked right in front of our goal. Quite what Michael Owen made of being deployed in a midfield role is unclear, but the point is that it worked. Of course, that it did so wasn’t just down to focus, determination, organisation and an excellent display from Fabricio Coloccini. No, we also had to thank Chelsea’s uncharacteristic profligacy and the fact that this year, unlike last, the officials got key decisions right and found in our favour. Those not of a black and white persuasion may have sneered at the perceived paucity of ambition - but surely ambitious is exactly what we were, given that we were trying to do what we’d attempted and failed on numerous occasions before?
A week later and we repeated the trick, escaping from Smogside with another point and clean sheet to go with the usual respiratory difficulties. Admittedly, this time accusations of a lack of ambition would have been met with a "Guilty as charged, m'lud
", and holding Boro's attack at bay was a rather less impressive feat than defusing the threat posed by Chelsea - but earlier in the season this was definitely a game we would have lost and Martins was the width of the woodwork away from nicking us all three points. Sadly the achievement was overshadowed by the actions of a mindless minority barracking Mido with abuse for the second year in a row, and this time the FA decided to take action. Also landing himself in hot water with the authorities in November was JFK
, for his comments after our only defeat of the month, at Fulham
- a game which meant it certainly wasn't all good news from a defensive perspective. JFK may have described Martin Atkinson as a "Mickey Mouse referee
" for his failure to spot a push on Cacapa which indirectly led to Andy Johnson's winner, but it was the defender's contribution to our hosts' opener that was truly cartoonish, the Brazilian heading the ball off the back of partner Fabricio Coloccini to gift a goal to Johnson.
Unsurprisingly, Cacapa found himself back on the bench when Wigan came to Toon a week later, his place taken by Sebastien Bassong in the absence of the injured Steven Taylor. It took the Latics just three minutes to take the lead, though there wasn't much Bassong or anyone else could do about it other than hoofing our nemesis Ryan Taylor several feet in the air from kick-off, before he had the chance to hit a swerving, dipping shot into the top corner. Perhaps as exasperated by our huffing and puffing as the rest of us, Andre Marriner handed Emmerson Boyce a second yellow card for a perfectly fair challenge on Shola Ameobi (strangely, though, this time JFK refrained from comparing the man in black to Disney characters...). We still had to wait until the 80th minute for scowling substitute Little Saint Mick's scrambled leveller, and Martins looked to have won it with a thumping shot three minutes from time - but, just as we'd feared, up popped the other right royal pain in the arse in blue and white stripes, one Titus Bramble, to capitalise on slack marking from a corner to head home an equaliser
The man we have to credit, albeit grudgingly, with making us harder to beat (if not quite the attractive, fluent, winning side we ultimately want) was handed the manager's job until the end of the season - Mike Ashley's decision not only making a mockery of the flurry of speculation about Alan Shearer (which, lest we forget, sprang from a few loose comments made by Rob Lee in an interview with The Mag
) but also indicating that a concession that the club won't be sold any time soon. Whether this is because the club isn't a sufficiently attractive investment opportunity in the current economic climate or because Ashley's simply being greedy (as his business rival and opposite number at Wigan Dave Whelan claimed, amidst spouting all sorts of nonsense
) remains to be seen.
Now that he knows how long he's got, JFK's set about drawing up a wishlist of players and using the press to put the pressure on Ashley and Wise to deliver
. Rumoured to be among those he's hoping to bring in are Denilson, Johan Djourou and Alexandre Song, suggesting his research got no further than scanning Arsenal's reserves.
Meanwhile, there was also speculation over the futures of several first-teamers including Charles N'Zogbia, Shay Given and (naturally) Little Saint Mick. JFK made positive noises about hanging on to them all, but was also quoted as saying that Wise "has been given the task of removing some of the players that I feel are not good enough for the club
" - which conjures up visions of him in the role of Brick Top in 'Snatch', feeding unfortunates to the pigs. Please, Joe, can you start with Alan Smith?