Wednesday, January 07, 2009

A Month Of Saturdays: December 2008

Whoever it was who said lightning never strikes twice clearly wasn’t a follower of Newcastle Utd. I wonder, though, if philosopher George Santayana made his famous remark that "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it" with our club in mind. And if any month served to illustrate Georgie Boy’s point, December was it.

Let’s take a quick look at the evidence.

Exhibit A: the home match against Stoke on the 6th. Heading into injury time, we were 2-1 up against a side we’d all (perhaps mistakenly, certainly overconfidently) consider our inferiors and had begun to entertain thoughts of all three points. They were foolish thoughts, of course – right on cue, up popped Abdoulaye Faye, on our payroll as recently as August, to mug his former employers. It seemed our defenders couldn’t even remember a past as recent as three weeks earlier, when a last-minute equaliser from another ex Toon central defender Titus Bramble snatched a 2-2 draw for Wigan. For his part JFK forgot both the touchline ban he was serving when he joined the club and his subsequent dressing-down over his X-rated first press conference, and was sent to the stand for vociferously complaining about the award of the free-kick which led to Faye’s goal. Like a masochistic bunny, he seems rather fond of being in hot water.

Exhibit B: the return fixture against the Latics on Boxing Day. OK, so for the first time in four visits to the JJB we didn’t lose 1-0. But lose again we did, 2-1 this time, and the first goal was lightning striking not twice but thrice. Just as he did a year to the day earlier, and before that in February 2007, Ryan Taylor curled in a right-footed free-kick to give his side the lead. Factor in his long-range half-volley at St James’s Park in November and he’s scored two-thirds of his six senior Wigan goals against us. Clearly he must bear us a massive grudge. The club shop should start selling voodoo doll likenesses of him so we can all have one to stick pins in when we next face them.

Exhibit C: the visit of Liverpool on the 28th. Admittedly it’s not that astonishing that we should have lost, particularly with the Scousers sitting pretty at the top of the league. But the manner of the defeat certainly was remarkable, being almost identical to the one suffered just over a year before. On both occasions we would probably have given the Reds a tougher game if we’d fielded a team of Subbuteo players. The 5-1 margin of defeat could have been much, much worse had Shay Given not turned in one of the most inspired shifts of his 11 year career on Tyneside – was it really only a month earlier that we’d been celebrating a clean sheet at Stamford Bridge? Steven Gerrard – at present probably the only other player in the Premier League to rival Ryan Taylor for the title of the biggest thorn in our backside – was so frustrated at not filling his boots to the tune of more than just a poxy brace that he took it out on a fellow reveller in Southport that night. Allegedly.

The Wigan and Liverpool defeats were all the more depressing because, having picked ourselves up after the Stoke nightmare, a decent pair of pre-Christmas wins had had us dreaming of a pleasant festive period.

First to fall victim to our resurgence were Portsmouth, whom we made pay for their inability to capitalise on their first-half domination of possession by scoring three times without reply in the second period. A third consecutive away clean sheet, that – though with the trip to Wigan next on the cards we should have known that would be the end of the line.

When Spurs came to Toon shortly before Christmas, there was a last-minute goal for the third successive home game – but mercifully this time the ball nestled in our opponents’ net, substitute Damien Duff further ingratiating himself with the side he turned down in favour of us. If history wasn’t repeating itself with the decisive late goal not going against us, then it was in the sense that Duff’s strike secured our fifth consecutive league win over the North Londoners and ensured lots of Geordie blokes arrived back home from “Christmas shopping” with smiles on their faces.

All Michael Owen wanted for Christmas was the offer of a new contract, and so he duly wrote a letter to Santa (well, made what amounted to a plea through the media to Mike Ashley). Santa, for his part, went down to his workshop and set the HR and legal elves to work putting together something to keep young Michael happy, and after a frenetic few days of sawing and hammering out came a contract. Young Michael didn’t seem too grateful, though – almost as if, now he’d got what he asked for, he’d realised he didn’t really want it in the first place – and after a week of deliberation he decided to not to make a decision until the end of the season, preferring to play with the cardboard box the contract had come in instead. All we know, then, is that he’s ours until the summer – unless, that is, Santa is sufficiently piqued by his non-commitment into rashly flogging him to the highest bidder during the transfer window. Let’s hope not.

Our other demanding malcontent is Shay Given, whose public stamping of feet and gnashing of teeth in the wake of the Liverpool game would seem like a childish temper tantrum were it not for the fact that we all know it was entirely justified. Why shouldn’t he expect better? Why shouldn’t he be angry that Santa (and the even fatter Santa that preceded him) ignored his own Christmas wishlist requests for significant and shrewd investment? Why shouldn’t he, in the circumstances, be enticed by the prospect of playing in a team for which he won’t have to be man of the match every week? JFK seems to be hoping flattery will work ("the best goalkeeper in the Premier League by a country mile") – or, failing that, simply telling him he’s happy at the club so many times he starts to believe it again. Interesting psychological tactics, those, from a man Ashley claimed is "better than Capello" – but not ones I’m particularly confident will work. And if they don’t, we should be sad but certainly not angry to see Given go.

One thing both Owen and Given complained about is the perpetual state of turmoil at the club – but at least now we know Ashley is in for the long haul. The outcry following King Kev’s departure meant he had to put the club up for sale, and he certainly seemed to have every intention of bowing to fan pressure and relinquishing the reins, albeit reluctantly. But the acceleration of the credit crunch scrubbed what little lustre there was off an already not particularly attractive investment opportunity, no buyers were forthcoming and he took the club off the market, so we’re stuck with each other. 2009, Ashley declared, will be a year "we drive the club forward together". At the moment we’ve got too many spare parts and too few optional extras, and it’s up to Ashley and JFK to do what’s necessary this month to get us through the MOT.


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