Tuesday, April 07, 2009

A Month Of Saturdays: March 2009

So much for continuing February’s unbeaten run on into March – by the time the new month was four days old, we’d already lost twice...

First we fell victim to Bolton. After an even first half in which Obafemi Martins and Johan Elmander appeared to be having their own little competition to see who could be the most wasteful in front of goal, the Nigerian raising the Swede’s hat-trick of misses by glancing a sitter of a header wide, we were caught cold at the start of the second period by substitute Ricardo Gardner. In a frenetic finale we came desperately close to grabbing a just-about-deserved equaliser – but not close enough. The Reebok is fast becoming one of our unhappiest hunting grounds (there are a few to choose from).

Three days later came the home defeat to Man Utd – a predictable outcome, yes, but not a predictable performance. It was rather galling that Jose Mourinho’s Inter Milan were widely credited as the first side to really rattle Fergie’s normally watertight defence a week later in a game heralded as a forewarning of the back-to-back losses against Liverpool and Fulham – for the first half, at least, we gave the unflusterables a right royal flustering.

Within the first ten minutes, Edwin Van der Sar – recently elevated to near-godlike status – had proved himself to be all too human by parrying the ball straight to Peter Lovenkrands who put the memory of the shocking miss against Everton behind him to score from close range. Both Martins and Ryan Taylor could have doubled our advantage before Wayne Rooney equalised. (Hard to believe that five years ago we thought we stood a good chance of signing him, isn’t it?) Even then the visitors had to be helped to their 2-1 victory, and Dimitar Berbatov’s second-half goal was all that separated the two teams at the final whistle. (Well, that and a few league places, a healthy bank balance and a lot of quality, amongst other things...)

The subsequent weekend off was very much a mixed blessing – on the one hand, it allowed sufficient time for Little Saint Mick to return from injury and replace the unlucky Lovenkrands in the starting line-up at the KC Stadium, but on the other, it meant the momentum and renewed belief we could draw from the Man Utd game was largely lost by the time we kicked off against Hull.

The Tigers may have lost their early-season roar – it’s been more of a whiney mewl since the autumn – but that didn’t stop them taking the lead through Giovanni. That we fought back to draw level before the break was at least encouraging, but the second half was a major disappointment as we tried half-heartedly and failed to get a winner against one of our arch relegation rivals. That’s four meetings this season and not a single win – especially galling given that they’re managed by a Mackem and close friend of Sam Allardyce who looks like a varnished Action Man...

The visit of Arsenal a week later may have brought an improved performance, but it wasn’t one rewarded with any points. For a second successive home game we more than held our own in a stirring first half – and would have taken the lead if only Oba had had the benefit of the findings of research into the "perfect penalty" - only to be comprehensively outclassed in the second period. After his "my dad's bigger than your dad" spat with Ronaldo and crucial equaliser against Hull, Steven Taylor was once again in the heart of the action, bailing us out with two vital blocks while Fabricio Coloccini floundered and then delivering a friendly elbow to Arshavin's face that referee and linesman really must have been blind to have missed.

Arshavin picked himself up to set up Nicklas Bendtner for the first, which Oba immediately equalised to atone for his dribbler from the spot, but with Taylor nursing a knock on the sidelines and the commanding Sebastien Bassong (linked with a summer move to Wenger's side) already in the treatment room, Diaby had too much time and space to burst into the box and blast past Steve Harper. Nasri twisted the knife a few minutes later, and we never recovered against a Gunners side who couldn't have been much more clinical if they'd been wearing white coats and stethoscopes.

In a move that was perhaps not that surprising given his anonymity against Hull, Little Saint Mick had been dropped from the starting line-up for the Arsenal fixture. A couple of days earlier, he finally had the decency to admit what we suspected all along - that the crippling knee injury sustained at the 2006 World Cup wasn't simply a matter of bad fortune: "After being in plaster for so long my leg was de-conditioned and with hindsight, I should never have gone to Germany with England". He added: "People will probably laugh, but I know I’m not injury-prone". Well, we weren't laughing - and if you're not injury-prone, Michael, you're certainly rather foolish.

Talking of foolish... As if Mike Ashley didn't have enough problems, being lumbered with a massive debt-ridden club on a seemingly unstoppable slide out of the top flight, in stepped Fat Fred to kick him while he was down: "I wouldn't buy a second-hand car without checking it was road-worthy and whether there were any HP deals on it, so I don't see how it can be anyone's fault but his that he didn't look at the books before forking out £134m for a football club". Which, of course, makes Fat Fred a dodgy second-hand car dealer enriching himself by knowingly flogging ropey motors - well, that cap certainly fits.

Also getting in on the act (again) was jumped-up Wigan chairman and Ashley's bitterest business rival Dave Whelan. If someone can explain to me how a man who is to rename his team's stadium after himself can lecture anyone on how to behave with class, I'd be very grateful. Only marginally less ludicrous than his assertion that Fat Fred has "great dignity"...

As the month drew to a close, with the club in the relegation zone and just eight games remaining, rumours of mutiny sprang up: "The players have all been talking about how they need someone of real authority to sort it out. There is no leader since Joe Kinnear took ill. It is not that they don’t respect Hughton as a coach because they do, but he is no manager". In the immortal words of Bonnie Tyler, we were holding out for a hero - he'd gotta be strong, it'd gotta be soon and he'd gotta be larger than life.

Any ideas?


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