Friday, May 29, 2009

Root and branch reform

Well, as Ben has now picked over the rotten carcass of the 2008-2009 season, it's up to me to look at how the club move forward.

Firstly, we need to appoint a new broom. In much the same way as when Fat Mike bought the club and had Chris Mort come in and assess every aspect of the non playing side, we now need someone to do the same on the playing front. Coaching structure, player recruitment, fitness, training all need assessing and revamping as necessary.

If that person is Alan Shearer, then I'd anticipate seeing a few different faces on the coaching staff before pre-season training starts, with Hughton and Calderwood both likely to leave and returns to the club for John Carver and Robert Lee the most likely. If it isn't Alan Shearer, then we need to identify an alternative asap, because, with the new season only 71 days away, the clock is ticking.

Similarly, the disastrous player recruitment structure which bound Keegan's hands so tightly needs to be killed off once and for all. Whoever the new manager is, he needs to choose his own players. He's the one in the firing line if they don't perform, so it's only right that he has the authority to hire and fire.

Whatever happens, it seems pretty certain that JFK's convalescence will continue away from the club, and I'll be amazed if he finds another job in management now. I would suggest he could try and get a job in the media, but think he may have burnt his bridges on that front.

On the playing front, basic economics dictate that we need to lose most, if not all, of our higher earners and replace them with players on less money. The likes of Owen, Viduka, Lovenkrands and Cacapa will go as their contracts expire, but players like Coloccini, Gutierrez, Geremi and Barton also need to follow.

Off too will be Martins, although he should at least command a good fee. His finishing may, at times, be erratic, but he's a quick two-footed striker, and there simply aren't too many of those floating around.

I'd also like to see Duff go, but he apparently wants to stick around. Cynically, I wonder whether this might be because he knows he won't find another club willing to pay him half what he currently earns?

Edgar's contract is also up, but he might actually be worth hanging on to in the Championship which, from what I've seen, looks to be his natural level. Similarly, Ryan Taylor's long throw might just be worth hanging on to.

I'm a bit less certain on the subject of Alan Smith and Kevin Nolan (although I'm sure a couple of half-decent offers wouldn't be rejected). I have a nagging thought that both might actually prove to be assets in the Championship. However, as a general rule all the guys on big bucks who haven't pulled their weight need to go, and those two definitely fall into that category.

Shola too might find that playing against Championship defences proves to be to his liking, although I wouldn't be remotely unhappy to see him depart should a suitable offer come in for him.

There is, however, a core of experienced players that I'd like to see remain. Most notably, Harper, Butt and Beye, who should add some wise old heads in the dressing room next season. With them, players like Bassong, Taylor (S), Carroll and Guthrie can surely help lift us out of the Championship, with the addition of some players with a bit of pace. (Although Bassong has already said he'd like to stay in the Premiership, which makes me doubt he'll still be around come August).

I'd also prefer to hang on to Jose Enrique who finally started to look like a half decent left back this season. Unfortunately he was the only half decent left back at the club, which meant we were instantly in trouble as soon as he was injured (a problem Keegan identified last summer, but which the poisoned dwarf failed to address).

The future may well lie with the youth. Players like Kazenga LuaLua, Tamas Kadar and Nile Ranger should now get a real chance to prove themselves, which should hopefully mean that they have some hunger and energy in the team's play.

The challenge for the manager, of course, is trying to convince someone else to pay to take the dead wood without also losing too many of the healthy parts of the tree.

The next four weeks could well prove crucial for the club. If we can appoint a manager and then get shot of as many players as quickly as possible, it should free up the purse strings to enable us to refresh the squad. If we're stuck with people unable or unwilling to leave then the start of the season will arrive before we are ready for it, and any chance of a speedy return to the Premiership could well be over before it has even begun.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

2008-9: An annus most horribilis

OK, you don't really want to be reading this, I certainly don't want to be writing it - but, as I'm already heartily sick of hearing fans of other clubs offering us the benefit of their usually ill-informed opinions, let's get it over with...

The 2008-9 season drew to a close on Sunday with our relegation to the Championship after sixteen years of thrills and spills in the top flight. Fittingly enough, it was an own goal that sent us down - not so much shooting ourselves in the foot as blasting ourselves into smithereens with a rocket launcher.

Of course, it wasn't just about the Villa result. The fact is that the preceding 37 games had left us needing at least a point from a trip to a club that occupied the final Champions League place for much of the season. Little wonder we weren't up to the task - and the lifeless, bloodless performance of the players suggested they knew as much before kick-off. More fools us fans for putting everything that had gone before behind us and blindly investing our belief in them. But then that's what we do - and what we'll continue to do next season in the Championship. That, after all, is the nature of being a football supporter.

However, loyalty and faith don't preclude analysis and critique. When asked what had gone wrong in the wake of Sunday's match, Wor Al - "hurting" and "raw inside" - was brutally frank: "There’s a million things you can look at this season, last season, and going back a long way that haven’t been right ... It's a culmination of everything". Let's pick through some of those things, starting at the beginning...

1. The managerial not-so-merry-go-round

Our problems stem, arguably, from the sacking of Sir Bobby Robson in August 2004, when this site was less than a week old. At the time, we were extremely disappointed but felt dressing room unrest compounded by a poor start to the season had made his position "close to untenable". Consider this us holding our hands up in acknowledgement of fault - time, it must be conceded, has made us look rather foolish.

Out of the door with Robson went all the stability, optimism and calm assurance he'd brought to the club to rescue us from the grim post-Keegan wasteland of the late 90s under Dalglish and Gullit and steer us to third, fourth and fifth place finishes in consecutive seasons. Fat Fred compounded his cack-handed management of Robson's sacking by installing Graeme Souness as his successor - both of which give the lie to the piggy-eyed one's attempts to lay all blame for the club's Premier League demise squarely at Mike Ashley's door. It's unlike Fat Fred not to want a big fat slice of something - though in this case the difference is a big fat slice of blame is something he richly deserves.

With Soumess the rot set in - arrogance, infighting, Jean-Alain Boumsong et al - and though his caretaker replacement Glenn Roeder briefly patched up the gaping holes in the hull of our hitherto sinking ship, guiding us into seventh and a place in Europe in 2006, flirtation with relegation the following season saw him deposed himself in May 2007. Unlike Soumess, Roeder was a decent bloke whose efforts the previous year had earned him the opportunity to assume the manager's position permanently, but ultimately he wasn't up to the task.

Neither, let me stress to the legions of opposition fans claiming the contrary, was Fat Sam. His particularly joyless brand of "football" might have been accepted (if never enthusiastically embraced) on Tyneside if it had borne any fruit - but it didn't, and with the club on a downward spiral, Ashley was right to give the arrogant arsehole the boot and make King Kev his first appointment. A bold fan-pleasing move which reinvigorated us all, and one which after a sticky start ultimately paid off with comfortable survival in the 2007-8 season.

Everything seemed geared for a bright 2008-9 - but we had reckoned without the nefarious influence of Ashley's other appointments Dennis Wise and Tony Jimenez, and the season was only three games old when Keegan sensationally walked out, resentful of the duo's interference in (or even dictation of) transfer policy. Ashley's biggest mistake - as his recent apology to fans belatedly appears to acknowledge - was his determination not to dismantle the off-pitch structure of which he'd been the architect, or even modify it so that the manager had the final say over transfer decisions, even if that meant sacrificing the cult hero he'd brought back to the fans' delight. Had Keegan remained in charge, with Wise and Jimenez sent packing, I'm convinced we wouldn't now be contemplating trips to Scunthorpe and Peterborough.

Chris Hughton held the fort briefly - and by holding the fort I mean presiding over some cheap victories for the opposition - before Ashley announced JFK would be installed as caretaker manager. It was like Fat Fred replacing Robson with Soumess all over again. If the rumours were to be believed, JFK got the gig after once meeting Ashley in a bar - presumably our owner had done a few of his trademark pint-downings when he made the decision...

As though to instantly prove himself unworthy of lacing King Kev's shoes, JFK blustered into a club not exactly renowned for its grasp of the importance of good PR and turned his first official press conference into one long childish verbal assault on the assembled hacks that turned the air a particularly deep shade of blue and - tellingly - drew criticism from an appalled Robson.

Otherwise his impact was negligible (other than in antagonising players - more below) and by the time he succumbed to a recurrence of his heart trouble, on the eve of the West Brom game at the start of February, we'd only won four matches under his stewardship. Back to Hughton we turned, this time in conjunction with Colin Calderwood, but the pair weren't able to change our fortunes either.

Enter Wor Al, on 1st April of all days (and, belatedly, exit Wise - the annus horribilis's anus horribilis). While eight games seemed enough to save us, we could have hoped he'd have been appointed sooner and given more time - and so, sadly, it proved. If Shearer was guilty of anything, it was of believing he could make a difference - but then we all believed that too, as did Ashley. With too many problems to solve and too little time, his remit was simply to inspire and drive us forwards - ironically, exactly the job to which King Kev would have been ideally suited. That he failed can't really be blamed on him, though, because...

2. Whither form? Whither passion?

... as the old adage goes, you can't polish a turd - and in terms of a squad that's exactly what Shearer inherited. No matter what he tried - personnel, formations, tactics - he simply couldn't fashion them into a team capable of being roused into delivering a decent performance, the ultimately futile win over the Smogs the only exception. JFK and Hughton had as much luck before him.

The fact that Shay Given and (to a lesser extent) Sebastien Bassong were the only players to show anything like consistently decent form - one left the club in January and the other took time to establish himself in the side - was lamentable given the supposed quality of what is an expensively assembled squad. There were occasional flashes from others, but the contrast with the likes of (for example) Stoke, for whom nearly everyone - unsung players all - performed at something approaching the manager's mythical 110% all season, was sharp. Dips in form are only natural, of course - but then so are peaks.

However, while form is largely beyond the control of the individual player (and so the lack of it not really blameworthy, even if extremely frustrating), and self-belief understandably ebbs slowly away when results are consistently poor, there is absolutely no excuse for a lack of effort. As Paul noted in his report, what was most infuriating about Sunday's match was the fact that at no point after the opening fifteen minutes did the team look sufficiently troubled by the prospect of relegation to be bothered to try and do something about it.

At a time when people have lost and continue to lose their jobs and all of us are feeling the pinch, the half-arsedness of some of the displays from individuals content to collect five- or even six-figure salaries every week was downright offensive. Only a handful of players seemed to be trying even when enduring miserable games - Nicky Butt and Steven Taylor chief among them. Did the rest not appreciate what it meant to the club, to the fans, to the city to remain in the Premier League? Or, worse still, did they simply not care?

3. Transfer trauma and tribulation

If everything Midas touched turned to gold, then we seem to have the exact opposite effect on players who sign for us - remember Hugo Viana and Albert Luque in particular, but the likes of Damien Duff more recently.

While Peter Lovenkrands proved himself a useful stop-gap during the second half of the season and Danny Guthrie can at least take a half-decent corner (a total novelty for us), after an electrifying debut on the opening day Jonas Gutierrez frustrated with his natural talent but inability to supply any end product, whether cross or shot, and the Spiderman mask never made it out of his sock.

Sometimes, though, it's not a matter of a reasonable purchase proving to be a dud - sometimes the purchase isn't reasonable in the first place. In the middle of the park, Alan Smith and January recruit Kevin Nolan were pointlessness personified, while the signing of Ryan Taylor from Wigan suggested little more than an attempt to ensure he doesn't score another impeccably curled free-kick against us ever again.

Of the Three Amigos who were Wise's pitiful legacy, Ignacio Gonzales took up permanent residence in the treatment room; £5m striker Xisco was consistently overlooked even when he was fit and none of our other forwards were, his sole contribution being a shanked consolation in the miserable home defeat by Hull; and Jose Enrique was reminiscent of Celestine Babayaro - also a left-back and also lazy and useless but, at £6m, six times more expensive.

And then we come to the coup de grace, Fabricio Coloccini, an Argentinian international who, after a promising start at Old Trafford, rapidly proved himself an extremely able Boumsong impersonator. Lax marking, carelessness in possession, weakness in the tackle, tripping over his own feet - nothing was beyond him. And yet, incredibly, one of the prime reasons for our relegation had the nerve to complain publicly that the club wasn't as it had been sold to him in the brochure...

All the more galling, then, that everywhere we looked central defenders we'd let go were prospering: Titus Bramble named as Wigan's Player of the Year; Aaron Hughes instrumental in Fulham's qualification for Europe; Abdoulaye Faye a rock on which Stoke's survival was founded; brothers Gary and Stephen Caldwell awarded Scottish Football Writers' Player of the Year and promoted to the Premier League with Burnley respectively...

At the same time that dross was being brought into the club, quality was haemorrhaging out. James Milner left for Villa in a deal which, together with the signings of Xisco and Gonzales, infuriated King Kev so much as to ultimately precipitate his own departure; talented youngster Charles N'Zogbia went to Wigan in January after a public slanging match with JFK in which neither exactly covered themselves in glory; and, after twelve long years, Shay Given finally got sick of being used as target practice and jumped ship for Man City. All three - Given in particular - cited our lack of progress as their primary reason for leaving, while Milner commented on the importance and value of the stability he'd discovered behind the scenes at Villa Park. They had a point.

4. Why take three points when one will do?

In the home fixture against Man City, there were fewer than five minutes on the clock when Stephen Ireland scored to pull his side back to 2-2.

In the home fixture against Wigan, the aforementioned Bramble struck an equaliser with seconds to go.

In the home fixture against Stoke, it was Faye who inflicted the late, late damage.

Can you detect a pattern here?

If we'd been able to cling on for what amounted to around an additional seven or eight minutes in those three games, we'd have been six points better off and comfortably clear of the relegation scrum. As it was, shoddy defending and concentration cost us dearly time and again.

5. Who's the wanker in the black?

It's customary in these situations to look around for someone or something else to blame. Sheffield Utd, for instance, laid the blame for their relegation on the fact that West Ham signed Carlos Tevez knowing the deal wasn't all strictly above-board. Spurs were more inventive and less justified when they missed out on a Champions League spot in 2006 to Arsenal, complaining they'd eaten some dodgy lasagne the night before. But if you really want an easy target, pick on the ref.

To name four occasions on which the officials did us no favours whatsoever this season: the sending-off of Habib Beye against Man City, which was later rescinded but which at the time contributed to our downfall; the award of the free-kick to Stoke at St James' Park from which their injury-time equaliser came; the baffling decision to signal for a corner from which Stoke scored in the return game at the Britannia Stadium; and Captain Pasty's disallowed header against Fulham in what turned out to be our last home game in the Premier League.

In each instance we can feel bitter and cheated, aggrieved that justice wasn't done.


But - and it's as big a but as there can be - these grievances about refereeing are actually petty and trivial within the context of the whole season, and should be dismissed fairly swiftly. The same goes for any gripes about injuries, whether short- or long-term. Let me make this perfectly clear: our relegation was definitely not a hard luck story.

The truth - harsh but evident - is that we simply weren't good enough. Our defensive solidity, our midfield creativity, our striking firepower - all deficient. The laziness and apparent lack of effort were particularly frustrating and upsetting - that and the subsequent gloating from the likes of Soumess, Fat Sam, Dave Whelan and the Mackems. (Even repeatedly self-professed Geordie and Newcastle fan Ol' Cauliflower Face beamingly proclaimed his delight that Wigan had finished so highly while certain big clubs had gone down.)

The points total of 35 with which Hull managed to stay up is pathetic, but just serves to illustrate the fundamental lack of quality among sides in the lower echelon of the Premier League. Our relegation rivals may have continually slipped up, but - as was the case once again on Sunday - we consistently failed to take advantage by not doing our own job. On this occasion, one goal would have been enough.

Of course, had we got that goal, or had Duff not redirected Gareth Barry's shot past Harper and into the bottom left-hand corner, then we'd be celebrating (albeit a hollow kind of celebration). So relegation has at least ensured we can't paper over the cracks any longer, and forced us to confront the realities of the club's situation face-on.

The next question is: where now? But that's something for another post and another day...

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Declarations of intent

With the curtain barely drawn on our Premiership status, players and agents have been queuing up to declare their intentions for the road ahead.

The only rat to so far be outed as desperate to leave the sinking ship is Peter Lovenkrands, whose short term deal has presumably expired anyway. His agent apparently stating that his client wanted to stay in the Premiership (wouldn't we all!)

In contrast, messers Duff, Beye and Steven Taylor have all declared a desire to stay and help take the club back up at the first time of asking.

What is, of course, still up in the air is who will be in charge of the good ship Toon when it begins its perilous attempt to navigate its way back to the Premiership. According to reports Alan Shearer is locked in talks with Fat Mike and Llambiarse, which are reportedly picking over the bones of the season before identifying the way ahead.

Assuming Shearer receives the necessary assurances which he is seeking, I'd expect confirmation from the club to be forthcoming before Saturday's FA Cup Final officially draws the whole sorry season to a close.

Sorry seems to be the hardest word

After Sunday's events, Fat Mike has now released a statement to the press in which he apologises for the mistakes made in recent times.

This is in stark contrast to the statement released by Llambiarse on Sunday which sought to display empathy. He may feel "sorry for the supporters" but it's telling that he singularly failed to take any responsibility for our failings.

Something Ashley's statement appears to at least correct.

The question, of course, is whether this expression of contrition is the beginning of a new period of honesty and openness from the club's hierarchy, or a sop to try and appease the supporters?

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Down with a whimper

Aston Villa 1 - 0 Newcastle Utd

"This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang, but with a whimper."
T.S. Eliot - 'The Hollow Man'

The final curtain fell on our season, and with it taking our 16 year run in the Premier League. In the end, it was typical of much that had gone before.

We started brightly, with Martins in particular looking keen to take the fight to Villa early on, and the Nigerian fired a couple of shots close, without ever really forcing Brad Friedel to make a major save.

But like our season, the early promise soon gave way to malaise, as we allowed the home team to take the upper hand, and from there on they largely dominated the match.

Despite losing the midfield battle, we were nonetheless still in with a shout of staying up, and when manure's kids scored against Hull we enjoyed a glorious fifteen minutes out of the relegation zone.

However, as with every other bright light we've seen at the end of the tunnel this season, a hurtling train wasn't far behind. Sure enough, Damien Duff stuck out a leg and deflected Gareth Barry's wayward shot inside the post, we were back in the bottom three. If that was a tad unfortunate, the simple fact is that as the game wore on, Villa spurned chance after chance to put us out of our misery.

That they proved incapable of doing so, with John Carew the biggest culprit, was perhaps the cruellest twist of the afternoon, as right up until the final whistle the simple fact was that one goal, one misdirected shank of an own goal, would have been enough to keep us up.

Despite this most slender of margins, our team looked so completely lacking in the desire or application to try and get ourselves back on level terms.

Shearer threw Owen and Ameobi into the fray, but the former again looked adrift, while the latter at least showed some competition, and a willingness to shoot which his colleagues appeared to lack, but failed to display anything approaching a targeting mechanism.

Sure enough, the final whistle eventually put us out of our misery.

If we'd gone down fighting, it wouldn't have felt so bad, but as it is, to go down having been undone by a Villa team who were coasting, without managing a single shot on target in the second half, remains the most depressing part of the whole sorry affair.

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

Monday, May 25, 2009

It's all over now

RIP Newcastle United in the Premier League 1993-2009

Black & White & Read All Over: proud (if utterly gutted) supporters of a Championship side.

A match report, a dissection of the season and a look forward to the summer and beyond to follow.

Friday, May 22, 2009


Thinking ahead to Sunday's game, I've been reminded of what proved to be the biggest single rollercoaster game of my Newcastle supporting life, which our match with Villa has the potential to eclipse.

On 13 November 2002, Newcastle went into their last match of the first Champions League group stage knowing that to stand any chance of progressing to the next round they need to beat Feyenoord in Holland, and hope that a Juventus team which had already qualified for the next phase would be sufficiently motivated to beat Dynamo Kiev.

Thanks to goals from Craig Bellamy and Hugo Viana, Newcastle got themselves into a two goal lead, only to let it slip and allow the home side back to 2-2.

With reports suggesting that the Juventus' second string had managed to get a win in the Ukraine, Craig Bellamy pounced on a deflected Kieron Dyer shot in injury time to fire Newcastle to a 3-2 win, and make Champions League history.

I don't know about you, but I couldn't stop smiling for days.

That game represents the biggest high I've ever had from Newcastle, eclipsing the 3-2 against Barca and the 5-0 against manure. The high coming from the fact that at one point we were hanging over the precipice of disaster, and looking like we wouldn't get the result we needed even while the result which was out of our hands was going our way.

What we need to show on Sunday, is that kind of application and spirit. We can't worry about results elsewhere. If Hull and sunderland both win, then good luck to them. But if they both lose, and we haven't tried, then that would be the most crushing result of all.

Let's hope Sunday is a high to eclipse Feyenoord.

Ha'way the Lads.

(If you want to relive the Feyenoord match in a bit more detail,'s match report can be found here.)

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Quote of the day

"There is only one person to blame and that's the guy who decides who is going to run the club. Lots of people can buy football clubs but not many can run them."

At times of crisis, one man can be relied upon to remind us all what we are missing.

Step forward Fat Fred, who can't resist trotting out the same tired rhetoric he's been spouting to any journalist desperate enough to wave a dictaphone under his nose in the last two years.

Pausing for a second, let's just remember this is the man who once decided that Graham Souness was the right man to run the club.

Quote of the day however must go to this little gem: "Every year we were there we made a profit."

Yes Fred, you did. You and Dirty Doug both made a massive profit.

Sadly that was a personal profit, rather than one made by the club, as your years of mis-management left us hugely in debt.

A quick glance at the excellent nufc-finances website shows what a crock of shit Fat Fred is pedalling.

Between 1998-2006 the club made a loss of £27 million. Once you add the money paid out to shareholders that loss becomes £67 million. Only twice (1998, 2004) in that eight year period did the club make any profit (of £200,000 each time). In every other year it made a loss.

So when Fat Fred tells a journalist that "every year we were there we made a profit" he's correct, but only when you remember he's talking about his own personal finances. He screwed the club for every penny, and has the gall to paint himself as some sort of wronged pariah.

I'm no fan of Ashley, whose disastrous backing of Wise instead of Keegan in September has, in my view, left us in the mess we're in now; but let's be fair, at least Ashley's invested his own money in the club and paid off the debts which Fat Fred and Dirty Doug had left us in. He may be keen to try and make a profit in the event he sells the club, but he doesn't appear to be taking a huge salary out of the club.

Nothing annoys me more than the fat sanctimonious idiot spouting off about how he was in fact the man to take us forward, and that the sale of the club from under him to Ashley (from which he again made a vast amount of money) has led us to the place we are now. Yes, Ashley has made a number of horrific managerial errors this season, which we can dissect next week once the final whistle is blown , but for now let's just remember that the halcyon days Shepherd is referring to only served to boost his personal fortune as he bled the club dry. If Fat Fred had stayed, chances are we'd already have been relegated having gone into administration ages ago.

The man was a parasite who feasted on the club, who revelled in the fame and platform his involvement brought him, and whose revisionist approach to our recent financial history is insulting in the extreme.

Club get FA in appeal

Confirmation then that the Football Association have turned down our appeal against Bassong's red card against Fulham. Bugger

Not really a suprise mind, but worth a try.

Presumably our defence on Sunday will be made up of four from Steven Taylor; Duff and Ryan Taylor ( both out of position); Enrique and Beye (both struggling for fitness); Coloccini (struggling for form) and Edgar (rusty). I'm ignoring Geremi and Cacapa on the basis that they are both past it.

It doesn't look that promising, does it?

Win, lose or draw

Following last night's win for Portsmouth over the great unwashed, our modest chances of survival took a big boost.

If we win, and one of either Hull or sunderland fail to win then we are safe. We'd have more points than Hull and the same number of points but a better goal difference than the mackems.

If we draw, then we need Hull to lose. We'd be on the same number of points but climb above them because of our better goal difference. (The only caveat to this is if the smoggies were to win by six clear goals, in which case they would also climb above us, but I'd have though that was unlikely). The mackems would be out of reach.

If we lose, we're in the Championship next season, sampling the hospitality of Leicester, Plymouth, Cardiff, Swansea and others.

So that's it, ideally we'll win together with Man Utd and Chelsea. Even with both of those teams now having an eye on bigger prizes, it is to be hoped that they can still muster enough to at least get draws.

In which case, we need to either win or draw at Villa. Something we've managed eleven times (6 wins, 5 draws) since the Premier League began. We can only hope that statistic becomes seven wins by six o'clock next Sunday.

Desperate appeal

According to reports, the club have sought to appeal against Sebastian Bassong's red card on Saturday, in the hope of having him available for this Sunday's decisive game against Aston Villa.

Whilst I suspect this is more in hope than expectation, it's got to be worth a try. Presumably the argument will focus on the direction which Kamara was travelling when Bassong clipped his heels. He certainly seemed to be targeting the corner flag with his run rather than the goal (which of course begs the question why Bassong fouled him, but that's another story...)

With Habib Beye reportedly struggling to be fit for Sunday, we can only keep our fingers crossed and hope the FA show us some leniency.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Staring into the abyss

Newcastle Utd 0 - 1 Fulham

Our season in a microcosm. We didn't play well enough as a team to create sufficient chances to win the game, and sadly we didn't defend well enough to ensure a clean sheet. The net result of which means we're back in the bottom three and reliant on other teams doing us a favour.

With Little Saint Mick ruled out with a groin strain before the match the only change in personnel from Monday night's win over the smoggies was a return to the starting line-up for Martins. It was the Nigerian who had our first decent chance, crashing a shot against the post.

At the other end, Bassong and Taylor were looking solid enough, and with Bolton beating Hull things were looking reasonably rosy in the Geordie garden. Unfortunately we then got caught playing Nevland onside, he drew Harper before slotting the ball across to the unmarked (and arguably offside) Diomansy Kamara who fired home past his erstwhile marker Taylor who had retreated to the line.

Half time, and losing at home, things still weren't looking horrific, with Bolton continuing to do the decent thing against Hull. However, seconds after the restart, news filtered through of a Hull equaliser. After some no doubt fairly strong words at half time, we emerged in the second half with renewed vigour, and Viduka had a good chance saved before he got on the end of a left wing cross to head home and level the scores.

Frustratingly, referee Howard Webb decided that all Kevin Nolan must now do is block players, and he penalised the former Bolton captain for a non-existent block on Schwarzer, and ruled out our equaliser.

At the other end, we were caught on the break and Bassong clipped Kamara when the Fulham man was through on goal (albeit heading slightly wide). As the last man, the Frenchman was understandably sent for an early bath, collecting our seventh red card of the season for his troubles.

Down to ten men and behind by a goal we never really looked like getting something out of the game until, late on, Nicky Butt flung himself at the ball after Andy Carroll's flicked header only for Schwarzer produced an excellent save from point blank range to deny us an equaliser. Elsewhere, Hull huffed and puffed but couldn't get their noses in front at Bolton, which at least leaves us within touching distance of safety next Sunday.

However, the simple fact is that once again we weren't good enough to get something from a game where we badly needed at least a point. That we didn't manage to grab an equaliser against a well organised Fulham side shows how far they've travelled in a season, having managed the great escape last year - which presents some home if we can somehow avoid the drop next week. Tellingly they've fielded the same back four in 35 of their 43 games this season. If only we'd been able to say the same, I suspect we'd not be in quite the mess we currently find ourselves.

Make no bones about it though, while we may have been denied what should have been a perfectly decent goal and conceded one which should have been ruled out for offside, the fact that we're in the bottom three with one game to go is because we've not been good enough over 37 games, rather than robbed by poor officiating in this match.

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Bazza's jazz mags, and other stories

There's something heart-warming about having a passionate Newcastle fan write about the club in a national newspaper. In today's Times, George Caulkin picks out his Top 50 Newcastle Players. Inevitably there are some names in there that I'd argue with, and others that I think are glaringly missing, but in the most part I'd agree with his selection, and heartily recommend the article, if only for the story of Barry Venison's apparent pre-match reading matter.

In any event, and as Caulkin is quick to point out, it's his list, not mine, not yours but his. If he was older or younger it would probably have been different, but regardless of that it is certainly well worth a read.

The Times also gets a brief round of applause for their headline: Mark Viduka hungry for the fight. Not just us who think he's spent most of the last couple of years chomping pasties then?

Elsewhere, the press seem to have occupied themselves with questioning whether Michael Owen's career is now on the wane, not just on Tyneside, but as a whole. What seems certain is that wherever he goes, Little Saint Mick is unlikely to receive a contract offer which comes close to matching his current deal (or even that which we offered him in January). Still, with his massive wages off the payroll, it would mark a significant saving, which would doubtless help us to recruit some new blood to the cause.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Painful hope*

Newcastle Utd 3 - 1 Middlesbrough

At last - a must-win game that we've won.

The importance of our encounter with fellow strugglers the Smoggies was such that not even Setanta's Jon Champion could overstate it. Put simply, a draw would have helped neither of us and a defeat would have transformed the possibility of relegation into a distinct probability.

Wor Al once again rang the changes, though after the meek surrender at Anfield that was hardly surprising. Out went the injured Alan Smith, the hapless Fabricio Coloccini, the unfortunate Obafemi Martins and the suspended and banished ASBO and in came Danny Guthrie, Kevin Nolan, Steven Taylor and Little Saint Mick. The latter seemed the most significant selection, but it panned out rather differently...

I'd spent all day telling anyone who'd listen, and some who wouldn't, that I'd be delighted with 94 minutes of goalless dross if Big Lad then popped up to slice one in off the post - but not only was he not in the squad, it was the Smogs who opened the scoring with the scruffiest, scabbiest, mangiest goal imaginable after a couple of minutes. Habib Beye it was suffered the double misfortune and indignity of seeing Tuncay's neat touch run through his legs and then accidentally shinning the ball into his own net after Steve Harper had blocked the Turkish striker's shot.

The flags in the stands were stilled, but only temporarily. We'd already served notice of our intent with a flowing move which ended with Guthrie slicing wide before Beye's own goal, and we went closer still shortly afterwards when former Smoggie Captain Pasty controlled the ball on his ample chest and cracked a volley off the near post, Boro 'keeper Brad Jones apparently too busy contemplating why his acting career hasn't taken off since his stint as The Sherminator in American Pie.

Taylor blasted the rebound over the bar from point blank range but soon made amends by heading the equaliser from Guthrie's superbly flighted corner (a novelty, though - pleasingly - not tonight). It looked as though we may have taken something from last weekend's thrashing at Anfield after all - Kevin Nolan's attempted block on Taylor's marker bore all the hallmarks of Daniel Agger's on Beye in similar circumstances.

Nifty footwork on the left and a decent cross from Captain Pasty then presented his strike partner Little Saint Mick with what turned out to be his only chance of the night, but Jones flicked out a hand to divert the header over the bar. At the other end, in contrast with the off-colour Owen and lumbering if effective Viduka, Marvin Emnes was causing havoc with his energetic running and we were mightily relieved to see only the outside of the net ruffled by his follow-up to an initial shot parried by Harper.

The first 15 minutes of the second half were much like the last 15 of the previous home game, in which the opposition completely controlled possession and came close to capitalising - only Harper's palms came between Gary O'Neil's shot and the back of our net. With Spiderman tiring and starting to look like a liability out on the left in front of makeshift left back Damien Duff, Shearer brought on Peter Lovenkrands, and then - in a move that raised a few eyebrows around the ground - brought Obafemi Martins on for Little Saint Mick rather than Nolan.

We should have known better than to question Shearer's judgement, though, because within two minutes we were ahead for the first time in the game. Captain Pasty flicked a clever back-header to an offside Nolan, but fortune for once favoured us, the linesman's flag stayed by his side, and Martins fooled his marker before slotting home despite slipping at the crucial moment. Given the pair's much-publicised disagreements, the sight of the Nigerian sprinting to the touchline to leap on his manager in celebration was encouraging. Whether this means Little Saint Mick has made his last start for the club is anyone's guess - though I suspect it might be Spiderman who makes way for Martins when Fulham visit on Saturday.

The Smogs continued to attack - sub Jeremie Aliadiere headed wide at the near post and Emnes looked all set to prod home until Harper intercepted the cross in the nick of time - but strangely (particularly given events towards the end of the home games against Man City, Stoke and Wigan) I didn't feel as though we'd surrender the lead. Perhaps I was just caught up in the euphoria of us having scored not once but twice for the first time in ages, though. Thankfully twice duly became thrice four minutes from time, Nolan crossing for Lovenkrands to smash home a volley unmarked and ensure the points would be remaining on Tyneside, condemning our relegation rivals to their 11th straight Premier League defeat on the road.

Man of the match Captain Pasty, whose hold-up play and aerial power had been crucial all evening, was taken off (revealing what can only be described as the upper torso equivalent of control pants under his shirt), and, though his replacement Andy Carroll only had a few minutes to make an impression, Bigger Lad (as he'll henceforth be known) came close to making the scoreline more emphatic on a couple of occasions as a desperate Boro stretched themselves too thin.

The importance of the game and the fact that winning wasn't a feeling we'd experienced since 7th February meant that the final whistle was celebrated with demented gusto by all in black and white. Of course there's still much to be done, but hauling ourselves out of the relegation zone at Hull's expense and improving our goal difference has to seen as a good night's work. It's back in our hands now, after all.

* The title of the report comes courtesy of my friend Nick, one of several people to text me after the match. His read: "Another two weeks of painful hope then. Good show!" Couldn't have put it better myself.

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

A Month Of Saturdays: April 2009

If I'd got a quid for every email, text or comment I received on 1st April asking - whether in jest or in all seriousness - if Alan Shearer's appointment as caretaker manager of Newcastle Utd was an April Fools' joke, I'd have been able to afford to buy the club from Mike Ashley myself.

Unlike most people waking up to the news that morning, I knew it was true, having spotted the reports appearing on reputable websites (i.e. not just the Chronicle) late the previous evening. In many ways, it made perfect sense. With only a solitary point gleaned in March, JFK confined to his sick bed for the rest of the season and the players apparently clamouring for "someone of real authority to sort it out", it was always likely that Ashley would turn to Wor Al. The appointment could be seen as an attempt to make amends for the gross mishandling of King Kev's third spell at the club, and showed Ashley had at least come to appreciate what it meant to the football club, the fans and the city for a real hero to return. With inspiration and passion in desperately short supply, we now had someone who sweated them by the bucketload in his time as a player.

Shearer very soon found the going tough, though. Even navigating the press conference called to mark his arrival was tricky. Despite reiterating endlessly that he was here for eight games and eight games only, the assembled hacks refused to believe him and continued to plague him with the same question. For someone used to a comfortable seat on the Match Of The Day sofa and to a tough decision being whether to select a four or a five iron, the demands of the job - particularly the hours - seemed to come as something of a rude awakening too.

Shearer's first fixture in charge saw Chelsea visit St James' Park in no mood for fairytales. We muddled through to half-time but 11 minutes into the second period Fabricio Coloccini took an inopportune moment to pluck a prize specimen from the locker full of defensive bloopers that he seems to have been bequeathed by Messrs Bramble and Boumsong. It was 2-0 and all over shortly afterwards, and, as the Chelsea fans took mischevious pleasure from our plight, singing "You're getting sacked in the morning", it dawned on us that inspiration and passion wouldn't be enough if we couldn't cut out the stupid individual errors.

Our Easter weekend trip to Stoke thus assumed even greater importance, but preparations were disrupted by Oba's late withdrawal through injury. A displeased Shearer was forced to turn to Big Lad, who promptly set about proving himself utterly unworthy of the manager's faith, the nadir of his performance being the failure to prevent Abdoulaye Faye - yes, him again - scoring from a corner. Thankfully, though, his replacement Andy Carroll made sure the tale of the two local lads had a satisfactory (if not outright happy) ending, powering in a late headed equaliser that bore all the hallmarks of the man who had brought him on.

At the time, that goal felt like it might prove a turning point of similar importance to Michael Owen's equaliser at St Andrews last March, but those hopes were dashed a week later by the defeat at Spurs. OK, so misfortune dealt us a cruel hand not once but twice in the build-up to what turned out to be the game's only goal, but we were passive, tentative and nervous from the very start, easy pickings for a side who didn't have to shift gears even if they could have been bothered to. In recent seasons the White Hart Lane goals had seemed to have a magnetic attraction to balls leaving Oba's feet - but not on this occasion, as the substitute wasted chance upon chance, the worst a skyrocketed volley from close range with just a couple of minutes left on the clock.

Having gained limited cheer from the fact that we started to look a threat when Oba and Captain Pasty joined Little Saint Mick up front against Spurs, Shearer took a leaf out of King Kev's book for the home game with Portsmouth, starting with the trio who proved our salvation last season. But it didn't work: they spurned one clear-cut chance each, we drew another blank and, with the visitors alarmingly in the ascendancy in the last quarter of an hour, we were actually relieved for the whistle to blow on a goalless draw. Pretty much all that had been sustaining us in the build-up was the fond memory of Ned Kelly's critical goal against the same opposition 17 years earlier and the hope of lightning striking twice, but afterwards all I could hear were Shearer's words about the final three home games, of which Portsmouth was the first: "We'll be expected to win those and we have to".

In his first month in the hotseat, it seemed, Shearer did all that could have been expected of him: tried to fire players up, tried to instill some self-belief, implemented a rigorous new training regime, enforced a strict disciplinary code, experimented with different formations and tactics, freshened up the side and given everyone at least one chance to prove themselves and make an impression. But the players just didn't respond. It was hard, quite frankly, to see a difference.

One of the very few positive bits of news in April was the announcement that, in a move that we were expected to believe had nothing to do with Shearer's appointment, the Poisoned Dwarf had fucked off. Even that, though, was cause for sombre reflection rather than jubilation - after all, if Wise had gone earlier (or, better still, never been appointed), we'd probably still have King Kev at the helm and wouldn't be in this mess.

Next stop? Anfield.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Little Saint McMick?

While very few of us would expect Little Saint Mick to be being a model professional at St James' Park next season (whichever division we're in), I don't suppose too many imagine he might join Scottish Football Writers' Player of the Year and Toon old boy Gary Caldwell at Celtic. But, according to today's News of the Screws, that's what's on the cards. No surprises for guessing that the rumoured deal is on a pay-as-he-plays basis...

The paper has also revived the story about our apparent interest in Spurs striker Darren Bent. The striker, so often laughably squanderous in front of goal (except against us, of course...), cost Spurs a ridiculous £16m two years ago, and the reported £10m fee would still be at least £3m too much. He won't want to drop a division, though, and the Mackems and Smogs, both also sniffing around, will be well aware of that too.

Elsewhere, it's nice to see the Mail on Sunday's scaremongering has overflowed onto the back pages today, with a story that Fat Fred will try to buy the club if we go down, while Alan Oliver has reiterated his belief that Wor Al will stick around beyond the end of the season - though he's now hedging his bets, claiming Shearer'll be off back to the Match Of The Day sofa if Mike Ashley cuts any financial corners. Surely that's inevitable if we're relegated?

And finally, the Daily Express credit Spurs, Portsmouth, Bolton and Fat Sam's Blackburn with an interest in taking ASBO off our hands. Presumably the clubs' scouts haven't watched any Newcastle games or read any papers since Barton left Man City...

The professionals

"Professional" and "Newcastle Utd" aren't words you usually hear uttered in the same sentence (unless there's a negative in there somewhere), but they were in Wor Al's recent comments to the press:

"I'm just asking players to be on time for work and I don't think that's too much of a problem, particularly when it's 10 o'clock in the morning! I'm not asking anyone to do anything ridiculous. I'm just asking for common sense, to be in on time for training, to adhere to the standards that Bobby Robson or Kenny Dalglish asked of me. We're a professional football club, you have to be professional and that's all I'm asking. It's important for players to come in and feel relaxed, to enjoy training and have a smile on their face but it's also very important to be disciplined and professional in what you do. After all, it's a professional sport and we're all getting very well paid for it.".

Well, quite. The fact that some of our rabble have been finding getting into work for 10am a struggle is what's ridiculous.

By contrast, Little Saint Mick was apparently the very model of professionalism following his demotion to the bench for last Sunday's game: "I felt it was right for that particular game and I went through my reasons and I have to say his reaction has been as you'd expect it would be with the places he's been to and players he's played with - very, very professional. Michael could be involved on Monday. He was disappointed and I wouldn't want it any other way but he took it in the right way." I wonder, though, whether Shearer's regretting saying he was an automatic first choice on coming into the job - or whether Little Saint Mick gently reminded him of that when told the news?

Shearer also revealed he spoke to ASBO "on Monday very briefly" - a quick exchange of four-letter pleasantries, no doubt...

As happy as Gary

OK, so it's a Mickey Mouse league north of the border, but all the same, given our continued defensive ineptitude, it's a bit galling to see one of our former central defenders named as the Scottish Football Writers' Player of the Year.

In fairness, Sir Bobby Robson could hardly have foreseen Gary Caldwell would go on to be a decent player when he released him on a free in the 2003-4 season - the consensus at the time was that his elder brother Stephen was actually the better player. Now back at Celtic (he started off his career at Celtic Boys Club), Gary has won over the fans as well as the football writers.

It could yet be a double triumph for the Caldwell clan this season, with Celtic jostling with old adversaries Rangers for the Scottish title and Stephen's Burnley well placed for promotion to the Premier League via the play-offs, having beaten hopeless-at-home Reading at Turf Moor last night.

Friends in unlikely places

For the fact that we're still just three points from safety, thanks must largely be given to an ex-Mackem. That's how low the fear of relegation has brought us...

Liam Lawrence's 73rd minute screamer turned out to be the goal that secured Stoke's Premier League survival but, more to the point, condemned opponents Hull to another defeat. Having scored crucial goals against us home and away, old boy Abdoulaye Faye actually did us a favour for a change, too, being singled out by Messrs Hansen and Dixon on 'Match Of The Day' for his performance in the centre of the visitors' defence.

(Incidentally, is it just me or does the Tigers' Mackem manager Phil Brown look more as though he's been coated in creosote every time he appears on our screens?)

No such favouritism from another former Toon central defender, though. Titus Bramble kept up his record of being a right pain in the arse by tripping Marc-Antoine Fortune to concede a penalty and help West Brom to a 3-1 win over Wigan. The Baggies are now tied with us and the Smogs on 31 points, but our superior goal difference still has us as the likeliest team to drag Hull into the drop zone.

Beating the Smogs on Monday night may be all we need to do - but even that's a big ask for a side with seven wins in all competitions this season...

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Quote of the day

"He is an intelligent man. I know that sounds preposterous but I stand by that."

Can Peter Kay really be talking about Joey Barton? But I suppose, as the bloke who runs the Sporting Chance Clinic, he's had the opportunity to get to know him better than most.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Idiot told to stay at home

According to reports in the press, ASBO had an argument with Shearer after the match yesterday, in which the player criticised both team selection and tactics.

Given that the player had just received a straight red card, which rules him out for the rest of the season, it is understandable that Shearer didn't take too kindly to this frank appraisal of his stewardship of the club.

According to today's press, ASBO has been suspended from the club indefinitely, which is presumably more closely tied to his red card, and resultant three-match ban, than his criticism of Shearer.

Let's be honest, he can't help us get out of the mess we're in now, so he might as well stay at home so he can't start a fight with anyone in training.

What I find so staggering about this is how anyone (even Joey Barton) could be so stupid. It's his first game in months, the ball's going nowhere, the game's probably lost anyway, so why try and break Xabi Alonso's leg in a reckless challenge? Not an ounce of thought can have gone into the two-footed lunge, and the inevitable consequences both in terms of his continuing involvement in the game and the rest of our season.

All of which just confirms what almost everyone has been saying for a long time. We may have had the odd bit of criticism for referring to Barton as ASBO in the past, but to be honest that's the most publicly repeatable description of the idiotic fuckwit that currently springs to mind.

Since Fat Sam signed him in 2007, ASBO has managed to start 26 games, made a further 6 appearances from the bench and scored 2 goals.

All that for the princely sum of £5.8 million (plus his doubtless exorbitant wages).

Not to mention the court cases, prison sentence and terrible publicity/baggage which ASBO has brought with him.

The sooner he leaves the better. Regardless of whether or not we go down, the prospect of having that selfish, moronic toerag in the team really is too much to bear. Sack him, flog him (in both senses of the word ideally) - whatever, he's overstayed his welcome in the last chance saloon, and now it's time for him to leave.


Liverpool 3 - 0 Newcastle Utd

A 3-0 defeat to Liverpool with Evertonian ASBO red-carded on his first appearance in the first team for three months? So predictable that the match report should have been written and posted on Saturday.

For the first half hour it seemed as though it may come down to decisions, decisions. Alan Shearer's decision to leave out the misfiring Little Saint Mick, for a start. And, after we'd made a vaguely encouraging start characterised by some neat passing, referee Phil Dowd's decision to let Yossi Benayoun's goal stand despite the fact he deflected the ball in with his knee from an offside position - this after Captain Pasty's mystifying decision to head the ball back towards his own goal. And then Dowd's decision not to penalise Daniel Agger for the cynical block on Habib Beye that allowed Dirk Kuyt a free header for Liverpool's second.

But by full time it had become apparent that even if the decisions had gone the other way, we would still have been on the end of a heavy defeat. Three minutes from time Lucas Leiva headed a third, completely unmarked from a free-kick when our attempt to play offside came horribly unstuck. Xabi Alonso struck the crossbar from distance twice, as did the returning Stevie G, who, if he'd shown the same sharpness in front of goal as he did on Tyneside, could easily have bagged himself more than just another hat-trick.

If the defending was consistently shambolic, tantamount to a constant invitation to shoot, as a offensive force we were non-existent. Obafemi Martins was anonymous after the first quarter of an hour, Captain Pasty unable to perform his one key role and hold the ball up, Peter Lovenkrands replaced at half-time by the equally ineffectual Spiderman and Little Saint Mick given little time and no opportunity to make an impact. Only Steve Harper and the doggedly industrious Nicky Butt emerged with any credit whatsoever.

And as for ASBO and his two-footed lunge on Alonso, Shearer didn't mince his words post-match: "I wasn't happy, I was bitterly disappointed at the way that happened. I asked him to stay calm in the heat of the battle but it was a stupid tackle and he deserved to be sent off". The three match suspension means that that, hopefully, is the last we'll see of him in a Newcastle shirt. To the bloke holding aloft his Barton shirt in the away end in a gesture of support: ever thought about visiting the planet Earth?

But there was some good news - and that was that every single one of our relegation rivals also lost: Stoke, Blackburn and the Mackems but most importantly Hull, the Smogs and West Brom. So, as I anticipated last week, aside from the fact that all of our goal differences are slightly worse and there's one game fewer to play, little else has changed. Shearer acknowledged as much: "This game wasn't going to save our season today but the next two will".

But that's not to say this game doesn't matter. We're a team who haven't won since 7th February but who know we need at least one win from three games to save our skins - that kind of demoralising and humiliatingly comprehensive thrashing we could have well done without. Let's just hope that Iain Dowie can impress upon the players the importance of bouncebackability before the Smogs skulk into Toon...

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

(Incidentally, we're already being written off by the likes of the Guardian's Richard Williams: "It does not take a Nostradamus to conclude that there will be no happy ending". Oh how nice it would be to be able to stuff those words back down his throat.)

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Quote of the day

"Graeme Souness was brilliant to me. He came to my house when I had a heart attack and stayed for 2½ hours ... Sam Allardyce was lovely but was not here long enough to be judged as a manager."

Amazingly, someone at St James' Park has a kind word to say about Soumess and Fat Sam. Step forward 82-year-old tealady Kath Cassidy, who's worked at the club for exactly half her 82 years.

As a diehard Geordie, she's understandably distraught at our current plight and has, appropriately enough, considered stirring things up a bit pre-match: "I know I’d get into trouble, but I might go into the dressing room before a game with my picture of Jackie Milburn holding his medals. I’d say to the players ‘Get your fingers out, look what he won for £20 a week.’ Men like Jackie, God bless his soul, put their whole heart in. Jackie would turn in his grave if he saw the state of things here now".