Saturday, August 29, 2009

Staff required

"Staff required" read the signs in Shearer's Bar - though they might as well be plastered all over the stadium.

Despite Gary Megson's mutterings about Wednesday's skipper Kevin Nolan and the continued rumours of interest in other members of the first-team squad, Chris Hughton has told the Journal he's "very confident" that the Newcastle firesale is over. But then this is the same Chris Hughton who's previously declared himself "confident" of getting the manager's job on a permanent basis and that the club would stay up, so it was probably wise of him to preface his comments by saying: "It would be wrong of me to say it would be an impossibility anyone could leave"...

But whether or not there are further outgoings, it's incomings that are now becoming increasingly essential. Big Lad and Spiderman are almost certainly out of Monday's meeting with Leicester through injury and may both be sidelined for a month, while The Xisco Kid is also nursing a knock. If you take into account Bigger Lad's injury too, the situation up front looks very grim indeed. Nile Ranger may be a promising talent, but he struggled as a lone striker on Wednesday before Big Lad's introduction. Still, unless we get someone else in, he's likely to be leading the line again on Monday night, with Danny Guthrie or Nolan in support and ASBO back in midfield.

With the deadline fast looming, I suspect we're either going to miss out on reinforcements altogether or panic-buy (or panic-loan). So it's apt too, then, that last night saw Shearer's hosting a singles night called Plenty More Fish (which was attracting an alarming number of hen parties). Desperation all round...

Thursday, August 27, 2009

A win, but at what cost?

Newcastle Utd 4 -3 Huddersfield Town

Newcastle managed to overcome a spirited Huddersfield side last night by the odd goal in seven to progress to the third round of the Carling Cup.

Having taken the lead following Danny Guthrie's shot from the edge of the box, Newcastle promptly conceded two quick goals, the second a questionable penalty following an apparent foul by Tim Krul to see us trail 2-1 at the interval.

With Huddersfield capitalising on our new look back four (which featured debutant Tamas Kadar playing alongside our new loan signing Danny Simpson at the heart of our defence) Lee Clark's visitors managed to go 3-1 up at the start of the second half.

With Big Lad on for Nicky Butt at half-time, the two goal deficit saw Jonas Gutierrez replace Kazenga LuaLua and with the added class and experience, Newcastle began to force their way back into the match. Firstly, some neat interplay saw Geremi played in to slot home our second, before Shola was able to get past his man only to then be fouled in the box. Big Lad duly got back to his feet to slot home his fifth of the season.

With extra time looming, Big Lad's header back across the box from a free kick was knocked home by Kevin Nolan (who Bolton are reportedly keen to take back to the North West) and give us a win.

However, aside from keeping our winning run going, the fact that the squad looked threadbare, and with Big Lad, Gutierrez and Nile Ranger hobbling towards the end (so much so that Haris Vuckic replaced Ameobi with a couple of minutes to go) reinforces the point that we need to be trying to strengthen the squad before the transfer window shuts next Tuesday.

Other report: BBC

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Quote of the day

"Not really, no."

At a press conference to announce his arrival at Meadow Lane, Sol Campbell responds to the question of whether his new employers Notts County offered him higher wages than Villa, Hull and ourselves. So that would be a yes, then, Sol?

Not to worry - as I said yesterday, even if he have made a good addition to the squad, we don't need another moneygrabber. We've still got ASBO on the books, after all.

Not-so-mellow yellow

Anaclet Odhiambo, star striker of my local club here in Oxfordshire, Abingdon Utd, is claiming that the hue of his side's new shirt is responsible for the fact that he was stung by a wasp in their first game of the season. Ignoring for a moment the opinions of so-called "experts" from Oxford University's Museum of Natural History and the fact that Abingdon Utd have worn yellow for years, it got me wondering whether the choice of colour for our own new away strip was actually a carefully calculated ploy to ensure Big Lad is stung into action every now and again when we're on the road. If so, then South East London must have been a completely wasp-free zone on Saturday...

Extra time

Surprise surprise: the deadline for prospective buyer Barry Moat to come up with the readies has been extended by an unspecified amount. Surely someone might have explained the meaning of the word "deadline" to Fat Mike by now? It'd probably be wise, in case he thinks we'll still be able to buy players in November when the transfer window deadline has long passed...

What's most worrying is the wording of the official club statement breaking the news, which reveals that, contrary to what had been indicated previously, Moat still hasn't actually made a formal bid. So, basically, when we are being told anything by the powers-that-be, we're being lied to.

Notts landing?

Oi, Sol - wrong Magpies. Perhaps you confused Trent for Tyne?

Even at 34, I still feel Campbell could do a good job for us in the Championship, particularly given that with Joleon Lescott's move to Man City there's a good chance our already threadbare defence will be a Steven Taylor lighter by the end of the month - but then if he's only interested in a final bumper pay-day, then Sven and Notts County are welcome to him.

One player rumoured to be in line for a move from Nottingham to Newcastle is Forest's Rob Earnshaw, the Welsh international and seasoned Championship goalscorer reportedly priced at around £3m. Billy Davies has claimed he doesn't want to lose anyone, but pointedly also said "There's been no official approach" as if to welcome one...

Sunday, August 23, 2009

A stroll in the (Selhurst) Park

Crystal Palace 0 - 2 Newcastle Utd

Our second away day in the Championship, and two first half strikes from two first-time Newcastle goalscorers Kevin Nolan and Ryan Taylor proved enough to clip the Eagles' wings. It perhaps begs the question why they and their fellow midfielders couldn't have had the decency to weigh in with goals last season, when we so desperately needed them - but the fact is that we're in the division we're in (and all that entails - mascots, pre-match cheerleading displays and toilets like war zones) and a few more wins like this will have us thinking we'll be out of it again before too long.

Following Bigger Lad's injury against Wednesday, Chris Hughton sprang something of a surprise by opting to play Danny Guthrie and not Nolan in the hole behind Big Lad. The formation certainly didn't hinder the former Bolton man from getting into advanced positions, though, and there were less than two minutes on the clock when he slid the ball into the Palace net from Spiderman's cute pass.

Nerves settled and platform for victory established, we looked to double our advantage, Nolan's header missing the target and Ryan Taylor's awkward low free-kick repelled by 'keeper Darryl Flahavan. Our former nemesis did find the back of the net on 21 minutes, though, finally proving he can score against sides other than us - and, even more surprisingly, that he's capable of hitting beautiful curling shots with his left foot as well as his right.

Ignore the latest rantings of Palace manager Colin Wanker, who labelled the two goals "disgraceful" - they were both high quality strikes, and both set up by Spiderman, who was the exact opposite of his usual self: no all-action display, no pace and no trickery, but two key passes. If the Argentinian stays beyond the closure of the transfer window (and Diego Maradona has reportedly told him he needn't fear being dropped from the national squad if he does), all we can hope for is that he's able to put in a complete performance for a change.

Further chances followed for Nolan, once when he was foiled when through on goal having picked a Palace defender's pocket with ease, and then with a right-footed shot straight into Flahavan's arms. But it certainly wasn't all one-way traffic, old boy Darren Ambrose (inevitably) trying to follow up his brace against another former club Ipswich in midweek by testing Steve Harper's reflexes, while later a free header from Alan Lee sailed improbably wide of the far post.

The second half performance was tantamount to a declaration that we were happy with our lot and uninterested in extending the lead, the only real opportunity of note coming when a mazy Guthrie run ended with Big Lad blazing over from a great position. Aside from a handful of decent knock-downs and flick-ons, he ambled about with that familiar apparent half-heartedness - I've heard of resting on your laurels, but he was largely comatose on them. The reworked version of the 'Hokey Cokey' gave way to a chant of "If Shola scores, we're on the pitch" and of course we went nowhere - unlike the loon in the Holmesdale Road End who responded to a policeman's polite request to leave the stadium by punching him in the face, before being grappled to the ground, handcuffed and escorted away to a very vocal Geordie "Cheerio".

Palace for their part kept at it, we survived a few dicey moments (including an Ambrose free-kick with minutes remaining) and captain Alan Smith could have been punished for tangling with Alassane N'Diaye in the penalty area. Had their finishing been better, we would have suffered - perhaps some indication of the leeway we'll be allowed in this league. Individually our defenders played well - Fabricio Coloccini and Danny Simpson were tidy while Jose Enrique was particularly impressive - but collectively they granted Palace too many opportunities and that third consecutive clean sheet owed more to good fortune than to sterling defending.

Third place after four games, then - something few of us foresaw given the events (or lack of them) over the summer, so something to be celebrated. But there's still no official word on whether Barry Moat's bid for the club has been successful, and further player sales seem likely before August is out (sales that will be costly to our promotion bid in the long term unless we can get decent replacements in quickly). The fans once again endeavoured to leave Fat Mike and Steven Taylor in no doubt as to their feelings on them both personally - let's hope they were listening.

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

Thursday, August 20, 2009

No signs of Sho stopping

Newcastle Utd 1 - 0 Sheffield Wednesday

Another goal for Shola Ameobi, his fourth of the season, secured a win over Sheffield Wednesday last night. In front of 43,509 (an attendance up almost 7000 from Saturday) Big Lad latched on to Bigger Lad's flick from a Steve Harper clearance and controlled the ball on his chest before lashing it past the Wednesday keeper in one fluid movement.

With four goals this season, Big Lad has now equalled his total for last season, and we're still in August.

Last night's match saw the two hottest goal scorers in the league at St James Park, with Shola being watched in the stands by one time team mate, and current Cardiff striker Michael Chopra.

The game itself was a far tighter affair than Saturday's romp against Reading, with Wednesday giving a far better account of themselves than the last time they played at St James Park (when we ran out 8-0 winners in Sir Bobby's first home game in charge). The visitors could even have nicked at least a point at the end, with Steve Harper producing a good save from one-time Toon target Francis Jeffers, and thereby preserving our second consecutive clean sheet.

By that stage though, we'd also missed chances to extend our lead, with Ryan Taylor and Kevin Nolan both going close, whilst Big lad also could have added to his early goal, only to see his header excellently saved.

The only change to our line-up from Saturday saw new boy Danny Simpson replace the injured ASBO, allowing Ryan Taylor to push forward into midfield. With reports suggesting ASBO might be around for Saturday's match away to Crystal Palace, and Danny Guthrie making a welcome return to the first team from the bench, competition for midfield places is something for Chris Hughton to think about.

Up front his selection choices have been slightly curtailed by a groin injury to Bigger Lad, leaving him with a straight swap for Xisco or Nile Ranger, or alternatively pushing Nolan further forward to play off Big Lad.

With Barry Moat again in attendance, and negotiations ongoing, we can only hope that a resolution to the current managerial limbo comes relatively soon - although at least his third attempt as caretaker is seeing Chris Hughton enjoy some decent results. As the increased crowd shows, it doesn't take much to get us excited about the football. We can only hope that the early season euphoria lasts.

Other reports: BBC (highlights should be available from Friday morning), Guardian

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Cottage bye

Yes, time to say farewell again - this time to Damien Duff, whose move back to west London with Fulham has now been confirmed. The Cottagers are reported to have paid £4m for the Irishman's services, just shy of the £5m we paid Chelsea in 2006.

At the time, we welcomed Duff's arrival warmly as something of a coup, not least because Liverpool and Spurs were among those we pipped to his signature. But the move to Tyneside had its usual effect and he only very sporadically recaptured the sparkling form he'd shown for Blackburn that had induced the Blues to not waver or hesitate when shelling out £17m for him in 2003. All too often his name seemed worryingly appropriate.

Though he did notch a crucial equaliser in his final game in a black and white shirt to make very limited amends for the own goal that sent us down, Duff's goalscoring rate was generally poor, and I'd be hard-pushed to think of anything more frustrating than the perpetual sight of him being forced backwards towards his own goal by a pair of dogged markers, as though having completely forgotten how to beat a man.

So, good odds on a Duff hat-trick against former club Chelsea this weekend, then?

Quote of the day

"He is very much still Newcastle's player and he is desperate to get on with things and do well for the team. As far as I know, he is still at the club at the moment. Whether anything has happened that I don't know about is a different matter but I'm pretty sure he'll be playing on Wednesday."

I'll be honest - as reassurances about Steven Taylor's long-term future at St James' go, Chris Hughton's could have filled us with more confidence.

Be afraid, be very afraid

Nice to see Darren Ambrose warming up for Saturday's clash with two goals in two minutes against a former club, Roy Keane's Ipswich. Anyone else slightly nervous?

And that's not to mention Michael Chopra's hat-trick at Home Park for current table-toppers and September opponents Cardiff (which took his Championship tally for the season to six in three games) and a seven goal romp for Lee Clark's Huddersfield Town, flying high in League 1 and due in Toon for a League Cup tie in a week's time...

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Just champion(ship)

A trio of excellent blogs devoted to sides we'll be rubbing shoulders with in the Championship (courtesy of The Two Unfortunates):

Viva Rovers (Doncaster)
Foxblogger (Leicester)
Smog Blog (Smoggies)

It's worth mentioning that Viva Rovers has been resurrected following Sky's sudden decision last month to close down with immediate effect the Rivals network it had bought. In an instant the blog's author - and presumably many others like him, including those behind Talk Of The Tyne - saw months and even years of posts disappear into the ether, having been given no warning or opportunity to salvage anything. As a commenter on the When Saturday Comes forum put it, nice to see Sky are keen to shaft football fans beneath the Premier League too...

Monday, August 17, 2009

Jolly good Sho

Newcastle Utd 3 - 0 Reading

A Shola Ameobi hat-trick, the first of his senior career, was more than enough to overcome a weak Reading team before the watching Sky cameras on Saturday.

Enjoying one of those games which have been too few and far between, Shola was outstanding, with his strength and power, allied with good footwork, proving unstoppable. With Bigger Lad alongside him, the brutal fact is that the Royal's defence were overwhelmed.

However, this game wasn't won simply because our front two were literally and figuratively head and shoulders above their markers; the team as a whole showed a real commitment to the cause which was sadly lacking for much of last season. This was best illustrated by our second goal, when the Reading team gave up, assuming the ball was running out of play, only for Kevin Nolan to sprint to the ball and cut it back to ASBO. His ball inside found Ryan Taylor hurtling forward, and our right back's cross to the back post was met by a fine diving header from Shola into the Gallowgate net.

That goal was Shola's second diving header of the match, with his first opening the scoring in the first half when he met a Jose Enrique cross to nod the ball into the ground so that it bounced up and over the despairing dive of Adam Federici in the Reading goal.

With Chris Hughton planning to replace Shola with Xisco with about 15 minutes to go, Big Lad asked to be left on for a corner. As the ball was flighted in to the box, Shane Long handled the ball under little pressure from Steven Taylor, and Shola was able to step forward and confidently slot home, having sent the keeper the wrong way, and notch his maiden first-team hat-trick at the 151st time of asking.

Obviously, it's easy to look good against poor opposition, and Reading look a poor team, but praise is due almost universally, with a number of other chances spurned to make the score even more flattering. Whisper it quietly, but from the car-crash of our summer travails, it looks like something approaching some team spirit and resolve might be emerging.

On the minus side though, whilst Gutierrez again looked great with the ball at his feet (save for one moment in the first half when he got a bit tangled up when through on goal), he still looks incapable of hitting a decent cross. Coloccini too was outmuscled on a couple of occasions, and continues to look something of a liability. However, Enrique made some really encouraging runs forward, and players like Nolan, ASBO and Smith also enjoyed decent games.

The only other negative to take from the game was an apparent injury to ASBO's foot - the same foot which was broken last season, and which kept him out of the team for such a long period of time.

The other point of interest was the presence of Barry Moat sandwiched in the stands between Fat Mike and Llambiarse. It is to be hoped that a deal to sell the club is moving forward, as there's now only two weeks to add some depth to our painfully thin squad.

View from the away end: The Two Unfortunates - Reading fan Lanterne Rouge is full of praise for our performance against his boys, even going so far as to suggest Coloccini had a good game...

Other reports: BBC (including video highlights - no clue if they will work overseas mind), Guardian

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Comings and goings - well, goings, anyway

Paul's report on yesterday's first win in the Championship to come tomorrow, but in the meantime a round-up of some of the latest news and gossip...

The Sunday papers are once again full of speculation about the departures of more first-teamers. The Express and the News of the Screws both claim Fabricio Coloccini will soon be on his way, though disagree about the likely destination, naming Real Zaragoza and Palermo respectively. We'd gladly see the back of the Argentinian in return for the mooted £4m, but I'd be more disappointed - though not entirely surprised - if his compatriot Spiderman also leaves (for Olympiakos). The first two games of the season have shown that while real end product is still somewhat lacking, he will terrorise full-backs at this level.

More concerning still is the rumour that Everton's interest in Steven Taylor is now matched by Fulham, whose Brede Hangeland is a target for a host of Premier League rivals including Arsenal. .com reported that on leaving the pitch yesterday Taylor's "facial expression resembled a 'goodbye look' to us".

Fellow local lad Andy Carroll is also reportedly the subject of covetous glances from Molineux and Upton Park - at least, that's according to the News of the Screws, who seem to be predicting we'll not have enough bodies to muster a squad by 1st September...

Meanwhile Sebastien Bassong enjoyed a perfect debut for Spurs against Liverpool, shackling Fernando Torres and then popping up with a headed winner. Little Saint Mick, a substitute for Dimitar Berbatov at Old Trafford, should have opened his account for Taggart's mob in the last minute but fluffed his chance, while Habib Beye was part of the Villa side which slumped to an unexpected opening day defeat at home to Wigan.

Also on the scoresheet this weekend were Obafemi Martins for new side Wolfsburg and Johnny Godsmark, with his second goal in successive games on loan at Hereford. If the sales keep ticking over at the current rate, Godsmark will have been recalled to St James' and made club captain by this time next week...

Quote of the day

"I'd like to have played more and scored more but you can't help the injuries you have. Those first two years were tough because of the injuries I picked up but they were injuries I had wearing a black and white shirt and they happened while I was trying my best for Newcastle United."

Little Saint Mick spouts some grade A bollocks in an interview for free rag Sport. Not only does he seem to have forgotten that the anterior cruciate knee ligament injury that ruled him out for a large chunk of the 2006-7 season was sustained while on England duty, he's also forgotten that as recently as March he actually admitted the injury could have been avoided if he hadn't been so eager to get back on the pitch for the World Cup...

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Oh Danny boy

And lo - on the 84th day since relegation to the Championship was sealed, and against a backdrop of Damien Duff's imminent £4m move to Fulham and rumours of Everton lining up Steven Taylor as an £8m replacement for Man City-bound Joleon Lescott - we made a signing!

Just who took the decision is a mystery, and the deal - a loan move for Man Utd's Danny Simpson, who didn't make much impact in a similar deal with the Mackems a few years back - doesn't exactly set the pulses racing. But he's an incoming body - a defender to boot - and, as it's a wonder that anyone would want to join our sinking ship while all others are scrambling for the liferafts, we should be grateful.

Today's Mirror claims there may be another defensive reinforcement arriving shortly, a familiar face: Andy O'Brien, who's slipped further down the pecking order at Bolton with their summer purchase of Villa's Zat Knight. While often found wanting at the highest level, Ol' Big Nose could probably do a job in the Championship - though if he does arrive hopefully it won't be as a replacement for Taylor.

Meanwhile, our prospects of beating today's opponents Reading were given a boost in the week when the Royals' best player Stephen Hunt (as singled out in our season preview) was lured away to join Hull's relegation express. We should still have enough quality to win out against a team who are themselves widely seen as being on the wane following relegation in 2008 - that's the theory, at least...

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Where's Wally?

When it comes to footballers who you might imagine would be good at playing hide and seek, our old boy Mark Viduka wouldn't be very high up the list. But that's what Portsmouth manager Paul Hart has claimed of the player they signed nearly two months ago: "As far as I understand, the contractual negotiations went well, he was happy with the deal. That deal was done in the back-end of June - and he's still in Croatia".

It wouldn't be the first time Captain Pasty has gone missing in action (or missing in inaction), but you'd have thought he'd be easy enough to find - just follow the trail of crumbs...

Who makes all the pies?

It seems owner and manager aren't the only two positions currently up for grabs at St James' - we're also trying to recruit "matchday cooks".

Calling the catering staff "cooks" is, to use an appropriately culinary metaphor, overegging it a bit - does sticking something in the microwave, scooping up some soggy fries into a branded cardboard carton and sheepishly asking fans for a king's ransom in payment really constitute cooking?

And anyway, surely with Captain Pasty having left, we should be looking to lay off catering staff rather than take more on?

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Town planning

Today's draw for the second round of the League Cup saw us pitted against Lee Clark's Huddersfield, so it's clear which two things will dominate the build-up to the St James' Park tie: the fact that it'll be a homecoming for Town manager Lee Clark, who left Tyneside in 2007 to join up with former boss Glenn Roeder at Norwich (not to mention Terry Mac and Derek Fazackerley too), and the fact that when the two sides met at the Galpharm Stadium in pre-season there was a bit of argy-bargy, resulting in the durability of Habib Beye's shirt being tested.

Of course, it could have been worse - our opponents could have been Leyton Orient, 2-1 winners at Colchester last night, which would have meant the stinking corpse of that 6-1 pre-season thrashing being exhumed...

On a different League Cup note, congratulations to Jonny Godsmark, currently on loan at League Two side Hereford, for scoring the only goal as the Whites took the scalp of Charlton in the first round.

And on a different note altogether, it seems that Spiderman, Damien Duff, Tim Krul and Bigger Lad all made it through the midweek international fixtures unscathed. There's still time for one of them to twang something getting off the team coach, though...

Quote of the day

"Leadbitter received a £250 fine, £250 prosecution costs plus a £15 victim's surcharge. He was also banned from driving for 14 days, so should he be chased by any imaginary Newcastle fans this fortnight he will have to make his escape on foot."

The conclusion to the Guardian's report on Mackem midfielder Grant Leadbitter's prosecution for driving at 112mph.

Sir Alex Ferguson famously got off a charge of driving on the motorway hard shoulder by claiming he was suffering from "severe diarrhoea" and desperately needed to find a toilet. Sounds like Leadbitter was in danger of soiling himself too...

You do the math

A quick maths lesson, courtesy of the Mirror:

Superb 45 minute substitute appearance by Tim Krul in a televised match watched by "millions"


Interest in Krul from Arsenal four years ago


A single quote, not even from the ubiquitous, mysterious club "source"/"insider"


A lot of imagination and fanciful thinking


The Gunners are on the brink of bidding for the Dutchman.

As you may have surmised, frankly I'm sceptical about all this. Of course, knowing our luck it'll turn out that the paper can do its sums after all, and just hasn't been showing its workings...

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Cash up front

According to the Guardian, this week represents make or break as far as any potential takeover of the club is concerned. With reports suggesting that the only credible purchaser is one being led by local businessman Barry Moat, the question seems to boil down to whether Moat has the cash to back up his interest. If he does, then Alan Shearer could get his wish to pick up where he left off at the end of last season.

However, if the Moat runs dry then Ashley is talking about taking the club off the market (again) and installing an interim manager (again). Current names being bandied about are Gordan Strachan, Alan Curbishley and David O'Leary. The rumour mill would have it that, rather than either the manager who was successful at a big club where your every decision as manager is analysed or the man who successfully guided a team out of the old Second Division and kept them in the top flight for a prolonged period, Fat Mike's preferred option is the man no other club has wanted for several years ever since his CV was blotted (again).

Unlike JFK, O'Leary at least has no history of heart failure. However, his track record of man-management is spectacularly poor, as shown by his senseless decision to sell his side of the Bowyer/Woodgate affair which prompted his team to implode spectacularly - something Alan Smith no doubt well remembers.

If we really are keen to avoid "doing a Leeds" then employing the man who was at the helm when the wheels fell off surely isn't the way to go about doing it.

Having said that, even O'Leary's unique brand of management has got to be better than Chris Hughton's well-meaning but ultimately uninspiring attempts.

Whatever we do, it looks like we might actually reach the end of the transfer window with a manager in place. Hopefully whoever that is will be able to address the serious deficiencies in the squad before the end of the month. With only twenty days to go, the clock is ticking.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Precious point bagged at the Baggies

West Brom 1 - 1 Newcastle Utd

No manager, no new owner, no new signings and one of our longest-serving players - and a homegrown lad, at that - describing the club as "a joke" on the eve of the match. You could say they were hardly the perfect circumstances in which to kick off a campaign which we desperately need to end in promotion back to the Premier League.

That the TV cameras were once again trained on us and that our opening day opponents faced us in the top flight last year helped cushion the blow of realising that this was indeed the Championship. And, as it turned out, the trip to the Hawthorns wasn't as prickly as we'd anticipated.

Chris Hughton opted to pair Big Lad and Bigger Lad together up front, meaning Damien Duff and Kevin Nolan appeared in midfield and ASBO had to be content with a place on the bench - a punishment for a very vocal difference of opinions with team-mates and/or Hughton himself in training, if some of the papers are to be believed. Meanwhile, despite going public to give the lie to Hughton's insistence that the spirit in the camp was good and everyone was pulling together, Steven Taylor took up his place in the centre of defence.

For more than half an hour the signs were very encouraging. We had by far the most possession, Spiderman was beating his marker Gianni Zuiverloon almost without even breaking a sweat (though his final ball was routinely awful), Bigger Lad was putting himself about to good effect and even captain-for-the-day Alan Smith was tackling like a man possessed. It wasn't all good, of course - Fabricio Coloccini was appalling, and it seemed that every time we had a chance (Spiderman's tame header and Duff's wasteful shot wide, for instance) the Baggies hit us on the counter-attack with ominous swiftness.

When the opening goal came, it had Newcastle written all over it. A poorly defended free-kick eventually fell to the feet of Baggies centre-back Sheldon Martis, who had missed a sitter early on and now took time out from his busy schedule of roughing up Bigger Lad to prod home from two yards while a lunging Big Lad clouted Steve Harper full in the face. The thin veneer of confidence stripped off, shoulders immediately slumped and recriminations began.

A concussed Harps just about made it through to half-time - in a way I envy him, being able to look around the Newcastle dressing room and see stars... Tim Krul, his replacement for the second half, still looks as boyish as he did when he made his debut three years ago against Palermo - and he carried on exactly where he left off that night in Sicily, a superb low dive to deflect Robert Koren's shot wide of the post effectively setting us up for the equaliser.

Hughton had been sufficiently astute to make another change at the break, urging Kevin Nolan to push further forwards, and when Big Lad found him with a pass in the area, he was our most advanced player. A quick look up and he rolled the ball into Duff's path, and the winger finished neatly across Scott Carson - quite fitting, really, given that it was the Irishman whose own goal at Villa Park sealed our relegation.

That veneer of confidence was back and for a short while it looked only a matter of time before we took the lead. But it was Krul and not Carson who had to excel himself, saving brilliantly from Koren again, Luke Moore and substitute Graham Dorrans. The Dutchman looked rather more suspect coming for crosses, but once the initial rush of blood to the head had subsided he grew in stature and started to command his six-yard area.

Doing his utmost to suggest that the tactical repositioning of Nolan was accidental rather than deliberate, Hughton brought on ASBO for Bigger Lad when the obvious candidates for replacement were Big Lad and Smith - the former utterly unable to fulfil the task required of him (holding the ball up) and the latter by now wandering around leaden-footed. As is now customary, ASBO's introduction drew boos and jeers from all sides (though there was also some support from the away end), resulting in the smirk many (most?) of us hoped we'd seen the last of. Nile Ranger was also introduced, making his first team debut very late on, and managed one touch - a telling one, which set up a shooting chance. Surely either he or Xisco should be preferred to Big Lad for Bigger Lad's partner?

If the fact that we escaped with a point was largely down to Krul, we also had reason to be thankful to the injury-time linesman's flag that rightly ruled out Jonas Olsson's header. It would have been cruel, and we've had more than our fair share of cruelty in recent times.

The result is, I think, one that few of us anticipated. The Baggies must have eyed up our visit with relish, given the current predicament - but against the odds we performed reasonably well. However, anyone confidently forecasting a successful season ahead would do well to remember that last term we began with a creditable 1-1 draw away to the side widely expected to win the league - and look how that turned out...

Other reports: .com, BBC, Guardian

Saturday, August 08, 2009

A whole new ball game

(aka the second part of our Championship preview, the first part of which can be found here)

Foxes fans have no doubt spent the summer sighing with relief that they didn't do a Leeds and find their first season outside the top two divisions had turned into another one. That they returned to the Championship at the first attempt was largely thanks to a host of factors they still have in their favour: a wealthy backer (Milan Mandaric); a manager who seems to have hit his stride (former Newcastle assistant Nigel Pearson); a rookie centre-back who's made his loan deal from Liverpool permanent in the wake of winning the Supporters Club Young Player of the Season (Jack Hobbs); and a free-scoring striker who notched hat-tricks in successive games last season (Matty Fryatt). But not all is rosy in Pearson's garden: club captain Stephen Clemence missed the entire promotion season through injury and is still not recovered, while England U21 left back Joe Mattock has ruffled feathers by saying he wants out on the eve of the season.

How good of our fellow North Easterners to keep us company on our journey through the relegation trapdoor. Of the many reasons why we weren't able to put the gas masks into storage, the prime one was probably the fact that the Smoggies mustered just 28 goals in their 38 fixtures last term. Stewart Downing has flounced off to Villa, taking his preposterous claims to a place on the left side of England's midfield with him, but Gareth Southgate is as amazed as the rest of us that Tuncay remains at the club - surely not beyond the end of August, though. Podgy multi-million-pound strike pair Afonso Alves and Mido began pre-season where they left off in May - AWOL - leaving Southgate looking like a supply teacher unable to control his pupils. Boro have however been the beneficiaries of Reading's mystifying decision to release Leroy Lita, while David Wheater and a productive youth set-up should stand them in good stead for an assault on the title. Get off to a bad start, though, and Steve Gibson's patience with Southgate might finally run out.

Nottingham Forest
Forest's experience last season should serve as a warning to any fans of East Midlands neighbours Leicester who've got grand ideas now they're back in the Championship. Expectation levels became disengaged from reality and the Tricky Trees only narrowly avoided returning from whence they came. Not that they've abandoned grand ideas as a result - quite the contrary, their ambitious summer recruitment programme suggests a determination to compete at the right end of the table. No fewer than five loan signings have been made permanent, including full-back Chris Gunter (unlucky to get barely a sniff of action at Spurs) and former Southampton and QPR blaxploitation porn star Dexter Blackstock, while Billy Davies' capture of former charge Paul McKenna (not that one) from Preston could prove inspired. No doubt the "Scabs" chant will be dusted off and directed at the home fans when we pay a visit to the City Ground in October, but there'll be rather more affection in the away end reserved for Forest's assistant manager - one David "Ned" Kelly, whose 1992 goal against Pompey saved us from sliding into the third tier for the first time in our history.

If Nigel Clough sometimes thinks he has it tough living in the formidable shadow of his famous father, then at least he has the consolation of knowing Old Big 'Ead's achievements are all in the past. Spare a thought, then, for Peterborough manager Darren Ferguson, whose even-more-red-faced dad is still alive, well and collecting trophies in the same way that Jose Enrique plays for us - regularly and without much effort. A poor man's Darren Fletcher with a mediocre playing career at Man Utd, Wolves and Wrexham behind him, Fergie Jr pitched up as manager at London Road in January 2007 and guided his new side to promotions in successive seasons. Among the players at his disposal for the forthcoming campaign are England U21 'keeper Joe Lewis, goal machine Craig Mackail-Smith and Tom Williams, who has been signed by Posh no fewer than six times in his career (three loan moves subsequently made permanent) and who is married to perhaps the WAG to end all WAGs, glamour model and I'm A Celebrity... star Nicola McLean.

While Peterborough - two hours or so straight down the East Coast Main Line - promises to be one of the easiest away day trips of the season, we're not looking forward to the trek over to Pasty Country (though at least the fixtures computer has been kind and not scheduled it for a week night, or Boxing Day, as usual). It's a bit grim out west if you're a Pilgrims fan, too. Long gone are the likes of Sylvan Ebanks-Blake, David Norris, Akos Buzsaky and Peter Halmosi who nearly helped the Pilgrims into the play-offs, and Paul Sturrock's second spell in charge isn't proving as successful as his first. The Scotsman's attempts to rehabilitate fallen stars in the form of Emile Mpenza and Simon Walton failed, and it was largely thanks to an on-loan duo from Blackburn, Paul Gallagher and Alan Judge, that Argyle stayed afloat last season. Judge is back, again on loan, and with new signings Bradley Wright-Phillips and Icelandic international Kari Arnason lining up alongside up-and-coming talent like Ashley Barnes, they should have just about enough to beat the drop again.

The phrase "there or thereabouts" might well have been invented with the Lilywhites in mind, were it not for the fact that they're all too often thereabouts rather than actually there - which must have made it all the more galling to see near neighbours Burnley scrape their way into the Premier League in May. The eternal play-off contenders have a canny manager in Alan Irvine, who is doing a good job of taking after his mentor at Everton, David Moyes, a man who knows a thing or two about achieving success at Deepdale. But if they're to join the Clarets in the top flight (or, more likely, replace them), then they'll need to overcome the considerable blow of losing Paul McKenna to Forest and to ensure Ross Wallace supplies the ammunition for their triumvirate of unnervingly square-jawed strikers Stephen Elliott, Neil Mellor and Jon Parkin to capitalise on.

In many ways the league's biggest enigma, QPR are a pie in which no fewer than three exceedingly rich men - Bernie Ecclestone, Flavio Briatore and Lakshmi Mittal - have their fingers. When they took charge two years ago, Hoops fans could have been forgiven for anticipating a major very-little-expense-spared shopping spree, but it never materialised - and still hasn't. While there are undoubtedly some decent players at the club, certainly at Championship level - 'keeper Radek Cerny, flashy winger Wayne Routledge, mercurial attacking midfielder Adel Taarabt (on loan from Spurs) and a familiar face in Peter Ramage - there isn't the real star quality that you might expect from a side with such illustrious benefactors. Even more puzzling was the appointment of Jim Magilton as Paulo Sousa's replacement - a man sacked by Ipswich for failing to live up to the far more modest demands of the Tractor Boys' hierarchy. How long before Messrs Ecclestone, Briatore and Mittal tire of their toy and move onto something else?

There aren't many clubs in the Championship who can claim to count among their playing staff someone of whom Petr Cech, one of the Premier League's most assured 'keepers, is genuinely scared. OK, so that isn't purely because of Stephen Hunt's abilities as a footballer, but the Irishman's certainly a useful asset at this level. For the second successive summer the Royals have flogged their star striker to one of the nouveau riche top flight new boys - Dave Kitson repaid Stoke's £5.5m investment with precisely no goals, so Wolves will be hoping for a rather better return on the £6.5m they shelled out for Kevin Doyle. If the Royals' attacking edge has been dulled, then at least the centre of defence looks more robust thanks to the arrival of Matt Mills from Doncaster. The feeling persists, though, that this is a club on the slide - something Steve Coppell implicitly acknowledged when he quit in the wake of May's play-off exit - and third will be beyond them this time around, particularly under an unproven manager in Brendan Rogers.

Where to start? Well, with the obvious, I suppose: as last season's League 1 Play-Off Final winners (3-2 over Millwall), Scunthorpe are probably favourites for the drop. Naturally they'll be hoping their stay in the second tier is rather longer than it was last time around (a single solitary season), and that the bouncebackability that helped them regain their Championship status at the first attempt translates into resilience in adversity this year. No doubt it's my ignorance that's to blame, but scanning the squad list doesn't throw up any vaguely familiar names other than that of Northern Ireland international midfielder Grant McCann, once of West Ham. Not to worry, though - my guess is that over the course of our two meetings a few of their players will helpfully take the opportunity to introduce themselves by scoring...

Sheffield Utd
There's always talk of imposing quotas on clubs, but I hadn't realised that Sheffield Utd had introduced one of their own - that at all times there must be two players called Kyle on their books. Manager Kevin Blackwell signed up dyslexics' son Kyel Reid from West Ham and then, realising he now had three, was delighted when Spurs swooped for Kyles Naughton and Walker to indulge their fetish for right full-backs, but offered to loan Walker back to them. The Blades squad, which already included former Aston Villa workie ticket Lee Hendrie and pensionable once-of-this-parish midfielder Gary Speed, now also boasts beak-nosed winger Glen Little, a pair of players on loan from Blackburn ('keeper Mark Bunn and winger Keith Treacy) and £3m striker Ched Evans, who, finding himself 167th in line for a starting place at Man City, has made the move to South Yorkshire to partner lanky Darius Henderson up front. Their most colourful character is rotund 'keeper Paddy Kenny - the man who once had his eyebrow bitten off in a brawl with a friend who had slept with his wife begins the season suspended after failing a drugs test. The Blades shouldn't need to resort to illicit methods to secure automatic promotion.

Sheffield Wednesday
Over on the other side of t'Steel City, the team whose blue and white striped shirts sometimes make them look like those cheap off-licence carrier bags are experiencing something of a renaissance under Brian Laws. Two eyecatching new free transfer signings in the close season are ex-Mackem and Monkeyhanger midfielder Tommy Miller and central defender Darren Purse, once upon a time rumoured to be interesting Arsenal when he was at Birmingham. Wednesday's defence - which includes the young prospects Mark Beevers and Tommy Spurr - boasted the best home record in the division last year, but the real star is Marcus Tudgay, who won both the PFA Fans Championship Player Of The Year and Sheffield Wednesday Player Of The Year awards and who remains with the club despite a summer bid from Burnley. Opening day opponents Barnsley will need to be wary - the striker scored all of 30 seconds into Wednesday's last campaign. Or they could just hope he suffers another injury like the one sustained in 2006, when he missed the start of the season after standing on broken glass at a barbecue...

When I say Swansea were last year's surprise package, I'm not talking about the sort of surprise package we'd like to leave under ASBO's car. The danger, of course, is that expectation levels in Wales' second city will have gone through the roof as a result, and that this season they'll be less like a surprise package and more like a Christmas parcel containing pair of trousers hand-knitted by your gran. Roberto Martinez has been lured to Wigan by Dave "Dignity" Whelan, taking Spanish loanee Jordi Gomez and Trinidadian striker Jason Scotland (or is that Scottish striker Jason Trinidad?) with him, to be replaced by Paulo Sousa, the man given the boot by QPR for divulging state secrets or something. Martinez's legacy is a sizeable Spanish contingent - including highly-rated rhyming left-back Angel Rangel - to which the Swans have added a new Jordi, Jordi Lopez, over the summer. Convicted burglar Nathan Dyer has also been recruited (from Southampton), but the Swans' slim chances of repeating last season's 8th place rest largely on whether influential Dutch midfielder Ferrie Bodde decides he still does like to be beside the seaside.

Losing your key target man just a day before the start of the season could hardly be considered ideal preparation - but that's what's happened to Watford, who've seen Tamas Priskin jump ship to Ipswich. Even with ex-Smoggie Danny Graham having joined Tommy Smith earlier in the summer, the move leaves the Hornets extremely light up front. Rookie manager Malky Mackay - installed after Brendan Rodgers did one to Reading, much to the disgust of the fans - has at his disposal a tough American captain (Jay Demerit), a lively Jamaican international winger (Jobi McAnuff), a one-time Chelsea star (Jon Harley) and a goal-shy full-back named after one of those bits of lace pensioners insist on putting underneath everything (Lloyd Doyley), and has also followed Bristol City manager Gary Johnson's lead and signed up an experienced Scottish central midfielder, Aberdeen's Scott Severin. But an arduous struggle for survival looks likely, and there could be a sting in the season's tail for the Hornets.

West Brom
Lastly but not leastly, the side most people - myself included - are tipping to finish as champions. The reasons are several: they know exactly what it takes to win the division, having done so two seasons ago; with the exception of Paul Robinson and loanees Marc-Antoine Fortune and Ryan Donk, they've retained the squad that won them plaudits in the Premier League last year despite suffering relegation; they have arguably the best 'keeper in the league in Scott Carson, as well as a midfield quartet (Robert Koren, Jonathan Greening, Chris Brunt and James Morrison) and an array of strikers (Ishmael Miller, Luke Moore, Roman Bednar, Craig Beattie and ex-Swindon hotshot Simon Cox) that are the envy of the division. Spanish midfielder Borja Valero and the superbly named Gianni Zuiverloon need to start living up to their sizeable price tags, and new boss Roberto Di Matteo may find Tony Mowbray a tough act to follow, but the odds on the Baggies boing-boinging back up at the first attempt are good.

Friday, August 07, 2009

Bye bye Beye

No sooner had I posted about Sebastien Bassong's departure than it was confirmed that Habib Beye has also left Tyneside. Reports yesterday suggested that Hull had had a bid of around £2.5m accepted and that it was only a matter of time before the Senegalese defender signed on the dotted line. But the Tigers were gazumped by Aston Villa, and, faced with a choice between European football with a side capable of challenging for the Premier League's top four and moving to Hull for what is set to be a fruitless relegation battle, Beye no doubt took all of a few nanoseconds to decide.

The transfer fee and the weight off the payroll is what's most important, but I can't help taking some pleasure in the fact that that gloating prick Phil Brown has been left with egg on his luminous orange face by a second Newcastle player this summer (the first, of course, being Little Saint Mick).

After arriving from Marseille (where he was part of the team that defeated us en route to the 2004 UEFA Cup Final), Beye made 48 appearances in his two years at the club. He stood out as a generally assured figure in what was all too often an all-at-sea defence, and his absence from crucial games in last season's run-in through injury proved very costly indeed (even if he did mark his return to the side by putting through his own goal against the Smogs). Named as our Player of the Year in 2008 (though admittedly pickings were decidedly slim), he had the honour of having his own chant: "Sunday, Monday, Habib Beye / Tuesday, Wednesday, Habib Beye"...

So, another one gone with our best wishes - hopefully it won't be too long before we'll get the opportunity to say "Good riddance".

Gone for a Bassong

The morning papers brought the news that, as expected, Sebastien Bassong had sealed his move to Spurs, where he may be paired with either Ledley King, Michael Dawson or our old boy Jonathan Woodgate - whichever one of them just happens to be fit that particular week. I wonder if 'Appy 'Arry knows he won't be able to help them out of their defensive crisis ahead of next Saturday's curtain-raiser on account of being suspended?

The sale was inevitable as soon as Bassong made his intention to leave clear - and indeed he would most likely have been sold even if he hadn't lobbed his toys from the perambulator and refused to go to Dundee last weekend because, even though his salary was relatively small, he represented a good opportunity to claim some much-needed funds. Receiving £8m for a player we bought for around £500,000 is a good bit of business, but I don't think Spurs fans need worry they've been duped - there were enough signs last season to suggest that as a young, strong and cultured centre-back he's worth that much, especially if he can cut out the odd rash decision from his game (though that may just have been Steven Taylor's influence rubbing off on him...).

Ultimately, he did more than most to preserve our Premier League status, and so for that we salute him and wish him well.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

A whole new ball game

(aka the first part of our Championship preview)

I think I can safely speak for most fans when I say that this season is set to be very much a leap into the unknown. Here at Black & White & Read All Over, I think we both consider ourselves to be fairly knowledgeable about the beautiful game, but now, faced with the prospect of running the rule over our rivals in what is considered to be a fiercely fought and very open division, that confidence is rapidly waning.

Perhaps our ignorance is understandable - we've had a relatively single-minded focus on the league we were in for the past 16 seasons. Or perhaps, if you're an opposition fan and want to be more critical (and let's face it, there are few who don't), it's symptomatic of at best complacency and at worst downright arrogance. Either way, please forgive the inevitably partial and no doubt ill-informed pen pics which follow, and head over to The Two Unfortunates for more considered, astute commentary.

If it seems a long time since we were rubbing shoulders with Barnsley in the top flight, then that's because it was - twelve years ago. Widely tipped for a season of struggle they may be, t'Tykes can still count on the services of the heroes of their 2007-8 FA Cup victories over Liverpool and Chelsea, striker Kayode Odejayi and former Man Utd understudy Luke Steele; of Jon Macken, who's a reminder that Man City paying over the odds for strikers is nothing new; and diminutive ex-Leicester forward Iain Hume, who sustained a fractured skull and internal bleeding last November and will be keeping a careful eye out for Chris Morgan's elbow when they play local rivals Sheffield Utd.

Now here's a real blast from the past - back when hob-nail boots were de rigeur, breaking a 'keeper's neck was above board, the pre-match meal was a couple of lumps of coal and a pint of bitter, and we actually won those trophy-shaped things. Blackpool were the club we defeated in the 1951 FA Cup Final, and new signing Billy Clarke sounds like a bruising, Brylcreemed throwback to that era, but is actually only 21. A rather more modern football phenomenon is the Latvian sugar daddy president (in this case Valeri Belokon) whose cash has already enabled the permanent signing of Rangers winger Charlie Adam for a club record £500,000. With quote merchant Ian Holloway back in management, expect post-match interviews to be as entertaining as the football - if not more so - but, having failed to keep Leicester up two years ago, we've a suspicion that Holloway's level is at best Championship management, in which case, Blackpool will probably spend much of the year looking down not up.

Bristol City
Pipped by Hull in the 2008 Play-Off Final, City are one of the few sides in the Championship not to have sampled the delights of the Premier League. Gary Johnson has decided the man to help them to change all that is Celtic midfielder Paul Hartley, and certainly the capture of a player with recent Champions League experience is a coup likely to have been met with cider-slurred exclamations of "Gert lush!" in the red half of Brizzle. Another arrival is Welsh international defender Lewin Nyatanga, still young enough to deliver on his considerable promise, while pacy winger Ivan Sproule is a danger man. Two players unlikely to see much action, if any, are tubby striker Lee "Trundle By Name, Trundle By Nature" Trundle and fans' favourite Brazilian 'keeper Adriano Basso, now on the transfer list after rejecting a new contract.

A shocking run-in last season meant that the Bluebirds missed out on the play-offs, which was all the more galling because the difference was one solitary goal - had they lost 5-0 rather than 6-0 at Deepdale, it would have been they who went forward and not Preston. Defensive rock Roger Johnson has since left for Birmingham, to be replaced by Charlton's Mark Hudson and Walsall's Anthony Gerrard (so be warned: if you're out on the tiles in the Welsh capital, don't get caught slagging off Phil Collins - Anthony's cousin may be paying him a visit and might open a can of "self-defence" on you). Comedy will be in shorter supply now that Fulham loanee Eddie "USA! USA! USA!" Johnson isn't around to score at both ends, and they'll need to settle quickly in their new home. But even if Ross McCormack does toddle off to Hull, Michael Chopra is a proven goalscorer at this level (even if he couldn't do it for either us or the Mackems in the top flight), and if both Joe Ledley and Stephen McPhail raise their games then Cardiff are a reasonable shout for the play-offs.

We were sent to Coventry (nowhere near as bad as being sent to Milton Keynes, believe me) in last season's League Cup, and the resulting 3-2 victory was the last game before everything turned to complete shit, so we'll not be looking forward to facing them again. Star players Daniel Fox and Scott Dann, who arrived at the Ricoh together from Walsall in January 2008, have both moved on to Celtic and Birmingham respectively. Whether they can keep clear of the relegation zone depends on a few factors: whether Chris Coleman will get to invest any of the rumoured £6m received; whether Sammy Clingan and Michael McIndoe can bring their craft to bear on the Sky Blues midfield; and whether arguably the Championship's most eccentric strikeforce - a Romani (Freddy Eastwood), a player nicknamed Zorro for wearing a face mask (Leon Best), and someone who qualified to play for the Republic of Ireland because he once had a pint of Guinness and who wears 1+9 on his shirt (Clinton O'Morrison) - can function together.

Crystal Palace
What a combination: Colin Wanker, the man in the dugout who everyone (us included) loves to hate, and Simon Jordan, the flash slick-haired bigmouth with skin the same lurid orange colour as Blackpool's shirts. The Eagles haven't been flying high for some time now, and that doesn't look as though it's about to change any time soon. That said, they've got some useful youngsters, Victor Moses being the pick; Freddie Sears is a very useful addition on loan from the Hammers; and we saw enough evidence first-hand to know that on his day, and given a bit of freedom and a bit of protection, Darren Ambrose is more than capable of piercing defences (hopefully not ours, though). One question: just how stern will Stern John be if he finds his route to the first team blocked by Moses, Sears and Alan Lee?

Saul Deeney? Miles Addison? Giles Barnes? At a quick glance you could be forgiven for mistaking the Derby team sheet for the class register in a boys' boarding school. Inevitably, all of the focus will be on whether Nigel Clough, in his first full season in charge at Pride Park, can really prove himself to be a chip off the old big ruddy-red block by beginning to bring about a return to the halcyon days of the 70s. Barnes has been stagnating for a little while now, and a loan period at Fulham during which he made zero impact did him no favours, so he too has plenty to prove. Striker Rob Hulse and wily ex-Forest attacking midfielder Kris Commons - who won the Derby fans in the best way possible in his first season at the club, by scoring an FA Cup winner at the City Ground - will both be key figures if they're to push for the play-offs. And then there's Robbie Savage, who you can guarantee will be a key figure in some capacity at some stage of the season.

Sean O'Driscoll's side are perhaps the most unknown of the unknown quantities set to face us this season. Having survived the last campaign against the odds, they're unlikely to be afforded the opportunity to rest on their laurels and in fact must be among the favourites for relegation - not least because Richie Wellens and Matt Mills have both moved on for seven-figure fees, though ex-Man Utd midfielder Quinton Fortune has swapped Italy for South Yorkshire. Ever wary of the frequency with which the "Fenton Curse" strikes, we'll need to keep a very close eye on our former youth team players Lewis Guy and James Coppinger. Also worth bearing in mind is that if we run out of attacking ideas against Donny, we could always try a lob from the halfway line - after all, it caught Neil Sullivan out when some chap called Beckham tried it in 1996, and the 'keeper's nearly 40 now and so likely to backpedal even slower these days.

Confession time. By virtue of having several Norwich-supporting friends, I have a natural antipathy towards their tractor-riding brethren south of the border, and so the managerial appointment of one Royston Keane - dog-walker extraordinaire and a man Graham Taylor claimed on Radio 5 was clearly suffering mental problems towards the end of his time at Sunderland because he grew a beard - only sealed the deal. He should feel at home, having already added two more Irish players (Colin Healy and Damien Delaney) to take the number in the squad up to eight, and will also be appreciative of Ben Thatcher's history of violent conduct. Clearing up the crumbs from beneath his old mentor Taggart's table in the form of picking up winger Lee Martin could pay dividends if Keane can finalise the deal for Watford's Tamas Priskin and find the right partner for him - and not walk out in a huff with the job half-done. Animosity towards the figure in the opposition dugout will however be briefly laid to one side the first time we play Ipswich this season, at least, as both sets of fans pay tribute to a common hero, Sir Bobby Robson.

Second half to follow tomorrow.

'Urry up Barry!

The latest in the succession of prospective buyers for the club was named today as Barry Moat, a local businessman and executive box holder. His pre-existing connections to the club lend the story added credence, while it's also being reported that, were his bid (or the bid he's fronting, at least) to be accepted by Fat Mike, he'd be in favour of installing Alan Shearer on a permanent basis - on the grounds that he was the chairman of Shearer's testimonial committee three years ago.

The Guardian claims the chances of Moat and friends taking charge are 60-40, but with the cogs at St James' generally turning at the speed of tectonic shift these days, I wouldn't hold out much hope of it being resolved any time soon. One thing's for certain, though: the phrase "last ditch" is likely to recur in tabloid reports on developments...

The news is considerably more welcome than JFK's declaration that "I have been offered a two-year contract and it is something I am mulling over at the present time". Was it only Monday that I wrote, with some satisfaction, that although there's been "no official confirmation that cantankerous convalescent JFK's association with the club has been severed ... that does now seem highly likely"? Either the nurse has upped his medication and he's delusional, or he's telling the truth. I know what I'd prefer to believe - and in any case Fat Mike genuinely offering a contract to God's gift to swearboxes but not to Shearer would quite frankly be unbelievable.

In other news, it's been confirmed by 'Appy 'Arry that Sebastien Bassong was understandably keener on going down to London for a chinwag with Spurs chairman Daniel Levy with a view to an £8m move to White Hart Lane than he was on going to Dundee on Saturday, while we've accepted a bid for Habib Beye from Hull. So, with Martins already gone, the asset-stripping looks set to continue. I shouldn't be surprised that it's our best performers who are being picked off, and that crippling wage bill won't reduce itself, but I am concerned that our already threadbare back line will soon be two defenders shorter and that it's looking increasingly likely that we're going to be left with the dross aka Kevin Nolan, Alan Smith, ASBO. Surely we can fob them off on someone?

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

What lies ahead?

Back in May, with our Premier League dream in tatters, I set out what I thought needed to happen to stabilise the ship and give us the best chance of returning to the top flight at the first available opportunity.

To briefly summarise:

1. We needed a new broom to instigate root-and-branch reform.
2. We needed to ship out the high earners who so painfully failed to justify their inflated wages.

I'd add a third point to that list, namely:

3. We needed to add a few more players to freshen up the squad for the challenges ahead.

Unfortunately, Mike Ashley's apparent desire to run the club into the ground (and thereby diminish the value of his investment) seemingly knows no bounds, and as a result we've slipped further and further behind all of our Championship rivals with each day of inactivity. A new broom to instigate root-and-branch reform? Currently I'd settle for any type of broom (well any type bar one being pushed by Fat Fred) if it meant the fat incompetent and his casino-running accomplice would leave us alone.

The problem is that the longer we continue in this state of inertia, the longer it will take for the club to be turned around. Not just for this season, but for the years ahead when the parachute payment has been spent.

Those players whose contracts expired have all, without exception, been shown the door. Whilst Little Saint Mick has somehow landed on his feet under Taggart, and David Edgar has landed a role trying to plug the holes which are expected to open in Burnley's Premier League defence, the rest are floundering in the wilderness, unsurprisingly struggling to find anyone else stupid enough to pay them a fortune for their services.

Gone too is Martins, with Wolfsburg happy to give us a sizaeble bundle of Euros for the Nigerian.

With the transfer window clock ticking, I'd anticipate that Habib Beye and Sebastian Bassong will also have moved on to pastures new by the end of the month, with the Frenchman at least going for a decent sum.

However, our attempts to shift on the remainder of our squad have so far proved fruitless, with practically an entire team of overpaid, underperforming shirkers still hanging around.

With no new faces coming in, it is inevitable that Chris Hughton (possibly the most uninspiring man in football) has been forced to turn to youth in our pre-season games, with Tamas Kadar in particular appearing to move up the first team pecking order. With Nile Ranger having featured for England Under 19s in their recent European Championship campaign, there remains at least the prospect of some good kids emerging over the season.

However, our problems remain significant obstacles which need resolving if we are to have any chance of returning to the top flight at the first time of asking. The inactivity under Ashley needs to end as soon as possible, with a new owner then needing to move fast to appoint a manager (and at this point, I'd settle for pretty much anyone) to then reinvest some of the Martins cash and hopefully ship out a couple more of the lavishly remunerated flops before the end of August.

The other significant issue is that whilst the Championship has, in recent seasons, proved to be a competitive league, ours will almost certainly be the most highly prized scalp in the division, meaning that we'll need to perform to a higher standard than we managed last season to keep ourselves in with a fighting chance of being in the reckoning for promotion come Easter time.

If, and it really is a massive if, we can resolve most of our self-inflicted problems before the end of August, then we stand a modest chance of at least making the play-offs.

However, if we're still in limbo on 1st September, we might well be contemplating life in League One come May.

Seb strop

According to today's Guardian, Sebastien Bassong's non appearance at our pre-season game against Dundee wasn't, as Chris Hughton stated, solely down to the fact that he's suspended for Saturday's match against West Brom.

Instead, the paper reports that our player of last season refused to travel and is now doing all he can to force through a move away before the transfer window closes. This strop is likely to cost Bassong about ten grand (two weeks wages) - something he'll easily recoup in signing on fees, and increased wages, should a move take place.

Understandably frustrated at our inability to progress over the summer, it looks like the player might soon get his wish to move on to pastures new.

Monday, August 03, 2009

A Month Of Saturdays: July 2009

Last month's piece found me lamenting the conspicuous lack of meaningful activity at the club. I suppose you should be careful what you don't wish for, because July was in the most important respects just more of the same: still nobody prepared to step forward armed with the requisite offer to take the club off Fat Mike's hands, still no sign of a new permanent managerial appointment, still no incoming signings to reinvigorate a gutless squad ahead of a tough campaign against teams who'll prize our scalp above all others in the division. And then when there was something to report, it was hardly cheering - the injury to midfield lynchpin Nicky Butt and a smirking ASBO finding himself back in the fold being just two examples.

At the beginning of the month, managing director Derek Llambiarse claimed there were "more than two" serious bidders for the club willing to meet the asking price - and yet still nothing has transpired. The Drumaville consortium - through public figurehead and cartoon clown Charlie Chawke - declared their interest, and for a brief moment it seemed as though we might have to stomach showing gratitude to a group who had been the Mackems' saviour just three years earlier, but hasty reconsideration and retraction followed.

As for Steve McMahon's Profitable Group, it's not clear whether they really did make "a very serious and genuine offer" or whether, when it came to the crunch, they just didn't have the necessary funds. Or perhaps Fat Mike was just offended by the word "profitable" in the wake of Sports Direct posting a 91% drop in profits? So, what's next? He's already tried soliciting offers by email - eBay, perhaps?

If for the foreseeable future Ashley looks set to be our owner by default, then the same can be said of Chris Hughton as caretaker manager. There's been no official confirmation that cantankerous convalescent JFK's association with the club has been severed (though that does now seem highly likely), while Alan Shearer has been left in a similar state of limbo, his buttocks now destined to begin the season back on the Match Of The Day sofa rather than in the away dugout at The Hawthorns. Shearer broke his silence to deny claims emanating from his close friend and former team-mate Rob Lee that his patience was wearing thin - but if it was, he could hardly be blamed.

Llambiarse argued that any new owner would want to install their own manager (and in so doing confirmed that, upon arriving at the club, Ashley viewed Fat Sam with the same distaste as you might a mouldy, rancid lump of cheese left in the fridge by a previous tenant). But the appalling treatment of Shearer rankles and our rudderlessness has meant new additions to the playing staff still haven't been forthcoming, significantly damaging our chances of escaping back into the top flight at the first attempt.

July's most high-profile escapee was, of course, Little Saint Mick, who, after spending June being propositioned by Hull and Stoke, "the Premier League's ugly sisters", could hardly believe the fairy tale ending that saw him whisked away to Old Trafford by a handsome prince (well, a ruddy-cheeked, foul-mouthed Scotsman).

The widespread perception of the shrewdness of the deal, which is largely on a pay-as-you-play-and-score basis, was only heightened by the fact that he immediately began banging in the two-yard tap-ins in pre-season friendlies, and contrasted sharply with our own supposed folly in paying him £110,000 a week. But when we signed him, he was England's top striker and had no record of serious injury, so let's just say that hindsight is a wonderful thing and leave it at that. Not that Owen could leave it there, mind, commenting pointedly after scoring on his Man Utd debut: "It's just nice to play with players who are on your wavelength, spotting your runs - they are just class players". Ouch.

Also heading off into the sunset was Obafemi Martins, who packed up his box of tricks and took himself off to Bundesliga champions Wolfsburg. A player capable of slicing a shot for a throw-in one minute and scoring the next - as indeed he did against Pompey in December - Martins was certainly worthy of the epithet "mercurial", but while he could be frustrating he did at least show the spark that so many of his supposedly illustrious team-mates consistently lacked.

And so what of those left behind? The pre-season programme - organised if not actually overseen by Shearer, lest we forget - was a typically tragicomic rollercoaster. We ran out comfortable 3-0 winners against Shamrock Rovers, bettering Real Madrid's result on the same ground a few days earlier; conceded two goals to Darlington's Dean Windass, a man who only functions on a steady diet of WD40, while scoring seven of our own; literally scrapped our way to a 1-0 win over Lee Clark's Huddersfield, Habib Beye picking up what the Ronny Gill called "a nasty scrape to his midriff" in a half-time confrontation; slumped to an excruciatingly horrific 6-1 defeat at Leyton Orient; and drew a blank at home to a Fabian Delph inspired Leeds, who earlier in the month had responded to rumours of our interest in striker Jermaine Beckford by promptly taking him off the transfer list.

While it was refreshing to encounter an article in the mainstream media that suggested we had suffered too much ridicule, acknowledging (albeit two months too late) that the club's relegation and current predicament have rather less to do with us fans and rather more to do with the ownership, management and playing staff, we can hardly expect the guffawing of rival supporters to die down as long as we continue to stagger hopelessly on without direction, focus or leadership, stumbling to defeats like the one in East London.

But one thing that did bridge the gulf and bring us together with opposition fans - even those from the Dark Place - was the death of Sir Bobby Robson, on the last day of the month. The news prompted an outpouring of emotional tributes from all over the country and indeed the world, celebrating his achievements as a player and a manager but perhaps even more importantly his qualities as a man - generosity of spirit, dignity, humility, resilience.

For many of us, I think, his death prompted reflections on the current parlous state of the club and how disappointed and upset he, a dyed-in-the-wool fan after all, must have felt at how far we've fallen since Fat Fred brought his time in charge to an end. It felt like it marked the end of an era, perhaps even more so than did relegation in May. Now, with less than a week to go before the start of our inaugural campaign in the Championship, we have to pull together and look forward to a future that seems uncertain and unpromising at best.

Dun and dusted

Our pre-season programme concluded on Saturday with a trip to Tannadice to take on Dundee United as part of the Scottish side's centenary celebrations. Spectators were mercifully spared a vomit-inducing clash between the home team's orange kit and our own custard-and-cream away affair. Instead, we wore an altogether more palatable black and powder blue combo that will hopefully see more action in the forthcoming campaign than our third strip usually does.

Bigger Lad's physical presence unsettled Tangerines' keeper Stevie Banks, enabling him to tuck in the opening goal in the second half, but our hosts equalised six minutes from time when David Goodwillie scored from the spot - this after Steve Harper had saved an earlier penalty from Danny Swanson. Shortly afterwards, as at Huddersfield, there was a bit of handbags which resulted in the ref recommending Damien Duff be substituted - the only surprise being that ASBO managed to avoid getting drawn into the fracas...

Once again Sebastien Bassong was nowhere to be seen - left out because he's ineligible to play in Saturday's curtain-raiser against West Brom through suspension, according to Chris Hughton - and, with Man City and Spurs both still rumoured to be circling overhead, there's every likelihood the Frenchman's played his last game for us.

Just cause

Amidst the general gloom surrounding the death of one of English football's most loved figures, it's heartening to know that The Sir Bobby Robson Foundation has been inundated with donations from those keen to pay their respects by supporting the cause. If you haven't already made a donation but would like to do so, the charity's Just Giving page is here.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Havana spot of trouble staying up...

The first of our two guest pieces found Jonathan reminiscing about a time when the prospect of finishing lower than fourth in the Premier League seemed calamitous. In the second, reflecting how the once-fairly-mighty fell, Tim recounts his desperate attempts to follow goings-on in the fateful final game of the 2008/9 season, via a dodgy internet connection and Spanish TV while on holiday in Cuba.

* * * * *

Having been given notice of a "proposed restructure" at work at the end of April, I blew some of my upcoming redundancy on a trip to Cuba at the end of May, hoping that the home games against Portsmouth, Boro and Fulham would see us safe from relegation before the last day of the season.

Goalless against Pompey but could have been worse. The anticipated drubbing at Anfield met expectations, but the Boro game (3-1) gave hope, although nothing would be decided until the last day of the season regardless. Then the "must win" Fulham game (must win for destiny to be in our hands) - radio commentary as there was no TV coverage. I tried to stay calm by distracting myself with some gardening, but at 1-0 down at half-time, weeding turned into disaffected weeding turned into staring into a pond hoping that if a fish appeared in the next 10 seconds we'd score in the next 20, turned into hacking the bejesus out of an overgrown forsythia as the fight-back failed to materialise.

So to Cuba and the prospect of trying to find a means of tracking whether we could fare better at Villa than Hull at home to ManU. Things have moved on considerably in Cuba, particularly where tourism $s have an influence and apparently our hotel had sports channels and wifi. But the game wasn't going to be shown live on any of the available TV channels (Mexican ESPN was about it for sport) so I figured the best bet was online commentary.

Kick-off was 11am local time and the only place for wifi was the bar/reception area, so I got set up and ready for two hours of anxiety in a slightly too public area, only to find that the connection lasted a couple of seconds at a time which put paid to any streaming audio. Next best was the BBC's live scores page, but again it was only "live" when I could connect for long enough for the page to update before getting booted out again.

I wasn't planning on calming my nerves with rum-based cocktails, given I'd tried to keep pace with but lost out to Ernest Hemingway the night before, and I didn't want to spoil the holiday for my partner by being drunk and emotional - she still hasn't forgotten what happened after Graham Fenton's two late goals for Blackburn in April 1996.

Last time we dropped out of the top flight Willie McFaul's master-plan of employing Dave Beasant and Andy Thorn to hoof the ball up field to 5ft nothing strikers meant we were certs for relegation by Christmas, so there was plenty of time to get used to it. While the odd flirtation with relegation had become a theme in recent seasons, I, as well as whoever's responsible for not putting relegation clauses in players' contracts, didn't think that particular relationship would get close to consummation.

While there was hope we could salvage something against a Villa side with little to play for, surely Hull would beat Fergie's embryo XI (the fledglings apparently needing a rest ahead of watching the Champions League final). So, bereft of optimism, technology and alcohol I stared at my screen.

Nothing for a few minutes then a flurry of updates - Arsenal well up in a few minutes (yawn). A couple of chances for Newcastle, maybe there is hope? 20 minutes gone, ManU score! Darron who? Who cares, never doubted Fergie's saplings for a minute, we might do this, long way to go, don't get carried away, calm down, better have a mojito - make that a mojito and a cuba libre.

Another 10 minutes of Arsenal scoring at regular intervals then something else beginning with "A" rolled unravelled itself across my screen. "Aston Villa 1 Newcastle 0". B*gger. Bet it was Milner - that would be typical. Hold on... "Damien Duff" - maybe they've got it wrong, the Beeb often correct things on these pages... "o.g.". That’ll be two more cuba libres then.

Ten minutes to half-time but nothing happening from what I could gather, apart from some frantic reconnecting and refreshing on my part in a desperate attempt to invoke a change or even word of a chance.

At half-time my partner wandered up from the tranquillity of her sun-lounger via the room to report that some football was on the TV – "might be ManU" - in Spanish. Following online was not only annoying the crap out of me but was obviously playing a significant role in our being a goal down and therefore worth trying something else. So I returned to the room – at least there were no fish to try speculating on there – armed with a couple of clubs of the Habana variety. Although the Hull-ManU game was showing, surely they'd be flitting between both matches, that and fearing the worst, removing myself from public view would be less embarrassing.

ManU on their part were cruising, with few opportunities for Hull to put it out of our reach. There must be an almighty Toon onslaught at Villa Park, all we need is a goal, but why haven't they gone there, and why haven't they shown a league table as it stands? The commentators seemed to be having a chat rather than describing the Hull game, that's how easy it is for ManU. Then I heard some words I recognised, "Arsenal quatro"... some scores... think that was still 1-0 but don't know the Spanish for "nil" although what they said after "Newcastle" wasn't the same as what they said after "Villa" - well at least they’ll be giving it their all, plenty of time left. But nothing, absolutely nothing.

I found myself staring at a screen again urging something to change, my eyes burning holes through the screen, out the back through the aerial up onto the roof, into the atmosphere over Fidel's house and back across the Atlantic to Villa Park to urge them on, but nothing... nothing... going... going, all over at Hull. Phil Brown shakes hands with Fergie and looks around nervously – we must still be playing - FINALLY a change of venue but it's all over there too, WHAT'S THE SCORE!!?? Difficult to be certain from the players’ reactions but straight back to Hull and it's all too clear now from the orange-faced man jumping up and down.

So that's it, that's... it.

I didn't move much for about an hour - taking inspiration from our players that afternoon (apparently) - trying to comprehend what I hadn't seen happen, as well as how I’d convey the result to my partner in a way that would look like I was over it already, so as not to require a sympathetic response which would almost certainly lead to public tears and jumping in the pool to hide.

After Bramble, Bellamy and Faye helping nudge us towards the trapdoor (why is it that OUR players don't score against their former teams?) I'd been expecting Milner to score the goal that tightened the noose ever since March. But it was another player Keegan had wanted that effectively sealed our demise: relegated by a goal scored by a stand-in left back.

I almost, almost for a moment wished that I didn’t have to... but then I thought about being back in the Premiership with a team and players to be proud of. I tried to think what it would be like to actually win the FA Cup – I couldn’t do it – that’s how fantastically brilliant that would be and that’s why that moment was no more than that.

My partner offered some solace by saying "at least they might win a few more games next year" - I almost had another Blackburn moment but held it together. The prospect of new owners, fresh players, different opposition (particularly not Wigan) and fewer former players that weren't "good enough" scoring against us cheered me up a little - that and beating the Germans (actually Brits) to the sunbeds one morning.

Two months on and just two weeks before the start of our new campaign in the Championship, no sale, no manager, no signs of desire or hunger from our overpaid players (although one of those "committed" to the club has an appetite for a few pints followed by something battered at McDonalds), Owen scoring as frequently as Lembit Opik for ManU and a strip that looks like a fricken deckchair.

Even so, I've got money on promotion - that and Darren Ambrose scoring a last minute winner against us for Palace.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Ram raid

With the start of the new season fast approaching, it's time to draw a line under our stay in the Premier League. In the first of two posts from guest contributors, Jonathan takes a toddle off down an overgrown memory lane and recalls a classic match from the Sir Bobby Robson era. File under "Back When We Were Good"...

* * * * *

The email from Ben arrived sometime in early June. "We’re doing this thing on Black & White & Read All Over", it said. "Kind of a goodbye to the Premiership era. Pick any match you like from the past 15 years and write about it. You can have been at the ground, seen it down the pub, heard snatches of it on a badly-tuned in-car radio while carting a hastily-purchased set of bookshelves home from IKEA - it doesn’t matter. What matters is that, for some reason, it was a match (or a day) that stayed with you. Other than that, it’s up to you."

Well that should be easy enough, I thought. After all, the 16-season era in question had consisted of 608 games. 608 games! How many would I have attended in person? About a tenth of them, I reckon - with a good two-thirds of those concentrated in the couple of so-so seasons, spanning the fag-end of Dalglish’s joyless tenure and the entire failed Gullit experiment, when three of us shared a season ticket (you will remember, they were like gold dust,there was a blockbuster film made about their scarcity and desirability) somewhere high up in the Leazes.

Hold on, though - Ben’s email hadn’t even said I had to write about the games I’d been to - and maybe that was a good thing, as a combination of the my shortsightedness, the eagle-eye view, the average five pints of strong lager consumed before during and after each game and yes, the forgettable nature of much of the football during the season ticket era (Daniel Cordone, anyone? Stephen Glass? Alessandro fucking Pistone?) meant that I couldn’t seem to remember very much about any of the 60 or so games I had paid good money to see.

A closer examination of the memory-box (cross-referenced with the infinitely more reliable records available at .com) revealed that my recollection was even hazier than I had thought. In several places what I had remembered as one unusually eventful match was in fact a composite highlight package of up to four games, which due to some unscrupulous editing process taking place in a darkened back-office just behind the frontal lobe had been hastily stitched together - to make space for more indispensable information perhaps, such as my son’s birthday and the plots of every episode of Minder screened between 1981 and 1984.

So I decided to rule out home matches altogether - and also (despite Ben’s helpfully-intended super-wide brief) any games I hadn’t actually gone to in person. After all, if the details of the infamous 2-1 reversal to Sunderland (which I rushed from Manchester to attend, lived through with unbearable intensity, and walked 6 miles uphill in the pissing down rain to my mam’s house from) have been lost to me, what credit can I give the recollection of the return fixture the following February, when I learnt of Kevin Phillips’ late equaliser via an overheard transistor radio in a pub carpark somewhere in suburban Stockport? Not much, is the answer.

And so that initial dizzying array of 600+ top flight matches were whittled down, until we were left with just a half-dozen - the ones that took place away from St James’, and which I travelled in person to see. Which one to choose though? Liverpool at Anfield in September 2002, perhaps, when Shearer was the width of a post away from turning a 0-2 deficit into a famous 3-2 triumph? Or Coventry at Highfield Road, way back in August 1993, when Liam "Any O’Brien" O’Brien scored with one of his trademark awkward bending free-kicks? In the end, neither.

Instead my memory alighted on an away trip to Derby, back in April 2002. Unlikely as it will now seem (and you can of course thank the good folks at .com for this detail; I could only have hazarded a guess) we went into this late-season fixture four games into an unbeaten run, and fourth in the Premiership. Even unlikelier, we were far from satisfied with this heady scenario; just four months earlier, a 3-0 Boxing Day rout of Middlesbrough had consolidated our leadership of the table and the consensus was that Bobby Robson’s pacy squad might just have enough wherewithal about them to maintain a serious bid for the title. The winter months, however, had seen a slump in fortunes, and the mood among the 4000 Magpies making the journey to the East Midlands was that anything less than the fourth-place finish that would guarantee another season of Champions League football should be viewed, more or less, as a calamity.

Like I say, it’s hard to believe now. It’s also difficult to credit (because I’ve got a young child now, with the usual consequences upon available reserves of time and money) that I was ready to join that throng of 4000 myself, even though I had no ticket for the fixture, which had been sold out for weeks ahead of kick-off. That wouldn’t be a problem, said my ever-intrepid mate David - and sure enough, within twenty minutes of our arrival at the pub nearest Derby train station we had availed ourselves of a pair of pristine tickets for the face-value of twenty quid a shot. Suddenly the slightly hairy journey to the East Midlands (it had featured a noontime pintstop at a Sheffield hostelry whose entire fifty-strong clientele was made up of middle-aged hooligans in plain clothes, travelling incongnito to points North and South) started to seem absolutely worthwhile.

With tickets in hand, the rest of the afternoon began to slot effortlessly into place. At some unspoken signal, pints were downed, a beeline was made for the street, and we found ourselves in the midst of a routemarch consisting of what felt like the entire travelling support. This scenario was repeated at various points successively further away from Derby station, until we ran out of pubs and ended up in a godforsaken district which looked like an industrial estate, but which turned out to be the approach road for the city’s new state-of-the-art stadium, Pride Park.

As for the match itself - well you will perhaps not be surprised to hear I don’t remember the details, but I do recall the home side not only opening the scoring but then adding insult to injury by adding another, just after half-time. As the second goal went in, and the home fans cavorted like noisy salmons in the gangways, I began to nurse a strong if irrational dislike towards shiny new stadiums in general and this windswept, soulless hulk of stainless steel and concrete in particular. Hell, I might even have begun to question the wisdom of laying out 50 quid plus on the afternoon’s entertainment. Ticket or no ticket, this was turning into an away trip to forget.

Little more than half an hour later, all was forgiven. Not for the first time that season, Robson’s men had shown themselves to be steely in adversity, and a rousing second-half comeback had culminated in substitute Lua Lua sliding home Solano’s low cross from six yards before launching himself into a triple somersault which ended in him being engulfed in a frenzy of delirious supporters just yards in front of us. Moments later the final whistle signalled a 3-2 away win, and we filed out of the exits singing the 'Blaydon Races' in unison. It was - and I have no hesitation in making this assertion - the most voluble rendition of a Tyneside folk song ever witnessed in the access road of a midsized branch of Carpetright. Verily, all was right with the world.

If Lua Lua’s somersault remains crystal-clear in the memory, much of the journey home has become indistinct. Actually I’m not sure I understood it at the time. There was some sort of rail-related incident (Vandalism? A body on the line?) which meant we had to double back somewhere in Derbyshire, and ended up marooned in Leeds. Plans of making a night of it in the capital of West Yorkshire were hatched, then just as quickly dismissed. Eventually a route home to Manchester was identified, via a rickety cross-country service headed for Wales and stopping at every half-abandoned coalmining settlement in the Western Pennines. We arrived back at Piccadilly as the pubs were throwing out - which meant I had some explaining to do, as I had given vague undertakings to be home in time for Casualty.

And Robson’s men? The unbeaten run continued for another four games, enough to secure that "booby prize" fourth place and render the closing fixture of the campaign - a 3-1 reversal at Southampton - meaningless. As I recall, the collective response of the Toon faithful amounted to a rueful shrug and a grumbled plea for "a bit more fucking consistency".

Hell - we really never knew how good we had it back then, did we?