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.


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