Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Rivals rumbled again

Last night lightning struck twice, with pretty much all of our rivals once again falling over themselves to do their bit for our promotion bid.

Not only did West Brom slip to another unexpected defeat, away at Barnsley, but there was an upset for Preston too, beaten at the previously impregnable Deepdale by lowly Reading. Elsewhere, in-form Blackpool went down at Bristol City, Saturday's visitors to St James' and Sheffield Utd could only manage a point at home to winless Ipswich, now rock-bottom of the league (though unfortunately for us Keano's defence once again did their darndest to lend their opponents a hand, obligingly throwing away a two goal lead).

Meanwhile, we have Nigel Pearson to thank for guiding his Leicester side to a first away victory of the season over the Smoggies. Another old boy was less generous, though, Michael Chopra getting Cardiff firmly back on track with four goals in a 6-1 demolition of Derby.

So, a win tonight would take us five points clear at the top, and seven points clear of third. Ryan Taylor is likely to miss out through injury, but with Danny Guthrie and Geremi available and the side full of confidence we would hope to have too much for QPR. Go to work, boys.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Walking in a Robson wonderland

Ipswich Town 0 - 4 Newcastle Utd

Yesterday's match at Portman Road may have been marked by poignant tributes to the late Sir Bobby Robson from his widow Elsie, former Ipswich players and both sets of players and fans (as well as an unwelcome histrionic warble through 'My Way'), but by the end of the game we were very definitely looking forwards and not back.

There was a Robson-esque endeavour, energy and sheer enthusiasm for the game shown by the side he managed most recently as we cruised to our most comfortable win of the season - a win which not only returned us to the top of the table, with results elsewhere going very much in our favour, but also gave beleaguered Town manager and old foe Royston Keane a beautifully timed boot in the swingers.

The team sheet made for interesting reading, with Chris Hughton opting to partner Nile Ranger with Bigger Lad up front and as a result selecting a compact, narrow and relatively defensive diamond-shaped midfield comprised of Kevin Nolan, Ryan Taylor, Nicky Butt and Alan Smith. Of the two recent loanees, Zurab Khizanishvili made his debut at right back, while Marlon Harewood looked on from the subs' bench.

We signalled our intentions within four minutes of kick-off, only Richard Wright's palm coming between Ranger and his first senior goal for the club after the young striker had easily got the better of the Ipswich central defence (something that soon became a recurring theme). The game then settled into a pattern, with us dominant without exerting enough pressure on what was evidently a brittle opposition back four.

When the opening goal arrived, on the half-hour mark, it was no surprise that the defending was questionable - but Ryan Taylor's whipped free-kick still left the alert Nolan with quite a bit to do, and he powered his header past Wright.

The second followed two minutes later, Nolan again profiting from some clueless defensive play by Ipswich to scamper onto Bigger Lad's clever pass, outwit his man with ease and fire home at Wright's near post. It was great to see that he had not only been given licence to roam beyond the strikers, but that he was actually doing so to such devastating effect.

Another two minutes elapsed before we decided to tuck the game up and read it a bedtime story, Ryan Taylor at last proving he can score free-kicks for us rather than just against us by finding the top corner with unerring accuracy.

An onlooker inclined to feel charitable to the home side might have suggested at this point that 3-0 was rather unfair, but in truth the Tractor Boys seemed intent on turning in a performance of such staggering defensive ineptitude that it's a wonder they weren't punished again soon after, Bigger Lad unlucky to see his far-post header tipped away. As if Ipswich captain (and, lest we forget, son of the current Mackem manager) Alex Bruce hadn't been humiliated enough already, Keane demonstrated his impeccable man management skills by hauling him off before the break.

Keane's half-time team-talk had the desired effect - none whatsoever - and barely six minutes into the second period Nolan had his hat-trick. Khizanishvili, who not only looked comfortable defensively but had also evidently read his brief to help provide width down the flanks, passed the ball back to Ryan Taylor to cross. Ranger's header had beaten Wright but would have been cleared off the line, had Nolan not darted in with a sharp finish. Much more of this and we'll be crowning him King Kev II.

The look on Keane's face was as priceless as they come, and I'd like to think there was also a member of the BBC's punditry team joining in with our cheery chant of "You're getting sacked in the morning"... (Incidentally, does anyone else find it amusing that Keane seems to be trying to emulate his old mentor Fergie but has opted for bubblegum rather than chewing gum?)

Ipswich posed us so few problems thereafter that Pim Balkestein's long-range shot wide was met with ironic cheers from the home supporters, and had we been more ruthless we could have significantly boosted our goals for column. Marlon Harewood came on for Ranger and stung Wright's palms with a fearsome drive, while the only minus point of the whole evening was Fabricio Coloccini's departure through injury. Quite how ex-Mackem Grant Leadbitter wasn't even yellow-carded for an appalling two-footed lunge on Steven Taylor I have no idea - unless the ref assumed it had something to do with his being haunted by imaginary Newcastle fans and took pity on him...

The final scoreline was Ipswich's worst home defeat in six years and our best away win for eight. It also meant that Keane has now presided over his club's worst ever start to a season. Couldn't have happened to a nicer fella. Crystal Palace's shock win over West Brom at The Hawthorns (do we really have to be grateful to Neil Warnock?) coupled with defeats for Sheffield Utd and Cardiff, and Coventry coming back from two down with an injury-time equaliser against the Smogs, made it as near to a perfect day as I can remember.

Sir Bobby may have managed Ipswich to European glory, but I think he would have allowed himself a smile.

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

Friday, September 25, 2009

Hare today, gone in three months' time

We may have lost out to Derby for Everton's James Vaughan, but another long-in-the-pipeline loan deal for a Premier League striker has borne fruit, with Marlon Harewood joining the club from Aston Villa for three months (the move has been confirmed by both us and Villa since the BBC report was written).

Harewood could hardly be said to have pulled up many trees in the top flight, and the Villains' baffling willingness to part with £4m for him looks even more curious when you consider Martin O'Neill's given him just one league start in his two years in the West Midlands.

All the same, he's been at his best in the second tier, with both Nottingham Forest and West Ham, and as Chris Hughton commented, he brings "both physical presence and experience", so could prove a useful reinforcement, particularly with Big Lad out injured for the foreseeable future and Nile Ranger yet to get off the mark.

Just a shame one of our recent departees isn't still around - the Homer Simpson lookalike would have got on famously with Duff...

Sol long, Sol

After all the fanfare surrounding his signing, former Toon target Sol Campbell has only gone and quit Notts County after just one game, a 2-1 defeat to Morecambe. Perhaps the ridiculousness of the deal - a five year contract worth £40,000 a week - for a club in the fourth tier of English football will now dawn on County fans.

Despite being a free agent once more, it seems as though he won't be eligible to move to a new club until the January transfer window - when I'd guess we might renew our interest. Given this latest farcical escapade, I hope we don't.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Peterborough 2 - 0 Newcastle

So, that's that for another year then.

With the games coming thick and fast, and our grip on second place in the Championship no more than tentative, it was no surprise that for the League Cup visit to London Road Chris Hughton opted to leave a whole host of first team regulars back on Tyneside (Steve Harper, Jose Enrique, Fabricio Coloccini, ASBO, Bigger Lad plus the injured Danny Simpson) and draft in the kids (James Tavernier, Ryan Donaldson, Ben Tozer, Kazenga Lua Lua and Haris Vuckic).

But what was surprising was his failure to pick a defensively minded midfielder, with Alan Smith on the bench and Nicky Butt nowhere to be seen. As a result, a team that could still boast the likes of Danny Guthrie, Ryan Taylor, Peter Lovenkrands and Steven Taylor was comprehensively and embarrassingly outclassed by a Peterborough side two leagues below us last season who only mustered their first league win of the current campaign on Saturday.

Posh started off like they meant to go on, Aaron McLean striking the frame of Tim Krul's goal, but they didn't have to wait long to take the lead, prancing blonde showpony Craig Mackail-Smith taking advantage of fortuitous circumstances to head home.

Just over ten minutes later it was two, left-back Tom Williams scoring at Krul's near post. I suppose the guy deserves a break, engaged as he is to pneumatically chested I'm A Celebrity... airhead and uber-WAG Nicola McLean...

Mackail-Smith hit the bar himself but somehow we made it into the dressing room without conceding again - only to emerge for the second period and let Posh carry on bossing us all over the park. While our goal continued to lead a charmed life, we were less fortunate when Danny Guthrie was shown a second yellow card for a foul on George Boyd. His first booking, in the first half, was for deliberately kicking the ball away - as one of the senior pros in the team, he really should have known better. Having been mysteriously condemned to the bench on Saturday, he'll now have to sit out the trip to Ipswich through his own rash stupidity.

On the hour Hughton introduced all three of the first teamers he had in reserve - Kevin Nolan, Geremi and Smith - but to no avail. The traffic was still very much one-way, with Krul making amends for possibly being at fault for the second goal by keeping out shot after shot and emerging as the only player with any credit. That's now two midweek games in a row in which supposedly lowly Championship opponents have run riot due either to a defensive midfielder being ineffectual or being absent altogether - a stark warning, if ever there was one.

We could, I suppose, point to a couple of penalty appeals waved away by referee Keith Stroud, but the statistics tell a story not truly reflected in the final score: 21 efforts on target for the home team, as compared to our paltry two.

Not a good night on any level, then, though it's not as though we were going to win the competition, and Hughton's right to prioritise the league. Let's just hope Ferguson Jr doesn't have the same Indian sign over us as his old pa, though...

Other reports: BBC

Quote of the day

"Bobby was not just a brilliant leader of men that brought the absolute best out of his players, but he was without question the single most enthusiastic and passionate man in football."

Gary Lineker on Sir Bobby Robson, speaking at his memorial service at Durham Cathedral.


Guardian: The day St James' Park fell silent for 90 minutes

Sir Bobby Robson Foundation

Picture imperfect

Ever wondered why there aren't more pictures on this site? Well, largely it's down to laziness, to be honest - but here's another rather more troubling reason, as highlighted by Doncaster blog Viva Rovers.

The lengths to which the Football Data Co have gone to prevent images taken inside grounds but not even of the action are utterly ridiculous. "We have good intelligence", they claim, clearly getting a thrill out of being able to make themselves sound like the US government or James effing Bond.

Glenglenglen's final response is sharp, to the point and beautifully sarcastic, containing as it does the line: "Rest assured any future match images produced on the site will consist of artistically crafted collage interpretations made from finger paint, glitter and dried pasta".

Was anyone else aware of this particular "ground regulation"?

Mick nicks it

Well well well, Little Saint Mick, that's one way to win over your new fans. The good news is that that goal - scored in the "Man Utd time" beyond "injury time" - pissed on Craig Bellamy's chips, the no-necked one having scored twice to (it seemed) earn City a draw, but the bad, of course, is that it was past Shay Given, who had done his utmost to bail out the hapless multi-million-pound defence in front of him (something he became accustomed to at Newcastle). I'm no fan of clubs buying their way to the title, but I'd love to see Man City set the cat among the top four pigeons just so Given can finally get his hands on something shiny.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Back on the road

Newcastle Utd 3 - 1 Plymouth Argyle

Goals from Steven Taylor, Kevin Nolan and Bigger Lad ensured Newcastle returned to winning ways on Saturday, and moved second in the table with a win over Plymouth Argyle.

Chris Hughton's response to the midweek defeat at Blackpool was to drop Ryan Taylor, Nicky Butt and perhaps most surprisingly Danny Guthrie to the bench, with Geremi, Peter Lovenkrands and suspension-free Alan Smith coming in to replace them.

Having set off in the middle of the night, any Plymouth fans arriving a fraction late to the match would have missed Steven Taylor nodding home Geremi's corner unopposed in the fifth minute. From there, we allowed the visitors to come back into the game, and whilst we preserved our slender one goal lead until half-time, it was Argyle who started the second half better, and collected an equaliser through Karl Duguid.

However, the goal at least spurred us back into action, with Smith picking out Bigger Lad, who in turn found substitute Guthrie with a deft flick. Given time and space, Guthrie was able to cross to the back post for Kevin Nolan to head home from one yard.

Bigger Lad, now partnered with Nile Ranger, was clearly keen to celebrate the birth of his first born (which presumably now makes him Bigger Dad?) by getting on the scoresheet, and duly did so, controlling the ball on his chest and hammering home with his left foot to ensure a long journey back to the south coast for the Argyle fans (presumably all chauffeur driven by Paul Whitehouse). It could have been worse for the Pilgrims, had his acrobatic overhead kick not crashed back off the crossbar.

With Boro being thrashed by the Baggies, the win saw us open up a three point cushion over the forces of Smogness, and got us back on track quickly after Wednesday's blip. Next up are Ipswich on Saturday, when - once tribute has been paid to Sir Bobby Robson - we have to be ruthless in extending Keano's side's miserable winless run.

Other reports: .com, BBC, Guardian

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Georgian on my mind

If you were told a Georgian had pitched up on Tyneside, you might have been forgiven for thinking the recently unemployed Temuri Ketsbaia had made a dramatic return to terrorise the St James' Park hoardings as a new member of the coaching staff. But no - it's Blackburn Rovers centre-back and sworn enemy of Spellchecker Zurab Khizanishvili.

As an assured international defender with 55 caps and plenty of experience in English football, Khizanishvili - who was once a team-mate of Ketsbaia's at Dundee - represents a very astute temporary addition to the squad. Last night aside, the partnership of Steven Taylor and Fabricio Coloccini has looked solid, but we desperately needed cover - Danny Simpson may be able to read the game well but he's not the tallest, and when wet-behind-the-ears Hungarian Tamas Kadar made his one start of the season, against Huddersfield, we conceded three. I'm not sure what I'm most surprised about - a sensible signing in a position for which we needed reinforcements, or Fat Sam's willingness to help out a club he loves badmouthing.

In other loan news, the Mirror reports that Roy Hodgson has refused to sanction Diomansy Kamara's move to Newcastle on the grounds that he's still an important member of Fulham's squad - and, as though to underline that point, Kamara was selected to start in Thursday's Europa League game away to CSKA Sofia and scored with a cool finish that secured the Cottagers a point.

Meanwhile, Sky Sports are claiming that we're vying with Derby and the Smogs for the temporary services of Everton striker James Vaughan. When he first broke into the Toffees' first team, I seem to remember Vaughan being idly touted as the next Rooney, but since then he seems to have been overshadowed by his contemporary Victor Anichebe (not to mention Jo, Louis Saha and Yakubu) and may well be looking to kick-start his career away from Goodison Park. From our point of view, the Xisco Kid being out on loan himself means we're left with three very similar strikers in the shape of Big Lad, Bigger Lad and Nile Ranger, so Vaughan would fit the bill for a pacy complementary forward to feed from the flicks and knock-downs.

Tangerine dream nightmare

Blackpool 2 - 1 Newcastle Utd

It couldn't last. All good things must come to end. The honeymoon's over. Back to earth with a bump. Oh we don't like to be beside the seaside. And so on and so forth.

Blackpool had the temerity to breach our previously near-unbreachable defence not once but twice, wrecking our hopes of extending the new successive-wins-and-clean-sheets record, and in so doing coming from behind to inflict to our first ever Championship defeat.

I noted in the report on Sunday's game that we didn't play well, absorbed a fair amount of pressure, rode our luck and emerged victorious - but tonight our luck very definitely ran out. Whereas against Cardiff we nicked a slender advantage and then sat back, this time out we succumbed to a fatal complacency from the off, seemingly satisfied for the Seasiders to seize the initiative. Our midfield was particularly lacklustre, the absence of Alan Smith through suspension keenly felt.

That we didn't pay the price within the first half hour was due solely to a performance of agile defiance from Steve Harper, who denied David Vaughan, Brett Ormerod, Hameur Bouazza and Gateshead-born midfielder Keith Southern. Bouazza - instrumental in Birmingham's promotion to the Premier League last season and not so long ago a £3m signing for Fulham - was giving Danny Simpson a tough game, while Jose Enrique was up against his second tricky former Rangers right winger in three days, Charlie Adam.

So it was very much against the run of play when a move of real quality ended with Danny Guthrie's cross being headed powerfully home by Bigger Lad, who had recovered from injury to be restored to the starting XI at the expense of the very unfortunate Nile Ranger.

We then started to exert a measure of calm control and it seemed as though we might be primed for another 1-0 - but Blackpool had other ideas and equalised in first-half injury time when Harps was for once unable to keep hold of a shot and Ormerod pounced.

So, anyone's game at half-time - and in fairness to those in black and white we were the better side in the second period. It was just irritating, then, that the only goal of the half was scored by our hosts, Jason Euell taking advantage of some poor defending to blast home on 65 minutes.

While the Seasiders had opportunities to extend their lead, we continued to control possession and created the most and best chances - most noteably when Kevin Nolan wastefully headed substitute Geremi's header wide, shortly before the Cameroonian midfielder shot narrowly wide himself when he should have hit the target. Hughton switched to a 4-4-2 formation mystifyingly late, giving Ranger just five minutes to try and help rescue a point, but even still he came desperately close to doing so with a header that was cleared off the line.

We've been benefiting from poor finishing recently (particularly on our last two away trips), so it's probably karma that that's what ultimately cost us a point or even all three at Bloomfield Road. We can't have too many complaints - except, of course, about Mackem referee Jonathan Moss who not only waved away two penalty appeals (including one for a handball on the Blackpool line that denied Fabricio Coloccini a second goal in two games) but also saw fit to book Bigger Lad for his goal celebration. So, Mr Moss, if you can't celebrate in front of the away fans or your own fans, where CAN you celebrate?!

The result is a setback and a blow to pride, make no mistake - Blackpool may seem to be a slightly different prospect under Ian Holloway this season, but they struggled badly last year - but it's not the end of the world. The midweek fixtures may have left West Brom and the Smogs above us, but they play each other at the weekend, while we have an eminently winnable home game against the league's new basement boys Plymouth. With Smith available again there should be less complacency and more bite in midfield, while I sincerely hope Hughton recognises the value in very much going on the offensive against a side whose confidence is already brittle by dropping ASBO and pairing Ranger with Bigger Lad together up front.

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Kam's the man?

Tuesday's press conference brought confirmation from Chris Hughton of our interest in a couple of Premier League strikers who currently find themselves out of the first-team picture at their respective clubs.

"Diomansy Kamara is one of numerous names we have thought about. He scored a lot of goals for West Bromwich Albion in this division and he is a very good player. He is one of a few names we have looked into. Marlon Harewood is another one. There will be a few obvious names because of the position they play in. There are no names confirmed, all I can say is that these two are very much being spoken about."

What's not in doubt is that we need striking reinforcements. Bigger Lad may have made a surprise return to the first team at Bloomfield Road, but the news on Big Lad isn't good, with Hughton suggesting that his fractured foot could mean it's two or even three months before he's back in action - if you can ever refer to him as being "in action"...

Auf Wiedersehen Ket

You've got to feel for Temuri Ketsbaia. After quitting Anorthosis Famagusta in April as the first manager ever to lead a Cypriot side into the Champions League, the Georgian loon took up the reins at Olympiakos in May. But only a handful of games into the new season, and on the eve of the club's Champions League fixture against AZ Alkmaar, he's gone.

The phrase "left by mutual agreement" is usually a footballing euphemism for "sacked" - but if the decision was at least partially Ketsbaia's, perhaps he had an aversion to coaching a team wearing red and white...

And if five wins and a draw aren't enough to placate the Olympiakos hierarchy, heaven help them if they seriously think that Captain Lager might be the answer...

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Jonny Rotten?

If, like us, you're a regular reader of .com, you'll have noticed in their preview of tomorrow night's game against Blackpool some interesting comments on the man in the middle, Jonathan Moss:

"First time in charge of a competitive Newcastle game, but was the referee for our pre-season friendly clash at Huddersfield, which included on-pitch flare-ups at the end of both halves.

Both incidents were included in his report, but the FA later deemed that neither side had any case to answer.

Further details of Moss have now come to light, with his Leeds-based home a result of studying there and later working in the area as a school head teacher.

Originally from North Tyneside, he began refereeing in local junior Sunday football, having failed to make the grade as a schoolboy the Mackems. We have it on good authority that he is a lifelong red & whiter.

Well, to whatever good authority Biffa and Niall are citing you can add our own here at Black & White & Read All Over: occasional contributor Tim, who's an old schoolfriend of Moss and can vouch for his allegiance to the Great Unwashed.

Let's just say that Mr Moss's performance is going to come under particularly close scrutiny from those in the away end. And chances are that if Tim, currently walking the length of the Thames from source to mouth for charity, manages to find a way to follow the game, he'll have some comments of his own...

Monday, September 14, 2009

Fab five

Cardiff City 0 - 1 Newcastle Utd

A Fabricio Coloccini header, his first Newcastle goal in his 47th appearance, proved to be enough to secure a new club record - five successive league wins without conceding a goal - and return our merry band of international jetsetters (well, Wales is another country, after all) to the top of the Championship table.

Given that our hosts - and our old boy Michael Chopra in particular - had got off to a flyer, we could have been forgiven for fearing that the wheels of our excellent early season run might start to come loose at Cardiff's spanking new stadium. But the Bluebirds' surprise defeat at Doncaster before the international break had given us hope, and in the event claiming all three points wasn't much of a challenge.

With Lads Big and Bigger still out injured, and Peter Lovenkrands not sufficiently match-fit to start, Nile Ranger once again led the line on his own, with a supporting cast of Danny Guthrie, Kevin Nolan and ASBO charged with breaking forwards from midfield.

The breakthrough came in the 18th minute. Perhaps inspired by the fact that Nolan and Ryan Taylor decided to break their scoring ducks in our last game on the road, Coloccini popped up to give us the advantage with a well-directed header from Taylor's perfectly flighted cross. It was, from memory, pretty much our only effort all afternoon. Costing more than £10m, you could say it was a fairly expensive goal - but then it'll be worth more than that if the three points prove crucial come the end of the season, and well they might given Cardiff's similar promotion ambitions.

In recent years we've regularly taken the lead in games only to sit back and try to defend it with depressing ineptitude - but on this occasion adopting the backs-against-the-wall approach, as we did for the rest of the game, didn't result in death by firing squad. That that was the case was as much down to some superb blocks, which time and again prevented shots and crosses from causing any danger, as it was to the fact that Agent Chopra worked hard but largely ineffectually (mindful of his allegiances, perhaps?) while his lumbering partner Jay Bothroyd made Big Lad look fleet of foot and mind.

So the humdinger of an encounter that the Sky cameras were on hand to capture never unfolded - just a dour slog in which an unconvincing home attack came crashing up against the immoveable object of our defence. Gavin Rae had probably Cardiff's best chance of the game, blazing over when set up by Chopra, while lively winger Chris Burke was largely contained by Jose Enrique, as was substitute Kelvin Etuhu, on loan from Man City, by Danny Simpson on the other flank.

The home fans, while appreciative of a Geordie chorus of "There's only one Bobby Robson", were looking for something to get worked up about at least, and regularly vented their passions at ASBO and Alan Smith - so the sending-off of our skipper for a second yellow in stoppage time greeted with much pleasure. No doubt there would have been an identical amount of vitriol directed from the away end had they had no-necked runt Craig Bellamy sat just behind them, as I did...

For Smith, it was just one challenge too many, and now he'll miss out on the trip to Blackpool on Wednesday. A shame, really, as once again he was hugely effective in protecting the back four and can claim as much credit as any of the defenders for the clean sheet. The only person in Newcastle who may have been secretly pleased by the red card is second half substitute Nicky Butt, who was probably wondering how on earth else he was going to win his place back. Smith aside, our other star performer was probably Ranger, who worked tirelessly and dominated central defenders Mark Hudson and Anthony Gerrard in the air without ever actually posing a direct goal threat - but then he didn't need to.

So a hearty "Diolch" to our Welsh chums for giving us an easier ride to victory than expected - may Blackpool and Plymouth be similarly charitable. What is it they say about teams not playing well but winning again?

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Mickey taker?

The ink is hardly dry on the deal that took Michael Chopra to Cardiff from the Mackems permanently, but on the surface it would seem we're already harbouring hopes of him leaving - for us. According to Peter Beardsley, at least, "As Newcastle Academy staff, we would love to have him back here".

Of course Beardo doesn't hold the purse strings so any decision on that front would hardly lie with him - and in any case he went on to say: "No disrespect to Michael - and I've spoken to him about this before - he may not be a top Premier League player but he is a brilliant Championship player". If our ambition is an immediate return to the top flight, what would be the point of signing someone we didn't feel could cut it at that level?

The real reason for Beardsley's comments, I suspect, is rather more sly. Let's have another look: "I think that's still Michael's dream - to wear the number nine shirt for Newcastle ... Michael still lives here [Newcastle], he's still got family here. Obviously he's in Cardiff when he's playing football, but he comes up here whenever it's possible. He's still black and white". In other words, Chops: remember where your allegiances lie when we kick off tomorrow...

Beardsley, incidentally, knows a bit about what it takes to beat the Bluebirds - he was a scorer last time we played them, back in the 1983/4 season, along with one K Keegan.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Congratulations, felicitations... and investigations

Reasons to celebrate? Round these parts? Shurely shum mistake. But no, congratulations are indeed due - to both Chris Hughton and Nile Ranger.

As had been widely expected given our unbeaten table-topping start to the season, Hughton was today named Championship manager of the month for August. As noted in the recent A Month Of Saturdays piece, few would have foreseen the way the first month would pan out given all the chaos and innumerable distractions going on off the pitch, but Hughton has acted with commendable dignity and compusure (characteristics all too often in short supply at the club) and got on with the job of working with what he's got - even if those footballing resources were dwindling by the day. (Incidentally, I hadn't heard the story about David Edgar until reading the Ronnie Gill article linked above - absolutely unbelieveable.) While I doubt many fans have suddenly become convinced he's the long-term answer to the managerial vacancy, there's no doubt he's done a sterling job thus far this term in the most trying of circumstances.

Ranger, meanwhile, followed up his man-of-the-match-winning full Toon debut against Leicester with a goal as England U19s beat Russia 2-1 in a friendly on Tuesday night. Just as well he's in goalscoring form - though Big Lad is still on the treatment table, Bigger Lad is likely to be fit again and will expect to lead the line against Cardiff on Sunday.

But it's not all good news, though, with the announcement today that Fat Mike's Sports Direct International are under investigation by the Serious Fraud Office. Also under scrutiny are JJB Sports and in particular their former chief executive Chris Ronnie, with whom our old friend Dave "Dignity" Whelan, Wigan chairman and JJB founder, has previously insinuated Ashley was in cahoots. Probably best not to make any comment, but were the allegations to be proven, then Fat Mike might find his dream of departing St James' becoming a reality - albeit in the back of a police van...

Confession time

(Following on from the post above...)

Forgive me, fellow fans, for I have sinned. On Sunday I knowingly entered a local Sports Direct outlet with the deliberate intention of purchasing goods therein, and purchase goods I did. Please find it in your hearts to grant me absolution.

In my defence, £4 for a yellow T-shirt is hardly going to line Fat Mike's pockets for long, is it? All the same, when it gets its first outing tomorrow, I'm sure it'll feel like wearing a hair shirt...

(Incidentally, when I discovered my work 5-a-side team this season had elected to play in yellow, I wondered whether it was all an elaborate ruse carefully calculated to get me - someone, anyone - to buy the new away shirt. But having rumbled that evil masterplan, I've then gone and bought suitable attire from Ashley's shop. In the immortal words of someone who is naturally yellow, doh!)

Monday, September 07, 2009

A Month Of Saturdays: August 2009

The last Month Of Saturdays piece concluded with something of a rallying cry, though one which had more hope than conviction behind it: "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". What's incredible is that, despite all the odds, we not only pulled together in August but even ended the month at the summit of the table. It's been quite a few weeks...

We began the month with a pair of reminiscences from guest contributors Jonathan and Tim about the classic Derby County away game of 2002 and our fateful final day encounter with Villa respectively, by way of deliberately drawing a veil over our time in the top flight. Reflecting on our Championship opponents in a two-part preview (here and here) and casting our gaze forwards, we could find next to nothing to warm the spirit in assessing our own prospects for the forthcoming season.

Little wonder, really - for at least five reasons.

Firstly, the club was still firmly in Fat Mike's clutches, despite his and his various associates' efforts to hawk it around to anyone with a bit of loose change. Another prospective buyer had emerged, one Barry Moat - together with rumours of Wor Al's return as manager under the man who chaired his testimonial committee - but nothing concrete had materialised. As August wore on, deadline after deadline ticked by with no news, and Ashley was made to look more and more foolish.

Secondly, Chris Hughton remained in temporary managerial charge in the absence of a permanent appointment, trying to give the impression of being in control publicly but unable to hide his being treated like a kidnap victim - left in the dark with his hands tied behind his back - when it came to prospective player sales. "As far as I know, he is still at the club at the moment", he declared at one point of Steven Taylor, who had lambasted us as "a joke" on the eve of the new season. "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". The month also brought fresh reports of David O'Leary's imminent arrival and a laughable claim from JFK that Fat Mike had offered him a two year contract (it must have been his nurses upping the medication after all).

Thirdly, the asset-stripping we'd anticipated all summer picked up in pace at just the time we'd hoped it wouldn't, with relatively unsung heroes Sebastien Bassong and Habib Beye both sold (to Spurs and Villa respectively) the day before we kicked off against West Brom. Over the course of the month they were followed by Damien Duff - who echoed James Milner and Little Saint Mick before him in passing not-so-subtle comment on us when pitching up at new club Fulham ("It's really exciting, from where I have come from, to come to a well-run football club and a team where everyone enjoys their job") - and Xisco, who was rather more blunt when joining Racing Santander on loan ("I even stopped playing in the last few days to force my exit. If they hadn’t accepted the loan at Santander, I would have regarded my situation at Newcastle as hopeless").

Fourthly, the recruitment drive - for bar staff in Shearer's, for "matchday cooks" but most importantly for players - wasn't exactly going swimmingly. When we kicked off against West Brom, the number of new faces at the club stood at a big fat zero. Full back Danny Simpson subsequently arrived on loan from Man Utd, but we still had to suffer the indignity of ex-England international Sol Campbell effectively turning down our advances in favour of the other Magpies, Notts County, two divisions below us.

And fifthly, our pre-season campaign - culminating in a mediocre 1-1 draw at Dundee Utd but memorable chiefly only for the scrap at Huddersfield and the shameful drubbing at Leyton Orient - suggested we'd struggle to uproot a handful of saplings with a JCB, let alone tear up any trees.

All of which meant that an opening day trip to the home of the side widely tipped to win the league wasn't exactly ideal. But, while we didn't beat West Brom, we didn't lose either - and, after all we'd had to put up with, that in itself felt like a victory. Damien Duff marked what turned out to be his last appearance for the club with a cool finish to round off a neat move, but the real hero was Tim Krul, pitched into the fray for the second half after Steve Harper had been injured by Big Lad lunging in a failed attempt to prevent the Baggies from opening the scoring. The young Dutchman, last seen in first team action against Palermo nearly three years ago, pulled off no fewer than four splendid saves to earn the man of the match award.

"Surely either [Nile Ranger] or Xisco should be preferred to Big Lad for Bigger Lad's partner?", I ventured in the West Brom match report. If Chris Hughton's team selection for the home fixture against Reading suggested he's not a reader, then Big Lad's performance hinted that he might just be. In registering the first hat-trick of his senior career - two well-taken headers from excellent whipped crosses, topped off with a penalty - he baked the humble pie, clamped my mouth open and shovelled it in.

Four days later and Big Lad was at it again, this time a solitary first-half strike proving just about enough to see off a Sheffield Wednesday side that ran us closer than Reading's kindergarten XI. Perhaps most remarkably, over 43,000 turned out to see it.

Just as we started to worry about the possibility of running out of punning "Sho" headlines, Big Lad obligingly had a shocker at Crystal Palace - but thankfully two of our midfielders, Kevin Nolan and Ryan Taylor, decided that the time was finally right for them to score their first Newcastle goals to ensure we left Selhurst Park with another three points. The Scouse duo were part of the supposedly supporting cast last season when our strikers were misfiring too - better that they step out of the shadows now than never, though, I suppose.

The visit of Lee Clark and Terry Mac's Huddersfield in the League Cup provided a brief dramatic interlude, a flashback to the mid-90s Keegan days when we routinely set out simply to outscore the opposition. The Yorkshiremen recovered from a goal down to go 3-1 up, but Big Lad's introduction from the bench proved the catalyst for a rousing recovery as we rallied to win 4-3 with a late Nolan tap-in and secure an away tie at Peterborough. Unlike our previous meeting, in pre-season, there was no fisticuffs either - probably because Beye had already moved on.

And so we came to the final day of the month, when, thanks to the stumblings of our early rivals, a Danny Guthrie thunderbolt (his second goal in two games) and a 1-0 win over Leicester sent us top. The Foxes had had the better of the opening period, but once we were ahead the outcome seemed inevitable - and that's not something we've felt in a positive sense for a very long time.

So where, you might well wonder, has it all gone right? (If, indeed, we can really ask and answer that question after just five league games.)

The cynic would point immediately to the quality of the opposition, and in particular to the quality of their finishing which, especially at Selhurst Park, has arguably contributed rather more to our keeping four consecutive clean sheets in the league than has stout defending. But it's too arrogant - or at least too early - to dismiss our rivals like this, and in any case on this occasion I'd prefer to give credit where I think it's due.

Put simply, despite the loss of our better performers (Obafemi Martins, Bassong, Beye) and the retention (whether through choice or otherwise) of other players I'd have happily waved off into the sunset (Alan Smith, Nolan, ASBO), there does now appear to be a semblance of team spirit and togetherness that was lacking in the Premier League. Resilience in adversity, you might say, but then that doesn't really wash as we've been grappling with adversity for some time now and it only just seems to have clicked. Those who were formerly arch underachievers are, if not fully-fledged overachievers, then achievers at very least, and at last we appear to be seeing a degree of effort to match the undoubted talent that the squad possesses. We may not be "a well-run football club" off the pitch just yet - far, far from it - but in August we did at least look like we were pulling together on it.

Look who's talking - again

Back in July, Rob Lee declared: "I speak to Alan every day and he’s frustrated to say the least. He’s coming to the end of his tether now. He’s waited for ages and been told that things were due to happen, but nothing has and he’s very frustrated".

A month and a half on, and nothing's changed - other than the strength of Lee's language: "I think he [Shearer] is getting pissed off with it. It’s been going on too long. My gut feeling is I can’t see Mike Ashley having him back and I can’t see Alan working for him again. I’d be surprised if that happened".

Of course, we may yet get to welcome Wor Al back to St James' - but most likely only if Barry Moat's protracted buy-out succeeds and Fat Mike waddles off back down to Cockneyville. And that's still far from certain. I've lost track of all the supposed "deadlines", but wasn't the last one 31st August?

Coles to Newcastle?

Moat better watch out he doesn't get pipped to the post by Cheryl Cole, who told Real Radio this morning that she'd buy the club herself if she had the funds. But before all rushing out and buying up Girls Aloud's back catalogue three times over, bear in mind that even that might not bring about the end of the Ashley era - the original caller suggested she might like to install her hubby at left-back, and she didn't deny it...

(Thanks to Tim for the link.)

Saturday, September 05, 2009

A snip of a lad

Rumoured summer transfer target Robert Earnshaw is better known for scoring than saving, but over on Cheer Up Alan Shearer Swiss Toni's reported on the cheeky blighter's successful attempt to get a cheap haircut even cheaper. So if he does end up swapping Trent for Tyne in future, best be on your guard, barbers...

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Hired help

Today brought both an admission from Chris Hughton in the Chronicle that things didn't quite go to plan on deadline-of-sorts day - "We made moves on Tuesday and they didn't work" - and an insistence that we'll continue to explore potential loan opportunities right up until the deadline proper.

The identities of the players in question remain unknown, though Hughton did confess that interest in Villa's Marlon Harewood - a man who bears a passing resemblance to Homer Simpson and often displays similar haplessness to Springfield's favourite son - had come to nowt, as had attempts to bring in Craig Cathcart, a defensive colleague of Danny Simpson's at Old Trafford. Our chances of recruiting probably haven't been helped by the defection of chief scout Lil Fuccillo to Championship rivals Swansea, either...

Surely there are loads of Premier League fringe players who would be happy to drop down a division to get some games with the side currently topping the table? To name but a random handful who would be welcome temporary arrivals and who might be interested: Darron Gibson (Man Utd), Chris Baird and Zoltan Gera (Fulham), Nabil El Zhar (Liverpool), Gareth Bale (Spurs), Michael Johnson and Benjani (Man City), Dan Gosling (Everton), Nathan Delfouneso (Villa)...

One loanee has arrived at St James' - though sadly he's not a new face, but Jonny Godsmark, whose temporary spell at Hereford has been cut short owing to a broken hand that needed surgery.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Loven la vida loca

We may be accustomed to having to question the club's transfer policy on an almost daily basis, but for our deadline day dealings surely the hierarchy has to be applauded for once.

Not only did we just about manage to keep what's left of our squad intact, failing to flog retaining all of those players rumoured to be attracting interest at home and abroad (Kevin Nolan, Steven Taylor, Spiderman, Alan Smith, Bigger Lad etc), but we also succeeded in bringing Peter Lovenkrands, scorer of our final Premier League goal, back to St James'. The genius of the deal is clear when you consider that we released him back in May/June, pretending he wasn't wanted - so, at a time when every penny counts, we've saved ourselves a couple of months of wages!

OK, so all sarcasm aside, Lovenkrands could certainly be a useful addition. Sure he's another midfielder, but he is at least of a creative and attacking bent, and played up front at times last season, so could fill the breach while Lads Big and Bigger recuperate from injury.

The absence of defensive reinforcements remains a major concern, but thankfully "deadline" in "transfer deadline day" has the same rigidity of meaning as it does when used by Fat Mike, Llambiarse and associates of the various supposed bids for the club i.e. very little. As a Championship side, we're still able to strike loan deals for the next seven days - so there's still hope Hughton's pleas for new faces will be heeded.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Number one with a bullet

Newcastle Utd 1 - 0 Leicester City

Who'd have thunk it, eh? That five games into the new season we'd still be managerless, that Fat Mike would still be the owner, that we'd have haemorrhaged more than ten members of last term's squad and added just one loanee, that our one fit striker would be an 18-year-old with so few first team appearances they could be counted on the hand of someone who'd been involved in a freak combine harvester accident - but that we'd also be top of the league. Remarkable, it really is.

Monday night's match-winner was Danny Guthrie with his second goal in successive home matches, but the man-of-the-match award and most of the plaudits went (probably rightly) to the aforementioned striker, Nile Ranger. But more of him later.

After a weekend when early pace-setters Cardiff and the Smogs cocked up and West Brom could only muster a draw, we went into the game knowing that a win would send us two points clear at the top of the pile. But injuries had already robbed Chris Hughton of the services of Nicky Butt, Spiderman, Big Lad and Bigger Lad (Xisco already having hobbled off to Racing Santander), and an ill-timed Argentina call-up meant Fabricio Coloccini was also missing. Add to that the fact that the wily Foxes, managed by former Toon caretaker Nigel Pearson, were unbeaten in their previous ten league games, and victory of any description - let alone the 7-1 thrashing we dished out last time we met at this level - looked far from certain.

The first half didn't give much hope, either. Skipper Alan Smith was industrious enough in central midfield, but we posed precious little threat up front, the only serious effort on goal I can recall coming from makeshift supporting forward Kevin Nolan, who forced 'keeper Chris Weale into a comfortable smothering save to his right. True enough, though, we were denied two penalties that were not so much cast-iron as gold-plated when the same Ryan Taylor cross was handled by two different Leicester players.

The visitors, by contrast, asked the more searching questions, Steve Harper finding his reflexes tested first by a powerful close-range header from Toon fan Steve Howard and then a low curling free-kick from Paul Gallagher, a man who already knows what it's like to score the winner at St James'. An even better chance fell to Matty Fryatt when Danny Simpson, in an unfamiliar central role, made his one mistake of the night, but the hotshot of last year's League One winning campaign fired wide.

Part of the problem was that Ranger simply couldn't get into the game, but the transformation after the break was telling. The youngster had already gone close when he laid Nolan's chest down to Guthrie, whose deft footwork took him into a shooting position on the edge of the area and the ball was bulging the net almost before Weale had time to react.

From then on, the team collectively and Ranger individually visibly grew in confidence. While nothing was sticking to him in the first half, now his foot was like flypaper, and although chances never really came his way, he showed his potential value to the side by holding play up and preoccupying several defenders at once.

Geremi - who otherwise appeared to be strolling about lethargically in tribute to Big Lad - skidded a shot just past the post, and further opportunities to extend a lead that was never really threatened came and went. Defensively we were comfortable, the previously dynamic French winger Dany N'Guessan by now totally subdued by Jose Enrique, and the fourth consecutive clean sheet in the league could probably have been achieved even if Harps had decided to catch forty winks.

Ranger, Guthrie and ASBO made way for the sprogs (Harris Vuckic, Ryan Donaldson and Tamas Kadar), but their introduction wasn't so much the signal of Hughton's belief in their abilities and talent that it's been interpreted as, as it was an indication of quite how thin the squad now is - a gentle nudge to Fat Mike to get the chequebook out, perhaps.

The fact remains that we're already struggling with a handful of injuries - should the situation worsen, and it usually does, then leading the way will become unsustainable. All things considered, it's a miracle we are where we are, so by all means we should enjoy it while it lasts - but, given the size and quality of the current squad, it won't last long enough.

Other reports: .com, BBC, Guardian

In the posh seats

Saturday saw the draw for the Third round of the League Cup, with our win over Huddersfield rewarded with a trip to see our fellow Championship team Peterborough United later this month.

Hopefully we'll have better success against Taggart junior than we've had against his old man in recent seasons.

It's San for Xisco

The Xisco kid has apparently been run out of town, with Racing Santander presumably content to pick up his exorbitant wages in the hope of getting a better return than we managed in the year he was with us.

Arriving on deadline day at the behest of the poisoned dwarf, his recruitment, and that of midfielder Nacho Gonzalez was the final straw for Keegan, prompting him to quit and the annus horribilis to begin in earnest.

As far as Xisco is concerned, other than another player gone from our miniscule squad, his loss is unlikely to be felt anywhere other than on the balance sheet.