Thursday, October 08, 2009

A Month Of Saturdays: September 2009

Was there ever a more richly deserved Manager Of The Month award than the one presented to Chris Hughton for August? Somehow I doubt it. Looking back to last month's review, I dwelt upon the extraordinary circumstances in which Hughton has been expected to work, but - to my shame - went on to hand the bulk of the credit for the transformation in our fortunes to the players, not even mentioning Hughton's role once. So it feels only right that that omission should be remedied now.

Thus far this season he's confounded expectations, getting on with the job uncomplainingly, coaxing committed and energetic displays out of players we'd come to suspect were incapable (or just unwilling) to give them and suggesting he's a capable man-manager as well as a hands-on training ground coach. That isn't to say he hasn't made the odd questionable decision from a tactical perspective, but I think we can forgive him that much. Strange to say it, but the fact that Alan Shearer is still effectively in limbo would have been almost forgotten had it not been for Rob Lee telling us his pal was "getting pissed off with it".

One person who wouldn't approve of Hughton's Manager Of The Month award (aside, perhaps, from Barry Moat, who might now feel that his proposed appointment of Wor Al wouldn't be quite the fan-pleaser it might have been) is Shakespeare's Polonius. 'Twas he who advised: "Neither a borrower nor a lender be; / For loan oft loses both itself and friend, / And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry." With last season's squad decimated by cherry-pickers from the Premier League and abroad, Hughton's not had much to lend out (except for the Xisco Kid to Racing Santander) - but for the same reason he's had no option but to borrow. I'm not entirely sure how bad it is to find the edge of your husbandry dulled, but I'd venture to suggest that for Hughton, in the circumstances, it was a price worth paying.

Joining August's loanee from Man Utd, Danny Simpson, at St James' in September were first Blackburn's Georgian defender Zurab Khizanishvili and then Homer Simpson-alike Marlon Harewood from Aston Villa. All three are very much fringe players at their respective Premier League clubs, but are more than just additional bodies. Simpson is no doubt desperate to impress Taggart at a time when the Man Utd right back spot looks to be up for grabs, while Harewood has goalscoring form at this level and Khizanishvili is an experienced and established international, and the trio have made promising starts to their temporary Newcastle careers. You do wonder whether the temptation to sign Khizanishvili permanently might be all the greater because of the extra cash that could be generated in the club shops by selling his name on the back of shirts...

Harewood's arrival was somewhat belated, an earlier move being one of several potential deals that collapsed on transfer deadline day to leave Hughton admitting frustration. Approaches for Fulham's Diomansy Kamara and free agent Sol Campbell both also failed (though the latter walking out on Notts County after one game, a 2-1 defeat to Morecambe, had us smirking Schadenfreude smiles).

But deadline day did at least see us welcome one new permanent signing to the club, the first of the summer - and a familiar one to boot. Peter Lovenkrands had his moments of usefulness before being released at the end of his short-term contract in the wake of our relegation, so it wasn't really a disappointment when we signed him up for another stretch - even if it did make the powers-that-be look either comically indecisive or so penny-pinchingly tight that they would do anything to save on a couple of months' wages...

As well as hellos, there were a few goodbyes in September too - to chief scout Lil Fuccillo, who left for Swansea; to the League Cup, thanks to a comprehensive defeat to Peterborough which suggested Alan Hansen's infamous "You can't win anything with kids" does hold some truth); but most significantly, of course, to Sir Bobby Robson, whose life was commemorated in a moving memorial service during which even Taggart spoke generously and whose greatest footballing achievements were celebrated before and during our match against Ipswich the following Saturday.

Much to the disgust of Tractor Boys boss Royston Keane, that game saw us run riot, romping to an easy 4-0 win courtesy largely of a Kevin Nolan hat-trick. There were two other wins posted over the course of the month: a 1-0 triumph away to an out-of-sorts Cardiff thanks to Fabricio Coloccini's first goal for the club, in which Agent Chopra took heed of Peter Beardsley's pre-match comments and remembered his allegiances; and a 3-1 victory at St James' that left Plymouth fans rueing the decision to make the long journey northwards.

But it wasn't all positive news on the pitch. The aforementioned loss to Peterborough called into question the quality of some of our youngsters, as well as their readyness for first team action. The key importance of the revitalised (or should that just be vitalised?) Alan Smith was underlined by his late red card against Cardiff and subsequent absence against Blackpool three days later, a game in which we led and could have won but ultimately lost. (The fact that Mackem ref Jonny Moss refused us not one but two penalties, one blatant, didn't exactly help - how apoplectic would Taggart have been in reaction to that, I wonder?) Neither was the home draw with QPR on the last day of the month much to write home about. Coming so soon after the demolition of Ipswich that, combined with favourable results elsewhere, had taken us back to the top of the table, it was disappointing that we could only muster a point, and that salvaged only thanks to a two yard toe-poke from substitute Homer.

And what, lastly, of Fat Mike? With us established as league leaders and generally performing well, could he possibly find the tide of public opinion turning back towards him? No, of course not. The fans still found time amidst the jubilation and enthusiastic support of the team to not-so-politely request him to do one as soon as possible, while another personal headache arrived in the form of a Serious Fraud Office investigation into Sports Direct International. What price Ashley's successor being one Mrs C Cole? You might not want "no good advice", Cheryl, but I'll give you some for free - I'd think long and hard about it if I were you...


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