Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Quote of the day

"I always got on fine with Shearer but when Bobby Robson went, maybe I resented him a bit for how the manager left. That's where my relationship with him broke down."

Is it just me, or is no-necked text pest Craig Bellamy really implying that Wor Al played a role in Sir Bobby's departure? And if so, why the hell didn't his interviewer, Mirror hack Oliver Holt, ask him to clarify and justify the comment?

Bellamy also took the opportunity to play down his contretemps with John Carver before the Real Mallorca fixture in 2004, claiming "I didn't throw a chair at him. I threw a chair out of the way to go and argue with him. It nearly hit Shay Given but that was it". Anyone else convinced? Shay must be delighted to once again be in danger of low-flying items of furniture at Man City...

On the subject of Carver, it's worth mentioning that he recently made a return to English football following a spell in charge of MLS side Toronto FC. He won't have to wait long for a reunion - we play his Plymouth side in the FA Cup on Saturday.

Meanwhile, less happy news for another former coach (and Academy boss), Alan Irvine, sacked by another of our Championship rivals Preston.

The half-time whistle

A quick pointer in the direction of The Two Unfortunates, where you'll find some thoughts on the way the first half of the Championship season has panned out. As far as Newcastle Utd are concerned, you might well disagree with the suggestion that our triumphs thus far have been achieved by virtue of "good football", but there's no doubt that the most maligned players of last season are largely those who have been among our best this term.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009


Newcastle Utd 0 - 0 Derby County

So, that was the noughties. How better to mark the end of a decade of fleeting glimpses of glory which dwindled away into disappointment and frustration than with a game that followed exactly the same tragic trajectory?

Derby arrived at St James' Park served up on a plate to the league leaders as plump Christmas turkeys. That they avoided their fate was thanks in part to some dogged defending but more significantly to our own offensive deficiencies.

With kick-off coming barely 48 hours after the final whistle at Hillsborough, Chris Hughton opted to refresh the team. Bigger Lad and Peter Lovenkrands were named as the front two, Big Lad dropping to the bench and Homer having returned to Villa, for the time being at least. Meanwhile, Ryan Taylor replaced Danny Guthrie on the right side of midfield and Alan Smith reclaimed his anchoring role and the captaincy from Nicky Butt.

Given that we ended up drawing a blank, you could be forgiven for assuming Hughton's shake-up was to blame, but in truth all three were at the heart of the action, especially in the first period. Bigger Lad nodded two headers narrowly wide, one only a couple of minutes in, and caused the Rams' centre-backs some discomfort, while Lovenkrands, for his part, was busy and bustling and himself unlucky to see a snapshot from a tight angle go past the far post.

Taylor it was, though, who was most prominent in the early exchanges. In recent games Guthrie's been our go-to man for inch-perfect crosses, but Taylor's delivery was proving equally skilled. He also came closest to giving us the lead, pinging Stephen Bywater's crossbar with a brilliant curling free-kick. He'll know he should have done better shortly afterwards, though, when Spiderman's bisecting pass set him clean through, only Bywater's outstretched leg preventing the net from bulging.

Spiderman was routinely roasting his full-back Paul Connolly like festive chestnuts on an open fire (once he'd got a horrendous miskick in the centre circle out of his system) - clearly his Christmas Day training run down Osbourne Road in his Argentina shorts, as spotted by a friend, did him some good. So, a very promising opening, then - until, that is, one of my companions said: "Looks like it's only a matter of time". I believe they call it the kiss of death...

Almost immediately the onslaught ceased, we started to falter in other areas of the pitch and Derby eased their feet under the table. Indeed, if it hadn't been for a fine Steve Harper save, DJ Campbell's header would have given the Rams a half-time lead. (Incidentally, the presence of Campbell, on loan from East Midlands rivals Leicester, brought back memories of our FA Cup meeting with Yeading, which feels like a lifetime ago - Soumess in the dugout, Boumsong and Babayaro in the very early days of their less-than-glorious Newcastle careers - though actually less than five years have passed.)

Arguably the best chance of the second half fell to Steven Taylor who - centrally positioned, unmarked and from close range - contrived to plant his header straight into the relieved Bywater's hands. Otherwise, we were hamstrung by the same things that fatally crippled us at Forest in October - a lack of creativity and imagination, poor quality final balls and a curious unwillingness to shoot when the opportunities presented themselves. It's hard to single out individuals for below-par performances, but given his usefulness so far this season Kevin Nolan's ineffectuality was conspicuous.

The second period, then, was mostly a damp squib livened only by the teenagers in front of us trying to start chants and then berating all those around for failing to join in - "Have you been on the wine gums again?" and "Fuck off home, man - your tea's ready" were two of the choicest responses...

The introduction of Big Lad for Bigger Lad was warmly greeted, but the cheers soon turned to grumbles and outbursts of irritation when it became evident he was in disinterested mode. With two minutes remaining we thought we'd finally made the breakthrough, but substitute Nile Ranger's hooked shot was deflected by Bywater onto the underside of the bar and our vociferous appeal wasn't enough to change reality and convince the officials the ball had in fact ventured over the line.

Jay McEveley received a second yellow card in stoppage time (thereby partially appeasing the young lad near us who spent the whole game asking his dad why Derby players weren't being booked for every challenge) and we squandered a handful of late set pieces before the final whistle blew.

While Hughton's post-match claim that we've played worse and won this season has some validity, the fact remains that we were only really in a respectable gear for the first 25 minutes. Paul too was optimistic in outlook: "Still six points clear at new year, albeit West Brom have a game in hand. If you'd offered me that in August I'd have bitten your hand off". Point taken, but I'm certainly not the only one nevertheless concerned about the rate at which we've allowed our pre-Christmas lead to be eroded.

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

Window of opportunity

With the transfer window about to creak open for another month of rumours, half-truths, lies and Sky Sports frantically trying to hype up fleeting glimpses of limos in car parks, what should Chris Hughton be doing to strengthen our squad over the next month?

With the first team going well, the clear concern with our squad remains its lack of depth - with Danny Simpson still on loan, we lack cover in both full back positions, and some more bodies in this regard would be gratefully received.

Strong rumours have linked us to Matthew Kilgallon of Sheffield United, who would add to our backline options, and would be another welcome body in the squad with half an eye on what is hopefully a Premier League return next season.

Further forward, I've yet to be convinced that Homer should be encouraged to start house-hunting just yet, so a further striker, ideally with some pace, might be a good acquisition - as Hughton has himself acknowledged.

In the midfield, whilst Smith and Nolan have done well, a creative midfielder wouldn't go amiss.

However, what Chris Hughton absolutely must do is keep hold of all of his current first team regulars. If he can stop any struggling Premier League teams from picking up the likes of Nolan and Bigger Lad then we should be able to keep our run going. However, if the vultures start picking off our remaining talent, the wheels could still fall off our promotion challenge.

With Jabba still holding the purse strings, we can only hope that even he isn't stupid enough to sell off our remaining assets.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Yorkshire puddings

Sheffield Wednesday 2 - 2 Newcastle Utd

No manager. In the bottom three. No win in ten. Five straight defeats home and away. Five straight defeats at home. Six games without a goal. A good time to be playing Sheffield Wednesday? So it seemed.

Of course, what we'd neglected to remember was the date of the fixture, 26th December. Yesterday's 2-2 draw extended our winless streak on the road on Boxing Day to 21 years - the last time we picked up maximum points on our post-Christmas travels was coincidentally at Hillsborough in 1988.

It can't have been long after kick-off that Chris Hughton - whose only change from the starting XI that lined up against the Smogs was enforced, Nicky Butt coming in to replace Alan Smith - was rueing both the decision to give the squad Christmas Day off and his pre-match comments about the solidity of the defence. Wednesday set about us much as Barnsley did on our last trip to south Yorkshire - "spirited" was Hughton's description of the Owls' performance, not an adjective you could apply to ours - and when the opening goal arrived thanks to lax closing-down and marking it was no surprise. A half-cleared corner was played to James O'Connor who, allowed time and space in the area to pick out a cross, found Luke Varney who headed home unchallenged.

The home side's joy at finding the back of the net for the first time for 631 minutes was short-lived, though, as we equalised soon afterwards with a very similar goal. This time it was Danny Guthrie who had the freedom of the right side of the penalty area, and he reprised his delivery man role to perfection, picking out the unmarked Kevin Nolan who guided a beautiful header into the top corner.

While 'keeper Lee Grant had no chance with that goal, he and his defenders were right to feel aggrieved when we took the lead three minutes later. Retreating from a clearly offside position, Big Lad collected Spiderman's pass, touched the ball clear of a challenge and fired home with Grant unsighted. Much to our delight, the linesman's flag wasn't forthcoming, leading me to declare grinningly - and stupidly, with hindsight - that we're benefitting from the poorer standard of officiating as well as of finishing and defending in the Championship.

Having gone in front without much effort, we elected to keep it that way and, despite controlling the game, never appeared unduly concerned to extend the lead. Big Lad claimed in the wake of the Smog victory that our biggest enemy is complacency - and so it proved.

The Owls, roused by caretaker manager Sean McAuley's half-time team-talk, began the second period much as they'd begun the first, on the front foot. It didn't help, of course, that we gave them encouragement. Butt's grip on the midfield started to slip; Big Lad and Homer - a boisterous, bullying force in the first half - were muzzled; and Jose Enrique and Fabricio Coloccini refused to do the simple things, instead insisting on fannying about fancily in dangerous areas and conceding unnecessary corners.

Even then, though, Wednesday couldn't score without assistance - Mark Beevers heading wide and Jermaine Johnson making a hash of another decent opportunity - and needed a helping hand from the officials to draw level. Varney clearly impeded Steve Harper in heading a cross onto the bar, the increasingly influential O'Connor slamming home the rebound. "It was most definitely a foul", said Hughton afterwards - but, having profited from the linesman's myopia for our second, we were hardly in a position to complain.

It could have been worse had Steve Harper not pulled off a remarkable point-blank stop with his shoulder to deflect Marcus Tudgay's header behind for a corner - as at nearby Bramall Lane, his heroics were crucial. Homer's afternoon - his last appearance before the expiry of his loan - ended prematurely, his replacement Bigger Lad almost making an immediate impact only to find Grant equal to his firmly struck right-foot shot. Fellow substitute Fabrice Pancrate, meanwhile, seemed to be in a generous mood - repeatedly blazing high and wide, he was apparently intent on giving each and every fan in the away end a football for Christmas...

A point it was, then, so the title of this post is perhaps a little harsh. But it was a game we fully expected to win and for the second time in two away games our defence was unsettled with worrying ease by a simple but effective aerial assault. Forest couldn't take advantage, scraping a point at Watford, but West Brom cruised to a predictable win over Peterborough to close the gap to eight points.

At least we've got an immediate opportunity to make amends with tomorrow's home game against Derby. The Rams are in poor shape and slumped to a 2-0 home defeat to Blackpool yesterday - but, as the trip to Hillsborough proved, complacency can be costly.

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Season's greetings

With Paul being otherwise engaged and me out of reach of a computer from tomorrow until at least Boxing Day, I'll take the opportunity to wish you all a very merry Christmas from the pair of us at Black & White & Read All Over. Ten points clear at the top - not a bad present and certainly better than a pair of naff socks (even if it is top of a table we don't want to be in).

Let's just hope that we can keep it up through the festive period and beyond and that a few people get the gifts they need: Big Lad a dictionary so he can get a better appreciation of what total commitment means; Bigger Lad a Wii so he doesn't have to leave the house and can batter people virtually instead; ASBO, Jabba and Llambiarse one-way tickets out of Tyneside...

Respect where it's due

A bunch of gravy-train-riding oafs they may be, for the most part, but at least FIFA have had the decency to give Sir Bobby Robson their 2009 Fair Play Award posthumously. Honouring a true gentleman and football legend and giving publicity to his charity The Sir Bobby Robson Foundation? They're in danger of actually living up to their slogan of being "for the good of the game"...

Quote of the day

"I suppose it is a bit of a date that we're having at the moment. As is usually the case you don't get married on a first date, you've got to go out a few times before you make any big decisions".

Aidy Boothroyd on having Nobby Solano on trial at Colchester. It's an unfortunate choice of metaphor - the U's boss seems to be under the misapprehension that marital ties signify permanence to our former wing wizard...

Monday, December 21, 2009

Strait(jacket) talking

"If you told us we'd be 10 points clear by Christmas a lot of people would have looked at you funny."

Sunday goalscorer Big Lad proves himself a master of understatement - after all, you wouldn't just have been looked at funny, you'd have been packed off to the funny farm pronto.

He also suggested that the biggest threat to our title ambitions is complacency - certainly we're more in danger of being undone by that than by some of the forward lines we've faced so far this season...

The delivery man cometh

Newcastle Utd 2 - 0 Middlesbrough

Given the time of year, when thoughts of various deliveries are at the forefront of minds young and old alike ("What will Santa bring?", "Will Royal sodding Mail manage to get it here in one piece in time for Christmas Day?"), it was perhaps fitting that delivery was crucial to our win over the Smogs. The deliverer in question was Danny Guthrie, and the grateful recipients striking duo Homer and Big Lad.

All three had been brought into the starting XI, alongside Danny Simpson, with Fabrice Pancrate, Ryan Taylor and Nicky Butt dropping down to the bench and Bigger Lad, singled out by Chris Hughton for praise in the wake of his two assists at Barnsley just last weekend, mystifyingly absent altogether.*

This particular Tyne-Tees encounter was never going to have the same intensity as the clash in May, which ended in sweet victory for us but which ultimately gave only false hope of avoiding the drop. And so it certainly seemed in the opening few minutes, as we appeared content to allow the visitors to make themselves at home, Leroy Lita heading over when well placed.

But, with 15 minutes on the clock, Guthrie seized upon the opportunity to flight a delicious free-kick to the back post. Big Lad beat Boro 'keeper Brad Jones to the ball and nodded it down for Homer to blast home from close range. On closer inspection, though, it was evident that the goal owed as much to the short-sightedness of referee Kevin Friend and his linesmen as to Guthrie's delivery, the officials failing to spot Big Lad's not-so-subtle shove in the back of Emanuel Pogatetz. Let's hope the Smogs are still whingeing about our promotion push at the end of the season.

Pogatetz's bizarre mask contraption and Big Lad's gumshield suggested a contest more akin to rugby than football, and it certainly wasn't pretty. Thus far this season we've proven we're quite adept at taking on the Championship at its level, and again much of our play was direct and unsubtle but undeniably effective - and once we'd taken the lead, we largely controlled the game and could have gone further in front had Alan Smith's left-footed shot from the edge of the area not skidded narrowly wide.

The Smogs' best chance of the first half came when Steve Harper parried a fierce Gary O'Neil free-kick and on-loan Villain Isaiah Osbourne followed up from six yards. Our advantage was only preserved with some more help from our Friend, the man in the middle missing the fact that the ball deflected off Steven Taylor's hand before bouncing off Harper's bonce, onto the base of the post and into our 'keeper's hands on the line.

Both sides had good chances to score within ten minutes of the restart. From Jose Enrique's dangerous low left-wing cross, Homer contrived to tread on the ball when prodding it past Jones from two yards seemed easier, while the Smogs' lunk of a centre-back David Wheater saw his header drift just wide of an unguarded post from a dead-ball situation.

In both instances the delivery had been good but the efforts fluffed - but it was a different story soon afterwards. Guthrie's ball from the right was sublime, perfectly whipped and directed for Big Lad to bury the header beyond Jones. Whether he liked it or not, Guthrie was making a good case for being selected on the right of midfield and staying wide, rather than drifting naturally infield.

Boro's response was largely pitiful. Lita was lively up front but blasted wildly over on the occasions when he did get a sight of goal, while Marcus Bent managed to prove himself an even more useless foil than Dave Kitson (an erstwhile nemesis of ours, in his Reading days) had in the first half.

Our defence was superbly marshalled by Fabricio Coloccini on a day when all of his tricks, turns and dummies came off and made him look a class above everyone else rather than someone too worryingly relaxed and lackadaisical in a dangerous area of the pitch. Man-of-the-match Enrique had a decent game, but how the sponsors could overlook the Argentinian is beyond me - presumably they were too busy stuffing their faces with prawn sandwiches to see what was obvious to the biggest crowd in Championship history.

It could have been worse for Wee Gordon Strachan and the Smogs if a penalty had been rightly given when Kevin Nolan's shot was blocked by a flailing forearm (instead, Friend awarded a free-kick to Boro for a non-existent offside) or if substitute Nile Ranger had been able to direct a late header on target. But we're not greedy - another two goals, another clean sheet, another three points and now, courtesy of the postponement of the Baggies' game at Blackpool, ten points clear at the top of the table at Christmas will all do very nicely thank you very much.

Other reports: BBC

* Update: Thanks to Maggiepud for pointing out in the comments box that his omission was actually due to a one-game ban for collecting five yellows. Mystery solved...

Friday, December 18, 2009

Quote of the day

"In a Geordie man's life there are three important things - football, drink and women - and that's the order. It means so much to them down there and they deserve so much better."

Former Toon forward Darren Jackson, now an agent busy talking up our purported interest in his client Rangers striker Kris Boyd, strays perilously close to Fat Fred and Douglas Hall territory and making insinuations about Geordie women. Or was he talking about Brown Ale?

Football's coming home?

As anticipated, we've been named as one of the Host Cities for England's bid for the 2018 World Cup. But while Sunderland's selection was also a near-certainty, what about Plymouth (currently battling relegation and serious financial difficulties) and even more bizarrely Milton Keynes, especially when Derby, Leicester and Hull were all rejected?

Representatives of FIFA are due to visit the UK's nominated Host Cities next year before the final decision on the hosts is made in December - let's just hope for the sake of the bid that their time in Milton Keynes and the Dark Place are mercifully brief...

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Naxvamdis* to the Khiz kid

Zurab Khizanishvili's ten-minute substitute appearance at the end of Saturday's game with Barnsley - supposedly to shore up the defence, though we duly went on to concede a second equaliser - brought his fleeting Newcastle career to an end, and he's now returned to parent club Blackburn.

The Georgian defender initially looked like a useful loanee, playing particularly well as a marauding right-back as we destroyed Ipswich at Portman Road. But the straight red card against Doncaster - his actions weren't unprovoked, it should be added - and subsequent three-match ban robbed us of his services and he never really got back into the first-team frame.

Fancy a memento of Khizanishvili's unremarkable time in a black and white shirt? Here's just the thing. Not likely to be too many bidders, I'd imagine.

* That's "Goodbye" in Georgian for those of you who can't be bothered to Google it...

Them were the days

Thanks to .com's On This Day In History section for flagging up a curious game away to the Great Unwashed which took place in 1923. The tardiness of one of the linesmen saw our substitute Wilf Low fill in for the first ten minutes, during which we took the lead. A shame he couldn't continue in the role, though, as we conceded three in quick succession and could only muster one back in return...

Monday, December 14, 2009

If only our trip to Oakwell had been Hassell-free...

Barnsley 2 - 2 Newcastle Utd

Perhaps, with the benefit of hindsight, it was rather rash to say in the report on Wednesday's win over Coventry that relentless success was "a kind of monotony I could easily get used to". Saturday afternoon saw us come up against a Barnsley side in no mood to roll over as easily as some of our other supposedly more illustrious Championship opponents have, the late (and deserved) equaliser for the Tykes a brick on the brake pedal of the Toon steamroller.

With this fixture coming only three days after our trip to the Ricoh, Chris Hughton continued with his squad rotation policy, resting Peter Lovenkrands, Shola Ameobi and Danny Simpson and handing starts to Ryan Taylor, Bigger Lad and Kevin Nolan.

All three had a hand in our opener just five minutes in, Taylor's ball headed down by Bigger Lad for Nolan. The former Bolton man, having served his one-match ban for the two bookings against Watford and immediately looking at home in his familiar advanced role, duly gave us the lead with a cool finish.

Mindful of recent victories on the road, and apparently confident that our defence could hold firm for a fifth successive game, we assumed that one goal would be enough. Certainly there wasn't much in the way of an attempt to extend our advantage, aside from a Spiderman header that Tykes 'keeper Luke Steele saved easily.

But Barnsley, who had the look of relegation fodder early in the season, are a changed side under Mark Robins - dogged of spirit, they've climbed clear of the danger area (and would be even better off if it hadn't been for the Plymouth fiasco). And we were made to pay for any complacency early in the second period, Emil Hallfredsson blasting home via the underside of the bar from close range.

When, despite raising our game briefly, we were unable to regain the lead, Hughton's response was to withdraw Spiderman and throw on Homer. So a pat on the back for the manager was due when, just nine minutes later, the substitute volleyed home another Carroll knock-down.

On came Nile Ranger for Fabrice Pancrate, who like his fellow winger Spiderman had endured a frustrating afternoon - though I suspect the move wasn't so much to pose a greater offensive threat as to add height to the side, the home team's aerial bombardment having been unsettling our back four. So it was disappointing that the second equaliser came from a set-piece, full-back Bobby Hassell heading past Steve Harper.

A draw was a fair result, admittedly, but whether the opposition get their just desserts is of no concern to us - we want them to get beaten. Our ruthless efficiency deserting us and our defence creaking, we threw away points for only the third time this season.

All the same, it looked as though it might be a point gained, with our lead over West Brom stretched to eight points and the Baggies trailing 2-1 to QPR in injury time at the end of tonight's game. But then up popped in-form striker Simon Cox to snatch an irritatingly late leveller, so it's back to seven. It may have been cut to four by the time we next kick off, against the Smogs on Sunday. But then Bloomfield Road, West Brom's next destination, hasn't been an easy place for anyone to visit this season - as we know from personal experience.

Other reports: BBC

Friday, December 11, 2009

Youth team news

Congratulations to the other half of Black & White & Read All Over, Paul, and his wife Lisa who this morning became parents for the second time. On this occasion, fortunately, a midwife was on standby and Paul didn't have to show a Harper-esque safe pair of hands in taking delivery of his son...

No doubt young Isaac will soon find himself bedecked in Ben's old black and white striped babygro and propped up in front of televised games (you've got to get 'em young). As a man on a personal mission to supply the Academy with fresh talent, Paul's commitment to the cause knows no bounds.

All of which means that B&W&RAO is likely to be a one-man band for the next few weeks, a few days of which I'll be out of reach of the computer myself. So pre-emptive apologies if match reports and updates on developments at St James' aren't as swift, frequent or lengthy as normal. Just console yourself with the thought that Paul's thinking longer term...

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Seven up

Coventry 0 - 2 Newcastle Utd

"Seven up"? Yes, well, that would be a reference to the seventh successive league win (our best run since the so-nearly-glory days of the mid 90s under King Kev) taking us seven points clear of our closest challengers West Brom at the top of the Championship.

But why not the more obvious (if more cliched) "Seventh heaven" or "Magnificent seven"? Well, the truth is that the victories have largely been hard-fought and unspectacular. With the exception of Reading and Ipswich (plus Peterborough for a half), we haven't really systematically torn apart anyone this season - and those exceptions have been more a measure of the opposition than of our own quality.

Last night's win at the Ricoh Arena was just more of the same: some resolute goalkeeping and defending, a bit of good fortune in our penalty area, a couple of clinical and classy touches in theirs, and another three points to add to the collection.

Perhaps most noteably, the victory was achieved without either our leading scorer or the man who's led the line for the majority of the season. Kevin Nolan's two yellow cards (brandished, it should be noted, by Mackem whistleblower Jonathan Moss) against the Hornets on Saturday ruled him out, while Bigger Lad's absence suggested Chris Hughton doesn't think he's in the right frame of mind since getting his collar felt by the local constabulary.

With Nolan out, Danny Guthrie must surely have fancied his chances of getting a start in the middle - his repeated dereliction of right-wing duties has given enough of a hint as to his preferred position - so it will have been galling to find Nicky Butt and Fabrice Pancrate both selected ahead of him. Equally, Homer and Nile Ranger were probably a bit miffed to be warming the bench alongside Guthrie, while Big Lad was drafted in for his first appearance since early September.

But sure enough it was he who set us on our way. By that point, first-half injury time, we'd had a handful of opportunities, Pancrate in particular evidently keen to follow up Saturday's wondergoal with another strike. But if we were unfortunate that Leon Barnett hadn't walked for tugging back Peter Lovenkrands, an offence the officials missed altogether, then we had the woodwork to thank for denying both the Sky Blues striker Leon Best and his midfield team-mate Michael McIndoe in quick succession.

Big Lad's turn and shot set us up nicely for a second half in which we could have extended our lead but the home side could also have levelled. 'Keepers Steve Harper and Keiren Westwood exchanged fine saves, frustrating Freddy Eastwood and Alan Smith respectively.

Hughton made his increasingly familiar around-the-hour-mark switches, refreshing our attack by replacing Big Lad and Lovenkrands with Homer and Ranger. The latter made the bigger impact, one chance going begging before he finally got off the mark for the first team, applying the vital finishing touch to a cross from Jose Enrique and wrapping up yet another win. This is a kind of monotony I could easily get used to.

Of course, the result looked all the better thanks to a clutch of poor results for our closest (I use the word loosely) rivals on Tuesday night. Leicester slumped to defeat at home to Bristol City, Forest could only muster a goalless draw at Sheffield Utd and, best of all, West Brom were beaten at the Hawthorns by Cardiff - Agent Chopra again offering welcome assistance to our fortune, a late challenge inciting Scott Carson into a head-butt that brought the Baggies 'keeper's evening to a premature end.

By our reckoning, a few more points and we'll be safe from relegation. Why mention the R word, you say? Well, at the minute it pays to keep our feet firmly on the deck.

Other reports: BBC

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Watford KO'd

Newcastle Utd 2 - 0 Watford

Amir Khan may have been in Toon to fight on Saturday night, and David Haye presented to the crowd, but the real fighting heroes were those in black and white stripes on Saturday.

Once again, the old adage about a good defence proved as important on the pitch as in the ring as we overcame a spirited Watford side. Despite an early scare when Steven Taylor was forced to clear off the line, we took the lead with a swift counter after twenty minutes in the first half with Peter Lovenkrands' second goal in successive games.

A slightly underhit Watford back pass gave Homer some work to do, but rather than pass up on the opportunity, he rushed to close down visiting 'keeper Scott Loach, sliding in to hook the ball square before the keeper to get his boot to it. With the ball falling nicely to him in front of an unguarded net, Lovenkrands was left with a simple tap-in to give us a lead.

With the visitors giving us a competitive game in the middle of the park, the match looked to have swung in their favour when Kevin Nolan was sent off early in the second half for his second bookable offence.

Down to ten men, manager of the month for November Chris Hughton shuffled his pack, opting to rely on the lone striker who has served us well in recent away performances, with Nicky Butt on to bolster the midfield.

With a cohesion to our defensive lines, the team were able to withstand some sustained Watford pressure, and Steve Harper was equal to anything they could throw at him.

With Watford pushing forward for an equaliser, substitute Fabrice Pancrate knocked the stuffing out of the Hornets. He controlled the ball in the box with his right foot and, with two defenders on him, turned sharply to create space before hammering the ball into the roof of the net with his left foot.

That goal signalled the knock-out, and with other results going our way - particularly Derby's injury-time equaliser against the Baggies - it made for an excellent weekend all round.

Other reports: BBC

Monday, December 07, 2009

Bigg Market + Bigger Lad = big trouble?

Just when - for once - everything was going swimmingly, Bigger Lad has gone and got himself arrested on suspicion of assault. It's not the first time he's felt the long arm of the law, either, having been cautioned for a similar offence back during the dark days of September last year.

Might I politely suggest, Andy, that the best way to avoid getting into these sorts of scrapes would be to steer clear of the Bigg Market altogether? You've done a lot of growing up on the pitch so far this season - now start doing some growing up off it.

Quote of the day

"Newcastle United are my team. Alan Shearer is more than just a local legend, he's probably one of the greatest footballers of all time".

Sir Liam Donaldson, the government's Chief Medical Officer and the new Chancellor of Newcastle University, on the award of an honorary degree in civil law to Wor Al. Another one to add to the collection, following closely on the heels of his appointment as Deputy Lieutenant of Northumberland.

As it went unreported here, I should add that Shearer was also recently named as the new patron of the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation, commenting: "Bobby was, quite rightly, incredibly proud of what his charity had achieved and I'm just as proud now to be asked to help carry on his fight against cancer". To make a donation in support of the charity's work, click here.

Friday, December 04, 2009

A Month Of Saturdays: November 2009

Can you play your home games at an email address? Judging by events in early November, Jabba certainly seemed to think so. But then this is a man who has some kind of perverse fascination with email, having believed it a wise move to solicit serious bids for the club by that means back in the summer...

When news broke of the unwieldy moniker with which the organ grinder had unilaterally decided to saddle our ground - while all the time his monkey Llambiarse insisted that they realised the importance of St James' Park as a name - the first sound was a collective thud of jaws dropping. And then came the furious outcry: guest contributor Jonathan's angry piece about the flagrant disregard for tradition and heritage, and noisy protests swiftly planned for both before and after the game against Peterborough on the 7th. Local MP and diehard fan David Clelland, who had already tabled a motion in the House of Parliament in protest at the proposed name change, must have been even more disgusted when he learned exactly what that change would be to. We vowed never to make reference to the stadium as anything other than St James' Park on this site, while the BBC, to their credit, appeared to be happy giving Jabba a similar two-fingered salute.

The dissent wasn't unanimous, however. While Chelsea and Spurs - two clubs with dollar signs permanently in their eyes - seemed to have been waiting for another club to take the lead before suddenly announcing their interest in flogging off the names of Stamford Bridge and White Hart Lane respectively to the highest bidders, Barry Moat declared himself in agreement with Jabba over the rebranding. Some knight in shining armour you turned out to be, Barry.

The moral of the story being that if you want something done well, you're better off doing it yourself. What was needed wasn't whingeing but effective collective action - and this was where the Newcastle United Supporters Trust stepped in, launching the Yes We Can campaign with the aim of gaining a significant stake in the club, and perhaps even wrestling full ownership away from Jabba at some point in the future: "The fans can lead the way where others have failed - by standing together and investing together - we can make our club the shining beacon of honesty and integrity and bring the city together to save our club from the current regime, its mistakes and its calculated snubs." The campaign quickly gathered pace, gaining the support of David Clelland, Home Secretary Alan Johnson and a host of other local MPs, and as the month drew to a close it was announced that Mike Ashley had signed up too. Not THAT one, though, so no need to worry...

The whole affair gave the lie to Alan Smith's assertion that "Last year there was a big divide between players, fans and football club. This season you can see a togetherness". The divide between the fans and the club was actually widening, if anything, while simultaneously (and ironically, in the non-ironic sense used by your average football pundit) bringing the fans together in united action. But our skipper was right to talk of a new-found unity amongst the playing staff, which he explained was the result of player-led crisis talks in the wake of the Leyton Orient disaster in pre-season. Smith himself, useless last campaign, epitomised the new tough, resilient and committed attitude that saw us win all four of our fixtures in November.

Our two away matches, televised Monday night affairs at Sheffield United and Preston, were pretty much carbon copies of each other - 1-0 victories ground out against opposition experienced at this level who tried their best but who just couldn't breach our increasingly solid defence. Of the two, the win at Bramall Lane was the most fortuitous, coming courtesy of a heavily deflected Ryan Taylor shot and a number of splendid saves from Steve Harper. Winning ugly? This was winning the lovechild of Carlos Tevez and Ann Widdecombe.

At Deepdale, it was a fleeting moment of class that saw us prevail, Kevin Nolan scoring just as it was starting to look as though we'd have to settle for a point. As well as the defence has performed individually and as a unit thus far this season, I don't think any of us are under any illusions that much profit has already been made from teams' inabilities to finish - a luxury we certainly weren't afforded in the top flight.

Sandwiched between the slices of dry, unappetising but ultimately nutritious bread that were those two wins came the tasty filling of a much more straightforward demolition of Peterborough. The anti-Ashley protests were replaced by noisy backing of the team for the duration of the 90 minutes, and Danny Simpson was unlucky to find his first goal for the club (a left-footed curler from distance, possibly unintentional) overshadowed by the long, long overdue first for Spiderman. When it came, it was never going to be a tap-in, either - a slaloming run leaving blue-shirted statue after blue-shirted statue in his wake followed by a crashing finish from inside the box. Afterwards, exasperated Posh manager Darren Ferguson declared the side who'd sent his charges bottom to be the best in the division - and was promptly given the boot.

Surprisingly, the margin of victory was even more comfortable three weeks later against the side with the second tightest defence in the league - though once we'd raced into our three-goal lead Swansea could and should have regained a foothold in the game. Once again the goals were shared around, Homer belatedly justifying his selection with a brace and Peter Lovenkrands capping a superb performance with the other to ensure we ended the month with a 100% record and exactly where we started it - looking down from the top of the table.

In other news, the FA Cup draw handed us an unwelcome trek to Plymouth on the first weekend of the new year and Chris Hughton bolstered the squad with another new face, former PSG midfielder and free agent Fabrice Pancrate. On the international scene, Bigger Lad enjoyed mixed fortunes for England U21s but at least didn't report back from duty with an injury, while his teammate Big Lad, nearing full fitness again, announced his desire to play for Nigeria.

If he does end up representing the Super Eagles, he may well find himself partnering a familiar face in the form of Obafemi Martins. Martins made it into the news twice in November - once for firing his country to the World Cup and once for the legal case brought against him by his former management company which revealed he has a childlike inability to manage his own affairs or even understand the concept or value of money. At least Jabba no longer has to respond to those emails from a Nigerian by the name of O. Martins asking for £70,000 to be deposited into his account each week...

Thursday, December 03, 2009

The Liberty (Camp)Bell

He wanted to be free: now he is.

He wanted to be free to do what he wanted to do: well, now he can.

And he wanted to get (more) loaded: expect him to sign for us in January...

Update: OK, so maybe don't expect that. Here's Campbell himself: "I have a few clubs tabling offers at the moment, but one of them doesn’t seem to be Newcastle now"...

Chris Hughton's comments did imply otherwise, though - he suggested that we are interested but that Campbell may have a better offer: "Sol is a wonderful player and I’m quite sure come January he’ll be playing his football somewhere. We’re not prepared to rule it out, because he’s a player who would be available. Sol is an absolute top, top defender. ... I spent many years with him at Spurs, he’s a good individual, very dedicated. The biggest stumbling block is options. He might already have something lined up, I really don’t know." I suspect Notts County fans might take issue with the use of the word "dedicated"...

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Don't Mackem me go

"I don’t care about Sunderland. Even if the newspapers said Chelsea, I wouldn’t care. I worry for my team – I love the city, I love the club and I don’t care about signing for another team."

Allow me to translate for Jose Enrique here: "Please, please, please don't send me to t'dark place". Little chance of him swapping Tyneside for Wearside in January, I'd say, and a good thing, too - after Kevin Nolan and Alan Smith, he's been arguably our best and most consistent performer this campaign. All of them were thoroughly rotten last season - what's changed?! It can't just be the level we're playing at, can it?

On the subject of the reopening of the transfer window in the new year, Steve Claridge - "the BBC's Football League expert", no less - believes we won't sell anyone. Is it tempting fate to agree with his logic (such as it is)? Probably, and I do dispute his contention that we haven't got anyone who would bring in a decent return (Enrique, Nolan, Fabricio Coloccini, Steven Taylor and Spiderman just for starters), but I hope he's right. Even with one of the largest and strongest squads in the Championship, it's investment and recruitment we'll need if the promotion push is to stay on track.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Quote of the day

"I was ­annoyed because people were saying the only reason I wasn’t going anywhere in the summer was because there weren’t any offers. That wasn’t true ­because the club and ­myself were getting a lot of offers."

Fabricio Coloccini not-so-subtly suggests that we should be grateful for his loyalty. Look mate, you're playing well this season, but we haven't forgotten your pitiful contribution in our relegation season just yet...