Thursday, March 26, 2009

News just in: pot calls kettle black

Wigan chairman Dave Whelan must have an awful lot of time on his hands - time that might be better spent, say, attracting a fanbase for his Mickey Mouse club - judging by the number of occasions he finds to spout forth about us and his business rival Mike Ashley in particular.

The latest tirade? "He’s got what he deserved at Newcastle. Newcastle are a very big club and you don’t go in there and lower all the standards. He turns up wearing a replica top in the boardroom. No class whatsoever. The minute he arrived there and turned up in the boardroom in a replica shirt and jeans and a pair of trainers, the club was gone."

So, let's get this straight, Dave: you're accusing Ashley of having "no class" but think nothing of renaming your club's stadium after yourself? That takes a very impressive lack of self-awareness.

Take your bitterness - and your persistent attempts to talk up Ol' Cauliflower Face's chances of taking charge on Tyneside - and fuck off, you senile old duffer.

Quote of the day

"Arsene Wenger wrote a nice card and Alex Ferguson said he wanted to see me back in the dug-out soon and told me to back one of his horses at Cheltenham. I did and it came fourth. Thanks Alex, just what I needed to relax!"

Hmm. Hopefully that'll be the last loser JFK backs this season...

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Mutiny on the sinking ship?

If an anonymous "club insider" is to be believed - and your guess is as good as mine - there's mutiny in the air: "The players have all been talking about how they need someone of real authority to sort it out. There is no leader since Joe Kinnear took ill. It is not that they don’t respect Hughton as a coach because they do, but he is no manager."

Which, inevitably, means that rumours of Terry Venables clambering on board have resurfaced. The pessimist in me feels he'd still struggle (not least because of the way the players don't seem to be pulling together behind Hughton) and would abandon ship quicker than you could say "jellied eels" at the end of the season - but we're in dire straits and without the luxury of time, gambling on him being able to steer us to safe waters might be worth it.

The appliance of science

Fascinating news today from the world of science - no, not a cure for cancer or the discovery of the reason Alan Smith exists, but the revelation by researchers (or "boffins" or "eggheads", in true Sunspeak) of the formula for a "perfect penalty".

Let's just analyse Obafemi Martins' spot-kick against the Gunners on Saturday to see how it compares...

"The SHOT should be 65mph or more." I doubt it very much.

"This requires a RUN-UP of five to six paces, commencing from the edge of the 18-yard line — approaching the ball at an ANGLE of 20 to 30 degrees." Well, he started in about the right place but was far too straight on.

"And it must CROSS the goal line at exactly 0.5m below crossbar and 0.5m inside either post." Er, no.

So, Oba, your penalty was just about as imperfect as it could have been. Best get doing your homework then - either that, or hoping Little Saint Mick's on the pitch next time the ref points to the spot.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Staring down the barrel

Newcastle Utd 1 - 3 Arsenal

Much like my son, who erupted in chicken pox hours before kick off, Newcastle were similarly afflicted by a succession of results going against them, leaving them looking in a decidedly sickly state before the match even kicked off.

Goals and points elsewhere meant that we kicked off the match in the bottom three, and despite a decent performance, Arsenal's greater quality and confidence ensured we remained there at the final whistle, with further sores to worry about in the shape of injuries to Bassong and Steven Taylor.

Having started brightly, Newcastle should have taken the lead after Ryan Taylor was clumsily fouled in the box by Almunia. With Michael Owen demoted to the bench, Obafemi Martins took on penalty duties and his weak penalty low to the keeper's left was easily saved by the Arsenal stopper.

That save was followed by near misses by Martins and Peter Lovenkrands, while at the other end an Arshavin long-ranger that flicked off the top of the bar, a couple of heroic blocks by Steven Taylor and fine work from Steve Harper when faced by Robin van Persie ensured that the teams remained level at half-time, and suggested that maybe, just maybe, we might nick a point.

That wild optimism was crushed in a ten-minute spell in the second half. Firstly, Ryan Taylor fouled Arshavin, and the Russian's free-kick found the head of Bendtner who was able to put the ball past Harper largely (and frustratingly) unchallenged. However, less than a minute later we were back on terms, as Martins bustled his way into the Arsenal box, only to appear to lose control of the ball before sticking out a foot to catch Almunia unaware and slot the ball home to restore parity and partly atone for his earlier penalty miss.

Unfortunately, with Bassong already off the pitch, Steven Taylor was then injured, and whilst receiving treatment on the sidelines Arsenal struck again. This time it was Abou Diaby who was afforded too much space in the penalty area, and he calmly restored the Gunners lead. Had Habib Beye covered across slightly quicker, then he might have been able to block the shot (in much the same way as Steven Taylor had managed earlier in the game); however it may be that our returning defender's slight rustiness meant he wasn't quite as quick to react, and we went 2-1 down.

With Taylor departing (not before time from Arsenal's perspective, given his unwarranted and rash first-half assault on Arshavin which somehow wasn't punished with a card) and replaced by Owen, our backline was forced into a further reshuffle, and with only two of our starting four defenders remaining on the pitch it was perhaps inevitable that a side in as decent form as Arsenal were able to add a third and kill the game off, with Nasri providing what proved to be the final blow. It could have been worse, had Diaby's late shot not struck the far post and bounced away to safety.

All of which means that we're left looking decidedly sickly, and staring down the barrel of relegation.

Looking for positives in this, one can again look at the improved performance. Had we performed at the level of the first half last week, we'd almost certainly have beaten Hull. The return of Habib Beye is a bonus and with the international break it is to be hoped that we have time to get Taylor and Bassong back to fitness. The fact that Martins has also bagged a goal might mean that he now hits a little scoring run, and with games against Stoke, Pompey, Fulham and the Smoggies still to come, we aren't dead yet.

The sickness should fade, and if we can come out of this stronger then we might still be OK. But if we can't win those games, we're well and truly stuffed.

Other reports: BBC, Guardian,

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Knee laughing matter

"There is no hiding from the fact injuries have been the bane of my time at Newcastle. It is frustrating, however, and people will probably laugh, but I know I’m not injury-prone." Er, I don't know who these "people" are, Little Saint Mick, but they certainly aren't Newcastle fans.

And to add insult to injury it's all the more galling to hear you confess that it was your own over-eagerness to play for the national side rather than the one that pays your wages that indirectly contributed to the knee injury that kept you out for most of the 2006-7 season: "I’ve then rushed my preparations for the World Cup. I played half-a-game for Newcastle. After being in plaster for so long my leg was de-conditioned and with hindsight, I should never have gone to Germany with England. It’s easy to say that now, but if I had my time again I would still have gone because it was a World Cup. I’m not thinking what could have been, but with hindsight my leg was half as strong as it should have been."

You have to wonder, though - where were the club doctors and medical professionals in all this? If he really wasn't in a fit state to play, then surely someone should have intervened to blow the whistle on his ambitions?

While Little Saint Mick seems to be doing his best to antagonise us fans, his strike partner Obafemi Martins has been buttering us up like a fat lass with a crumpet: "I always say that they're among the best fans ever, people in Newcastle are really good people".

"For the fact that they love me", he said, "I have to share the love as well, I have to love them back. They love me for the job I'm doing". While that's largely true, Oba, we'd love you even more if you and Little Saint Mick were doing your jobs a little bit better. What was that Steven Taylor was saying about taking chances? Given the possibility of us kicking off on Saturday evening in the relegation zone is actually more a probability, he's got a point. Let's hope we have, too, come the final whistle - preferably three...

And finally, Chris Hughton has announced today that ASBO should be back to fitness for our last four or five matches. I could say it's nice to know that when it comes to the crunch we'll at least have someone who's up for a fight - but then you'd already thought of that punchline yourself, hadn't you?

Sunday, March 15, 2009

That's the way (a-ha, a-ha) we like it? Er, not really

Hull 1 - 1 Newcastle Utd

At last - a goal against Hull, at the fourth attempt. (Except it wasn't, as has been helpfully pointed out in the comments box, Xisco having scored at St James' Park - my only excuse is that I've tried to purge myself of any memory of that horrible afternoon in September...) And boy was it needed - without it, we'd have found ourselves in the bottom three with just nine games to play. Still, down at the KC we weren't exactly the Sunshine Band...

Despite the encouraging display in our last outing against Man Utd, Chris Hughton decided to ring the changes. Out went the unlucky Peter Lovenkrands to make way for a fit-again Little Saint Mick, while Nicky Butt was also back as captain. Rather bafflingly it was neither Geremi nor Alas Smith but Ryan Taylor who made way - presumably the thinking was that defensive midfield solidity away from home was a higher priority than being remotely threatening from set-pieces.

If so, by the tenth minute that plan didn't look too clever, Geovanni having capitalised on some woeful marking to give the home side the lead with a header (I've never liked Brazil nuts) - and that despite a remarkable spot of acrobatics from 34-year-old birthday boy Steve Harper, who flew through the air like a superhero desperate to catch the last bus home.

Geovanni came close to doubling the Tigers' advantage with a free-kick, but they were probably still quite happy with the single goal, safe in the knowledge it had been enough to beat us on the previous occasion we met, in the FA Cup. Thankfully, Butt and Steven Taylor had other ideas, though, the former crossing for the latter to apply a deft Owen-esque finish beyond Matt Duke.

While Little Saint Mick himself was as quiet as the proverbial ecclesiastical rodent (anxious to avoid picking up a new injury perhaps?) and eventually made way for Shola Ameobi with just over a quarter of an hour to go, his strike partner Obafemi Martins was lively, though found himself better marshalled by the Hull defence than by the far more celebrated duo of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic just over a week ago. Having squandered one opportunity in the first period, he had another in the second, while Spiderman should also have scored but instead had us wondering if he'll ever break his duck.

Our hosts continued to have the odd chance themselves, on-loan striker Manucho in particular a threat after he replaced Daniel Cousin. Hughton withdrew an ineffective Smith - who'd have thunk it? - and brought on Ryan Taylor, but given we really needed the three points and were up against a team who've lost more times than any other at home this season, it was disappointing that Lovenkrands, Andy Carroll or Damien Duff never got into the action.

As it was, all the other results went our way (a late, late draw at the Riverside between the Smogs and Pompey coupled with defeats for Stoke, Blackburn, Bolton and the Mackems - the latter courtesy of a corking solo goal from Charles N'Somnia) and we actually inched up a place to 16th. But lest that should be considered reason enough to celebrate, it's worth underlining that all that separates us from Stoke in 18th is goal difference. And our next two fixtures are against Arsenal and Chelsea.

Best keep the cava on ice, then, eh?

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Cometh the hour?

Well, you have to give Little Saint Mick a prize for his sense of timing. Chris Hughton confirmed today that he's recovered from his ankle injury and groin operation and, barring disaster (touch wood QUICK!), will be fit to play some part in Saturday's game at Hull.

That match is now even more important than it was thanks to Blackburn's win in London last night, which left us in 17th. Bemoaning the fact that Fulham's imperious home form has deserted them - has it come to this?

Also on the mend is JFK, who, according to Derek Llambiarse, should be back for the trip to Stoke - not that he'll be allowed down in the dugout: "We can't have him jumping around and getting excited on the touchline". Is it just me or did the chairman sound like a smug middle-class mother talking about her son at a coffee morning? "He has made excellent progress and is already doing a lot of walking"...

Going for a Bassong?

Young? Yep. French? Yep. Sebastien Bassong certainly fits Arsene Wenger's usual criteria, so it's little surprise Arsenal have been credited with an interest in him.

A fee of £6m has been bandied about - not sure where that's come from, but it would represent a significant profit on a player who cost us only £1.5m last summer. After a slow start, he's gradually made himself a fixture in the side, a more stable presence at the back than the older and more experienced Fabricio Coloccini.

To his credit, his comment on the rumour - "My agent told me about Arsenal's interest and it would be a lie if I said they are not a club I'm interested in" - doesn't exactly suggest a desperate straining at the leash, but who wouldn't be flattered by being linked to Arsenal when they're currently staring relegation in the face?

(Funny, isn't it, how Arsene Wenger is always described as having his eye on players across Europe, but never seems to see anything his own charges do on the pitch?)

Meanwhile, earlier in the week it was revealed that Juan Riquelme turned down a lucrative offer to join us next season. And who can blame him, with it still far from clear which league we'll be in? Another name to add to the list of laughably ambitious attempted signings, then - a shame, as a playmaker of his calibre just behind a front two or lone striker is what we so often evidently lack.

Home comforts

Reasons to be cheerful on two fronts for Andy Carroll. Not only has he been recalled to the England U20 squad for the forthcoming friendly against Italy, he's also secured himself a new deal at the club which runs until 2013. Cue his agent, Slippery Peter Harrison, with the platitudes: "He is a local lad and Newcastle was the only place he wanted to be, and it is a great deal for him. The fans have taken to him and I am sure he will become a huge favourite in years to come." Though Charles N'Somnia has now left the club, at least Shola Ameobi has also signed a contract extension and so the amateur pugilist will still have one of his alleged sparring partners for company...

Friday, March 06, 2009

A Month Of Saturdays: February 2009

When it comes to activities that are good for your health, supporting Newcastle Utd is right up there with unicycling along a tightrope stretched across the Grand Canyon while chainsmoking and doused in petrol. It's a miracle any of us manage to get life insurance.

Playing for Newcastle Utd is just as bad. Sign on the dotted line for us and you might as well own up to having a fetish for being diced by scalpel-wielding surgeons and poked in eye-wateringly sensitive places by burly physios with fingers smeared with lubricant. It's two (or more) years of your career that you'll never get back. (Coincidentally, Little Saint Mick went under the knife once again in February...)

So why should managing Newcastle Utd be any different? With hindsight, and particularly with the club in such dire straits, the job wasn't exactly ideal for someone with a dicky ticker, was it? Taken ill with abnormally high blood pressure on the eve of the West Brom game, JFK subsequently underwent a triple heart bypass operation. While we wish him well, of course, it did leave us in the farcical situation of having our interim manager out with long-term illness.

Not that he was exactly out of the frame, mind. Oh no. One of the many revelations that poured forth from chairman Derek Llambiarse in his series of interviews with Radio Newcastle (of which more later) was that the supposedly recuperating JFK was spending much of his convalescence on the blower to caretaker interim manager Chris Hughton. So, clearly paying as much attention to doctors' orders as he does to etiquette and decorum in press conferences, then. With the club's financial plight being what it is, I only hope he had Hughton's number among his Friends & Family.

Still, at least there was the tonic of knowing that the side he manages, generally from the stands, went through the whole month unbeaten. We only had three fixtures (thanks to that Cup replay defeat to Hull) but, y'know, you've got to take your positives where you can find them.

The first day of the new month was marked - well, soiled - by the visit of the Great Unwashed, who travelled up from the Dark Place on the magical carriage of no horse drawn (the Metro to you and I) looking to do the double over us for the first time since the invention of the wheel. It looked ominous when the Mackems, already shading things in terms of possession and chances, took the lead through Djibril Cisse, Fabricio Coloccini playing a new form of the offside rule that unfortunately hasn't yet been adopted by FIFA or UEFA.

Thankfully, though, that spurred us into action and in the end we were more than good value for our point, which came courtesy of a Shola Ameobi penalty after Steven Taylor had been fouled. (The 'Match Of The Day' team may have gleefully taken the opportunity to root around in the archives for the sniper shot footage from the 2005 Villa game, but this was a definite infringement.) Even then, though, we were grateful to Agent Chopra for squandering a chance that looked easier to score, his last act in red and white before being shipped off back to Cardiff on loan. The fact that the Great Unwashed now think they have bragging rights for taking four points from us is risible.

We were the side hunting a double at the Hawthorns a week later, and the fact that we managed to spear one was largely thanks to the home team's generosity. Damien Duff and Peter Lovenkrands were both gifted goals in the opening ten minutes and Steven Taylor a third as the first half drew to a close. Not wanting to seem to be all take and no give, we let the Baggies' on-loan striker Marc-Antoine Fortune help himself to a brace, but thankfully still had the hard-heartedness to deny them a share of the spoils. Radio Five's Pat Murphy summed it up best when he said the "least incompetent" side had triumphed.

Then came Everton, against whom Lovenkrands made up for that goal on his full debut with a horrible, horrible miss when clean through on Tim Howard. Shortly after that Kevin Nolan - who I could have sworn was brought in to help rather than hinder our bid to secure survival - took it upon himself to test the durability of Victor Anichebe's leg with both feet and was swiftly dispatched to the dressing room to run the taps and dispense the Matey. Leadership my arse - in a backs-against-the-wall defensive performance in the second half that earned us a point, that came from Sebastien Bassong.

So much for the impact made on the pitch (and on our opponents' shins) by our January signings - the dearly and not-so-dearly departed had plenty to say. Some would argue that, having got the move he craved, Shay Given had no need to drag the name of the club that had paid his wages for over ten years through the mud. Personally, though, I didn't begrudge him finally speaking out - when you've made 462 appearances and won the team nearly as many points, you've earned that right. Unlike Charles N'Somnia, who couldn't resist the opportunity to have a pop at JFK. Well, Charlie, all we can say is that while you hope your move to Wigan is a stepping stone to Arsenal, we hope you're enjoying playing on a rugby pitch in front of a half-empty stadium in a town that doesn't give a toss about football.

Rather more veiled were the comments of another recent departee, James Milner, who for some reason or other was keen to emphasise his joy at playing for Aston Villa, "a very stable club" where you can "just think about your football with no off-the-field distractions". Good job that Llambiarse claimed our long-term plan is to emulate Villa, then. Laudable enough, as (in a way) was the belated admission that the hierarchy had been "naive" in underestimating the outcry at King Kev's departure - but all undercut by his deluded conviction that we'd be "right up there" if our players were "all fit and up to it". And, he might as well have added, if pigs could fly.

As for the short-term strategy, it was announced that season ticket prices are to be slashed for next season. A sign of the credit-crunched times, to be sure, but perhaps also a recognition (at last) that the fans can't be taken for granted? Having deemed it safe to once again show his face in the stands, with a black and white scarf permanently wrapped round his neck as though to ward off the doubters, Mike Ashley clearly doesn't want to be sat on his tod.

Who knows quite what the future holds? Steve Harper - like Nicky Butt, celebrating (if that's the right word) a new contract - summed it up best: "If a Martian landed and I had to explain what this club was all about, I’d say ‘jump on the rollercoaster and enjoy the ride'". Talking of little green men, do you think the rumours of a disgruntled Dennis Wise leaving in the summer might be because he's envious of Hughton and Colin Calderwood, not having been asked to step into the breach himself?

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Signs of recovery, but no points

Newcastle Utd 1 - 2 Manchester Utd

A goal from Peter Lovenkrands, his second for the club, gave us hope last night. Hope that we might survive, hope that we might be good enough to pick up points against the very best, and hope that on a cold wintery night we might produce a performance capable of warming even the coldest of souls.

Sadly for us, that goal, and the hot spell we produced just after it, in which Obafemi Martins might have scored a second, and Ryan Taylor went close with a free-kick following a foul on Martins by Nemanja Vidic, wasn't enough to secure the points against a team battling to pick up a staggering five trophies.

With manure for once looking ragged, our bright start had them on the ropes, only for a slick passing move which culminated with Wayne Rooney's feint and powerful finish (via a slight deflection off Steven Taylor) to restore the teams to parity. As the first half wore on the visitors' class began to slowly show, and frustration clearly got the better of Steven Taylor who was perhaps slightly fortunate to get away with a booking when he wrestled Ronaldo to the floor. Of course, if you simply looked at the Portuguese, you'd imagine that Taylor had laid him out with a one-two to the face rather than an arm round his neck, but nonetheless Taylor was probably fortunate to see Steve Bennett's yellow card rather than his red.

With half time following shortly after, the two players apparently carried on their playground spat in the tunnel (subsequently denied), with Ronaldo allegedly suggesting Taylor wasn't a very good footballer (which is probably fair when you are comparing him to someone recently crowned World Player Of The Year) to which Taylor reportedly pointed out that whilst his skills might be inferior, he wasn't ugly (unlike the aforementioned World Player Of The Year). Presumably at that point one went off to get their dad, whilst the other ran to teacher...

Anyway, playtime over, the second half saw Newcastle once again shoot themselves in the foot. With no great pressure, Ryan Taylor decided he'd try and chest a ball back to Steve Harper which he could either have headed, hoofed clear or even ducked and let run out of play. His poor decision and woefully under-hit chest back allowed Ji-Sung Park to pounce, and the Korean's square ball found Dimitar Berbatov (a player who slept in a Newcastle shirt as a child) running in at the far post, with Coloccini floundering in his wake, and the Bulgarian duly slotted home.

For all our first half menace, with the pace of Martins and Lovenkrands giving the manure defence nightmares all night, the second saw us start to run out of steam, and the late introduction of Andy Carroll and Kazenga Lua Lua failed to secure an equaliser.

The final whistle saw the loss of our record of never having lost this season when we've scored first, and with results elsewhere not helping, meant we dropped further into the relegation mire.

If we can continue to play like we did last night then we might yet pick up the points we need. It's a big if, but with Martins looking threatening and Owen due back against Hull, we might yet manage to score the goals we need to get some wins.

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Gardner's question time

Bolton 1 - 0 Newcastle United

On another miserable afternoon in the North West, a solitary goal from substitute Ricardo Gardner was enough to condemn us to defeat and plunge us back deep into the relegation mire.

Not the most inspiring opening paragraph, I grant you, but then it was that kind of afternoon.

With Damien Duff injured and Kevin Nolan, like teammate Danny Guthrie, denied a reunion with his former employers (though thanks to suspension rather than injury), Chris Hughton restored Spiderman to the side and also handed the fit-again Obafemi Martins a start. A potent combination of pace and attacking endeavour - or so we thought.

Bolton created the best opportunities in the first half, but we were thankful that they all fell to Johan Elmander, the £10m Swede seemingly intent on proving himself a prize turnip. First he brushed aside a couple of challenges inside the box but had his fairly feeble shot past Steve Harper swept off the line by Jose Enrique. Then an incisive passing move down the Bolton right ended with the striker blazing high over the bar from six yards. To complete his hat-trick, he squirmed a poor volley wide of the far post.

Elmander's strike partner Kevin Davies was proving a handful for last week's man-of-the-match Sebastien Bassong, the Frenchman guilty of clumsy challenges on several occasions, one of which could easily have resulted in a spot-kick. We've conceded more penalties than any other Premier League side so far this campaign (nine to date), but mercifully Alan Wiley chose to maintain Bolton's record of not having been awarded one all season rather than to extend ours.

One of the few bright spots of the first half was Ryan Taylor's delivery from set pieces. From one superbly curled free-kick from deep Shola Ameobi crashed a diving header off the base of the post, only to be ruled offside, while it was from a Taylor right-wing corner that Martins forced Jussi Jaaskelainen into an excellent save, clawing away a header that bounced up off the turf. The Nigerian went on to squander arguably the half's best chance, sending a header wastefully wide when left free at the back post following a four-on-three break.

The only other point of interest in the first half - other than Monkey's Heed's presence in the stands - was a pointless and childish spat between Nicky Butt and Bolton's Matt Taylor. Both were booked but, for raising their hands and going temple-to-temple, a more officious ref might have produced red cards. Not exactly the example Butt's supposed to be setting as captain.

So, a familiar story at half-time - the points there for the taking if we believed in ourselves, upped our game and went about things in the right way in the second period. And a familiar story at the beginning of the half - our opponents having been told the exact same thing and actually acting on it.

I can only assume that the fact Ricardo Gardner had only just entered the fray as a half-time substitute meant he was able to sneak completely unmarked into the box to apply the finish to Matt Taylor's cross. After all, with his flying dreadlocks, daft tufty beard and swaggering run, he's hardly the Invisible Man.

The goal failed to kickstart the game, the Trotters content to sit back and us clueless in the attacking third. Most frustrating of all was Spiderman, who - for all his energy, application and dynamic breaks down the left flank (where he easily had the beating of his full-back) - consistently failed to produce the key shot, cross or pass we were praying for. It was like a knife continually scraping against solid rock. When one foray was halted illegally on the edge of the box, Ryan Taylor curled his free-kick wide.

The pressure finally began to tell in the last fifteen minutes. Ameobi wasted at least two opportunities with tame efforts, we were desperately unlucky to see a penalty appeal waved away when Jloyd Samuel flung his arms in the way of a goal-bound Fabricio Coloccini shot, and Peter Lovenkrands failed to take advantage of an unorthodox assist from the stumbling Steven Taylor by firing wide of the post.

Given the circumstances, in which losing 2-0 or 3-0 would have been as bad, Hughton's decision to withdraw Martins for Captain Pasty was mystifying - why not take off Enrique, switch to a back three and boost our attacking power? As it was, I can hardly recall the Captain touching the ball before Wiley blew the final whistle.

Still no win after falling behind this season (never mind the comeback kings, we're not even the comeback peasants...), but even a point would have been precious. Blackburn's win at Hull combined with unexpected and unwelcome results for Middlesbrough and Stoke mean we're now once again just two points off the relegation zone.

It's never a good time to play Man Utd, but to have to do so when in the midst of an awful run of form against sides from the North West, when without our four first-choice central midfielders (Butt limped off in the second period to join Guthrie, Nolan and ASBO on the sidelines), when we seem to have lost our way to goal and when we're in such a precarious league position is very bad news indeed.

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

On the offensive

Typical that at a time when we're struggling to remember how to go on the offensive on the pitch, a familiar flabby face shows how it's done off it:

"When blame is being dished out for the present predicament I don't think too many people will be fooled by the excuses coming from the people who have been in charge for two seasons. I have been attacked for everything from the fact that Ashley failed to exercise due diligence to that I set up a deal to sign a world-class star without borrowing to do it. I wouldn't buy a secondhand car without checking it was road-worthy and whether there were any HP deals on it, so I don't see how it can be anyone's fault but his that he didn't look at the books before forking out £134m for a football club."

Nice of Fat Fred to kick us while we're down - and also to pick up on the car metaphor. Seems like a long time ago that he was fawningly describing Ashley and chums as "excellent custodians of Newcastle United's heritage", doesn't it? Too long for his memory to cope with, evidently...

The patience of a Saint?

"I still believe Michael will stay. He's obviously out of contract so there's virtually nothing to stop him from leaving but it's not like he's going about saying, 'I want to go here, I want to go there'. He's happy here, he's committed to Newcastle and he might shock people, maybe he might stay."

Nicky Butt, talking about the prospect of Little Saint Mick staying on Tyneside beyond the summer, tries to set a new record for the number of conditionals used in one sentence. Groundless optimism? Living off the ifs not the buts? He really is becoming one of us. Hope he's factored into his prediction the possibility of us being a Championship side next season...