Friday, January 29, 2010

Only the loanees

Today saw confirmation of two new loan arrivals at the club to bolster our injury-hit defence.

The first sees QPR centre half Fitz Hall ("One Size" to his friends) arrive for the remainder of the season, whilst the second sees Chelsea youngster Patrick Van Aanholt arrive on a month's loan. With Van Aanholt a left back who has already gathered some Championship experience on loan to Coventry, his recruitment is a clear effort on the part of the club to fill the significant gap which Jose Enrique's recent injury has caused.

Of course, anyone looking at our squad for the past couple of years would have realised that we've not had any cover at left back, so it's something of a relief to see that Hughton has at least managed to plug the gap quickly rather than try and force a square peg into a round hole.

One Size has plenty of experience at this level, and also did well in the Premiership for Iain Dowie's Crystal Palace, and should provide some additional competition at centre half and added depth to our squad.

With loans remaining possible until March, the prospect of further players coming in over the next few weeks remains, but obviously permanent deals (such as any move for Crystal Palace's prize asset Victor Moses) need to be concluded before close of play on Monday.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

No mercy

Newcastle Utd 2 - 0 Crystal Palace

How marvellous for there to be a club up to their eyeballs in crisis on Tyneside and for that club not to be Newcastle.

It's fair to say that tonight's visitors to St James' Park had not had the best of weeks thus far. They slid into administration yesterday and were automatically docked the standard ten points as a result; clubs now alerted to the extent of their plight are circling ever more vulture-like, hoping to strip the carcass bare; star player Victor Moses, far from potentially leading them to the Promised Land of the Premier League, is set to be flogged off on the cheap (with Championship rivals Forest and the Baggies currently vying for his services, despite rumoured interest from much bigger clubs home and abroad) and was deemed unavailable for selection by the administrators; and a lengthy injury list left them able to name just three of the permitted seven substitutes.

And all this suffered by a team we beat barely breaking a sweat back in August. Surely even we couldn't look this gift horse in the gob?

But, incredibly, we nearly did - it took an own goal and an injury-time second to secure a scarcely deserved win about as convincing as one of Rafa Benitez's recent post-match interviews.

Of course, we had personnel problems of our own to contend with, though Chris Hughton was able to hand a debut to Mike Williamson, the central defender's switch from Pompey finally agreed. The vacant right-back berth went to Tamas Kadar, while Peter Lovenkrands returned up front after his leave of absence, partnering Bigger Lad. Williamson's fellow newbie Wayne Routledge had to be content with a place on the bench.

As if circumstances hadn't already helped our cause (namely, returning to winning ways in the league for the first time in four games) enough, Palace's Johannes Ertl went off injured just four minutes in, forcing Colin Wanker to use one of those precious subs. Lovenkrands came close to opening the scoring six minutes later, though the visitors were proving surprisingly resilient and positive and indeed could have snatched the lead themselves through Calvin Andrew and Danny Butterfield. But, just when they thought their week couldn't get much worse, it did - Shaun Derry putting the ball past his own 'keeper Julian Speroni with Bigger Lad making a nuisance of himself from a corner.

Our own difficulties deepened shortly afterwards, though, with Jose Enrique having to depart injured. Curiously Hughton chose to overlook Ben Tozer, a natural defender, preferring instead to switch Kadar to the left and introduce Fabrice Pancrate in an unfamiliar right-back role.

Little more of note occurred in the first period but we started the second with considerable vigour, no doubt reminded by Hughton of Palace's predicament, with Bigger Lad and Lovenkrands both causing problems. But the likes of Neil Danns, Nick Carle and Darren Ambrose - that most dangerous of beasts, the old boy - continued to do likewise at the other end, meaning Steve Harper could never relax.

Recognising the need for a second goal, Hughton freshened things up, throwing on Routledge for Lovenkrands - but before our new winger could have any real impact Palace came alarmingly close to equalising, that man Ambrose striking the post. Unfathomably, the Eagles were putting us under pressure, so when the goal we craved arrived deep into stoppage time the relief was palpable. Sub Nile Ranger, on for Spiderman, had missed one good opportunity with a header before making amends by notching his first senior goal at St James' with a smart finish. The assist came courtesy of Routledge - hopefully the first of many.

So, a rather fortuitous win but the win we needed nonetheless - and, after a pair of poor displays, a pleasing return to defensive parsimony. And, as well as his charges played given the circumstances, if Mr Wanker genuinely believes "I haven't seen a better team than us in this division all season", then he must be not just an annoying buffoon but a blind annoying buffoon.

Forest's stylish mauling of QPR last night actually counts for very little - they're still three points adrift of us having played a game more, the only change being that our goal differences are now closer. (And there was more good news today in that Villa have recalled one-time England left-back Nicky Shorey from his loan at the City Ground.)

Leicester next, with Messrs Pearson and Solano lying in wait - it goes without saying that we'll have to play much better to be assured of victory on Saturday.

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Forest (on) fire

Knowing that a 6-0 win over QPR tonight would send them above us to the top of the league, Nottingham Forest came perilously close to achieving the improbable. The hapless West Londoners - already onto their third manager of the season and now, of course, stripped of the services of Wayne Routledge - were spanked 5-0 at the City Ground. Forest had six efforts on target - that's the kind of clinical finishing that we've noticed is a rarity in this division. And who should have got the fifth goal but recent Toon target James Perch, back in the starting line-up for the home side.

The Tricky Trees weren't the only team among our promotion rivals to enjoy a handsome win, two goals from Agent Chopra helping Cardiff to a 6-0 humiliation of Bristol City. At least the Baggies were held at Ipswich, only avoiding defeat thanks to an injury-time goal.

So we go into tomorrow night's game still top, that psychological fillip denied to Forest, and with the added bonus that the team we're playing are in turmoil, having entered administration and now, thanks to the automatic ten point deduction, facing a relegation battle rather than a tentative push for the play-offs. Nothing against Crystal Palace, but as for Neil Warnock and Simon Jordan - couldn't happen to two nicer fellas.

Hallelujah! It's Wayne in, men.*

According to reports, we've just signed Wayne Routledge for an undisclosed fee (rumoured to be around £1.75m). Whilst slightly out of the blue, the player will bring some much needed pace to our midfield, and as an out and out right winger should give us greater balance.

From my recollections of him as a player, his final ball wasn't always the best, but as Spiderman has suggested of late, that's something which the club are capable of working on, so hope is not lost on that front.

What this transfer suggests is, firstly, that Fabrice Pancrate's inability to produce the goods lately suggests that his first-team appearances between now and the end of the season are likely to be severely limited and the odds of his contract being extended in the summer look decidedly remote.

Secondly, given that this is a permanent transfer for a pacy attacker, I suspect that any lingering pursuit of Jermaine Beckford is now dead in the water. With what little cash we have left presumably being ploughed into defensive strengthening (with Mike Williamson reportedly on Tyenside at present), it seems likely that Peter Lovenkrands will feature prominently as the fleeter footed partner to Big Lad and Bigger Lad (with back up from Nile Ranger) for the remainder of the season.

No mention of whether Routledge will go straight into the squad to face his first team Crystal Palace on Wednesday night, but having been involved with QPR all season he should hopefully be fit and raring to go.

*With apologies to all of the ladies who read this - unfortunately if I'd called the post "Hallelujah! It's Wayne in, people" the joke wouldn't work.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Royals grab Rab

On the day it was revealed that our chances of resigning Homer have been scuppered by a broken foot (doh! indeed), it transpires that any possibility of solving our current defensive crisis by bringing Blackburn's Zurab Khizanishvili back to St James' Park for a second loan spell has also vanished. The Georgian captain has instead pitched up at Reading, and so could conceivably be in the side set to face us on 23rd February - assuming, that is, that the Royals' FA Cup Fifth Round match against our Fourth Round conquerors the Baggies doesn't require a replay.

Meanwhile, it's interesting to see that Darren Ferguson has managed to persuade Pops to lend him Danny Welbeck until the end of the season. Given the square-jawed lunks Fergie Jr currently has at his disposal at Preston, the youngster is likely to be an automatic first choice - and, to be truthful, I think we should be a little bit envious of the deal. Welbeck looks to be a genuine prospect at Premier League level, let alone in the second tier, and we could certainly have done worse than to try and get him ourselves.

Who else to fix our sights on? The rumours about James Beattie leaving Stoke continue to abound, but I doubt we could afford any permanent deal and in any case he might be a bit too similar to what we've already got in Big Lad, Bigger Lad and Nile Ranger. Perhaps we could switch our attentions from one Villa player to another, from Homer to Nathan Delfouneso? Perhaps, if Benni McCarthy leaves Blackburn for West Ham, we might be able to pick up one of the Hammers' clutch of young forwards? Perhaps now that Arsenal are out of the FA Cup as well as the League Cup, Arsene Wenger might be more inclined to loan out his reserves? All possibilities worth exploring - though, as Paul said, it's suddenly our defensive deficiencies that are giving the greatest cause for concern.

Tayl of woe

According to reports, Steven Taylor's non-appearance on Saturday wasn't simply a case of Chris Hughton rotating his squad, but instead was the result of a fairly serious knee injury sustained against the Baggies last Monday night.

With Danny Simpson carrying a knock picked up in the same match, and Ryan Taylor suspended, it gives Hughton a big selection headache to solve for Wednesday's match against Crystal Palace. With Tamas Kadar likely to continue alongside Coloccini our lack of experienced defensive cover once again highlights the importance of strengthening the squad (and the defence in particular) in the handful of days left before the transfer window closes.

In other news, another player to have suffered an injury is Homer, now back at Villa and training with the reserves. Our former loanee is reported to have broken a bone in his foot - presumably wrecking any prospect of him returning here (or going anywhere else for that matter) before his contract expires in the summer.

With the transfer window having only seven days left to go, it is to be hoped that Hughton can get some more players into the club before it is too late.

Bounced out of Cup

West Bromwich Albion 4 - 2 Newcastle Utd

It may be that going out of the Cup proves to be a blessing in disguise. However, the manner of our defeat to fellow promotion chasers West Brom still rankles with the officials proving decisive in a relatively tight encounter.

Whilst Newcastle were forced to make changes as a result of injuries sustained during last Monday's league encounter, the Baggies kept the same starting XI and it was Jonas Olsson who again opened the scoring in similar fashion to his league goal. This time it was Bigger Lad who was left on his heels as the big defender powered his header goalwards. The ball was cleared on the line by Jose Enrique, but the referee's assistant decided the ball had crossed the line, and despite some vigorous finger waving from Tim Krul, the goal stood.

With ITV only having one camera, it's proved a tricky decision to review, and having managed to pause the clip at the vital second, it looks to me as though Enrique is stood behind the line when he kicks the ball (of course, I can't be certain of the ball's position) - so it may be that the officials got that one right.

West Brom's second came despite some aggressive forward play by Roman Bednar (or persistent pulling and fouling) of Tamas Kadar which proved unsuccessful in knocking our young defender out of the way; however it did prompt the Hungarian to foul his man in the box and concede a penalty. Again, this is a decision which could certainly have gone another way on a different day - but ignoring the earlier fouls on Kadar, he does impede Bednar. For the home team, midfielder Graham Dorrans duly slammed home the penalty.

Two down at half time and Chris Hughton decided he'd seen enough of the ineffectual Pancrate, and he threw on Big Lad to support Bigger Lad up front. That decision looked to be paying dividends when Gutierrez burst down the left and whipped a decent ball back in for Bigger Lad to fire home.

Then came the pivotal moment of the match as Big Lad was clearly flattened by two defenders and left prone on the turf inside the area. With Scott Carson and Roberto Di Matteo both encouraging the home side to put the ball out (presumably relieved that the referee had ignored the clear penalty) their team kept the ball in play and drew a foul from Ryan Taylor inside our box which saw the home team awarded a second penalty, and saw Taylor dismissed after a ridiculously long wait. Dorrans again fired home from the spot.

With minutes to go, an interception by Jose Enrique fell kindly for Jerome Thomas to put the tie beyond doubt, and a late consolation goal by Bigger Lad was never going to get us back into the match.

Hopefully the sense of injustice arising from the denial of the clear penalty and generally one-sided officiating on display will galvanise the team to get our promotion chase back on track against Crystal Palace on Wednesday, and West Brom will now embark on a long, exhausting Cup run which diverts their attention from the league.

What remains clear is that the squad still needs strengthening, and with time running out Chris Hughton needs to convince Jabba to put his hand in his pockets quickly if our season isn't to start unravelling.

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

ITV highlights are here

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Salary cap = handicap?

Today's Express is reporting that Jabba is determined to put in place a wage ceiling should we achieve promotion. The story itself isn't new - it's been circulating for the past week or so, and was mentioned in connection with the temporary sticking points over the permanent deal for Danny Simpson, now successfully concluded. But what is new, I think, is reference to an exact figure: £30,000 a week.

Now I can appreciate that Jabba might want to keep a tight rein on the wage bill so that the club remains an attractive proposition to potential buyers - especially given the astronomic amounts we've haemorrhaged weekly in the recent past, often for players who simply haven't merited it. But I very much doubt that we'd be able to strengthen and bolster the squad sufficiently to ensure Premier League survival while operating within a strict upper limit of £30,000 - and staying up should be paramount. Hard-headed prudence might actually turn out to be as damaging as our more customary financial extravagance.

What Jabba certainly should be insisting upon in any contract negotiations, though, are more performance-related deals and bonuses. Not only would they give the players more incentive to win (not that they should need any more incentive than the prospect of the three points, of course), but they would also ensure that there's no repeat of the ludicrous situation with Obafemi Martins, whose weekly wage packet actually fattened to the tune of several thousand pounds despite our relegation...

Once, twice, but not three times a Geordie

Last week the news that legend Nobby Solano was training with us brought inevitable speculation that he might be on the verge of joining the club for the third time - but it wasn't to be, and he's now teamed up with our former assistant manager Nigel Pearson at Leicester.

Having recently played for Sheffield Utd in a friendly against our reserves, he might not have to wait long for another appearance against his former employers, as we travel to the East Midlands for a teatime kick-off on Saturday.

While the ladies of Leicester prepare themselves to be charmed by the trumpet-playing lothario, I'm wondering whether the 35-year-old and his creaking limbs might have found a perfect home at the Walkers Stadium...

Harps not glad be at Glanford Park

Following an afternoon sat on the bench at the Hawthorns watching his deputy Tim Krul get beaten four times, Steve Harper was belatedly involved in FA Cup action this afternoon - as a Radio 5 Live commentator. His trip to Glanford Park to see Man City defeat hosts Scunthorpe brought back unhappy memories of October's loss to the Iron, as he recalled how claustrophobic the ground is and how close the home fans behind the goal are to the pitch.

That match was our last defeat - until yesterday, that is. Harper wouldn't be drawn into saying much about referee James Linnington's performance - but given that even the normally placid and cool Chris Hughton expressed perplexity at some of the decisions, he didn't need to. Paul's match report to follow tomorrow.

(Incidentally, Roberto Mancini's team selection deprived Harps of the opportunity to talk about Shay Given, the man who for so many years denied him a place in the first team.)

Friday, January 22, 2010

Big Willi coming our way

A tale of two defenders this, with current Portsmouth reserve player Mike Williamson reportedly undertaking a medical at St James Park with a view to a permanent move. Having previously played for Watford the player clearly knows the division he's moving to, and there is a suspicion that his first-team appearances on the South coast have been restricted due to fees owed to Watford if he appears in too many more games from Pompey.

At 6' 4" he'll add further height to our back line, and adds some more depth to our relatively limited defensive options.

The one that got away however is Matthew Kilgallon, who only a few days ago was pledging his future to Sheffield Utd rather than sign for Newcastle, with the player newly unveiled by Ol' Cauliflower Face as a desperate attempt to plug the defence which conceded seven to Chelski last week.

Perhaps most damning is the clear indictment that whatever we might like to think, at least in some people's eyes, the Stadium of Shite is currently a more attractive destination - either that, or the player is fixated with teams who play in red and white stripes.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Gone fishing

So, one deal wrapped up but today also brought news of another one that seems to be dead in the water. Fishing for Forest defender James Perch, we appear to have upset his manager Billy Davies, who - rather than swallowing the bait hook, line and sinker - has baulked at what he's referred to as a "derisory" maggot of an offer.

I don't know much about Perch other than that he's a defender, but I'm sceptical that angling for players who can't even get into Championship sides (even if he has been injured for much of the current campaign) is really the best way of augmenting and improving our squad. But, if the response from opposition fans to Sunday's posts is anything to go by, perhaps there are Forest fans on hand to tell us what we'd be getting for our money and why Davies has been so swift to knock back the approach?

Homer, Simpson: rumoured to be returning

The normally reliable is reporting that we might be about to make some progress in the transfer market on two fronts.

The first should see the permanent acquisition of Danny Simpson who returned briefly to Old Trafford on Tuesday after his loan deal expired. However, with his future clearly lying away from manure it's a relief to hear that sense has been seen and agreement apparently reached regarding wages with the player bringing in a modest fee (which presumably will go on interest payments in the blink of a Glazer's eye). From a personal perspective this seems like an excellent deal for us, with the player proving a committed and skillful fixture in the first team during the first half of the season.

Also rumoured is the return of Marlon Harewood - with our previous loan acquisition apparently keen to pass up the chance to watch Villa's race for fourth place (and possible Carling Cup Final appearance) in exchange for participating in our Championship chase.

Whilst I've been less than fully convinced by Harewood, his return on loan would at least boost our striking options, and towards the end of his loan spell he started to show the kind of form which has seen him command several sizeable transfer fees. Whether he will have so many opportunities if Shola stays fit and Lovenkrands continues in his current rich vein of form is debatable.


We've got our man - well, one of them, at least: Danny Simpson has signed a three-year deal, with the size of the transfer fee undisclosed. Chris Hughton suggests that despite the wage negotiations it was fairly simple: "He was a player we wanted to keep at the club and he was keen to stay". Welcome to the fold permanently, Danny.

The big divide

OK, so we're leading the Championship pack, but are we - or Forest or the Baggies, for that matter - capable of surviving in the Premier League? As things currently stand, would promotion be too soon? I fear so - though at least we'd hopefully have the financial clout to improve our chances of staying up.

Also on The Two Unfortunates: Lloyd's less than favourable verdict on the Northern Rock deal...

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Warning: not for those of a nervous disposition

Newcastle Utd 2 - 2 West Brom

Caught your breath yet?

In a game which - for once - more than lived up to its top-of-the-table billing, we twice came from behind to take a point against a vibrant Baggies side who outplayed us for long periods. Over the course of the 90 minutes, chances came thick and fast in what must have been as thrilling a match for the neutral as it was nerve-wracking for the partisan.

The most significant team news concerned Peter Lovenkrands, Wednesday's hat-trick hero deciding that the best way to pay tribute to the memory of his late football-loving father would be to lace up his boots and give his all in one of our biggest games of the season.

The Dane was almost on hand to steer in a prodded centre from strike partner Big Lad after just three minutes, but by that point the visitors were already on the front foot, signalling a single-minded attacking intent rarely seen from opposing sides at St James' Park. On 13 minutes Graham Dorrans - a player who, like some of our own, has blossomed at this level - made amends for earlier blasting over from close range by crossing for centre back Jonas Olsson to capitalise on poor marking and apply a deft touch past Steve Harper.

We drew level with 25 minutes on the clock, Danny Guthrie arcing a precise and clever free-kick over a crumbling wall and past the statuesque Scott Carson, and given the strong-arm tactics of Albion defenders Olsson, Gabriel Tamas and Gonzalo Jara (the gumshielded Big Lad a particular victim) we sensed that our best chance of taking the lead probably lay in winning set pieces in the vicinity of the box. Indeed, Jara's manhandling of Lovenkrands could easily have resulted in a penalty.

The fact remains, though, that by and large we were being outclassed elsewhere on the pitch. Roberto di Matteo had responded to his side's white-flag-waving home defeat to arch-rivals Forest by bringing in wiser heads in the full back positions but also by switching from 4-4-2 to 4-5-1. With Youssouf Mulumbu anchoring the midfield, Dorrans, Chris Brunt and Jerome Thomas took full advantage of the licence afforded them to slice us apart to an extent that no other side has mustered thus far this campaign. Kevin Nolan and Alan Smith shuffled about like men trying to catch eels slathered in Vaseline, and with about as much success.

While there was no further damage in the first half - the Baggies restricted to a succession of dangerous hanging corners interspersed with the odd effort on goal, most noteably a stinging piledriver from Tamas - it took our opponents just 32 seconds of the second period to restore their advantage. Three black and white shirts may have been clustered around Dorrans, but they still allowed him space to plant a ball on Roman Bednar's head. Harper made a miraculous save to deflect the effort onto the crossbar but, sat on the seat of his shorts, could do nothing about Bednar nodding in the rebound from a matter of centimetres.

Again we equalised before West Brom were able to rest easy. Jose Enrique, increasingly influential on the left in tandem with Spiderman, burst forwards to deliver a cross into the area which Lovenkrands - who else? - flicked in at the near post with a smart header, with the assistance of Mulumbu's comical dash to leave him free and Carson's bungled attempt to save. The sight of the Dane pointing poignantly to the heavens, a tear in the eye, brought a lump to the throat of many a fan.

The Baggies, though, were still capable of opening us up with every attack and were emphatically not playing for the draw. Dorrans' deflected shot flew inches wide (Enrique ducking out of the way to avoid scoring a particularly ignominous own goal with a diving header), Olsson headed over after a passage of play during which we simply couldn't get near the ball and, most fortuitously of all, substitute Ishmael Miller struck the post from point-blank range from Thomas' low centre. Smith, gradually finding his way into the game, made a superb block from the follow-up shot while Danny Simpson's loan spell came to a premature end, a tough evening up against the in-form Thomas curtailed by injury.

Hughton left it at least ten minutes too late in replacing the out-of-steam Big Lad with Bigger Lad (his exhaustion was a large part of the reason why we couldn't retain possession), but in the later stages we still came agonisingly close to winning it ourselves. Olsson turned double agent, nearly putting through his own net and then doing his best to gift us a spot-kick with an unceremonious barge on Bigger Lad that referee Paul Taylor for some reason ignored. Meanwhile, Carson tipped Ryan Taylor's cross-cum-shot free-kick around the post at full stretch and Spiderman couldn't quite cap an exhilarating last-minute gallop down the touchline with the right weighting on his square ball to Bigger Lad.

In the circumstances, a point has to be gratefully accepted - though the 14 game unbeaten run now includes three consecutive Championship draws, hinting at a worrying loss of momentum. There's a fair chance this fixture could be replayed in the Premier League next season, but the evening's real winners were, arguably, Forest, who remain three points clear of the Baggies and within striking distance of us.

As was pointed out at full-time, at least we don't have to play the Baggies every week. So, who've we got in the Cup on Saturday? Ah.

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

Monday, January 18, 2010

Nol again?

With over half of the transfer window already expired, Newcastle are rumoured to be considering copying Arsenal's current cunning plan: namely, re-sign a player who was once brilliant, but who it is now suspected may be somewhat past their prime.

Whilst Arsene Wenger has restored alleged one-time Toon target Sol Campbell to the Arsenal dressing room, everyone's favourite trumpet-playing Peruvian love rat Nobby Solano is back in Newcastle training with the team. Notionally this is intended to keep Nobby's fitness levels up whilst he looks for one final pay day, but given our recent disappointments in the transfer window (and the fact that Danny Simpson is reportedly due to return to Old Trafford after tonight's game) it is perhaps telling that the Times is reporting that Nobby has so far impressed the coaches with his "fitness and quality".

I must confess that Nobby is one of those Newcastle players who I continue to hold in high regard, and one of a very select band who I was absolutely gutted when he left us for another club (at least I was the first time round).

Presumably Nobby's family situation has now changed to the point where he might consider a further bout of Tyneside-based trumpeting.

If he is now to join us for a third time (chances are he'll be at least as much use as Fabrice Pancrate seems to be and far less likely to cut inside than Danny Guthrie) then I'll be happy enough, but worry that it won't be so much third time lucky as an opportunity to watch a player whose star is now very much on the wane, and that the love affair won't be so sweet this time round.

Rock steady crew

The club have announced that the taxpayers' favourite bank Northern Rock have signed up for a further four years of club sponsorship in a £10 million deal. Quite a change from the £25 million they paid for a five-year deal last time round (which we got up front and splurged on Michael Owen). Hopefully, from the club's budgeting point of view, we'll be getting it in chunks of £2.5 million a year as a nice regular income, rather than leaving a bloody great hole in our finances again.

Nice too that we retain close local ties between team and sponsor - something perhaps sadly lacking from a significant number of clubs at our level and above. (Although to be fair, if a foreign investor offered us a fraction more money, you can bet Jabba and co would bite their hand off).

Telling that the price is so heavily reduced - last time round we were a Premier League club and attracted an England international with the cash. This time round we're a Championship team (albeit one top of the division) and with less money lying around for sponsorship, I'm guessing that even if we'd stayed in the top flight we wouldn't have received the same income.

With both club and sponsor looking to recover after a shaky last few years, it would be nice to think we could both help benefit each other. As the BBC article notes, in order to receive all the cash we need to stay in the Premier League for the whole four year period, with the potential to only receive £1.5 million if things go horribly awry on the pitch.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Beckford blow

Our January recruitment plans were dealt a heavy blow today with the news that Jermaine Beckford has decided (or been persuaded) to withdraw his transfer request and will now stay at Leeds until the summer, when he will be out of contract and can leave for nothing. Perhaps someone should have drawn his club's attention to this piece suggesting they'd be better off without him?

So, with any potential January deal scuppered, it's back to the drawing board as regards forward reinforcements. I suppose it increases the prospect of a new loan move for Homer, one at which the player himself would jump, but he was a little erratic in his finishing and inconsistent in his levels of effort and performance and I wonder if we couldn't do better. Jack Wilshere would be a useful offensive addition to the squad but we would still need an out-and-out striker and there must be a few players who, like Homer, are on the fringes of Premier League squads and keen for some first-team football, either just for a temporary period or with an eye to a permanent move.

Newcastle United

Steven Taylor has been talking to the Mirror about the dramatic and positive change in the dressing room this season, much of which he attributes to Chris Hughton's management style:

"In the past few years, players kept things in or talked behind people’s backs, which caused arguments and upset some players who then haven’t gone out and performed.

When I first came into the first team set-up, there were three groups: the young lads, the foreign lads and the older players. There’s none of that any more. Everyone is together. The players, plus Chris and Colin Calderwood, stick together.

The players who wanted to be here have shown they want to be here. The players who didn’t want to be here aren’t here.

We were always in the papers, often for the wrong reasons. There was always something bad or negative happening, being said or being written.

This season, that hasn’t happened, because the players here care about the club and aren’t silly enough to talk badly about it.

We realised right at the start of season that everyone was out to nail us, and we haven’t given them the satisfaction.

Taylor also continues to harbour hopes of a place in the full England squad - though is realistic enough to know that the call won't come as long as he's plying his trade outside of the top flight.

Jack's the lad?

Today's Mirror reports that we're keen to take Arsenal's Jack Wilshere on loan for the rest of the season. What little I've seen of the teenage midfielder suggests that he's a real talent and very skillful - I'm no fan of Arsene Wenger, but when a young player gets his stamp of approval then it's usually a good sign. However, he might perhaps be a little lightweight for the robust attentions he'd receive in the Championship.

There are a clutch of other clubs chasing Wilshere's signature, apparently, but I wonder if the Gunners might prefer to loan him to someone outside the top flight - and perhaps look favourably on us, having poached Sol Campbell from under our noses in what was, quite frankly, a bizarrely unlikely deal. It must be just about the first time Wenger's signed anyone over the age of about 25...

Meanwhile, the future of a current loanee remains to be resolved. Tomorrow's game against West Brom will supposedly see Danny Simpson make his last appearance before returning to Old Trafford, but he's adamant he wants to stay longer term and Chris Hughton has implied that the feeling is mutual.

And then there were two

Sod's law that after a draining if ultimately fruitful 120 minutes at Anfield on Wednesday, Reading's next opponents would be the side who are now our closest challengers. Forest duly capitalised on the Royals' weariness, notching up two first-half goals at the City Ground and holding on for a 2-1 win which has cut our lead to just two points.

We do have two games in hand, though, the first being tomorrow's clash with the Baggies. A few weeks ago it looked like being a face-off between the two likeliest contenders for the title - but now our home game against the Tricky Trees (now also a televised Monday night game, taking place on 29th March) appears even more significant.

Still, at least there was one result to cheer yesterday, eh?

Friday, January 15, 2010

Loven the third degree*

Newcastle Utd 3 - 0 Plymouth Argyle

A perfect hat-trick from Peter Lovenkrands was more than enough to take Newcastle past Plymouth in the FA Cup.

Goals with his left foot, head and right foot (celebrated by tapping all three in a style which made him look like a Bavarian dancer) were sufficient to take us past a lacklustre Plymouth side and queue up a tie against fellow promotion chasers West Brom.

Lovenkrands' first and second came after good work by Jonas Gutierrez, who again showed that he has started to find more consistency in his end product (perhaps because he has more time in the Championship) and two up at half-time a strong Newcastle team were unlikely to capitulate in the second half.

Plymouth only managed a brief rally, which saw Tim Krul forced to make a pretty simple save, before Lovenkrands' third, after more good work down the left (this time by Jose Enrique) saw the tie put beyond doubt and prompted the Dane to embark on his perfect hat-trick celebration.

Perhaps most telling was the low turnout, doubtless a product of the present administration/credit crunch/crap weather/low number of visiting fans/midweek tie - which was our lowest in the Cup since 1920.

Other reports: BBC,

(*For the Bananarama fans out there - I know there's at least one reading this...)

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Thank heavens

Anyone else got heartily sick of walking in a winter wonderland trudging miserably through the slush and snow? Well, it's perhaps worth reflecting that the elements have at least done us one favour.

Judging by Reading's superb performance at Anfield last night, a step up from what was already a very creditable display at home in the original fixture, it was probably a good job our trip to the Madejski was postponed courtesy of the weather conditions. Had it gone ahead, I suspect we may well have been in serious danger of becoming only the second side to lose there this season.

The match has now been rearranged for 23rd February (assuming, that is, that neither side happens to be require an FA Cup Fifth Round replay that week) - hopefully by then the Royals will have reverted to form and we can approach the game with a little less trepidation.

Of course, the postponement of Saturday's game also gave us a break which, on the evidence of our comprehensive dismissal of Plymouth, seems to have been beneficial. Paul's report on our smooth passage into the Fourth Round to follow.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

A Month Of Saturdays: December 2009

A weekend off, courtesy of the elements - no excuse not to throw together the overdue review of last month, then...

By contrast with the turbulence and high farce with which November began, December was a much quieter month off-field. Jabba opted to keep a low profile, suggesting he might not be so completely unacquainted with common sense as he often appears. Organ grinder's monkey Llambiarse, meanwhile, seemed so determined to blot out all the controversy over the stadium rebranding that he even referred to it as St James' Park in his programme notes. Few distractions from the real business at hand, then - regaining our top flight status.

In the first of no fewer than six league games over the course of the month, we took on Watford. Peter Lovenkrands capitalised on a rare bit of gut-busting effort from Homer to give us an early lead, but thereafter the Hornets caused us real problems, and we found ourselves in the unfamiliar position of being under concerted pressure on our own turf, especially when Kevin Nolan was sent off for two yellows (by Mackem whistleblower Jonathan Moss, I should add). An opportune moment for our newest recruit, Fabrice Pancrate, to introduce himself with a fabulous bit of skill and thumping shot to wrap up a 2-0 win.

Another win - our seventh in a row - duly followed four days later, when Coventry were ruthlessly dispatched by the same scoreline. Coleman's outfit had kicked off as keen as mustard (arf), striking the frame of Steve Harper's goal twice, but Big Lad's opener on the stroke of half-time proved crucial and sub Nile Ranger's first senior goal sealed it.

The sequence of victories finally came to an end the following Saturday, though, a trip to Barnsley our undoing. We took the lead twice, the returning Nolan and Homer our scorers, only to succumb to a late Bobby Hassell equaliser. Chucking away points? A bad habit we thought we'd grown out of, but sadly not.

Thankfully a visit from Wee Gordon Strachan's demoralised and misfiring Boro was next on the agenda, the 2-0 victory a much-needed tonic for those who spent the most hellish weekend of the year being dragged from shop to shop by their WAGs. The Smogs squandered their chances, while Homer and Big Lad took ours. It's fair to say, though, that referee Kevin Friend lived up to his name, missing both Big Lad's barge on Emanuel Pogatetz and his Phantom of the Opera mask in the build-up to the first goal, and then Steven Taylor's handball on the line. A late addition to Chris Hughton's Christmas card list, no doubt.

So, ten points clear at the top at Christmas - festive cheer indeed. But then Big Lad warned of the dangers of complacency, Hughton praised the solidity of our back four and fate scratched its head and thought: "Hmm, that's really rather tempting..."

The result? A sloppily conceded early goal at Hillsborough and a complacent disinterestedness in pressing home our superiority once we'd gained the advantage, leading to a second successive 2-2 draw on the road in Yorkshire as the Boxing Day curse struck yet again. Stuart Attwell's Christmas presents clearly didn't include a pair of spectacles, the man in black allowing Big Lad's goal despite him being approximately a mile offside and then doing likewise with James O'Connor's prod after Harper had been assaulted by Luke Varney.

Just like our trousers, the gap at the top got tighter as the festive period wore on, as we posted another frustrating draw against lowly opposition (this time Derby) on the 28th in which we hit the woodwork twice but couldn't make the breakthrough. Still, Christmas is all about the art of masking disappointment and we consoled ourselves with the knowledge that we were still unbeaten since that shoddy defeat at Scunthorpe on 20th October.

December saw us bid farewell to loan recruits Zurab Khizanishvili and Homer (though their returns to their Premier League parent clubs could yet prove short-lived), and Paul pondered the positions in which reinforcements are most urgently needed during the January transfer window. The rumours of interest in Leeds striker Jermaine Beckford bubbled away, while it was unclear whether we'd expressed a firm interest in Sol Campbell, now once again a free agent after his farcical dalliance with Notts County.

The end of the year, and the end of the decade, naturally had us reflecting on the past. Sir Bobby Robson received the 2009 FIFA Fair Play Award posthumously, while for Alan Shearer the honours continued to mount up just like they never did during his ten-year playing career on Tyneside, his latest an honorary degree.

Less welcome was some guff from professional ankle-biter and gobshite Craig Bellamy implying that Wor Al had somehow had a role in Robson's dismissal. And, with our minds drawn back to memories of Bobby's Borstal Boys (Bellamy, Bowyer, Dyer etc), Bigger Lad took it upon himself to prove that the Class of '09 aren't all clean-living goody-two-shoes by getting himself lifted for alleged assault for the second time.

But, with Newcastle named as one of the Host Cities for England's 2018 World Cup bid, it was also a time to look to the future. And a time to celebrate new beginnings, on a personal note at least, as Paul's second-born made a grand entrance just in time for Christmas. Just think: if we do fend off our challengers and return to the Premier League at the first time of asking, Isaac will be a Newcastle fan who can genuinely say he's known only success...

Quote of the day

"This is not intended as a pop at the current owners. It’s saying we feel frustration at the events of the last decade, all the shenanigans of managers and owners, which we feel has had an effect on the reputation of the club and a rub-off on the reputation of the city.

My feeling is football has grown away from its supporters, to celebrity players and managers and games scheduled around television, rather than what’s convenient for fans.

Given that passion for football among the supporters we think it would be good if Newcastle United could be a beacon among clubs and give a real stake for supporters financially and a voice in running the club.

Newcastle City Council leader John Shipley, who is to propose a formal motion in support of the Newcastle United Supporters Trust's bid to buy a stake in the club. Importantly, the motion has cross-party support - it's set to be seconded by opposition leader Nick Forbes, who was rather less diplomatic than Shipley: "We have seen what a dog’s breakfast absent millionaire owners can make of football clubs".

Meanwhile, yesterday's Times claimed that more than £50m has been pledged to the Yes We Can campaign. More info on the Trust's website.

Challengers change places

So, our lead at the top of the table has been cut - but only by one point and, courtesy of last night's impressive debagging of the Baggies on their own turf, it's now Forest who are our closest challengers. The Tricky Trees maintained their unbeaten away record in some style, so it's not that much of a consolation to know that our remaining meeting with them this season will be at St James'. What is reassuring, though, is that they've played a game more than us, while last night saw the Baggies wasting their own game in hand on us.

Friday, January 08, 2010

Snow go for the Mad Stad

Confirmation came through earlier today that Saturday's game against Reading has been postponed due to the weather. Better that the match falls casualty to the weather than any supporters trying to get to the ground, to be honest, and at least travelling fans have been given plenty of notice.

As someone for whom the Madejski Stadium must be the closest league ground, I can vouch for the conditions locally - the snow's still lying up to about 8" deep in places, while it's getting very slippery where it's being compacted, melting and refreezing again. (It's not just a case of southern softies not liking a bit of cold, honest...)

Incidentally, I was intrigued by the Reading website's revelation that "thick ice has accumulated on 20 rows of terracing, staircases and vomitories". Could the stadium really be fully equipped with a system of channels and gullies for the conveyance of the stomach contents of those who've overindulged pre-match? Alas, no - turns out "vomitory" is just a fancy word for an entrance/exit...

The postponement means that West Brom will have the chance to close the gap at the top to just three points in the Friday night fixture (assuming that survives the freeze too). But, thankfully for us, their opponents Forest are in fine form and remain - remarkably - unbeaten away from home. Here's hoping for another draw for Billy Davies' men.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Off and on (potentially)

Off: a transfer window deal for Matthew Kilgallon. His club Sheffield Utd were prepared to sell him and the clubs had apparently agreed a £2m fee, but Kilgallon has opted to stay put with the intention of helping the Blades into the play-offs (or better) before reconsidering his options in the summer when he can move on a Bosman.

This might mean more opportunities for Tamas Kadar, but in all likelihood Chris Hughton will continue his pursuit of experienced cover for Steven Taylor and Fabricio Coloccini.

On (potentially): the signing of Leeds' Jermaine Beckford. Beckford is in similar circumstances to Kilgallon (a wanted man who's out of contract in the summer). In his case, though, he wants to leave, his club weren't keen on releasing him and so he's handed in a transfer request.

Leeds could, I suppose, refuse it, but they're unlikely to want to keep an unhappy player who could leave for nothing in the summer when there's a clear opportunity to cash in. So this effectively gives us the green light. As far as Championship suitors go, we must surely be in pole position ahead of the likes of the Smogs - but were a Premier League outfit to express an interest we might well miss out. After all, if Beckford can't wait a year and a half to see if Leeds can make it back into the top flight, who's to say he'll want to wait six months with us if the chance arises to skip the Championship altogether?

Tam's the man, says Nicky

Confirming Pilgrims fan Lloyd's verdict on Tamas Kadar's performance at Home Park on Saturday (see comments box), here's Nicky Butt on our Hungarian centre-back:

"I thought he was superb against Plymouth. He has been unfortunate with injuries, he had a bad leg break last season, but if he stays injury free he is going to get a few games here and there and he is coming along really well. He has improved immensely this season.

The club has tried to sign promising young players over the last couple of years and Tamas is one of those who is starting to emerge now.

You have to be patient when it comes to young players. He is growing in confidence around the place and you can see that on the pitch. It is really encouraging the progress he has made.

So, a glowing endorsement for one of our most brightest hopes from someone whose star is starting to wane. Indeed, Butt's comments were made during an interview in which he confessed that he may be hanging up his boots come May. If he does, there'll be a twinge of sadness - after a sticky start to his career at St James' Park and the season on loan at Birmingham, he's largely proven himself to be a competent and committed professional (certainly in contrast to a number of those with whom he's shared a dressing room since arriving on Tyneside).

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Scouting report

The weekend's televised FA Cup Third Round ties gave us all the opportunity to be club scouts from the comfort of our own living rooms. So, what did we learn?

Well, that Saturday's opponents Reading may be struggling in the Championship but are still capable of frustrating and indeed giving an out-of-sorts Liverpool a really tough game. Having failed to win against another managerless side languishing in a lowly league position on Boxing Day, it's not a match we'll particularly be relishing - especially given that our other two festive fixtures saw us record disappointing (and goalless) draws against very similar opposition.

Royals fan Lanterne Rouge of The Two Unfortunates is better placed than me to tell you where it's gone wrong for his side so far this season - here's his rough guide to why Brendan Rodgers was dismissed. But there was enough to suggest we won't be in for an easy ride against a team who've won just once at home this season.

Simon Church caught the eye up front - his goal may have been bundled in unwittingly off his shins from approximately 30cm, but (unlike Reading's forwards so often this season) he was in the right place at the right time and showed himself to be a willing, enthusiastic and tireless annoyance to the Reds' back line.

The Royals' midfield has lacked quality and creativity this season - as Lanterne Rouge mentioned, Rodgers' omission of Marek Matejovsky and banishment of James Harper to Sheffield Utd caused much bafflement and irritation, though neither have been recalled since his departure. All the same, Turkish U21 midfielder Jem Karacan was industrious and skillful, while Brian Howard made his comeback from injury, stepping off the bench to show off a cultured left foot.

And what of the other Cup game I had my eye on? Well, as you may possibly be aware, Leeds went to Old Trafford and knocked out fierce rivals Man Utd thanks to a goal from Jermaine Beckford. The long-time Toon target outpaced the central defenders and calmly slid a shot under Tomasz Kuszczak for the winner, but terrorised Wes Brown and Jonny Evans all afternoon, often as a lone frontman when Luciano Becchio dropped deep.

As I noted yesterday in commenting on another prospect, Kris Boyd, a busy, pacy, goal-getting forward is exactly what we're lacking at the moment and with Beckford out of contract in the summer it's no surprise we're targeting him. However, while it was good to see what he's capable of on the big stage, it was also rather frustrating as he'll no doubt be on rather more clubs' radars as a result of the performance. Canny Leeds manager Simon Grayson immediately talked up Beckford's price, and Chris Hughton has responded by reiterating our interest but suggested there are other names on our shopping list. And so the game of cat and mouse begins...

One final thought. Leeds were extremely good against Man Utd (they could certainly have scored more than once) and currently lead League One, with fellow fish-out-of-water Norwich, Charlton and even a rejuvenated post-administration-points-deficit Southampton jostling for position at the foot of the ladder up to the Championship. Meanwhile, no one's particularly far adrift in the top flight, suggesting there won't be much difference in quality between those who stay up and those who drop down. What can we conclude from this? That we really need to get out of this division at the first attempt as next year it'll be even tougher...

Monday, January 04, 2010

Premature ejaculation*

How not to conduct a transfer in three easy steps, courtesy of Turkish side Ankaragucu:

1. Present your "new signing" in front of the national media.

2. Parade him in front of your fans (whose ecstacy suggests they're oblivous to the fact that he's a past-it cash drain who could be outpaced by an asthmatic tortoise).

3. Discover the club from which you've supposedly signed him has released a statement labelling your announcement "extremely premature" and that "there are a number of clubs interested in possibly acquiring his services".

* Oh come on, don't pretend you thought that was beneath us...

Quote of the day

"Most footballers are knobs."

A precious insight courtesy of our very own ASBO, as delivered in an interview on Radio 4's Today programme when it was guest-edited by (gulp) Tony Adams.

Our occasional midfielder went on to clarify his statement: "They are so detached from real life it's untrue". Interesting, your use of "they" there, Joey. It's almost as though you're excluding yourself from this damning assessment of your fellow professionals, when in fact your track record would suggest you're the most prize knob of them all. (As the Guardian's Barney Ronay put it, "Barton has been handy shorthand for football knobbery in all its forms".) Still, nice to know you're happy to let your gob do the talking rather than your feet.

Incidentally, Ronay's comment piece is worth a quick read - if you can overlook the description of ASBO as "an articulate speaker", that is...

Well, Owl be damned

The Sun was claiming this morning that Alan Shearer was set to take the vacant manager's position at Sheffield Wednesday, with his former team-mate Gary Speed crossing the Steel City to become his assistant.

Wor Al's response? A brusque refutation - there's "no truth" in the rumours, apparently.

Fair enough, but you do wonder what he's hanging on for, if he really is genuinely keen to get into management. With Chris Hughton having been rewarded for a successful first half of the season with a permanent contract, Shearer's chances of taking charge of his hometown team any time soon look remote, but there are still currently a clutch of moderately attractive positions available in the Championship, and with Burnley soon likely to be looking for a new boss in the Premier League. Perhaps it's a matter of finances - he probably wouldn't want to assume control of a club where the coffers are completely empty, and you can't blame him for that.

Shearer's a man of his word, but were he to perform a U-turn and join Wednesday then he'd find a familiar face waiting for him - Toon old boy Steve Watson is currently assisting caretaker manager Sean McAuley as he tries to steady the ship ahead of a permanent appointment.

Cup bore draw

Plymouth Argyle 0 - 0 Newcastle Utd

Right, I'll keep this brief. Not as brief as ITV's highlight, but certainly a lot shorter than the 800 mile round trip which everyone involved in supporting or playing for either club will have to undergo now that a replay has been scheduled.

On a pretty claggy pitch, Argle showed the improvements they've made under recently appointed coach Paul Mariner, and displayed an increased defensive fortitude to that found when we entertained Paul Sturrock's team a few months ago.

With Chris Hughton once again shuffling the pack, leaving Nolan and Steven Taylor at home altogether, and giving the likes of Kadar, Krul and Ranger the chance to start, this could never be described as our strongest XI. Equally though, there were enough players either in the starting line-up, or who appeared from the bench, who might have had enough quality to ensure our place in the Fourth Round.

However, it wasn't to be. As ITV picked up, our best chance fell to Nicky Butt, whose chipped shot from distance was only just tipped on to the bar by the home side's keeper Romain Larrieu. Fabrice Pancrate had earlier struck the woodwork himself, Ameobi netting the follow-up but foiled by the linesman's flag.

With Tim Krul untested at the other end, this game, like that against Derby, proved to be one where we couldn't quite find the spark to unlock a stubborn defence. (Something which alleged target Jermaine Beckford managed against a certain team from Manchester on Sunday.)

With our focus being very clearly on the league this season, a replay is perhaps an unwelcome addition to the fixture list. However, if we continue to use these games to bring on our promising youngsters, then there is definitely a benefit to be had by making Plymouth drag themselves all the way to Newcastle for a midweek evening kick-off in a next week.

Other report: BBC

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Going Fourth at the Hawthorns?

Should we overcome Plymouth in the FA Cup Third Round replay at St James' Park next week, our reward will be a tough trip to the Black Country to take on our closest promotion challengers West Brom.

The Baggies booked their place in the Fourth Round with a 2-0 win at free-scoring League One high-flyers Huddersfield - no mean feat, given that Lee Clark's side were hitherto unbeaten at home this season. However much the game is talked up, though, I suspect that both Chris Hughton and Roberto di Matteo would be far more focused on the league clash at St James' Park a few days before.

As for the replay, we've beaten the Pilgrims at home once already this campaign, but they've been showing improved form of late (since Paul Mariner took the reins, basically) and so we'd best be mindful of Sir Bobby Robson's famous words of wisdom: "If you count your chickens before they've hatched, they won't lay an egg"...

Paul's report on yesterday's stalemate to follow.

Little Boyd blue?

The BBC website's reporting that Toon target Kris Boyd could well be destined for Birmingham. While it's to be hoped that we'll be joining the Blues at the top table come May, at the moment Boyd might see the Premier League's surprise package as a better option.

What's certain, though, is that after two blanks and with Homer having returned to obscurity at Villa, we desperately need to boost our striking options, preferably with someone who's quick and a smart finisher to be a foil for one of the lanky trio Big Lad, Bigger Lad and Nile Ranger. Boyd, who scored five in Rangers' thrashing of Dundee Utd to become the leading scorer in Scottish Premier League history, would probably fit the bill.