Friday, February 26, 2010

Loan stars?

As February draws to a close, so too does the brief loan spell of Patrick van Aanholt, who has adeptly filled the void caused by Jose Enrique's hamstring strain, something which, prior to the Dutchman's arrival, looked to have left Chris Hughton with the task of forcing a square peg in a round hole.

However, the sad fact is that the Dutchman's arrival clearly demonstrates that, of the available reserve players we have who might have come in, none are apparently as well equipped as Van Aanholt was to fill the gap. This despite the fact that (as commented at the time) many of our reserve defenders are actually older than the Dutchman.

The challenge of bringing on talented youngsters whilst not hindering the job in hand (in this case the progress of the first team) is one which extends to all lines of work, not just football, but one which Newcastle in particular seem to struggle with. Put simply, our reserves don't seem to go out on loan as much as perhaps they should, and as such haven't picked up sufficient experience to be able to fill a gap left by an injury to a first-team regular.

Whilst Arsene Wenger might be prepared to allow his youngsters the chance to win the Carling Cup each year, the reality is that our back-up team simply isn't good enough to get past the first couple of rounds, and so we fall back on the senior pros to try and mount a cup run.

As Bigger Lad has recently highlighted, without our relegation (and he might have added Big Lad's injury problems), he probably wouldn't have played as many games for us this season - and as a consequence wouldn't have developed as much as he has done.

However, whilst Bigger Lad might have found himself getting more pitch time, the same can't be said for many of our fringe players. Whilst Fraser Forster has been excelling on loan at League-One-topping Norwich, and Kazenga Lua Lua has belatedly gone off to get some action in Brighton, players like Tamas Kadar and Nile Ranger have only seen limited first team opportunities, whilst Ben Tozer, Ryan Donaldson et al have barely had a sniff of first team action.

If Kadar and Ranger are to make the anticipated leap from fringe to first team they need game time to hone their talents, and if they aren't to go on loan this season then the club need to be looking ahead to next year, in the hope that they can find someone willing to help blood our players at a lower level when the consequences of mistakes aren't quite so dramatic.

Thinking back a few years, the benefits to Olivier Bernard of his loan spell at Darlington were clear for all to see as the young Frenchman went from promising youth to someone equipped for the rigours of top-flight football. Similarly, players such as Steven Taylor (Wycombe), Bigger Lad (Preston) and Tim Krul (Falkirk and Carlisle) have all benefitted from first-team action away from St James' Park.

By clinging on to our players so that we can cover some elements of the squad, we actually harm their chances of development, and in doing so undermine our own chances of reaping the rewards in the longer term.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Court short

Bigger Lad's appearance at Newcastle Magistrates' court today turned out to be blink-and-you've-missed-it brief. The striker barely had time to confirm his name, address and age (the latter hopefully accompanied by sheepish old-enough-to-know-better expression) before his assault case was adjourned. He'll now be up in front of Newcastle Crown on 29th April - until then, he's on conditional bail (the conditions presumably including that he steers clear of the Bigg Market, and hopefully also that he continues in his current good vein of goalscoring form).

Also in trouble with the law recently was Agent Chopra, who chose to celebrate his part in his side Cardiff's miserable 0-2 defeat at home to struggling Barnsley by travelling all the way up to Toon and getting arrested for being drunk and disorderly on Grey Street. Still, not as bad as another ex-Mag, wonky-nosed German midfielder Didi Hamann, who has been banned from the roads for 16 months for drink driving.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Al salutes Hughton's heroics

On Saturday thousands of fans united to declare their appreciation of manager Chris Hughton and now another one's got in on the act: Wor Al.

"Chris Hughton has done a fantastic job this year in just steadying the ship. They are playing some decent football, they are getting good results and they are rightly sitting at the top of the league. They probably will go up and deserve to go up.

Then the next job starts. It's a big one after that and they won't thank me for saying it, but they are almost there. Chris has done a magnificent job in getting them into the position they are in and he certainly won't admit they are nearly there because a manager can't do that.

But privately he will be thinking they are nearly there and if they are there he will want a crack at it and he deserves it.

High praise indeed coming from a man who knows only too well from first-hand experience how big a task steadying the ship would have been.

Quote of the day

"If we were still in the Premier League, Michael Owen might still be here. Oba Martins and Mark Viduka might have stayed and with Shola Ameobi here I would have been fifth choice - assuming they didn’t bring anyone else in. I wouldn't have got a look-in, so obviously relegation has done well for me."

Sebastien Bassong spoke about some players not looking overly upset in the dressing room after our defeat at Villa Park in May - it seems Bigger Lad may have been among them... Point taken all the same, though.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

End result

Newcastle Utd 3 - 0 Preston North End

A game more significant, at least in the eyes of some journalists, for what happened off the pitch than on, we once again ground out a solid win against mediocre opposition to keep us top of the table.

With Wayne Routledge out through injury, our midfield looked a little shy of the pace which has been such a creative force of late, and once Peter Lovenkrands had limped off after barely quarter of an hour, the visiting team were able to push slightly further up the pitch.

Lovenkrands' early goal (more back-post cross than visionary shot) settled any nerves, and meant that opponents coming to terms with life under new manager Darren Ferguson were always facing an uphill struggle.

That they managed to stay in the contest for so long was more to do with our own lack of fluency than any great efforts on the part of the visitors - although Steve Harper played his part by making a point-blank save with his face.

Once Kevin Nolan had played a neat one-two with Alan Smith to slot his first goal of 2010, the game was safe. Ryan Taylor's 90th minute goal, applying the finishing touch to a Fabrice Pancrate shot, added the coup de grace - although as Fergie Jr moaned after the game, the scoreline perhaps flattered us slightly,

For the press however, the most significant moment of the game appears to have been the chorus of "Only one Chris Hughton" which reverberated around St James' Park for the first time. He may not have been the populist choice at the start of the season, and his two caretaker spells last term did nothing to suggest that things would be different this season, but our Quiet Man has certainly done enough to earn the plaudits this season. Doubts may remain about how he will cope if we do go back up to the Premier League, but for the moment at least, he should be able to enjoy the acclaim. As with all things in football (e.g. Ashley Cole's marriage, club ownership, Portsmouth), chances are it won't last forever.

For the team however, the biggest result of the weekend came 24 hours later, with West Brom's defeat to Bristol City helping to maintain our five-point cushion at the top of the table.

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

Thursday, February 18, 2010

A right royal Routledge-inspired rout

Newcastle Utd 4 - 1 Coventry City

It was very much a case of lightning striking twice on Tyneside tonight - not only did we win our second consecutive home game by some distance and against in-form opposition, but we managed to notch up a 4-1 victory over Coventry 11 years to the day since achieving exactly the same feat, even down to replicating the same pattern of scoring.

City's tormentor-in-chief was the superb Wayne Routledge, but thrust was restored to the left flank too with the return of Spiderman from injury. Kevin Nolan and Danny Guthrie were paired in a forward-thinking central midfield, and after Saturday's dismal displays had reason to feel a bit embarrassed that it was Alan Smith who was sacrificed, while Chris Hughton also decided to recall Mike Williamson at One Size's expense.

With the Baggies back on top thanks to a battling draw at Cardiff and Forest closing the gap to third to just two points with a similarly hard-fought victory over Sheffield Utd, a sharp start was imperative - shame, then, that it was Coventry who made it, Sammy Clingan forcing Steve Harper into a save inside the first minute and then Nolan having to clear off the line shortly afterwards.

But then we began to click and could have taken an early lead ourselves if Peter Lovenkrands had only planted his header from Spiderman's cross further to either side of City 'keeper Keiren Westwood. The Guthrie corners started to mount up, with Williamson heading astray from one and his defensive partner Fabricio Coloccini doing likewise shortly afterwards, the Argentinian trying his luck again just before the half-hour.

And then, completely against the run of play, Coventry sneaked in front through Clinton Morrison. But what might have deflated the players, given the last two performances, actually served to stir them into decisive action - no one more so than Routledge, who just two minutes later drew us level with a peach of a volley that will be among the most aesthetically pleasing first-goals-for-the-club we're like to see, hapless jug-eared ex-Mackem Stephen Wright helpfully providing the assist.

The pressure was sustained until half-time and, importantly, beyond. The visitors were only able to hold out for eight minutes after the break, Bigger Lad continuing his recent goal streak by nodding us in front from Nolan's cross. The looming court case looks less welcome with every passing game.

Coventry came into the fixture in good shape, one noteable recent scalp being Forest's - but we were showing scant gratitude for their assistance and extended our advantage with 20 minutes left. Having already been booked for an earlier foul on Bigger Lad, Leon Barnett could have few complaints about being red-carded for a bungled tackle on Routledge in the area, and Lovenkrands rifled home the consequent penalty.

It was the Dane's last act of the night, with the stage perfectly set for his replacement Leon Best to twist the knife against his former employers and ensure our goal difference is superior to the Baggies', as well as our points total. But it was actually the other two subs who combined to that effect, Fabrice Pancrate's injury-time cross missed by Best but knocked in by Ryan Taylor to bring to an end a very satisfactory evening's work.

The margin and manner of the win goes some way to banishing the memory of the recent poor performances on the road, though we can't ignore the fact that our away form has to improve and should be mindful that the demolition of Cardiff was immediately followed by a pitiful capitulation to the supposedly inferior Derby. However, Preston won't be relishing the trip from the North West on Saturday, particularly as they're fresh from conceding five at Pride Park, the last three of which furious manager Fergie Jr described as "absolute nonsense". In this kind of form, there's no need to give generously - our forwards will take anyway.

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Style over substance

What's going on?! This is all rather disconcerting - I appear to be in agreement with the Guardian's Louise Taylor. Of course the subject isn't Newcastle - no, it's just that my verdict on Saturday's opponents Swansea as being stylish but ultimately rather toothless tallies with hers.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Swans 1 - 1 Ugly Ducklings

Swansea City 1 - 1 Newcastle Utd

Not pretty - but not pointless either. That, basically, sums up yesterday's trip to south Wales, as we managed to emerge from the Liberty Stadium with a draw thanks to a late headed equaliser from Bigger Lad.

Paying the price for Tuesday's horror show at Pride Park were recent arrivals Leon Best and Mike Williamson, both benched in favour of Peter Lovenkrands and the fit-again Fabricio Coloccini. Alan Smith, also allegedly back to fitness (I say "allegedly" with the benefit of hindsight...), returned to anchor the midfield, with Danny Guthrie shunted out to the left in place of the injured Spiderman. Meanwhile Big Lad didn't travel, having picked up a knock in training.

Swansea began by forcing a succession of corners, but we responded with a quick break which saw a low cross from the overlapping Patrick van Aanholt put behind. The young Dutchman was soon made mindful of his defensive duties, though, with the Swans' Nathan Dyer suggesting he'd be a tricky customer.

As the first half developed, a leaden-footed Newcastle side was continually denied possession by a confident home side. The contrast between the two teams was most pronounced in midfield, where, despite fielding three to our four, the Swans were fluid and dynamic. Darren Pratley in particular was excellent, regularly bursting forwards in support of his three forwards and showing why Forest were so keen on signing him on deadline day - and why Swansea were so keen to keep him.

By contrast Kevin Nolan, our nominal creator in central midfield, continued to look as out-of-sorts and off the pace as he has in recent weeks. Equally disappointing was the way our most dangerous attacker Wayne Routledge was starved of service, given that since Federico Bassone's fourth-minute injury he'd been up against a right-footed stand-in left-back in the form of Alan Tate.

And yet our opponents also demonstrated why they're amongst the league's lowest scorers. For all their possession and control of the game, their only real efforts came in the form of two Andrea Orlandi free-kicks. Faced with the Swans' negligible threat, the returning Coloccini looked assured - one daft challenge that earned him a needless booking aside.

For our part, against the Championship's meanest defence, we saw Nolan nod past the post from a clever dinked cross from Coloccini, Lovenkrands create a chance for himself that went harmlessly wide and, with the referee's whistle between his lips, Swans 'keeper Dorian de Vries smother a Bigger Lad header on the line.

Chris Hughton presumably took the opportunity at half-time to remind the players that you can't do anything without the ball, but it was Swansea who made by far the strongest start to the second period. Dyer and Pratley had already both fired wide and comically fudged another reasonable opening through miscommunication, but they were soon on the same wavelength, to our cost. Pratley's low cross was dummied by Dyer, giving David Cotterill time to step inside the challenge and blast home from the edge of the area with Steve Harper rooted to the spot.

Just as in the first half, our midfield was still being comprehensively outplayed and overrun, with Routledge only being given rare opportunities to trouble Tate. On the other flank we wondered whether it might have been wise to gamble on replacing Guthrie - who was having a shocker - with Kadar so van Aanholt could be pushed further forwards. In the wake of Ashley Cole's injury, the Dutchman is set to be recalled at the "earliest opportunity" as soon as his month's loan ends, so we need to make sure we get the most out of him. Certainly Spiderman's absence was proving a huge blow.

The one change Chris Hughton did make, replacing the ineffective Lovenkrands with Best, looked as though it might reap rewards as we belatedly started to gain a foothold in the game, with the Swans seemingly confident that their well-marshalled back line could hold out for an 18th clean sheet of the season. Thankfully that complacency was costly as, with three minutes remaining, the lively Best swinging over a great cross from the right for Bigger Lad to thump a header past de Vries. Not the first time he's played a get-out-of-jail-free card for us - I wonder whether he might need another one up his sleeve? (The BBC report, incidentally, claims that he could have been red-carded for an elbow on Garry Monk shortly before the goal - the truth is that while it was an overly robust challenge, he had his eyes on the ball the whole time and there was no malicious intent, so it was deserving of the yellow he got.)

Once level, we - and Routledge in particular - stepped up the pace for a winner that would, on the balance of play, have been thoroughly undeserved. That said, Swans manager Paulo Sousa's post-match assessment - "We were much better than them in everything, we deserved to win by miles" - was laughably wide of the mark given the relative lack of actual goal threat his side posed.

With West Brom in FA Cup action, the point was enough to return us to the top of the table, and the result took on an even healthier look with news that Forest's floundering had continued at Doncaster. We now welcome Coventry to St James' on Wednesday, having secured a fairly comfortable win at the Ricoh in early December to make it seven successive wins. Since then, though, Chris Coleman's rejuvenated side have been one of the outfits to inflict a helpful defeat on Forest, so we'll need to be on our game to win.

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Derby donkeys

Derby County 3 - 0 Newcastle Utd

"I really like it when Newcastle play Derby."

Not my words, but instead those of a smug Rams fan of my acquaintance who doubtless took great delight in texting me after our fifteen match unbeaten run was savagely ended last night.

I think it's fair to say that I, on the other hand, don't. Every trip to Pride Park I've made has been marred, either by listless performances on the pitch or the delights of a football hooligan for company (no, not Ben), and in recent years our performances against the Rams have been characterised by our charitable gifts of three points to the home side.

Last night was sadly no exception.

Showing far more adventure than he displayed against Leicester (when the team were there for the taking), Chris Hughton stuck with the same team who tore Cardiff apart on Friday night. Unfortunately, away from home that team was perhaps too naive, too attacking to weather the assault of a home side buoyed by recent results (notably the win against bitter rivals Nottingham Forest).

When Rob Hulse scored Derby's first, on 40 minutes, we still had a chance to get back in to the game, and chances for Wayne Routledge and Kevin Nolan suggested we might just do that (not to mention Bigger Lad getting the ball into the home side's net, only for the game to be hauled back for a foul in the build-up).

However, once Spiderman was adjudged to have fouled Michael Tonge in the area, and Kris Commons had stroked home the resultant penalty, the game always looked beyond us. Shaun Barker's goal merely served to put the final nail in the coffin of the result, and showed that our defence, shorn of Taylor, Coloccini and Enrique, isn't quite as resolute as the one which featured in most of our run of fifteen unbeaten league games.

With the players having flown from Newcastle to East Midlands Airport for the match, it's only to be hoped that they are taking a National Express coach with a broken toilet back to Newcastle by way of punishment for such an abject performance.

The fact that West Brom won by two goals meant that they leapfrogged us at the top of the table - Forest's defeat at the hands of Coventry being the only silver lining to a particularly nasty looking cloud.

Our game against Swansea on Saturday now takes on an added significance - win and we will go back to the top of the league, at least for a few hours (depending on goal difference), but lose and we'll give the Baggies a chance to open up a lead, and encourage Forest to try and close the gap between second and third.

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Bouncing back

Perched atop the league and poised for a return to the top flight at the first time of asking, consistency on the pitch, sensible spending in the transfer window, a calm and assured figure sipping from what is supposedly a poisoned chalice with no ill effects - it's fair to say we're currently not answering to last season's description of "crisis club".

But when West Ham's David Sullivan - who, with fellow new owner David Gold, appears to be going through a Jabba-esque experience of discovering the true horror of the club's finances - was grasping for a club to compare the Hammers to, it was us he picked: "It'll be Armageddon if we go down. It'll be worse than what's gone on at Newcastle." Surely, given Sullivan's revelations about the club's excesses and overreaching, Portsmouth would have been a much better and more contemporary comparison? Perhaps it just goes to show that we haven't got rid of the stigma just yet.

Of course, two of the most prominent examples of excess at Upton Park are the salaries being paid to Scott Parker and Kieron Dyer, both formerly of this parish. While Parker often does enough to suggest he merits a decent wage (as he did on Tyneside), the Little Waster has cost his current employers as much as he did us and given even less in return. Good thing we didn't have him as well as Geremi to shift off the wage bill in January, eh?

Monday, February 08, 2010

Quote of the day

"As a little boy I would watch Newcastle, and I remember going to a shop to buy a Newcastle kit. When I got there I didn’t have enough money. I wanted a shirt, but I only had enough to buy the shorts and socks. Now for the first time I have a shirt, so I am very excited."

One Size confesses that he's finally come by a Newcastle shirt by a rather more protracted route than most fans.

Baggies nobble Nouble

While Bigger Lad was being told he faces assault charges, our promotion rivals West Brom were busy announcing that West Ham's Frank Nouble will be joining them on a month's loan from tomorrow.

Nouble, signed from Chelsea in the summer, is a powerful and pacy striker who has until recently been getting games for the Hammers, his opportunities now having been restricted by the arrivals of Benni McCarthy, Ilan and Mido at Upton Park. What's rather galling about the deal is that a fortnight ago I speculated about our prospects of taking one of the Hammers' young forwards on loan - and now it's our closest rivals who've beaten us to the punch.

Meanwhile, Bigger Lad isn't the only Geordie to find himself in the headlines for the wrong reasons today. Gazza's arrest in north Yorkshire last night on suspicion of being drunk in charge of a vehicle should be a sobering and salutary reminder to our young striker of how the careers of even the most talented footballers can go off the rails.

Bigger Lad charged

Back in December, Bigger Lad contrived to get himself arrested on suspicion of assault after an incident on the Quayside.

Well, it seems that as well as moving our game against Cardiff to Friday night, the local constabulary have found time to charge the scourge of the Bluebirds' defence, who is now due to appear before magistrates later this month.

Whether the case is ultimately proven remains to be seen, but the effect on his mental state in the meantime will inevitably be cause for concern for Chris Hughton.

Still, in the eyes of the law Bigger Lad is innocent until proven guilty - sadly not a state of affairs which translates itself on to the football pitch, with news that referees are more likely to penalise taller players. The heightist bastards.

A Month Of Saturdays: January 2010

So, the January sales, then.

What usually happens: we move too slowly, flounder around as all the best deals are snapped up early by the determined and well organised, and then end up with panicky, overpriced, extravagant purchases which we don't need and (it turns out) don't fit anyway.

What, refreshingly, happened this year: we assessed our wardrobe, drew up a shopping list, and then spent a sensible amount of money on some astute if unshowy buys.

Shortly before the transfer window opened, Paul identified the deficiencies in our squad, and I'm delighted to report that - contrary to our expectations (which were well founded on the experience of previous seasons) - these deficiencies have all been addressed. Some have suggested that our purchases smack of a familiar short-termist attitude - I agree, but for once see this as a virtue. There's a pleasing pragmatism in our cherry-picking some of the best Championship talent because, while the new recruits might well not cut it in the Premier League, our priority is to get back there first. Horses for courses and all that. We've not lavished silly sums on players unproven at or unsuited to this level.

Less haste, more speed was the key. We didn't rush into anything, but were patient and moved decisively when the time came. The first signing didn't come until the 20th, Danny Simpson returning to the club on a permanent basis, but that marked the beginning of a very busy and fruitful few days. Next in was central defender Mike Williamson, who was no doubt relieved to escape the circus at Fratton Park. Having joined Pompey from Watford in the summer, Big Willi was never allowed to kick a ball for the first team as it would trigger payments. Two further defensive reinforcements arrived in the form of loanees Fitz Hall aka One Size from QPR and Dutch left back Patrick van Aanholt from Chelsea.

Describing our signings as "unshowy" is perhaps least fair on Wayne Routledge, who was bought to bring the same pace, skill and wizardry to the right wing that Spiderman has been providing on the left and whose arrival gave Paul a platform to flex his tabloid headline writing muscles. Last but not least, we took advantage of Leon Best's ambition and his club Coventry's willingness to sell to add another striker to the squad on deadline day.

Of course, there were quite a few who got away: Leeds' Jermaine Beckford slapped in a transfer request and then sheepishly withdrew it; Matt Kilgallon, also a free agent in the summer, turned down a £2m move claiming to be "fully committed" to Sheffield Utd only to jump ship at the first whiff of interest from the Mackems; Arsenal dealt us a double blow, choosing to loan Jack Wilshere to Bolton and also welcoming back Sol Campbell; Wigan won a fiercely contested battle for Palace's Victor Moses; the luckless Homer broke his foot while fellow former loanee Zurab Khizanishvili toddled off to Reading; Kris Boyd stayed with Rangers, as did James Perch with Forest, the latter's manager Billy Davies sniffily dismissing our bid as "derisory".

But still we had good cause to be genuinely satisfied with the deals that did go through and could with a fair degree of confidence declare ourselves to have been among the division's January winners - not least because we managed to get rid of one particular £58,000-a-week albatross around our neck. Geremi's move to Turkish side Ankaragucu was announced prematurely early in the month but finally confirmed on deadline day.

The infusion of fresh blood looked particularly timely given a sudden defensive injury crisis towards the end of the month and a number of performances which suggested some players were flagging. We comfortably controlled affairs at strugglers Plymouth in the FA Cup, Tamas Kadar looking particularly assured, but couldn't make the breakthrough and began the new decade just as we'd ended the last one - with a goalless draw.

The game against Reading having fallen victim to the elements, our next match once again pitched us against the Pilgrims in the replay. As grim as it was for our only reward for an 800-mile post-festive round trip to Home Park to be the sight of Nicky Butt striking the crossbar, spare a thought for the Plymouth fans who had to make the reverse journey on a week day only to witness Peter Lovenkrands hit a perfect hat-trick without reply...

Then came our summit meeting with West Brom at St James', a thrill-a-minute clash in which the Baggies' liquid football threatened to wash away our desperate defences. That we somewhat fortuitously managed to claim a point was thanks to a headed equaliser from Lovenkrands. The Dane's father passed away two days after his FA Cup hat-trick but he delayed his compassionate leave to make himself available for selection - and so the scriptwriters had the ending they wanted.

The draw came at a heavy price, though - the loss of Steven Taylor to a potentially season-ending injury - and less than a week later the Baggies put us to the sword on their own patch in the Fourth Round of the Cup, aided and abetted by some curious, generous and downright infuriating refereeing decisions.

With Forest and West Brom hot on our tails at the top of the league, a return to winning ways was imperative and the next visitors to St James' Crystal Palace - in administration, shorn of Moses and able to name only three substitutes - had the look of perfect fall guys. It didn't quite pan out that way, with the Eagles arguably enjoying the better of things and old boy Darren Ambrose hitting the post, but we were lucky to run out 2-0 winners courtesy of an own goal and a 94th minute finish from Nile Ranger.

We couldn't follow it up with another victory at the Walkers Stadium, ten-man Leicester holding us to a goalless draw which was noteable for little other than the extraordinary reception afforded by the away end to Foxes substitute Nobby Solano, the Peruvian having been reunited with Nigel Pearson after a spell training on Tyneside.

Off the pitch, despite our prudent transfer window activity and Jabba keeping a low profile, the NUST's Yes We Can campaign continued to attract support both verbal and financial. Newcastle City Council's leader and opposition leader both publicly endorsed the campaign's objectives while the Times claimed that more than £50m has now been pledged. That sum dwarfed the amount reportedly due to us under the terms of the freshly-renewed sponsorship deal with Northern Rock, the publicly owned bank's largesse towards us nevertheless arousing the displeasure of pundits and shareholders alike.

Of course, it wouldn't be Newcastle if the only source of controversy surrounding the club in January had nothing to do with the owner or players. And, sure enough, ASBO - never one to pull his punches, quite literally - took time out from his busy schedule of lounging about on the treatment table to inform listeners to Tony Adams' guest slot on Radio 4 (yes, really, you read that right) that, in his humble opinion, "most footballers are knobs". Takes one to know one, and all that. Actually, on reflection, our dealings in the transfer window weren't quite as satisfactory as they might have been...

Saturday, February 06, 2010

TFI Friday

Newcastle Utd 5 - 1 Cardiff City


Friday night football?! What a bloody stupid idea.


Hang on a minute - I could get used to this, actually...


Mike Craik
Chief Constable
Northumbria Police
North Road
Newcastle upon Tyne

Dear Mike

I am writing to ask if you would be so kind as to advise that all Newcastle games should henceforth be moved to Friday evenings.

Yours sincerely



After a succession of narrow unconvincing wins and frustrating draws when we appeared to be playing within ourselves, half-hearted, content with not losing, I suppose it's been coming: a first-class, five star romp.

But what was a surprise was the identity of the opposition to feel the full force of our forward power: a Cardiff side lying fourth in the league, beaten only once in their previous 12 games and whose last away match was a 6-0 humiliation of near neighbours Bristol City. Tonight the humiliation was very much theirs.

The Bluebirds pack considerable punch upfront themselves, so it was gratifying that a 75% new rearguard restricted them to just one goal - and that an 89th minute consolation. Patrick van Aanholt made his first appearance at St James' Park with debutant One Size partnering Big Willi in the centre, Fabricio Coloccini having joined regular partner Steven Taylor in the treatment room. Fellow new acquisitions Wayne Routledge and Leon Best also featured in the starting line-up together with the fit-again Danny Simpson and Spiderman. The absence of both of our defensive midfield enforcers, Alan Smith and Nicky Butt, presented Danny Guthrie with a rare opportunity to start in the centre, while our bench had a pleasingly potent look to it, with Peter Lovenkrands sat alongside Big Lad and Nile Ranger.

It seems bizarre to think about it now, but the visitors nearly caught us cold inside the first 30 seconds. Instead, though, the boot turned out to be very much on the other foot as Bigger Lad scored from close range with three minutes on the clock (his first goal at the Leazes, apparently), One Size involved in the build-up. Three minutes more and we doubled our advantage, Bigger Lad firing against David Marshall's post for Cardiff's Hungarian defender Gabor Gyepes to helpfully deflect the ball into his own net.

Ross McCormack promptly served notice of the Bluebirds' threat, spanking the ball off Steve Harper's crossbar, but it wasn't long before we made it three. Van Aanholt and Spiderman had been dovetailing to good effect down the left, the Dutchman doing a decent job of filling in for the absent Jose Enrique, but the precision cross for Bigger Lad's second of the evening came from the boot of Simpson on the other flank.

The points effectively secure with 75 minutes left to play, we relaxed and Cardiff gradually eased their way into the game, bringing back memories of November's win over their fierce rivals Swansea. They struck the frame of the goal again, though whether Adam Matthews' effort that deceived Harper and glanced off the angle was intentional or just a wayward cross wasn't clear. Agent Chopra, named as captain for the night by Dave Jones, was once again fulfilling his role perfectly, admirably making a show of being fired up but failing to inspire his team-mates (top scorer Peter Whittingham looking particularly far off the pace).

Chopra it was, though, who forced Harper into his first real save of note early in the second half, athletically tipping a shot that had deflected off One Size over the bar. But that was as close as they came to gaining a foothold in the match, substitute Lovenkrands putting the match further beyond their reach nine minutes after entering the fray as a replacement for Best, who had enjoyed a busy but not particularly effective debut. The assist for the goal came from Routledge, who had tormented his full-back (first Kevin McNaughton, then Mark Kennedy) throughout and who looks to have given us a much better balance in midfield, as we'd hoped, in addition to a bit of trickery and guile.

With ten minutes remaining Bigger Lad would have wrapped up his first senior hat-trick had it not been for Gyepes this time getting his angles right on the line. Cardiff weren't spared for long, though, Lovenkrands again the player to find the back of the net, on this occasion with a left-footed curler. The only person in Newcastle colours not celebrating the goal quite as enthusiastically as the rest of us was probably Best, who must be fearing that the Dane will now be preferred by Hughton for a starting berth against Derby on Tuesday.

Cardiff's consolation came a minute from the end of normal time, young substitute Aaron Wildig finishing neatly after good work from Agent Chopra. Before the match our old boy had promised not to celebrate if he scored - with hindsight, might he be wondering if saying that was tempting fate?

The win sent us six and seven points clear of West Brom and Forest respectively having played the same number of games (though both our rivals are in action tomorrow) - and, almost equally importantly, our goal difference is now best in the division, four better than the Baggies'. It may well come down to such narrow margins - but there were no narrow margins tonight.

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

Quote of the day

"They showed me the numbers that were available when I signed and the nine was there, but I took the 20. The No 9 shirt has to be earned here. It isn't like the No 9 shirt at other clubs. You have to earn it. You can't just walk in and take it. There is so much history there that I didn't want it. I'd like it in the future, but I want to prove that I'm worthy first. I'd like to be given it rather than take it."

Humble sentiments from our new striker Leon Best - or so you'd think. Chris Hughton's comments suggest that the shirt was never even offered to him: "It’s something I’ve done deliberately. We have a lot of strikers here and I’m quite sure that every single one of them would have wanted to wear the No 9 shirt. As soon as I came to this club I knew what it meant and it’s both my decision and a combination of a few things."

Anyone suspecting that Hughton intends to spur on our strikers with the tantalising prospect of being rewarded with the vacant shirt at the end of the season will have taken note of his post-match interview: "Potentially, he [Bigger Lad] is number nine material"...

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Turkish delight - soon to turn to Turkish disappointment

Turns out we weren't the only ones delighted by the departure of Geremi for Ankaragucu. When the rumours of the deal first surfaced, one-time England striker Darius Vassell wrote excitedly on his blog about the Cameroon midfielder's potential arrival in Turkey. Presumably now that he's seen his new team-mate in what allegedly passes for "action", Vassell is no longer labouring under the misapprehension that he's lining up alongside a "superstar"...

Incidentally, if you're labouring under your own misapprehension that a footballer's life is nothing but glitz, glamour, excess and shagging your team-mate's wife, Vassell's blog sets that straight - detailing as it does everything from run-ins with Turkish cashpoints to the long-awaited arrival of a new washing machine and dryer. He's been getting increasingly desperate at the "mounting of clothes" that's been building up - certainly puts the crises at Pompey and Palace into perspective.

Meanwhile, the Mackems were let off by the Premier League, who accepted their explanation that the reason paperwork pertaining to Benjani's loan move from Man City missed Monday's 5pm deadline was because, in the words of Ol' Cauliflower Face, "we’ve had big difficulties with emails and what have you". C'mon Brucey, own up - no one knew how to operate your internet computer, did they? Should have just relied on the trusty carrier pigeon.

One Mackem who won't be getting the opportunity to see Benjani in action in person is John Davison, this week handed a three year ban for shouting racial abuse at someone who just happened to be the mother of his side's leading scorer, Darren Bent. He sent flowers and a letter of apology, but apparently nothing says you're sorry quite like getting a tattoo of your victim's son on your arm...

Also involved in unsavoury news this week is Billy Davies. While the Baggies were busy beating Blackpool to vault his Forest side into the second automatic promotion place, Davies was whining about being kneed in the back of the leg by his opposite number Nigel Clough following Saturday's 1-0 defeat to Derby. Clough has brushed off the incident: "It was just a melee and arms and legs were flying. If anybody was accidentally caught, that is what happens". Davies, though, has declared "The matter is now in the hands of my lawyers" and is presumably going to claim that Clough was calling him nasty names too. What does he expect - Clough to be told to sit on the naughty step?

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Buys and bye byes

In addition to Paul's assessment of our January dealings, I've been giving my own verdict over on The Two Unfortunates, while also reflecting on the Championship's transfer window winners and losers. I think we qualify for the former category - though Moses, Beckford and Wilshere would have been nice...

Monday, February 01, 2010

Strength in numbers

I can't even begin to recall the last time we looked back at the end of a January transfer window with anything other than frustration and disappointment - possibly when Bobby signed Jonathan Woodgate and the future looked bright?

Anyway, for the first time in years, when surveying our January business it's reasonable to suggest that squad-wise I think we've moved forward.

Firstly, we've managed to ditch an overpaid piece of deadwood in Geremi.

Secondly, we've held on to everyone else.

Thirdly, we've actually been able to add players who look to fit into our current squad. No egos, just a clutch of hardworking players - solid rather than spectacular maybe, but there's a lot to be said for signing hardworking pros.

The signing of Danny Simpson, which at one stage looked to have hit the skids, is a solid acquisition of a player who has already played his part in getting us to the top of the table.

The addition of Mike Williamson also looks a good move - with little depth to our defensive resources, a further centre-half is no bad thing and Williamson already reminds me of a smaller-conked version of Andy O'Brien.

With Fitz Hall and Patrick van Aanholt swelling the defensive ranks (for half a season and one month respectively) our squad looks better equipped to survive our current injury problems and keep going to the end of the season, and the fact that Zurab K didn't return is hardly a cause for lost sleep.

Further forward, the signing of Wayne Routledge gives us a further option in midfield, and whilst he's already done his best to pick up a "journeyman" label, he could prove to be a very astute signing both now and in the future.

Up front, Homer's injury ruled out the prospect of a return, which, given the seeming lack of alternatives and our frustrated pursuits of both Jermaine Beckford and Victor Moses, was a blow. However, our last-ditch acquisition Leon Best may prove an adequate replacement. His impact will have to be measured on the pitch (as they all will) and the jury is still out on what he will bring to the team. However, given our relatively thin squad, his presence should help us get through to May without the need for too many emergency loan signings.

What our side probably would benefit from is the return to midfield of a fully fit ASBO who, for all his many faults, would probably have more drive than the rapidly declining Nicky Butt and the relatively pedestrian Kevin Nolan we've seen in recent weeks.

With the option of further loans possible until March we could yet add more to the squad as the need arises, but what is certain is that we can't use lack of numbers as an excuse if our season implodes from here. The players look capable of taking us up - it's now up to them to prove they've got the mental and physical toughness to deliver.

One in, one out

Today saw confirmation of a deal which was reported as being done almost a month ago - less premature ejaculation, more tantric release - as Geremi has finally gone to Turkey, and thereby freed us from his whopping £58k per week salary which he's been merrily pocketing ever since Fat Sam thought he'd add something to the team.

Passing him in the revolving door at St James' Park is Coventry striker Leon Best, who joins us on a three and a half year deal for an undisclosed fee. With Victor Moses having gone to Wigan, Jermaine Beckford staying at Leeds and Homer injuring himself, Best's arrival finally allows Chris Hughton to bolster our pool of striking talent. His goals-to-games ratio doesn't exactly look amazing, but hopefully he can add some variety to our, at times, one-dimensional attacking play.

If he can get himself on the end of a few Wayne Routledge crosses to help us get promoted, you won't hear me complaining, that's for sure.

Almost outfoxed

Leicester City 0 - 0 Newcastle Utd

A dogged rather than classy display secured a point against a determined Leicester team on Saturday, thereby increasing our lead at the top of the table by one point.

With Nottingham Forest losing away to local rivals Derby County in the early kick-off, our teatime visit to the East Midlands could have seen us open up a six point lead at the top of the division. However, everything about our performance - from team selection and substitutions to attitude on the pitch - seemed geared to ensuring that we didn't concede a goal, rather than grabbing the opportunity which Derby's win had presented.

Chris Hughton opted to leave Spiderman on the bench (still rumoured to be carrying a slight knock from the win against Palace) and started with a five-man midfield featuring both Alan Smith and Nicky Butt, with Kevin Nolan instructed to get forward and support Bigger Lad. Wayne Routledge was handed a first start on the right wing, whilst new loanee Patrick van Aanholt was pitched straight in to the fray at left-back.

With a significantly reshuffled team, it wasn't surprising that the home side started the brighter and once they'd stopped Bigger Lad from winning the long balls we looked pretty impotent going forward. Even after Premier League referee Andre Mariner had sent off Richie Wellens for two clear bookings, we still struggled to really get to grips with the game and it was Matty Fryatt of Leicester who had the first decent opportunity. His slaloming run began when he picked up the ball inside his own half, and ended with a shot cannoning off the covering van Aanholt. Our young Dutchman then had the presence of mind to set off on the counter attack, charging down the wing as the ball made its way through the centre of the park before finding himself in an advance position, and Foxes 'keeper Chris Weale did well to palm his fine shot round the post.

With Alan Smith coming close to scoring from the resulting corner it looked as though we'd begun to exert ourselves just before half-time. However, it was Nigel Pearson's team which emerged the stronger after the break, despite our numerical advantage, and we again struggled to break down their spirited midfield. Had Mariner sent off the Foxes' left-back Bruno Berner who, already booked, clattered into Routledge, the story might have been different. However we missed the opportunity to continue to test Berner and instead allowed him to settle back into the game.

Bizarrely, Hughton took until the 62nd minute to make any changes, finally concluding that we didn't need two defensive midfielders against a ten-man team. However, his decision to replace Butt with Nile Ranger and then wait a further 13 minutes before replacing Nolan with Pancrate wasn't enough to tip the game decisively in our favour. Presumably Spiderman's injury was such that he wasn't to be risked (in which case, why was he on the bench?) as I'm sure his introduction would have enabled us to create more chances. Similarly, the decision to leave Peter Lovenkrands in his tracksuit rather than launch him at a tiring Foxes defence seemed overtly defensive.

It was only as the home team's legs grew heavy that we really began to threaten, and even then chances remained at a premium - with Ranger sending a header over the bar and straying offside to waste our two best chances.

For the home team, the introduction of new boy Nobby Solano was warmly greeted by all sides of the ground, and the Peruvian was able to show his control and eye for a pass whilst thankfully not being given an opportunity to demonstrate his dead-ball expertise.

The final whistle saw us rack up another game unbeaten, but the nagging sense that it was two points dropped is one which we can only hope won't still be gnawing away at us in May.

Other reports: BBC, Guardian