Wednesday, May 05, 2010

A Month Of Saturdays: April 2010

The deserved win over Forest with which March drew to close was celebrated with such gusto because it brought automatic promotion within touching distance. However, mindful of our natural proclivity for cataclysmic implosion (memories of those last few unspeakably awful weeks of the 1995-6 season may be 14 years old, but they remain painfully fresh), we also realised that there was still work to be done.

Thankfully, so did the players - and though our next display was far from vintage, we did enough to claim the three points. Bottom club Peterborough, on the verge of exiting the division themselves, capitalised on defensive lapses to score twice, but our superior firepower salvaged victory as we exploited the frailties in Posh's own back line. Leon Best may not have made it onto the scoresheet but nevertheless turned in his finest performance to date as the travelling fans willed Bristol City to condemn Forest to the defeat that would send us up.

A Robins winner never came, but we didn't have to wait long for another club to do us the vital favour - 48 hours, to be precise, when Cardiff smothered and stifled the Tricky Trees to a goalless draw at the City Ground. I like to think that Agent Chopra allowed himself a big grin at the final whistle.

That evening we marked our instant return to the top flight in fitting style - with another win, recovering from a deficit to defeat a stubborn Sheffield Utd side, the winner fittingly coming courtesy of Championship Player Of The Year Kevin Nolan. All of Tyneside duly rejoiced, including the knight of the realm responsible for poking the sleeping giant into life in the early 90s and more thankful than most to have had the opportunity to see the club back in the Premier League. Meanwhile, several hundred miles away across Europe the temporarily exiled co-author of a Newcastle blog celebrated in time-honoured tradition by guzzling walnut brandy and having to be dissuaded from clambering into a medieval fountain.

Back in Blighty, I sought to pinpoint the reasons behind our promotion: clinical finishing, defensive fortitude, managerial nous, a focus on on-field matters rather than off-field misdemeanours (although Bigger Lad did reappear in court in April, it was noteable that no fewer than four ex-Magpies - Nolberto Solano, Shay Given, Stephen Carr and Charles N'Zogbia - found themselves in varying amounts of hot water over the course of the month).

But more significant than these factors, I argued, was the mental attitude and application of players for whom the concepts had seemed alien last season. And, as though to prove it, they immediately put the promotion triumph to one side and refocused on the next task at hand, claiming the league title, by demolishing a dumbfounded Ian Holloway's Blackpool 4-1 despite the fact that the Tangerines had been in good form and were eagerly in the hunt for a play-off spot.

Another blow to play-off hopes was subsequently dealt at the Madejski. The champagne football was put back on ice as we managed to look self-assured despite never really having firm control, our professionalism and ruthlessness ensuring that we overcame a spirited Reading side. The game had been twice postponed - how the Royals must have wished they could defer it indefinitely.

That win left us needing just a point at Plymouth to clinch the championship - and once again a combination of steely determination and flashes of quality (most noteably ASBO's pass for Wayne Routledge's finish) garnered the hoped-for result. The callously efficient display sealed the Pilgrims' relegation, and unlike London Road the patchy Home Park pitch wasn't spared the fate of being trampled by thousands of jubilant Geordies. Our hosts were extraordinarily accommodating in the circumstances, as subsequently acknowledged by Messrs Hughton, Nolan and Harper, and amidst the chaos and delirium of our dressing room ASBO cut a calm tea-drinking Zen-like figure (or so he'd have us believe).

And so to the formal coronation in front of a full house at St James'. Ipswich were the visitors, with nothing to play for but no doubt fuelled by manager Roy Keane's spite, transferred from his old adversary Wor Al to the club as a whole. However, nothing he or his side could do - including an offside equaliser deep into stoppage time - could poop the post-match party to commemorate the cherry on the top of a season that's been an unexpectedly spectacular success in almost every respect.


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