Tuesday, August 31, 2010

That's all folks!

On a transfer deadline day when the Mackems spunked a record £13m fee to reunite one Ghanaian World Cup penalty misser (Asamoah Gyan) with another (John Mensah), activity at St James' was very limited. Whether Chris Hughton had decided he was happy with his squad following Saturday's addition of Hatem Ben Arfa or whether frantic behind-the-scenes negotiations came to nowt, we may never know.

The big story is probably that Steven Taylor is still at the club, despite rumours of a loan approach from Celtic, with whom we've already done business in farming out Fraser Forster. The club's decision to transfer-list the defender was clearly motivated by a desire to sell him at a reasonable price, and we'll now have to wait until January for another opportunity to offload him, though for a reduced fee. But he'll certainly be an asset to the squad until then - and you never know, we may even be able to agree mutually satisfactory terms on a new contract before then.

Meanwhile, Kazenga LuaLua clearly likes to be beside the seaside, having rejoined Gus Poyet's Brighton on loan. The winger does so off the back of a decent showing in the League Cup win over Accrington Stanley - a display which suggested that in time he might yet follow his older brother into our first team.

Elsewhere, the long-running Tom Cleverley saga finally came to a close with the Man Utd midfielder joining Wigan, while former Toon loanee Zurab Khizanishvili finds himself back at Reading.

Of course, it wouldn't be a deadline day if we weren't casting our eyes around and feeling the odd pang of envy. If Spurs really have picked up Rafael van der Vaart for just £8m - and if the Premier League are prepared to ratify the deal - then they should consider themselves very, very fortunate indeed.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Wolves held at bay

Wolverhampton Wanderers 1 - 1 Newcastle Utd

A goal from Bigger Lad, his fourth of the month, was enough to ensure we returned from Molineux with a point. Chris Hughton opted to once again send out the same team for our third league game in a row, despite some decent performances by the understudies in last Wednesday's win over Accrington Stanley (landing us with a trip to Chelsea for our troubles).

Despite being the away team, it was Newcastle who enjoyed much the better of the first half, with Wayne Routledge in particular coasting past his man at will, and his pace proved a constant problem for Wolves throughout the match. In midfield, ASBO was the subject of a targeted approach to aggravate him, with Wolves captain Karl Henry guilty of a number of robust challenges on our midfielder.

Despite creating several decent chances, neither Bigger Lad (guilty of one particularly bad miss from only a few yards out) and Kevin Nolan could register our advantage on the scoreboard and their profligacy was to prove costly when Sylvain Ebanks-Blake fired home shortly before half time, Mike Williamson having ignored the warning signs from minutes earlier when the Wolves striker headed against the post.

Wolves had one golden chance to clinch the points when James Perch slid in on Matt Jarvis in the area and didn't look to get any of the ball. Thankfully the referee didn't agree with the home fans' calls for a penalty.

Despite the increasingly aggressive attention he was suffering, ASBO was able to exact some form of revenge by delivering a free-kick onto the head of Bigger Lad in the 64th minute to nod home unmarked and level the scores.

With referee Stuart Attwell rapidly losing control of the match, the bookings soon started to rack up with Perch, Big Lad and ultimately ASBO all joining Bigger Lad and Nolan in the book along with seven home players.

Of concern for Hughton will be the way in which the team conceded a series of pretty needless fouls which invited pressure as the game drew to a conclusion, together with the fact that for the third game in succession Perch and ASBO both picked up bookings.

However, the continuing good form of Bigger Lad together with our resilience and creative edge suggest that our aim of 17th or better continues to look a very real prospect.

Other reports: BBC, Observer

Hatem boy

After what has seemed like months, the longest running transfer saga of our summer has reached what will hopefully prove a happy conclusion for all concerned with news that we've finally landed Hatem Ben Arfa on loan from Marseille.

Undoubtedly a player with talent as a product of the Clairefontaine Academy, Ben Arfa's recent falling out with his employers has seen him drop out of Laurent Blanc's France squad after a goalscoring debut at the start of August.

Hopefully now he's ensconced on Tyneside Ben Arfa's form for us will see him return to the ranks of Les Bleus and help keep us in the top flight - something which the player's comments would seem to echo:

"All I'm waiting for is to show what I can do in front of the public in Newcastle. A lot of my friends in France already know the fans' reputation. The stadium has an ambiance that is unique and I feel very lucky to have this opportunity."

Let's hope we are mirroring those sentiments come May.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Fever pitch

As the closure of the transfer window looms ever closer, so does the speculation increase in intensity...

The Daily Heil has once again linked us with a move for Man Utd midfielder Tom Cleverley, though Owen Coyle's Bolton are keen - and the same paper was very recently claiming that the former Watford loanee was Wigan-bound.

The Heil also alleges that the subjects of our recent discussions with Man City were Roque Santa Cruz and Dedryck Boyata. The Paraguayan striker enjoyed a successful spell at Blackburn but has struggled with injuries, form and (unsurprisingly) simply getting first-team action since his £17.5m move to Eastlands, while defender Boyata looked like a very promising prospect when presented with rare opportunities last season.

According to the Sun, it's Hull's Guinea central defender Kamil Zayatte that we've earmarked as the man to plug the potential hole created by Steven Taylor's departure, while Talksport suggests we're trying to strike a loan deal for Spurs striker Robbie Keane, though does at least also acknowledge that this is unlikely given the discrepancy between his current salary and our wage ceiling.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Quote of the day

"I’d love to manage England one day. It's a personal ambition I’ve always had. Even at 35, in my first press conference at Blackpool, I was asked where I hoped this would take me and I said 'managing England one day'. There were a few titters in the audience, as there to tends to be, because people get frightened of ambition. But I want to manage England and, with that kind of ambition, whether you achieve it or not, it will get you somewhere else in life and invariably that will be up the ladder."

It's a shame prospective employers in particular appear to be so terrified of "that kind of ambition" they won't help you back onto the bottom rung of the ladder, isn't it, Tango Man?

Schadenfreude, moi?

Acc aye the new

Accrington Stanley 2 - 3 Newcastle Utd

Resting the entire first XI which destroyed Villa so emphatically on Sunday, Chris Hughton gave those of us who aren't regular attendees of reserve games a glimpse into the possible future - but it was familiar faces who ultimately ensured our progress into the next round of the League Cup as we overcame an Accrington Stanley side for whom the epithet "plucky" would be an insulting understatement.

After a slow start - perhaps out of respect for our hosts, whose fans had unfurled a banner in honour of Sir Bobby Robson before kick-off - we began to dominate, largely through the aerial dominance of Big Lad and Nile Ranger, the latter causing particular havoc when coming in from his position on the right wing. A Big Lad shot, a Peter Lovenkrands header and two efforts from Ranger were scrambled away by defenders and 'keeper Ian Dunbavin before Ryan Taylor was allowed to advance into space and try his luck from distance. His subsequent effort, a vicious shot which arrowed into the top right-hand corner of Stanley's net, rivalled if not bettered the goal with which ASBO began Sunday's rout - an audacious attempt to muscle in on the headlines hogged by his namesake.

Ranger was at fault for the home side's equaliser, cocking up a clearance on the edge of the box and (together with a lame attempt at closing down from Haris Vuckic) presenting Ray Putterill with the opportunity to lash in the second screamer of the match in first-half stoppage time.

However, our striker-cum-winger made amends early in a second period whose kick-off was delayed by the Stanley fans lobbing loo roll into our goalmouth in what clearly passes for entertainment in those parts. He helped on a Delap-esque Taylor throw in the penalty area, and when the ball wound up at Big Lad's feet, the skipper for the evening tucked it under Dunbavin. Further chances went begging from Big Lad and Ranger, but we did manage to stretch our advantage when Kazenga LuaLua's cross caused confusion between Dunbavin and defender Sean Hessey and Lovenkrands knocked home the loose ball.

LuaLua became an increasingly incisive threat cutting in from the left in the second half, seeing one shot curl inches wide of the far post and another rebound of the near upright and across the goal-line. Ranger too could have extended the lead further but Dunbavin made an excellent low save to push his shot wide.

But if the scoreline was Stanley's cue to give up, they clearly weren't reading the script. Tim Krul - hitherto relatively untroubled apart from the goal and one headless chicken moment early on - was suddenly called upon three times and, after Putterill was denied his second by a goal-line clearance, Hessey walloped another belter into the roof of the net. Thankfully, though, time was against Accy and we clung on for victory in the first ever encounter between the two sides.

So, goals from Taylor, Big Lad and Lovenkrands squeezed us through, but what of the bairns? Well, LuaLua impressed the more the game wore on and, on the opposite flank, Ranger was a constant menace, if also admittedly leggy, profligate and unnecessarily short-tempered. At left back, Northern Irishman Shane Ferguson seemed to grow in confidence, venturing further forward in the second period, and Tamas Kadar - his return from injury unexpected - looked classy on the ball and suggested that perhaps Steven Taylor wouldn't be missed too much.

But it wasn't all good news. At times Ryan Donaldson and the much-vaunted Vuckic were rather overpowered in the centre of midfield, and the latter was lucky to escape censure for an elbow that was clumsy, to be charitable (though Stanley's Charlie Bennett could easily have walked for a two-footed lunge in the first half). Meanwhile, Kadar and James Tavernier were often worringly discomforted by simple, direct hoofs downfield.

Still, the game was won without the assistance of the big boys (the only substitute, Kevin Nolan, replaced Vuckic for all of three minutes), so mission accomplished.

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Tayls heads for exit?

It's been on the cards since Steven Taylor's agent Paul Stretford expressed frustration with the progress of contract talks, and today brought the news that the defender has been placed on the transfer list - though Chris Hughton has since admitted he's keen to keep him at St James' Park.

While the decision indicates that the club isn't prepared to concede to Taylor's current wage demands (rumoured - inaccurately, according to Stretford - to be a whopping £60,000 a week) and would prefer to cash in before one of our prize assets becomes a free agent next summer, the manager's subsequent comments suggest talks haven't necessarily broken down irreparably.

Taylor is a player whom most of us would be sorry to see leave - always committed and a definite England prospect, if often rather rash and headstrong - but given our current parsimonious approach to transfer fees and salaries, even the reported four-year £40,000-a-week deal on the table is extravagant so it's little wonder that we might have baulked at any increase.

The question then arises of who might want to take Taylor off our hands. He's been previously linked with Arsenal, and the Gunners are certainly in the market for a central defender in view of the departures of William Gallas, Philippe Senderos, Mikael Silvestre and our own Sol Campbell. More far-fetched, you suspect, was speculation of interest from the Nou Camp. Whether either club - or any other, for that matter - shares Taylor's apparent conviction that he's worth significantly more than £40,000 a week, we'll just have to wait and see.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Kevin Keegan's head on Alan Shearer's body

Unrealistic expectations, delusional fantasists, yadda yadda yadda - the sort of nonsense parrotted at us by opposition fans all the time. Funny how the masses of Villa fans who were claiming that Martin O'Neill's departure was good for the club as they'd gone stale under him weren't getting the same accusations levelled at them. Wonder if they still stand by their views in the wake of Sunday's thrashing?

Anyway, even I have to concede that this is quite amusing...

(Thanks to Russ for the link.)

Quote of the day

"For instance, when the FIFA delegation arrive in Newcastle this week [as part of their inspection for England's 2018 World Cup bid], I hope they are stunned by the sight of St James' Park. By the way it dominates the skyline, a sporting citadel and the heartbeat of the city. In a city that breathes football."

I never had Arsene Wenger down as a Toon cheerleader...

Monday, August 23, 2010

Look north

After much deliberation Chris Hughton has finally decided to send Fraser Forster out on loan again - but this time his destination isn't Norwich but Celtic. It's an interesting move, to be sure - the Canaries were keen on taking Forster back to Carrow Road for their first season back in the Championship, and so we can only assume Neil Lennon has given Hughton assurances that our boy will see some first-team action north of the border. The Hoops were linked with Steve Harper earlier in the summer - presumably there'll be a bid for Tim Krul on its way shortly...

Meanwhile, one of our own alleged targets Vladimir Weiss has joined Celtic's Old Firm rivals Rangers on a season-long loan. It's a bit of a shame that we missed out, but in truth our interest appeared to wane in the wake of signing Dan Gosling.

On the subject of loan signings, the No-Necked One enjoyed a Cardiff debut to remember on Saturday, setting up Chris Burke with a 60-yard pass before smashing home a 35-yard free-kick to wrap up a 4-0 win over Doncaster. When Bellamy signed for the Bluebirds I speculated as to whether fellow former Toon striker Michael Chopra would have to make way - as it turned out, Chops lined up as part of a three-man strikeforce but was forced off with an ankle injury and will now be sidelined for a few weeks.

There's been a bit of a family reunion at Wigan, where Steven Caldwell has hooked up with brother Gary for the first time since they left St James' Park. Roberto Martinez's defence needs all the help they can get, having shipped ten goals without reply in their first two home games of the season...

Heroes and Villans

Newcastle Utd 6 (six!) - 0 Aston Villa

Six glorious goals in the sunshine marked the return of Premier League football to St James' Park yesterday, with a feast of football reminiscent of the attacking football we produced when we first climbed into the Premiership ranks during Keegan's first spell as manager.

Deploying the same 4-4-1-1 formation which wasn't quite so successful on Monday night, Newcastle's midfield trio of Smith, Nolan and Begbie took control of the midfield within the first fifteen minutes and didn't let go for the rest of the match.

However, it could all have been so different had John Carew not blasted an early penalty high over the Gallowgate bar after Steve Harper had brought down Ashley Young.

That miss was, however, Villa's best chance of salvaging something from the match as within two minutes Spidermag had fed Begbie who swivelled and fired a 25-yard shot into the top corner of Brad Friedel's goal and in doing so settled nerves both on and off the pitch.

From that point on it was largely one-way traffic and sure enough Newcastle added a second when Kevin Nolan headed in Bigger Lad's cross at the second time of asking to make it 2-0.

Bigger Lad himself then got on the score sheet when he slotted home from Begbie's corner after Richard Dunne had made a mess of his attempted clearance to give us a three goal cushion at half time.

The second half saw Newcastle continue where they left off, with Villa second best in the middle of the park and unable to pose a serious attacking threat.

Bigger Lad added another, firing home after Mike Williamson met another Begbie corner and the ball dropped at the feet of our latest number 9.

WIth Villa fading fast, Chris Hughton threw on Big Lad, the Xisco Kid and Ryan Taylor and it was Big Lad who turned provider, heading another corner back into the six yard box for Nolan to volley his second.

Not to be outdone, it was Bigger Lad who had the final say when he picked up the ball on halfway and knocked a long pass out to the Xisco Kid on our left. The Spaniard then played the ball back into the path of our onrushing striker who stroked the ball calmly home to complete his first senior hat-trick for the club, and the first seen at SJP since Shearer scored five against Sheffield Wednesday over a decade ago.

Whilst we'll undoubtedly have far worse afternoons this season, what this showed is firstly that a Martin O'Neill-less Villa side have got some serious problems, but equally that as a team we are more than equipped to compete in this league, and that Bigger Lad is going to cause a lot of defenders a lot of problems.

As a team we're competitive in midfield and have plenty of height to worry teams at set-pieces - something Mike Williamson in particular demonstrated repeatedly throughout this match.

If we can keep everyone fit then 17th or better looks an eminently achievable goal, but Hughton will appreciate that if we can add a couple more players before the transfer window closes next week we'll be better placed to withstand the rigours of the top flight.

What this result means is the end of Begbie's 'tache (and from our point of view a return to ASBO), but hopefully not an end to performances like this, when his claims that he's one of the best midfielders in the country don't look quite so ridiculous.

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Cheik mate

According to today's Daily Heil, we're on the verge of signing Cheik Tiote of FC Twente for £3.5m. Tiote is the defensive midfielder that we've been desperately craving (more so given Alan Smith's weak showing last Monday) and arrives on the back of a decent World Cup in which he played in all three of the Ivory Coast's matches.

The Heil reports that the player had a medical today after a fee was agreed with the reigning Dutch champions yesterday.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The waiting game

It's been a few days since we last mentioned Hatem Ben Arfa, so what news of his potential move to Tyneside? Well, none actually. Here's Marseille president Jean-Claude Dassier to explain: "We’re waiting for news from Newcastle. For the moment we don’t have any ... we asked them for the minimum because I have no intention, I say it again, of breaking Ben Arfa’s career – it’s not my style."

This does at least indicate a conciliatory attitude on Dassier's part in spite of the Frenchman's strike action and a willingness to negotiate, so it seems the ball is in our court. But the longer we dally and it drags on, the more likely it is that we won't have it all our own way - according to the Mirror and the Times, AC Milan and Werder Bremen are waiting in the wings for the winger.

Coincidentally, it could be a former Toon player who greases the wheels of any move. Today's Daily Heil reports that Ben Arfa's club are keen on giving the Zog the move away from the DW Stadium that he craves.

On the subject of protracted transfer wranglings, another ex-Newcastle winger, James Milner, has finally completed his agonisingly drawn-out move to Moneybags FC, where he'll be reunited with Shay Given (though perhaps only temporarily) but not the No-Necked One, after the latter's move to Cardiff yesterday. That means that Milner, who scored on his final appearance for Villa last weekend, won't be in the side that takes to the St James' Park turf on Sunday - though Stephen Ireland, the underrated makeweight who's moved the other way, might be.


There was much rejoicing on the streets of Cardiff today, with the news that the Bluebirds have sealed a sensational loan deal for the services of former Newcastle man Craig Bellamy. Bizarrely frozen out of the first-team frame at Man City, the No-Necked One elected to move to south Wales in spite of interest from a clutch of heavyweights, including Celtic, Spurs and Fulham - and perhaps also ourselves?

When Bellamy was spotted in the crowd when we met Cardiff last season and subsequently reminded of his birthplace and allegiances by one particularly vocal home supporter adamant he should be pulling on a Bluebirds shirt, it seemed like the delusional rantings of a loon. But time has proven otherwise, and the move shouldn't actually come as so much of a surprise given the player's prior intimations that it was the only destination he was seriously considering. Family reasons, supposedly, though he will at least be able to get along to Gwdihw more often too...

Of course, Bellamy's arrival spells trouble for another Toon old boy. Agent Chopra already has two goals to his name this season, but as a gambling man he'll know the odds are against him retaining his starting place.

Incidentally, the Welsh captain's decision to drop down a division has prompted the Two Unfortunates to recall five stunning second tier signings of yesteryear - including, of course, the deal which took King Kev from Southampton to St James' in 1982.

Meanwhile, JJ is allegedly in demand by some of Europe's top clubs - I'm sure playing for Galatasaray, Juventus, Sampdoria or AC Milan wouldn't be like living in a goldfish bowl - and his former Toon team-mate Gary Speed has been confirmed as the new manager of Sheffield Utd. Best of luck, Gary.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Iron man

Last night's display at Old Trafford underlined that we're short of a bit of steel in midfield - so a player who can not only perform that role but whose surname is the French for "iron" would seem to fit the bill perfectly...

The Daily Heil claims we've lodged a £4m bid for Feyenoord's Leroy Fer, who, as part of the Dutch set-up, will presumably have been learning the art of the uncompromising tackle from compatriots Mark van Bommel and Nigel de Jong, Spain's chief assailants in the World Cup final.

The 20-year-old's physical stature has earned him the nickname the Bouncer. If Fer does sign, it'll be interesting to see how long it takes Begbie or Bigger Lad to antagonise him, given that upsetting doormen is their stock in trade...

Incidentally, Begbie has announced that he'll continue to cultivate the hairy caterpillar on his top lip until we win our first game. Cue nightmarish visions of him looking like Magnum PI or Salvador Dali.

Monday, August 16, 2010

The great divide

Man Utd 3-0 Newcastle Utd

Remind me why we wanted to be promoted again?

To be honest, tonight was always really going to be about the positives. So let's start with those.

1. Bigger Lad, on his own up front, gave Jonny Evans and arguably the Premier League's best central defender Nemanja Vidic plenty to think about, proving himself to be both an aerial threat and deceptively skillful on the deck. His movement from an early corner completely bamboozled the Serbian, though he should have done better than plant his free header wide. He'd also forced Edwin Van der Sar into action with a shot before our hosts drew first blood.

2. Mike Williamson looked conspicuously assured and at times even elegant at the back (fleeting reminiscences of Jonathan Woodgate even came to mind), though perhaps more prominent than his composure was his commitment in the tackle, most notably when played into trouble by a stray square ball from partner Fabricio Coloccini.

3. Wayne Routledge and Spidermag were both lively - though that liveliness was confined to separate 20 minute spells, the former's from kick-off and the latter's shortly before being substituted.


1. While Championship opponents are often accidentally charitable when presented with opportunities, we were reminded - as if a reminder was really necessary - that in this division defensive errors are nearly always punished. Spidermag was caught in possession and Jose Enrique out of position for the first goal, the latter's attempted interception only diverting the ball more comfortably into Dimitar Berbatov's path; Routledge was daydreaming and Begbie too easily beaten for Darren Fletcher's second; and Enrique's overplaying on our bye-line eventually cost us the third. 11 of the 13 players we used have featured in the Premier League before - 10 of them for us during our relegation campaign - so there's no excuse for naivety.

2. Alan Smith offered all the protection to our defence of a chocolate fireguard, while Kevin Nolan might as well have been Coleen Nolan for all the use he was in marking Paul Scholes. The 35-year-old midfielder - whom, lest we forget, was written off by the Journal seven long years ago as not fit to lace Kieron Dyer's boots and went on to score a hat-trick - again claimed the man-of-the-match award, revelling in the time and space afforded to him.

3. Our sole debutant James Perch looked like a liability at right back. Booked relatively early, he never had the measure of the tricksy Nani. With Sol Campbell not yet match-fit and Steven Taylor, Danny Simpson and Tamas Kadar all out injured, Chris Hughton's defensive options are seriously limited.

Still, we're safely ensconced in 17th, one place above the relegation zone, courtesy of our alphabetical superiority over West Ham, so let's hope the FA declare the season over tomorrow. Failing that, we can console ourselves with the fact that the campaign starts on Sunday with the visit of Villa.

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

View From The Home End

So, now that Ben has previewed the 19 teams who we're up against (here, and here), and you've read what our manager and fans of other clubs think of our chances, it now falls to me to give a home view of how things are looking.

Back in May, when the club were busy issuing confusing statements about capital outlay, I commented that I felt we needed a full-back, a centre-back, a defensive midfielder and a striker.

Well so far, we've added a full-back (James Perch), a centre-back (Sol Campbell), and an attacking midfielder (Dan Gosling) - two of whom arrived without transfer fees, and none of whom will have broken the bank (albeit Campbell's reported £35k per week wages might well be outside the wage structure). Whilst I think the signings we've made have been shrewd, we still look to be short of a defensive midfielder and an extra attacker.

In terms of the attacker we're reportedly chasing a loan move for Hatem Ben Arfa, which currently seems to have more highs and lows than a rollercoaster, but which could yet add some je ne sais quoi up front. Unfortunately, given his current petulant stance with his employers to force through the move, as I mentioned on Friday, I really don't know what we'd be getting ourselves into.

With two weeks left before the transfer window shuts, Chris Hughton seems to be aware of the squad's shortcomings and is doing his best to plug them. If he can add the two other players we need (as a minimum) and keep hold of the rest of the squad then our assault on 17th place (or higher) looks to be one we can achieve.

Despite criticisms that these are largely the players who took us down, the reality is that we now have a team. If Chris Hughton can add a couple more bodies before August ends we can hopefully be well on the way to survival by the time the transfer window reopens in January.

Make no bones about it, whilst there's a lot of mediocre teams in the top flight, we still need to scrap for everything to stand a chance of survival. If we can stay together as a team (something we conspicuously failed to do two years ago) then, as teams like Birmingham and Wolves have shown, we could well survive. However, if the in-fighting erupts again, we'll be back in the Championship next year.

This season is one for consolidation. The Sky money will, I suspect, mostly be used to balance the books. However, if we can get off to a decent start, and put a run of strong performances together we could yet be OK. Regardless of what happens at Old Trafford tonight, our fate won't be determined by trips to the clubs chasing the Premiership title. Where it will be won, or lost, is against the teams around us, both home and away.

What I do expect to see a lot of is the 4-5-1 formation which we favoured away from home last season - with Bigger Lad, or in his absence Big Lad, left to plough a lone furrow with support from two of Wayne Routledge, Spidermag, and Ben Arfa (assuming he signs) as necessary and three from Kevin Nolan, Begbie, Alan Smith and Danny Guthrie in the middle of the park. If we can stifle teams in midfield then whilst we may not be the entertainers, we always stand a chance of nicking a few goals to pick up the precious points we need. Lest we forget, last season, West Ham stayed up with 35 points (and in fact only needed 31).

It's far from certain, but, as you'll see from the predicted table below, I think we might just make it.

Prediction time

In time-honoured fashion, now that Ben has cast his eye over the opposition (here and here), and as today marks the start of our league campaign, it falls to me to try and predict what the table might look like come May 2011. Just to be clear, nothing I witnessed over the weekend has changed my mind.

1 - Man Utd
2 - Chelsea
3 - Man City
4 - Arsenal
5 - Liverpool
6 - Spurs
7 - Everton
8 - Aston Villa
9 - Fulham
10 - Bolton
11 - The Great Unwashed
12 - Birmingham
13 - West Ham
14 - Stoke
15 - Blackburn
16 - Newcastle Utd
17 - Wolves
18 - West Brom
19 - Wigan
20 - Blackpool

Quote of the day

"The general feel I get from supporters is that they know where we are. Expectation levels have been dampened, which is unusual up here. Yes, that does help. It helps that the fans know it's going to be a tough season."

So, you've read what opposition fans think, and later today you'll be able to read what I think, but in the meantime, here's what Chris Hughton thinks about the season ahead.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Strike action

Confirmation from French newspaper L'Equipe that Hatem Ben Arfa has vowed never to play for Marseille again in a bid to force through a move to St James' Park. Like Paul, I'm growing increasingly concerned by the Frenchman's tactics - as talented as he is, would we not be better off steering clear of a player who thinks nothing of going on strike to get his way?

Meanwhile, Steven Taylor's agent Paul Stretford has made it known that our injured defender's contract talks "are not progressing as I would like them to or would expect". In the light of previous ill-judged comments on the subject of contract negotiations, Taylor himself has sensibly decided to keep schtumm.

A contract-related non-story in today's People is given the absurdly overdramatic headline "Pay shock for Newcastle stars" but actually only suggests that, after the post-relegation fiasco of a year ago, we've informed the players that across-the-board pay cuts will be needed if we fail to survive this season. Grim fatalism? No - realism, caution and (pleasingly) common sense. We simply can't afford to be so crippled by wages again.

There doesn't seem to be any fatalism among the players, at least not if Danny Guthrie's comments on the eve of the game at Old Trafford are indicative of the mood in the camp. Guthrie was presumably speaking to Sky Sports before Chelsea's 6-0 demolition of fellow promotees West Brom yesterday evening, which presaged tomorrow's game being the sort to watch from behind the sofa, so that might have blunted his bullishness - but, although we've never won at the Theatre of Nightmares in the Premier League, stranger things have happened. Still, we'd probably best fear for the worst - like suffering at the hands of the man who's pronounced himself "cool" with being a bit-part player for Taggart...

Down at the Dark Place, Ol' Cauliflower Face is allegedly planning on reuniting Agent Bramble with the No-Necked One and Charles N'Zogbia. "Zog on the Wear" doesn't have the same ring to it, but Charlie Boy has apparently done a Ben Arfa, storming out of training on Friday and being omitted from the Wigan side humiliated by Blackpool yesterday.

One ex-Toon player whom the Mackems will have been glad to see at the Stadium of Shite is Stephen Carr, who contrived to both concede a (dubious) penalty and score an own goal as the Great Unwashed kicked off their campaign with a 2-2 draw at home to Birmingham. Perhaps he's decided to show his true colours to Alec McLeish after all.

... And finally, proof that Begbie has actually been a positive influence on another player. Just a shame it wasn't one of his team-mates...

Saturday, August 14, 2010

View From The Away End

As part of our pre-season build-up, we asked the Two Unfortunates, Lanterne Rouge and Lloyd, for their verdicts on our prospects for the forthcoming campaign.

* * * * *

Lanterne Rouge

The last side to dominate the Championship so clearly were Reading’s 2005-6 record breakers and I think the Toon have every chance of equalling that club‘s subsequent achievement of an eighth place finish. Such a lofty vantage point come season end would constitute fulsome success and a great deal to build on but therein lies the problem. Newcastle supporters rival the England national team for outlandish expectations and a dose of realism will be needed before setting foot on the Old Trafford turf on 16th August.

I saw the Magpies twice near the end of last season and both matches resulted in wins – over Peterborough and Reading respectively. The physical strength of the side is a major plus point and an experienced yet still relatively youthful midfield appears to be the team’s key attribute. I would expect players who flourished in the Championship having previously struggled a level up to maintain their recaptured confidence – Enrique and Coloccini will be much better this time round. The one doubt may be up front where Carroll is unproven in this company and the likes of Lovenkrands, Best and Ameobi are unlikely to tear through EPL defences.

Of the new signings, I am surprised that the usually sensible Chris Hughton has turned to Sol Campbell, whose best days are surely long ago now. Dan Gosling might be useful, although I am sure the club would have preferred Jack Rodwell when it comes to young Evertonians. James Perch is another low-key signing and I am sure the Geordie Nation is wailing about lack of ambition but, given funds and given the exemplary performance of last season’s vintage, Hughton is probably wise not to elasticate the wage bill or transfer pot. A top ten finish.


Newcastle supporters will rightly feel that their club has returned to its natural habitat, but from afar I predict at least another year out of the limelight; personally, I think the Magpies will do well to finish above 15th. Hughton’s summer signings are symptomatic of a club with limited resources: Sol Campbell was, of course, on the losing side to Morecambe last term; the still developing Dan Gosling will be on the mend for the first part of the season; and plenty of neutrals would have listed at least another player or three ahead of James Perch on a Most Wanted list of Forest’s 2009-10 squad. As my partner in bloggery Lanterne Rouge states, expectations should therefore be adjusted accordingly.

The modest build-up shouldn’t be perceived as doom and gloom, though. A progressive transfer policy whereby young, hungry English players are signed up on reasonable wages rather than gambling big on reputation sounds like a wise plan to me, particularly given the amount of money the club has frittered away on mercurial talents in recent times. Having spent a season in the Championship, Newcastle supporters should know by now that there’s bargains to be had out there.

* * * * *

Thanks to both Lanterne Rouge and Lloyd, fresh from pulling together their own staggeringly comprehensive preview for all 72 Championship, League One and League Two clubs (with one notable exception) with the assistance of a whole host of fans and bloggers the length and breadth of the country. The six parts can be found here, here, here, here, here and here.

Friday, August 13, 2010

It's like 2005 all over again

According to reports, Hatem Ben Arfa's transfer to Newcastle is currently experiencing more ups and downs than a pair of Peter Crouch's pants.

With suggestions that the deal was virtually done on Monday, with Ben Arfa due to arrive on a season-long loan, the French club have suddenly seemed to back away from the agreement. Ben Arfa himself scored a belting 30-yard goal for France on Wednesday, and now looks to have gone in to a Gallic sulk, staying away from training for the last two days and reportedly missing a meeting with manager Didier Deschamps today.

While in one sense it's heartening to see a player apparently so desperate to join Newcastle that he'll do all he can to engineer the move, I can't help but feel slight reservations about bringing in a player prone to sulking and potentially a disruptive influence on the dressing room. While we've undoubtedly enjoyed watching a succession of moody French left-footers over the last few years (Ginola, Robert, the Zog), should he arrive will he throw his toys out of his pram if things don't all go his way, and start mouthing off to the press?

On the subject of players mouthing off to the press, the Times is apparently reporting (I would check, but can't due to the pay wall) that we're being linked with Man City's most unwanted: Craig Bellamy. As Ben mentioned in his preview, I don't think we can argue that the no-necked text pest wouldn't improve our team, but would he (a) want to come to us and take the wage cut which that would inevitably mean; (b) do we want him back; and (c) would Shearer pop out from his box and knock his block off?

With other clubs, notably Mark Hughes' Fulham circling, I suspect Bellamy won't be heading back to Tyneside anyway, but it's worth just wondering whether signing either player, talented though they may be, would actually be in the club's best interests. As you've probably worked out, I haven't yet made up my mind - whether Chris Hughton has remains to be seen.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Know Your Enemies: Part 2

In which I assess the remainder of our Premier League foes. (Click here to read the first instalment.)

Man City

Setting aside for a moment any scruples about the rights or wrongs of foreign investors pumping gallons of cash into sleeping giants and thereby rendering the playing field about as level as the Wembley turf, Chelsea's unceremonious gatecrashing of the cosy Man Utd-Arsenal duopoly was good for the Premier League. For the same reason, I wouldn't be too unhappy (at least initially) for Man City's millions to allow them to barge their way to a spot at the trophy trough. And with somewhere in the region of £75m splashed on four world-class players - David Silva, Yaya Toure, Aleksandar Kolarov and Jerome Boateng - a trophy of some description will surely be theirs. Certainly Roberto Mancini will be only too aware that failure to land any silverware of note will be rewarded with his P45.

And that pressure and expectation isn't Mancini's only problem. He's a man spinning a lot of very expensive and fragile plates, and hoping none of them crash to the ground. The season hasn't even begun and already there are rumblings of discontent, most notably from two players formerly of this parish: Shay Given - still, for my money, the best 'keeper in the top flight - is disgruntled about the prospect of playing second fiddle to Joe Hart, while the No-Necked One may also seek a loan move if (unjustly) frozen out of City's first-team picture. Bellamy has probably stirred up too much ire and burned too many bridges to walk back into St James' Park - but you can't deny he would be the sort of loanee we could use...

Man Utd

City's chances of securing silverware appear all the better because close rivals Chelsea and even closer rivals Man Utd don't look to have taken forward strides of anything like the same magnitude. Javier Hernandez aka "Chicharito" has hit the ground running, with goals in pre-season friendlies and a comical strike on his competitive debut in the Community Shield, but Chris Smalling seems ungainly and error-prone and Bebe would represent an even bigger gamble. Still, as a horse-racing man Taggart likes a flutter, resulting in a transfer record markedly more patchy than Arsene Wenger's.

But discount the Red Devils at your peril. Just as Paul Scholes showed at the weekend, Ryan Giggs probably still has plenty to offer at this level, while Darren Fletcher and Jonny Evans (the latter often partnered by the nearly infallible Nemanja Vidic) have both developed from callow lightweights into key players. Dimitar Berbatov will surely enjoy a better campaign this time around, in Antonio Valencia and Nani they have arguably the two most dangerous right-wingers in the country (after David Cameron), and Shrek will be determined to put an awful World Cup firmly behind him. You've got to fear for whoever they play first, haven't you? Oh...


Amidst all the clamour acclaiming Alec McLeish's improbable achievements with an unfashionable and unfancied Midlands side, you could have forgiven one baseball-capped man a little way up the M6 for being rather peeved. For Birmingham's relative success rather overshadowed the fact that Tony Pulis managed to follow up Stoke's 12th place in 2008-9 with 11th last term. How to set about going one better again this season?

Well, Pulis' masterplan still seems to revolve around recreating the Sunderland side of a few years ago. Record signing Kenwyne Jones has followed no fewer than five others - Liam Lawrence, Danny Higginbotham, Dean Whitehead, Danny Collins and (via Villa) Thomas Sorensen - in swapping red and white stripes for, well, red and white stripes. Jones is likely to be partnered by the underrated Ricardo Fuller, with Tuncay mystifyingly underused last term and James Beattie and particularly Dave Kitson continued thorns in Pulis' side. Rory Delap's Exocet throws are their main weapon, but we would do well to keep a closer eye on old boy Abdoulaye Faye than we did back in November 2008 - those two points squandered at the death were effectively the difference between survival and relegation.


We've had to stomach his grating "I'm-a-Geordie-and-all-my-family-are-Geordies" schtick for so long - but now, at last, Ol' Cauliflower Face's behaviour suggests it might actually be something more than the plasticky platitudinous claim of a charlatan. Exhibit A: the sale to Stoke of the aforementioned Jones, the one player most likely to bring the best out of Darren Bent. Exhibit B, of course: the recruitment of Agent Bramble from former club Wigan, which has made Mackem fans want to crawl back under the rock they came from.

But it's not all good news for those of a black and white persuasion. Bent has proven an irritatingly well-judged buy (although the most notorious of his 24 goals last season should properly have been credited to B Ball), they have a pair of promising young midfielders in Jordan Henderson and David Meyler, and two of Brucie's other summer purchases are enviable: Cristian Riveros, who enjoyed a good World Cup with Paraguay, and Marcos Angeleri, who could find himself up against compatriot Spidermag when the forces of good and evil meet on Halloween. Bragging rights are rightfully ours and we want them back.


While international tournaments can put some players in the shop window, they can also serve to remind clubs of the neglected or hidden talent they already have buried within their squads. Giovani dos Santos, an ever-present for Mexico in the World Cup, was nominated for FIFA's Young Player of the Tournament award and yet has hardly figured at Spurs. His attitude has been in part to blame for his limited opportunities ('Appy 'Arry's quipped: "If he could pass a nightclub as well as he can pass a ball he would be alright") - but so have a clutch of attacking midfielders almost on a par with those of north London foes Arsenals: Luka Modric, Niko Kranjcar, Aaron Lennon and David Bentley. John Bostock's response to a similar frustration was a misguided rant that made him sound like a petty Little Englander but probably helped in securing him a loan move to Hull, while Adel Taarabt has cut his losses altogether, signing permanently for QPR.

For a notorious wheeler-dealer, 'Arry has been remarkably inactive this summer - the only new addition to the squad being young Brazilian Sandro (actually signed back in March), who will vie with Wilson Palacios and Tom Huddlestone for the midfield anchor role. But the fact is that Spurs are strong in every area of the pitch, and their only real concerns are (as ever) over the fitness of Ledley King and Jonathan Woodgate, England's two classiest central defenders. Still, whether this will be enough to take them back to fourth (or higher) is debatable, not least because they don't yet have that crucial knack of grinding out wins when off-colour.

West Brom

Unlike our own automatic promotion, which was very much a collective triumph, West Brom's was largely thanks to the efforts of one central protagonist: Graham Dorrans. Baggies' fan Frank Heaven may neglect to mention it in his assessment of their Premier League prospects over on The Two Unfortunates, but arguably the most significant of chairman Jeremy Peace and manager Roberto Di Matteo's close-season achievements has been the retention of the Scottish midfielder's services in the face of persistent and cheeky interest from West Ham.

Promoted four times in eight years but too often turning out to be worryingly soft-centred if pleasing on the eye, they've thus far opted to invest in goal-savers rather than goal-getters: Boaz Myhill, Nicky Shorey, Gabriel Tamas and Pablo Ibanez should all represent good value for money, and Steven Reid will add steel to midfield. Since the first of those four promotions they've survived for more than one season at the top level just once (and then by the skin of their teeth and in spite of Captain Lager's stewardship) - this time around, much depends on the rigidity of this new backbone, as well as on whether the supporting cast are able to respond to Dorrans' cues and stage directions.

West Ham

Dorrans' suitors West Ham have faced a battle of their own to cling onto a star midfielder, Scott Parker, and the hypocrisy of the dastardly Davids Gold and Sullivan - swiping at any hint of an attempt to unsettle the Toon old boy while submitting derisory bids for Dorrans - has succeeded in making them even more dislikeable. Their choice of replacement for Gianfranco Zola - well-loved but out of his depth last season and bundled out of the door without sentiment - shows a certain degree of nous, though. Avram Grant was unlucky to get the boot at Chelsea and performed miracles at Portsmouth in circumstances that were extraordinary even by our own chaotic standards, and so for the Hammers to snare him just as a vacancy opened up at Liverpool was a real coup.

Mexican winger Pablo Barrera, German international midfielder Thomas Hitzlsperger (formerly of fellow claret and blues Villa) and French striker Frederic Piquionne are handy signings, though the rumoured £5m spent on Kiwi defender Winston Reid is risky, despite his World Cup displays. But good sense is clearly in finite supply at Upton Park: having declared an end to the lunacy that saw Freddie Ljungberg and Kieron Dyer handed contracts that crippled (and, in Dyer's case, continue to cripple) the club, Gold and Sullivan are now keen to offer David Beckham one last bumper payday...


Hard to believe, I know, but this will be Wigan's sixth season in the Premier League. Class acts like Wilson Palacios, Antonio Valencia and, ahem, Emile Heskey are long gone while the players who last summer followed Roberto Martinez from Swansea like obedient puppies, Jason Scotland and Jordi Gomez, have made no impact whatsoever. The Latics' squad is one of the smallest in the division, and the trousers-down whippings administered first by Spurs (9-1) and then by Chelsea (8-0) last season suggest that perhaps their spell in the big time is drawing to a close.

But to predict nothing but gloom would be to ignore Charles N'Zogbia's continued presence at the club and a trio of buys that bears witness to a quietly efficient scouting operation. Maverick striker Hugo Rodallega is likely to be partnered by free-scoring former Estudiantes forward Mauro Boselli, while at the back another South American, Paraguay's Antolin Alcaraz, will plug the hole left by Calamitous Bramble's sizeable arse and Dutch squad player Ronnie Stam, previously with Steve McLaren's FC Twente, will slot in at right-back. Needless to say, though, that with that gobshite Dave Whelan still at the helm and the litany of horrible JJB Stadium defeats festering away in the memory, we'd rejoice at the opportunity to wave them off to the Championship.


You've got to love Mick McCarthy, haven't you? Dry-as-a-bone wit, massive falling-out with Roy Keane, guiding the Mackems to what was at the time the lowest-ever Premier League points total... Wolves supporters must be rather fond of him too, given that he has secured their promotion and then survival in the last two campaigns. For the latter, thanks are due largely to the goals of Kevin Doyle, but this is a side for whom there are no real stand-out stars.

The board hasn't been shy in backing McCarthy with substantial amounts of cash, presumably with consolidation as the target, but at a combined cost of around £12m Stephen Hunt and Steven Fletcher look overpriced. While rangy right-back Ronald Zubar has become a firm fans' favourite, Serbian playmaker Nenad Milijas was used only sparingly and Sylvain Ebanks-Blake, prolific in the Championship, failed to adjust to the step up in quality. It's a measure of Wolves fans' generally pessimistic outlook that one of their warmest and most enthusiastic chants proclaims "There's only one Jody Craddock / One Jody Craddock / He used to be shite / But now he's alright / Walking in a Craddock wonderland" - but if they perform as badly as they did in the pre-season friendly at Elland Road then worrying times lie ahead.

To follow over the weekend: a View From The Away End assessment of our own prospects, courtesy of the The Two Unfortunates.

Milk cup

Those of you of a certain age will no doubt remember a Scouse kid telling his mate that he should drink milk because Ian Rush says if he doesn't he'll only be good enough to play football for Accrington Stanley.

Having seen Ian Rush, admittedly about ten years after the ad was first broadcast, when he was trundling round St James' Park on a last hurrah courtesy of Kenny Dalglish, it's fair to assume that milk will only get you so far.

Anyway, yesterday's draw for the Second Round of the League Cup has seen Newcastle handed the task of a trip to Accrington in a match which has Sky executives already making preparations to send Andy Gray (well, more likely Chris Kamara) and co off to the North West on 25th August in the hope of an upset.

For what it's worth, Accrington have been identified in the excellent Two Unfortunates comprehensive Football League preview as hoping for a solid season in which they remain safely in the league. With a transfer embargo only recently lifted due to the late filing of accounts it looks like the cash which a tie at home to Newcastle will bring will be welcomed by the club chairman.

Hopefully we'll have learned the PR lessons which saw us vilified when we played Stevenage Borough in the FA Cup in 1998, and instead simply turn up, keep a low profile, win the game and come home again.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Know Your Enemies: Part 1

In which I kick off our season preview posts by running the rule over the sides gearing up to send us straight back down to the Championship...


Blessed with a mouthwatering array of youthful talent, including two of England's newest caps Kieron Gibbs and Jack Wilshere, Arsenal's future looks bright. But that's been the case for years now, and Gunners fans must be wondering why the present never has quite the same lustre. They remain strongest, as ever, in advanced midfield areas, with the likes of Theo Walcott, Tomas Rosicky, Samir Nasri and Andrei Arshavin capable of posing fiendish riddles to opposition defences, while long-time target Marouane Chamakh has arrived from Bordeaux to replace the outgoing Eduardo and partner Robin Van Persie up front.

But they've haemorrhaged central defenders - William Gallas, Sol Campbell, Philippe Senderos and Mikael Silvestre - and now have only Thomas Vermaelen and new recruit Laurent Koscielny to fill the hole. Once again, that vision of glories to come is likely to be sustenance for another barren season, though there is the added consolation of knowing they've clung onto Cesc Fabregas despite the frankly astonishing efforts of his Spanish teammates to tempt him away to the Nou Camp - for another year, at least.

Aston Villa

Oh dear. Of all the foreign owners in the Premier League, Randy Lerner - surely his porn name? - seemed to be the one who bucked the trend: low-profile, no ludicrous public outbursts, not out to make a fast buck at the expense of the club and the fans, prepared to provide his manager with reasonable funds. But then the Curse of James Milner struck and Martin O'Neill walked out on the eve of the season, Lerner claiming they "no longer shared a common view as to how to move forward". (It's worth pointing out that O'Neill had effectively earned the right to spend the Milner cash, when it comes, having transformed our old boy into the player he now is by playing him behind the strikers rather than on the flanks.)

The American's stubborn refusal to back O'Neill's vision will be costly - does he, or anyone else, seriously think that any other manager will be able to improve on three successive top six finishes (each time with a slightly better final points total) with the current squad - minus Milner, of course? There's quality in there, admittedly, but they lack strength in depth and a striker who will rattle in the goals - Emile Heskey's unlikely to fulfil that particular need - and their general disarray leaves them at risk of dropping out of contention for the European places.


I don't foresee life across the other side of the Second City being too much cheerier. After last season's remarkable 9th place finish - particularly galling to us given the integral roles played by Lee Bowyer and Stephen Carr, both booted out of Toon for being crap - expectations will have risen even among the Blues' notoriously pessimistic followers.

Last year's success was founded on an enviable work ethic and an extraordinarily miserly defence in which Man City loanee Joe Hart and the hitherto unsung Roger Johnson established themselves as two of the signings of the season. Good job, too, as goals weren't exactly a regularity at the other end either. England wannabe Ben Foster will find it tough to pick up Hart's gauntlets, while, with Rat Boy Phillips another year closer to his pension, the burden of responsibility for scoring will fall on the snow-capped shoulders of giant Serbian striker Nikola Zigic - a responsibility all the more onerous if the back line doesn't prove quite so impermeable this time around.


As reassuring as possession of promising youngsters such as Nikola Kalinic and Steven Nzonzi is, I doubt that it'll have assuaged the fears of Rovers fans suspecting, like their Brummie counterparts, that last season's top half placing will be unrepeatable. (Where the two won't agree, incidentally, is on David Dunn - back to being a mercurial string-puller at Ewood Park after a spell as a fat flop at St Andrews.) If Saurin Shah's attempted buyout does take place, then Fat Sam might suddenly find himself leafing through a wadge of folding money rather than jingling loose change in his pockets - but thus far forays into the transfer market have been conspicuous by their absence.

Rovers' strength is the heart of their defence, where Chris Samba has established himself as a formidable man mountain. Accomplice Ryan Nelsen enjoyed a superb World Cup skippering the only side to end the tournament unbeaten, while in reserve they can call upon Phil Jones, a precociously commanding presence who has "future England captain" written all over him. (Not literally, of course.) Here's hoping they're all injured when we face them so we can give Fat Sam a good firm slap on the chops.


Few will be approaching the season with as much trepidation as Blackpool. They sneaked into the Premier League through the play-offs, dazzling their opponents with sparkling, stylish football, but are about to find top flight opponents far less easy to outfox. Ian Holloway will no doubt do and say enough to merit his own weekly slot on Match Of The Day 2, but I can't see him having the calmness, psychological strength and tactical nous needed to succeed at this level.

The Seasiders' chief problem, though, has been on the recruitment front. Numerous targets have spurned their advances (some for lower league sides) - most notably DJ Campbell and Stephen Dobbie, last season's loan heroes both choosing to stay with their parent clubs. This led to speculation over the positions of Holloway and chairman Karl Oyston, whose early summer boasts about financial prudence had been replaced with frustration and embarrassment at the lack of new faces. Today saw them sign no fewer than five players - but of these, three are unfamiliar Frenchmen, one a Man Utd reserve defender last seen turning out on loan for a side relegated to League One and the fifth a striker who we know from personal experience could only intermittently cut it in the Championship. Doh! Still, what have they got to lose? Other than confidence, spirit, dignity, long-term financial stability...


While Blackburn have been playing the waiting game, their Lancashire rivals Bolton have gone about quietly making some stealthy and astute acquisitions. Chief among these, of course, is Martin Petrov, a tasty crumb who fell from moneybags Man City's table now that they've upgraded to World Cup winner David Silva. Owen Coyle's capture of the Bulgarian - pacy, crafty and with an eye for goal - for zilch eclipses our own free transfer signings of Campbell and Gosling. He could form part of an all-new left side for the Trotters, if Marcos Alonso - a teenage benchwarmer at Real Madrid - begins to fulfil his potential sooner rather than later. It's long been a source of bafflement to me why Matt Taylor, a surprisingly frequent scorer, doesn't start more games - but these two may ensure his path to a regular first-team place continues to be blocked.

On the other flank South Korean international Lee Chung-Yong has plenty to offer in terms of effort and forward momentum, while the permanent arrival of Ivan Klasnic - a useful striker in his own right - might possibly spur Johan Elmander into doing the job he's thus far been overpaid to do and not done. It's also about who they've clung onto, though - Gary Cahill in particular, though Gretar Steinsson has also proven a valuable asset.


Can Dad's Army do it again? Possibly, but if so then it almost definitely won't involve so many thrashings and neither will it be because they're stronger than last year. Juliano Belletti is no great loss - the Brazilian was never more than a squad player - but the frequently imperious (if imperiously arrogant) Michael Ballack will be missed, Ricardo Carvalho's reunion with Jose Mourinho in Madrid will leave them lighter at the back and the wisdom and logic of effectively swapping Joe Cole plus a load of Roman Abramovich's cash for Yossi Benayoun is bizarre to say the very least.

Nicolas Anelka and Florent Malouda both enjoyed excellent seasons as the Blues won the domestic double - but les Bleus suffered a markedly different fate at the World Cup, and the pair may still be feeling groggy with the hangover from the French World Cup nightmare. I'd venture that it's surely also questionable whether Didier Drogba and Frank Lampard can continue to perform at the same phenomenally high level now that they're the wrong side (i.e. my side) of 30. The time is ripe for Carlo Ancelotti to try assimilating the likes of Gael Kakuta, Daniel Sturridge, Michael Mancienne and maybe even our former loanee left-back Patrick van Aanholt more fully into the regular first-team squad - if he doesn't, then they will simply leave out of frustration (as Scott Sinclair has done, for Swansea) and, like an inverse Arsenal, Chelsea will have a glorious present but no future.


Of all the managers in the Premier League, the one I'd probably least like to encounter in an angry confrontation would be David Moyes - there's something about that accent and those bulging eyes that suggest he'd think nothing of ripping out your internal organs, sticking them in a blender and then feeding them back to you as soup. But anger him is exactly what we did this summer, turning him a Fergie-esque shade of puce by nipping in to nick Dan Gosling before he put pen to paper on a new deal. Moyes will now be all the more vigilant that the same thing doesn't happen with star midfielders Steven Pienaar and Mikel Arteta, both of whom are yet to sign contract extensions. The pair are part of the reason Gosling decided to risk Moyes' wrath and walk out - together with Marouane Fellaini, Tim Cahill, Diniyar Bilyaletdinov and Leon Osman, they form a formidable array of midfield talent.

Not that the Toffees are too shoddy at the back, with Leighton Baines and Phil Jagielka proof that taking a punt on Championship players can reap handsome dividends. Up front Louis Saha and Yakubu are talented but far too injury-prone, so much - probably too much - will be expected of Jermaine Beckford. When we were close to signing him in January, we had Leeds fans telling us he wasn't all that - in much the same way that Everton fans have been doing with Gosling...


Fulham's passage to Europa Cup final - which, lest we forget, left the likes of Hamburg and Shakhtar Donetsk by the wayside and most famously saw them mug the Old Lady - was one of the most impressive achievements of last season. It was enough to secure Roy Hodgson, the man who had come in in 2007 when the Cottagers were in dire straits domestically and saved their bacon, the LMA Manager Of The Year award - and ultimately the Liverpool job. And yet owner Mohamed Al Fayed had the gall to snipe that his club "put him where he is now". I've nothing against Fulham, but when that odious idiot spouts this sort of drivel, then it's enough to make you wish all kinds of misery and misfortune upon them.

In fact, misfortune has already struck, with the news that new signing Philippe Senderos will be sidelined for six months, meaning that the formation of a partnership with giant Norwegian Brede Hangeland, one of the league's best defenders, has been put on ice. Both domestically and in Europe Aaron Hughes and Damien Duff were virtually unrecognisable from the players who used to turn out for us, but, like Danny Murpy and Clint Dempsey, they'll have a difficult task to maintain last term's form. Bobby Zamora, meanwhile, may have just made an impressive international debut, but he's hardly the goal-every-other-game striker they should be pinning most of their hopes on. Still, Mark Hughes was a sound appointment as Hodgson's successor - he was harshly treated at Man City - and has the necessary nous to keep them in mid-table.


It could all have been so much worse for Liverpool. Firstly, having belatedly waved goodbye to the increasingly eccentric and erratic Rafa Benitez, to whom they'd clung too long out of dewy-eyed sentiment (as well as the compensation clause in his contract), it was imperative that they got the right man in - and Roy Hodgson certainly fits the bill. Secondly, and against the odds, they've managed to retain the services of their talismen Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres - even though Reds fans will be praying both enjoy better seasons than they did World Cups (incidentally, did Torres' pitiful showing up front for a World-Cup-winning side remind anyone of a certain Stephane Guivarch?). Add to that the fact that they were very much on the right end of the Joe Cole deal - though supporters should be wary of hailing him as some kind of messiah - and have managed to ship out fringe players and dissenters like Albert Riera and everything looks rather rosier than might have been expected.

There are a few flies in the ointment, though - not least the likely departure of defensive midfield lynchpin Javier Mascherano, who is apparently so desperate to be reunited with Benitez at Inter Milan that he's been refusing to talk to Hodgson (though the blow will at least be cushioned by the arrival of Christian Poulsen), and the continued status of the terminally rubbish David N'Gog as Torres' stand-in. Reinforcements are needed if they're to worm their way back into the top four - a tougher task in view of the squads "outsiders" Man City and Spurs now boast - but Hodgson has shown he knows how to manage a modest budget and so is likely to invest wisely.

Second half to follow tomorrow night.

Monday, August 09, 2010

Another one bites the dust

Towards the end of last month we commented on James Milner's situation at Aston Villa, noting that "we're familiar with Milner's tactics, having experienced exactly the same situation back in August 2008". Although our old boy's departure for Man City hasn't yet been confirmed, it seems he may have once again directly or indirectly precipitated the resignation of his manager. At least King Kev lasted until September, though...

Quote of the day

"He's certainly not fat. He's in very good shape. He's a very big man anyway, but he's certainly not fat. What he isn't at this moment is fit. He's not fit at this moment in time."

Appearing on Sky's Goals On Sunday, Chris Hughton takes the opportunity to distinguish between two different vowels in relation to Sol Campbell.

Choose leisure wear and matching luggage

With the Football League campaign underway, and the Charity Shield presumably already off to a pawn shop to keep the Glazer family's debt collectors at bay, the Guardian has reached "N" in its preview of the Premier League season.

So here it is, and the collective Guardian writers' view is (cue: drum roll) that we'll finish 16th.

Don't know about you, but I'd take that now.

Aside from a load of twaddle, the comments box has provided one highlight which deserves a wider audience (step forward JonathanHigginsIII at 1.43pm):

"Barton: Hhmmm, I need to soften my image, what should I do.
(Walks past a Trainspotting poster.)
Barton: Eureka!"

So, as long as he continues to grow his 'tache to boost morale, ASBO shall henceforth (at least on this site) be known as Begbie.

Saturday, August 07, 2010

Glasgow kiss

Our mixed bag of a pre-season ended on a low note this afternoon, with a 2-1 defeat to Rangers at Ibrox. The home side's goals came from Kenny Miller in the first half and Steven Naismith in the second, with our reply courtesy of substitute Peter Lovenkrands, the ex-Gers man scoring with his first touch and repaying the Ibrox crowd's warm reception by refusing to celebrate.

We didn't do enough to merit an equaliser, but more worrying was the disappointing overall performance of what is very likely to be the XI that starts at Old Trafford a week on Monday (injuries permitting) - a 4-5-1 formation with Wayne Routledge, ASBO, Danny Guthrie, Kevin Nolan and Spidermag across the middle and Bigger Lad as the lone striker.

So, that first game of the season just got a whole lot more daunting - but let's cling to the crumb of comfort that was our last visit to the Theatre of Nightmares, eh? Any result other than defeat, achieved by any means, would be gladly received.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Boost morale: grow a moustache

Reporting on our hero in the shoot-out victory over Deportivo to claim the Trofeo Teresa Herrera, I commented: "I can only assume that [ASBO's] preposterous facial furniture was an attempt to lighten the mood in the camp and cheer Sol up...".

Well, according to a "United insider" whispering to the Mirror, it turns out that that's EXACTLY what it is: "Team spirit is important, and growing a moustache and having a bit of banter about it is all part of it. But now we need Joey's effort to grow in a bit thicker, and ultimately to see it in action on Match Of The Day. Really, it is the least he can do to keep the lads' spirits high. It suits him."

If "suits him" means "makes him look like a tit", then it's a good point - and let's face it, in ASBO's case they're much the same thing.

So, sod your fancy psychological techniques, pep talks and personal mentoring - an overrated (by himself) ankle-biter sporting a hairy top lip is apparently all you need to foster good team spirit.

Still, we should be grateful that at least this latest addition to ASBO's repertoire of morale-boosting antics ranks higher than some of his others, given that it doesn't involve either getting himself sent off in a vital match and then slagging off a club legend, attacking a team-mate on the training pitch or stubbing a cigar out in a youth team player's eye...

A Month Of Saturdays: July 2010

Prudence, caution, restraint. Hardly the most exciting approach to the transfer market, but in truth few clubs other than Man City have got all kid-in-a-sweet-shop wide-eyed and greedy, and for us at least it's very much a case of needs must - as Chris Hughton didn't really need to remind us. We were well aware that (to use the common parlance) "marquee signings" - the sort for which fans would flock to St James' and thence to the club shops to get a new name emblazoned on the back of their shirts - were unlikely to be forthcoming. But July did at least see the arrivals of two players to raise the spirits, if not quite quicken the pulse.

Probably most significant was Sol Campbell, who opted against staying on at Arsenal and rejected the overtures of Celtic (amongst others) in our favour. How much of an influence his new bride, Geordie Fiona Barratt, had over his decision is unclear, but I doubt I was alone in wondering whether she might be that rarest of things: a likeable WAG. The ex-England central defender, now 35, brings with him an expert reading of the game and a wealth of experience to pass on to our younger heads, and while his hefty £35,000-a-week salary crashes through Jabba's alleged wage ceiling, we're only committed to a year and so if it doesn't work out the damage won't be too lasting.

Also snapped up on a free transfer, after a protracted pursuit that dragged on for most of the month, was Dan Gosling, who chose to leave Everton when no formal contract offer was forthcoming. It remains to be seen whether he'll get the first-team football he craves, but he must now surely be closer to regular action than he was at the Toffees, where he had at least six fellow attacking midfielders ahead of him.

However, while the signings of Campbell and Gosling were pleasing coups (not least because we fended off interest from others and secured their services without having to pay a fee), I think it's fair to say we're still slightly wary of both players: Campbell after last season's brief, bizarre and mercenary dalliance with the other Magpies, and Gosling because of his allegedly ungentlemanly conduct in extricating himself from Everton's clutches.

The big question, of course, is: will their recruitment and that of our other less heralded newbie James Perch - a utility man most likely to feature in defence - be enough to ensure that we're able to retain our Premier League status rather than sliding back into the Championship? To which the sceptic in me gags the optimist and answers "Probably not". We're still short of a defensive midfielder to interchange with (or replace) Alan Smith and an out-and-out goal-getter - but thankfully reports of interest in the likes of Mathieu Flamini, Mahamadou Diarra and Mevlut Erding suggested Hughton is at least aware of our deficiencies.

One position in which we look genuinely blessed is between the sticks. Celtic were rumoured to be sweet on first choice Steve Harper, while Tim Krul was awarded a new four-year deal and his other understudy Fraser Forster was in demand by both Norwich and Burnley (though Clarets boss Brian Laws grew impatient and signed Lee Grant from Sheffield Wednesday instead).

Pre-season began at Brunton Park - minus Spidermag, given time off to recover from the exertion of watching from the bench as his compatriots suffered an undignified World Cup mauling at the hands of Germany. Carlisle were defeated 3-0 courtesy of a strong second-half showing, but more significantly Steven Taylor's comeback was curtailed by a shoulder injury. The subsequent operation and recovery will keep him out for three months.

Sloppy defending contributed to a disappointing 2-1 defeat at Carrow Road, and so it was little wonder that news of Campbell's capture three days later was so welcome. We also conceded twice to PSV Eindhoven in the home friendly arranged to mark the anniversary of Sir Bobby Robson's death, but fought back to claim a draw. Bigger Lad may have had the honour of the No 9 shirt bestowed upon him, but he ended the month without a pre-season goal to his name, Leon Best's strikes against Carlisle and our Dutch visitors making him the forward in form.

And finally there was light relief. We might not have found the preposterous declaration made by ASBO (appearances last season: 8, goals: 1) that he's "as good as anybody in this country" quite as amusing as others, but at least Ol' Cauliflower Face and the Plymouth board gave us a good chuckle by signing up Calamitous Bramble for the Mackems and appointing Monkey's Heed as their new manager respectively. I began this piece with the word "prudence" - needless to say, we've come a long way since then...

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Cor' blimey

It was a case of second time lucky for ASBO in Spain last night, as he made amends for a penalty (and rebound) miss late in normal time by firing home the winning shoot-out spot-kick to beat Deportivo La Coruna in what was our penultimate pre-season friendly. I can only assume that his preposterous facial furniture was an attempt to lighten the mood in the camp and cheer Sol up...

Other than for the fact that we held our own away to decent opposition and the eventual 5-3 victory, the game was notable for two reasons: Chris Hughton trying James Perch out in a central defensive role alongside Fabricio Coloccini, the man upended for ASBO's first effort from 12 yards; and Spidermag's return to the side after his post-World-Cup break, coming on as a second-half substitute for the Xisco Kid, who had been ineffectual against his former club.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Alright, Fat Sol?

We've all been there. You're out and about when someone pulls out a camera and takes a snap which doesn't show you in your best light. Perhaps you were eating, or blowing it all out, or just gurning wildly. Nobody takes that photo and sticks it on their wall (although I'm sure there's a fair few "fat" photos out there stuck to fridges as a motivational diet tool); instead they get consigned to the bin, or deleted, and nobody thinks any more of it.

Anyway, so what?

Well, if you happen to be a Premier League footballer and your season is due to start in less than two weeks time, it's not completely unreasonable for fans to be a bit concerned that the latest player intended to fill a position in defence might go beyond simply filling a hole and in fact get wedged and, like Winnie the Pooh, be unable to get out.

Sol Campbell, a man who, lest we forget has just returned from a summer without a contract and from his honeymoon to a job paying him £35k per week (that's £1,820,000.00 per annum) has taken offence that some people have derided his apparent fat belly. According to Sol, he's now in better shape than he was when he rolled in to Arsenal last January, and he had "a reasonably good end half of the season".

Now, I can hardly criticise someone too much for carrying a few pounds or for letting themselves go a bit on honeymoon, but why did he schedule his wedding to coincide with pre-season if he was desperately keen to play this season?

The saving grace is, of course, that as he wasn't around for pre-season, we haven't paid him, so there's no financial loss (assuming he is fit when he says he will be), but it's still a bit galling to have a footballer who will earn over well over one and a half million pounds over the course of the season complain if people are critical because he's not fit enough to start the first game for his new employers because he has, by his own admission, let himself go over the summer.

It's not dissimilar to turning up to work with a hangover - it's your own fault and chances are that whilst your colleagues may be a little sensitive, to clients and employers it really doesn't attract (or deserve) any sympathy whatsoever.

If Campbell can get himself fit, and turn in a string of stellar performances, then all will be forgiven - and in his defence he does say that he is "knuckling down and want[s] to play [his] football with a great club and a great manager". But turning up out of shape to collect more money in a week than most of us earn a year doesn't exactly earn you much respect with supporters, and however much Sol might complain, that should hardly come as a surprise.

Monday, August 02, 2010

Double Dutch

Newcastle and PSV Eindhoven served up an entertaining 2-2 draw in Saturday's friendly arranged to mark the anniversary of our former manager Sir Bobby Robson's death. Two down to impressive strikes from distance by Ola Toivonen and commentators' nightmare Balazs Dzsudzsak, we recovered thanks to goals from Ryan Taylor and substitute Leon Best.

With Dan Gosling and Sol Campbell sidelined, the sole player pulling on a black and white shirt at St James' for the first time was James Perch. Giving away the free kick from which Toivonen opened the scoring wasn't the most auspicious of starts, but he did improve. Wayne Routledge and Spidermag succeeded in strengthening their cases for inclusion in our first XI by their absence, and Big Lad, Bigger Lad and Peter Lovenkrands all looked a little off the pace - though in fairness they didn't have a great deal to work with. It was a usefully testing afternoon for central defensive pair Fabricio Coloccini and Mike Williamson, who may well line up together at Old Trafford unless Campbell sharpens up quickly.

We have another friendly fixture on Tuesday, at Coloccini's former club Deportivo La Coruna, while Peter Beardsley and Steve Stone's first game in charge of the reserves resulted in a 3-0 win over Gateshead, with Nile Ranger and Haris Vuckic on the scoresheet.