Monday, November 29, 2010

Quote of the day

"It was with some trepidation that I went to interview the 6ft 4in striker at a Newcastle hotel yesterday after a quick trawl through his recent newspaper cuttings. But it is my pleasure to report that I emerged unscathed from our meeting and I left convinced that big Andy seems to be learning the error of his ways."

The Mirror's Brian McNally reports back from a rendez-vous with Rocky. What with McNally being the same hack who referred to our striker's training ground disagreement with Steven Taylor as a "cowardly assault", you have to wonder how scathed he'd have been if Rocky could read...

Unpopularity contest

Sunday 25th January 1998 was one of the most nerve-wracking and uncomfortable afternoons in my life as a Newcastle supporter. In the Fourth Round of the FA Cup we'd been drawn away to Conference side Stevenage Borough, and by casting patronising and offensive aspersions about the quality and safety standards of our hosts' Broadhall Way ground, we'd cemented our slide from the Entertainers, everyone's favourite second team, to arrogant and wealthy bullies. When the game kicked off, the whole nation - and certainly the whole of the packed university TV room in which I watched the match - was baying for us to lose.

We scored early, Wor Al netting just three minutes into his comeback from injury, but Giuliano Grazioli equalised before the break and we had to concede a moral victory to the minnows. Back at St James' a week and a half later, we did eventually ease into the Fifth Round thanks to two more Shearer goals (en route for an ultimately futile appearance in the Final), but it had been a damaging and scarring experience.

Thirteen years later and we'll be facing them on their own turf in the FA Cup again, this time in the Third Round. Boro are now a league side, sitting comfortably in mid-table of the bottom tier, and won through by beating AFC Wimbledon 2-0 yesterday. Needless to say, their fans are rubbing their hands at the chance for revenge - and you can probably bank on Sky/ITV wanting to be there to cover it.

For our part, let's hope we can conduct ourselves with a modicum of decency and professionalism this time. Our last four FA Cup Third Round ties have resulted in a replay, but we should certainly be capable of denying Boro another St James' Park pay-day.

(You can relive the whole sorry saga from 1998, if you really want, here.)

Piste off

For those two magical years in the mid 90s we were regularly thrilled by the sight of David Ginola slaloming his way through opposition defences. Well, as it happens our mercurial French winger could have been slaloming his way down mountainsides had things turned out differently - or had we been prepared to insure him against injury while indulging in his other passion.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Rocky's Arctic role denies Blues

Newcastle Utd 1 - 1 Chelsea

Memories of last weekend's nightmarish defeat to Bolton were banished by a creditable if slightly fortuitous draw against the off-colour champions in freezing conditions - though it was also a case of more points dropped at home.

Mike Williamson and Sideshow Bob were sidelined through suspension, their misdeeds opening the door for Sol Campbell and the transfer-listed Steven Taylor to make their first league starts of the campaign. Cheik Tiote returned from his own sin-binning to give better protection to the fledgling central defensive partnership than Alan Smith had to our first-choice pairing at the Reebok, while injured skipper Kevin Nolan was replaced by Wayne Routledge, Danny Guthrie moving into a more familiar central position.

Sensing the vulnerability of a Chelsea side who went into the fixture off the back of their first consecutive league defeats for more than four years, we attacked with power and purpose from the first whistle and could have been in front barely two minutes in. Taylor's header from a free kick was pawed away by Petr Cech and stand-in captain Big Lad fired his volley into the side netting under pressure.

We didn't have to wait much longer to take the lead, though. Perhaps bamboozled by the festive weather, Alex gifted us a goal, sliding a misjudged backpass past Cech for the alert Rocky to pounce and smash his ninth goal of the season into an empty net from point-blank range.

With Rocky and Big Lad wreaking havoc up front, Chelsea looked seriously unnerved, while Ashley Cole was the subject of vigorous booing and cat calls from the stands - presumably for the way he mistreated Wor Cheryl, as well as for being an intensely dislikeable human being... One challenge in which he quite deliberately left his stud prints on our captain's thigh should, with any justice, result in a retrospective suspension, as has been meted out to our own ASBO and Williamson in recent weeks.

Gradually, though, the visitors regained their composure and quietly started to dominate. Alex's attempt to make amends for his error was foiled by Jose Enrique, who cleared his header off the line, while Didier Drogba's shot was tipped behind by Tim Krul and a couple of slightly iffy penalty-box collisions went unpunished.

Just as it looked as though we'd make it into the dressing room ahead, they found an equaliser. Neat build-up play culminated in Salomon Kalou turning inside Campbell in the box. His shot would have been parried comfortably enough by Krul had it not been diverted off Danny Simpson's toe. Even then, the young Dutchman got a palm to the ball but it still found the bottom corner.

Into the second half, and Chelsea - keen to get back to the top of the league - continued to control possession and with it the game. Drogba was probably the chief threat, bulging the net with a shot on the turn only for it to be ruled out (rightly) for handball. Their best opportunity, though, fell to Kalou, his first effort smothered by Krul and the rebound somehow prodded wide. Substitute Daniel Sturridge, unfortunate to have been dropped after Tuesday's livewire performance against Zilina in the Champions League, also fired wide of the target after Taylor had done well to block his initial shot.

It wasn't all one-way traffic, though. Rocky muscled his way into position to plant a header that Cech saved, and we came even closer when the Czech 'keeper's fisted clearance was volleyed smartly goalwards by Routledge. Of course it would have to be Cole - the man who should have been red-carded - who headed off the line.

In the face of general though not acute Chelsea pressure, Spidermag and particularly Routledge proved useful sources of relief and release - as did Nile Ranger when he replaced Big Lad for the last 15 minutes. A bit more experience and nous and he could have engineered chances on the break to win the game.

As it was, we had to be thankful for the point to Chelsea's lack of conviction in front of goal and a spirited rearguard action. Campbell and Taylor both acquitted themselves well, but it was Enrique who was named man of the match. Despite coming close to conceding a second-half penalty for handball, his tireless tackling and covering interceptions were key.

The result moved us back up into the top half of the table, though yesterday's wins for Wolves and West Ham mean we're now only seven points off the bottom. Next up are West Brom, level on points but with an inferior goal difference that they nevertheless significantly improved with yesterday's 4-1 humiliation of Everton.

Chelsea fans' perspectives: Chelsea Blog, The Chelsea Blog, Chelsea Football Club Blog (generally lots of hand-wringing and woe-is-us, we-ain't-gunna-win-the-Premier-League-guv'nor whingeing...)

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

An unwanted sense of perspective

Thanks to Blackpool and Man Utd for putting a couple of our recent defeats into perspective. The Seasiders picked up a draw at the Reebok, the scene of our humiliation last Saturday, and were actually two goals up with less than quarter of an hour to go. Meanwhile, Taggart's mob wiped the smirk of Fat Sam's mug by destroying Blackburn 7-1 - a few injuries aside, this was the same bunch who frustrated and ultimately defeated us at St James' Park earlier in the month.

To make matters worse, Man Utd's romp propelled them to the top of the table - meaning that our visitors Chelsea will be even more fired up and determined to take the three points. Wor Al has backed Rocky to inherit his talismanic status and the Blues' defence has certainly been uncharacteristically shakey of late - but it's not really a fixture for two central defenders who've never played together before to try to forge a partnership either...

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Fighting talk

Apologies for dredging up memories of those dark days we'd all rather forget, but just thought I'd point out that JFK's infamous anti-journalist rant has made it into the Guardian's latest Joy Of Six feature on interview meltdowns. Needless to say, King Kev's Fergie-directed "love it" rant also gets a mention...

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Suspension bridge

The FA's decision today to ban Mike Williamson for three games for violent conduct - though, mercifully, no longer - coupled with Sideshow Bob already being suspended means that we'll be starting out against Chelsea with an all-new central defensive partnership, most likely consisting of Sol Campbell and Steven Taylor. Hopefully over the next few matches the duo can plug the gap left by two of our best performers this season - between them, they certainly can't claim Premier League inexperience...

The league leaders, meanwhile, warmed up for Sunday lunchtime's encounter by resting a number of players for the Champions League visit of Slovakian side MSK Zilina. They won the fixture 2-1 with a late Florent Malouda goal and former Toon loanee Patrick Van Aanholt playing a starring role from left back, supplying a succession of dangerous crosses and rattling the post with a fierce drive.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Hollow centre

In yesterday's report on the Bolton debacle, I noted that either Sol Campbell or Steven Taylor would be guaranteed a game against Chelsea thanks to Sideshow Bob's three-match suspension. Well, it looks as though they could both be in luck, called in to plug a rather large hole, with Mike Williamson set to join his Argentinian central defensive partner for an extended spell on the sidelines.

Charged by the FA with violent conduct for an off-the-ball clash with Johan Elmander - the Swede, incidentally, also being Sideshow Bob's victim - Williamson is also facing a three-game ban. Just what we need: another of this season's star performers ruling themselves out of action through ill-discipline, and with the visits of Chelsea and Liverpool looming large. Hot-headedness might be in character for ASBO, but not for Williamson.

Still, hats off to the BBC for trying to cheer us up with Toon-focused cinematic masterpiece Goal!, eh? Ah.

Well, at least someone with a Newcastle connection may be beaming from ear to ear today - if Nicky Butt does take Hong Kong side South China up on their offer of a four-month contract, the People has claimed he'll pocket £200,000 a week...

Sunday, November 21, 2010

No case for the defence

Bolton 5 - 1 Newcastle Utd

Shambolic defending, ill discipline and sharp finishing from Johan Elmander, who chose an inopportune moment to open his home account for the season, saw us slump to a very poor defeat at the Reebok Stadium. Like Elmander, strike partner Kevin Davies also bagged a brace - his both from the penalty spot - on a truly miserable afternoon in Lancashire.

Big Lad returned up front, with Peter Lovenkrands dropping to the bench, while Alan Smith was the alleged replacement for the suspended Cheik Tiote. The eventual outcome underlined the Ivorian's importance to the side - without his energetic protection, our defence crumbled alarmingly under pressure from in-form opposition. Match Of The Day 2's Kevin Day laboured a comparison between Brazil and the fluent and eye-catching football Bolton are producing under Owen Coyle, and the home side certainly played well - but we were also very much guilty of being the architects of our own downfall.

That downfall began 18 minutes in when Jose Enrique and Sideshow Bob both wasted opportunities to clear and Kevin Nolan indulged in a spot of juggling in the area. Davies duly dispatched the spot-kick.

We fought back and showed both intent and potential to restore parity, but instead it was the Trotters who grabbed the next goal. We could gripe about Chung-Yong Lee receiving the ball in an offside position before finishing past Tim Krul (this after Matt Taylor's free-kick came back off the crossbar), but that would be to ignore the fact that we once again failed to clear and squandered possession on the edge of our own area. Clearly a lesson still to be learned, despite Morten Gamst Pedersen's opener for Blackburn at St James' Park earlier this month.

Hopes of stern words at half-time heralding a comeback were dashed just five minutes into the second period, with Elmander ambling through our back line and evading Krul's despairing dive to knock home Bolton's third.

We did at least hit back quickly, Rocky finishing assuredly after Big Lad's neat through-ball, but despite a smattering of opportunities we couldn't reduce the arrears any further. Our chances of salvaging an unlikely point receded from slim to slimmer when Sideshow Bob allowed Elmander to power past him and net his second, and from slimmer to slimmer again when our Argentine defender - apparently intent on reprising his relegation season performances - felled the Swede with a deliberate elbow smash to the face. Like ASBO's punch on Pedersen, it was a stupid assault which will rule him out for important games, with either Sol Campbell or the fit-again Steven Taylor set to take his place alongside Mike Williamson.

There was still more salt to be rubbed into an already very raw wound in injury time. Enrique finally made a decent defensive contribution only to be wrongly penalised for a foul on Davies, the Bolton striker once again scoring from the spot. That brace will presumably have gone some way towards assuaging the disappointment of being overlooked by Fabio Capello for Wednesday's England friendly in favour of our own Rocky - who, in the midst of a car crash of a team display, was our only real plus, smacking the post shortly after Sideshow Bob's dismissal.

I think we were all resigned to a handful of comprehensive defeats, and that's only the second one we've suffered this season - but the identity of the latest side to put us to the sword is a little disconcerting. On a positive note Tiote is thankfully back for Sunday's visit of Chelsea, so we should hopefully be more secure. The champions have lost three of their last four league games and are struggling for goals, so could be vulnerable - though of course they'll have taken note of goings-on at the Reebok and identified our meeting as a good opportunity for a reassertion of their title credentials...

A Bolton fan's view: Manny Road (complete with obligatory reference to "the rich Geordie tradition of delusion" - old cliches clearly dying hard...)

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

Friday, November 19, 2010

International news

While Rocky was busy outshining England's senior pros on Wednesday night, Cheik Tiote was turning out for the Ivory Coast in Poland. His side went down 3-1, but he presumably made the most of the run-out given that he's suspended for tomorrow's trip to Bolton - not what we need with the equally in-form ASBO also ruled out by his own misdemeanours. In Alan Smith we trust...

Tamas Kadar, meanwhile, figured as a substitute for Hungary against Lithuania, probably enjoying his senior debut more than Rocky by virtue of finishing on the winning side, and on Tuesday the Scots strolled to an easy 3-0 win over a Faroe Islands side once again featuring our teenager Joan Simun Edmundsson.

First-teamers Tim Krul, Sideshow Bob and Spidermag all sat out their nations' friendly fixtures so should hopefully be fresh and ready for the rigorous examination we're likely to get down at the Reebok.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Fab's mane man

Vital player picks up injury while on international duty with England - but no, it wasn't Rocky, thankfully. He seems to have emerged from his 72-minute-long debut unscathed, and despite the result and lack of service will have been cheered by the Wembley crowd's applause and the warm praise of his newest champion Fabio Capello: "I'm really happy for the performance of Andy because he played very well. He understood that he'll be a player who'll be important for the future of England. When he received the ball he played quickly and his movement every time was dangerous."

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Ankles away

Another day, another tale of ankle-knack and a long injury lay-off. Yesterday I reported on Kazenga LuaLua's unlucky break, while today the club have confirmed that Sol Campbell has made his most significant contribution to the season so far by injuring Ryan Taylor in training. With Taylor expected to be resting up in the treatment room for the next 12 weeks, it's imperative that we keep Danny Simpson fit. Our first-choice right-back has been in good form since returning from his own long-term injury - though the murmurs of enthusiasm for an England call-up are rather premature.

Talk of injuries and England call-ups allows me to segue nicely into the latest news on Rocky, who finds himself at the centre of a steadily brewing club v country row. It's emerged that we've emailed Fabio Capello to express our concerns about our current talisman's fitness. No doubt this will be ignored, but it's imperative we have him back and fit for Saturday's visit to worryingly in-form Bolton if we're to get something out of the game.

Not that the BBC's Phil McNulty shares our view on his attributes: "The fact that Carroll's emergence has caused such excitement is not just a response to his performances, but an indicator of the lack of high-class options for England up front". Part of me hopes he proves naysayers like McNulty wrong - just as long as it doesn't come at the price of his fitness or a sudden flurry of interest from the bigger boys at home and abroad...

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Flat at home

Newcastle Utd 0 - 0 Fulham

So, another home game and more points dropped. For the second game in a row, a team arrived at St James' Park and successfully nullified our Plan A (lump in high for Rocky to head) and like the advert on the side of the M&S trucks, there was no Plan B.

This time it was old boy Aaron Hughes and Brede Hangeland (an alleged target of ours in the dark days of Fat Sam) who snuffed out all that was thrown at them.

Frustratingly, there were fleeting opportunities for us to break the deadlock, with Peter Lovenkrands sending a header at Mark Schwarzer and seeing a shot blocked on the line by the Australian after a fierce Rocky shot had rebounded off Kevin Nolan's backside.

At the other end, Moussa Dembele saw Fulham's best chance cannon back off the crossbar. However, a side who haven't won away since the start of last season didn't really create much to threaten our goal and with the two teams effectively cancelling each other out a point apiece was a fair, if frustrating, result.

After the match it was telling to hear Chris Hughton highlighting that his life would be easier if he could bring in a number two - which is about as outspoken as he's been since he took charge. Hopefully Jabba might finally listen and accede to his request, because on this showing we need a few more ideas on the training pitch.

Whilst Rocky's threat was nullified, the loss of ASBO's quality in midfield was keenly felt, with replacement Danny Guthrie unable to supply the consistent quality delivery which our recent surge up the table has been based upon.

For Rocky, the end of the game bought confirmation that he's been called up by Fabio Capello (and reports today suggest he will earn his first senior cap against France). With Cheik Tiote picking up his fifth booking of the season, ASBO suspended and Big Lad injured, the squad is starting to look a little thin. Hughton must be hoping then that Rocky survives his England call-up and returns refreshed and inspired.

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

Quote of the day

""Who is playing better than him? Nobody. Who is scoring more goals than him? Nobody. He's not the finished article, but get him in there and let's have a look at him. If you want to have a Plan B and you want to go long, then there is nobody better than him. There are not many players who can beat him in the air. But you don't have to kick and rush with him. He has got a decent touch. He will run into the corners and he will score goals. The guy in form is Carroll. He has come on in leaps and bounds over the last 18 months. I always knew he had talent, but this has come a bit quicker than I thought it would."

Alan Shearer, who knows a little about this goalscoring malarkey, on Rocky, who it's been confirmed will make his full international debut in tomorrow night's friendly against France. There had been question marks over his fitness, so fingers crossed we're not left with another Owen situation on our hands - only this time as a result of a meaningless knock-about.

Also on Fabio Capello's teamsheet for the first time is Jordan Henderson - Franco Baldini presumably having overlooked the Mackem midfielder's woeful display in the Tyne-Wear derby.

While Rocky's compensation for being repeatedly frustrated by Fulham 'keeper Mark Schwarzer on Saturday (match report to follow) was the England call-up, there was no such silver lining for Kazenga LuaLua. The on-loan midfielder was introduced by Gus Poyet to spark league leaders Brighton into life - which he duly did just four minutes after coming on, setting up Gary Dicker for an equaliser at Hartlepool. But the Monkey Hangers went on to score twice more, and LuaLua was forced off with a broken ankle that will rule him out for ten weeks.

Friday, November 12, 2010

If it wasn't for those pesky TV cameras he would have gotten away with it

A three-match FA ban and a public apology: welcome back ASBO, we've missed you. Your body seemed to have been temporarily possessed by the spirit of a very good footballer concerned to keep his violent tendencies in check. Thanks to Fat Sam and his side for the exorcism.

Chris Hughton accepted the decision but also complained about the media reaction: "I have seen it again and I am aware that he has raised his hands. But I am also very conscious that because it's Joey Barton, there will be far more made of it than any other individual". True enough, but not grounds for complaint - like Rocky, ASBO has made his bed and now has to lie in it. Repeatedly step out of line and people are going to focus on your misdemeanours. There's only one solution: stop stepping out of line.

It'll be interesting to see who Hughton selects on the right against Fulham. Presumably it'll be Wayne Routledge, but he's been out of form recently so perhaps Danny Guthrie will be hoping for a recall.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The price of (near) success

Pay As You Play, a new book by Paul Tomkins, Graeme Riley and Gary Fulcher, is a comprehensive investigation into the relationship between the spending and the success of Premier League clubs. Using a carefully developed and complex formula, the authors have converted all fees to Current Transfer Purchase Prices (CTPPs) for ease of comparison between clubs, players and seasons.

Unsurprisingly, we come out of it rather badly - as Paul and I acknowledge in our "Expert View" piece that accompanies the facts and figures. There's confirmation that the usual suspects - Albert Luque, Marcelino - were horrendously costly mistakes, but also a few surprises: Darren Peacock our eighth most expensive Premier League purchase (with a CTPP of more than £16m), anyone?

Next week (hopefully), Paul will be taking a closer look at what the findings say about us and posting his thoughts here. Meanwhile, though, the sample chapter currently available on the book's website concerns the "Newcastle Effect" whereby previously successful managers spend over the odds and fail when they go to a bigger club - worth a read to get a taster.

Thanks to Paul T, Graeme and Gary for kindly inviting us to feature among contributors including Gabriele Marcotti (Chelsea), Oliver Kay of the Times (Liverpool) and Daniel Taylor and Jonathan Wilson of the Guardian (Forest and the Mackems respectively), as well as an assortment of fellow bloggers: Darryl of All Quiet In The East Stand (Charlton), Richard of Craven Cottage Newsround, Danny of Bitter And Blue (Man City) and Matt of BHaPPY (Watford).

B&W email: back to full fitness

A quick note to apologise to anyone who's recently tried contacting us at the email address in the sidebar. It had got clogged with spam and after four months of being left dormant was deactivated. It's now been reactivated and will hopefully be kept cleaner than before, so please do contact us either by email or, if you prefer, by leaving a comment.

Ewood have the last laugh, wouldn't he?

Newcastle Utd 1 - 2 Blackburn Rovers

Is there anything more galling about last night's result than the thought of the smug look that must have been smeared across Fat Sam's ugly visage at the full-time whistle? A man who "named his sumptuous new Costa Blanca villa 'Casa St James', because he bought it with his £4 million pay-off from being sacked as Newcastle boss", as the Mirror's Simon Bird noted back in May when quite rightly describing our former manager as "bitter". How infuriating and upsetting that he had reason for celebration on his first return to his former home.

While we could have foreseen our nemesis being the person who would bring our Premier League winning streak to an abrupt end, the manner of the defeat was surprising, and the causes of the goals which undid us particularly so. In both instances, some of the season's star performers made uncharacteristic but costly errors.

Understandably unchanged from Sunday's splendid win at the Emirates, we got off to the worst possible start, caught cold by a Blackburn side evidently fired up for the occasion by their manager. I've expressed anxieties about Cheik Tiote's penchant for working his way out of tight corners in the past (while also appreciating his extraordinary ability to do so successfully) - but barely two minutes in he lost possession while attempting an audacious dribble out of the penalty area, the ball gifted to Morten Gamst Pedersen who shot home across Tim Krul. Our Ivorian midfielder has been a revelation so far this campaign, but by the way he threw himself to the turf in exasperation you'd hope he's learned his lesson on this particular score.

Nettled, we tried lamely to get back on terms. Jose Enrique, cutting inside, had a goalbound right-footed shot deflected behind for a corner, while captain Kevin Nolan sought to reprise his pre-Orgygate heroics against 5under1and but sent one effort wide and the next over the bar. The visitors, operating with a well-marshalled three-man central defence, rarely looked troubled.

Big Lad departed at the break (presumably through injury) to be replaced by Nile Ranger, and, just as Blackburn had in the first period, we struck early in the second. Despite having terrorised more feted (or at least more expensive) central defenders of late, Rocky had had precious little change out of hulking beast Christopher Samba - but when ASBO sent in a long flighted free-kick from near the halfway line, he pulled clear at the back post and directed a superb header past Paul Robinson and into the top corner.

Parity restored, there only really looked like being one winner. Blackburn had the odd chance, but the impetus was now firmly with us, as we bossed possession and applied pressure. Spidermag's shot was saved by Robinson, Ranger fired wide and a handful of decent crosses went begging.

There followed two punches, one literal and one metaphorical. The unfortunate victim of the former was Pedersen, the perpetrator ASBO - who had the gall to suggest afterwards it was simply a shove in the chest. Idiocy of the very highest order from someone apparently aggrieved at Rocky hogging the headlines and determined not to become a "Goody Two Shoes". He may have escaped unpunished by referee Mike Jones, who missed the incident, but I can't see anything other than an FA ban coming his way.

The second metaphorical sucker punch came eight minutes from time, Rovers substitute Jason Roberts profiting from Sideshow Bob's misjudgement and knocking Mike Williamson aside before finishing straight through Krul. Given the wealth of attacking riches they kept at bay on Sunday, the duo will no doubt feel ashamed they made it so easy for a striker who at this level is average at best.

We half-heartedly kept up the pressure, but the stuffing had been knocked out of us and 2-1 it stayed.

If you'd told us on Sunday morning that we'd record a 1-0 victory and a 2-1 defeat in this fixture and the game at the Emirates, then I think we'd probably have accepted it (if expected the results in a different order). We also stayed in fifth thanks to Everton's 94th minute equaliser against Bolton courtesy of former Toon target Jermaine Beckford (for what it's worth, with just six points separating us from Wigan in 18th).

All the same, the fact that a side as prosaic and unremarkable as Blackburn have now won on their last five visits to St James' Park is alarming, and the addition of another poor 2-1 home defeat to go with those inflicted by Blackpool and Stoke is mystifying given the systematic dissections meted out to Villa and the Mackems. And then, of course, there's the small matter of having flattered Fat Sam's ego and delusions...

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

At home with Kevin and Andy

OK, enough passing allusions - high time I tackled Orgygate head on, albeit cautiously...*

First and foremost, let's begin by reiterating the club's statement on the allegations (which, incidentally, appeared on the official site during the Arsenal game - clearly our PR machine has been taking tips from the last Labour government on how to bury bad news...): "Both Kevin Nolan and Andy Carroll categorically deny having any knowledge that drugs had been brought onto the premises and are pleased that the paper does not even allege that they were aware of the presence of drugs. Neither player would ever contemplate taking drugs or condone the use of such substances."

As I understand it, there's no implication that either player was involved in drug-taking, though the sexual shenanigans (on Rocky's part, at least) were apparently a different matter. Am I the only person who's come to the conclusion that his alleged mid-coitus exclamation of "Ride me! Ride me!" explains that awful pony-tail? He clearly thinks he's a stallion. It also gives a stomach-churning added meaning to Chris Hughton's claims that he's had his "ups and downs"...

Two days before the derby match, Kevin Nolan spoke to TBW of the Guardian about the duo's domestic life in terms that made you think perhaps the KevinandAndy Twitter feed isn't a spoof after all. Nolan revealed that Rocky was being subjected to a strict 11pm lights-out policy like a naughty teenager, and also noted: "My wife has been in Liverpool this week. But when she comes back this weekend I know she will ask Andy to go upstairs and read to [my children]. I have got a four-year-old daughter and a nine-month-old son, and we have got all sorts of different books for him to pick from. He might like Peppa Pig – or there is a monkey one." If only trying to read kids' books had been the only thing Rocky got up to in the boudoir that weekend, eh? Or that his lights-out policy had been more rigidly enforced.

Let's get serious for a moment, though. Regardless of whether there has been any personal wrongdoing, or whether the story is the result of a standard sting on the part of the News Of The Screws, the fact remains that both of our players have been very foolish to have put themselves in the situation to be stung - whether celebrating a famous derby win or not. Rocky should surely appreciate that recent brushes with the law will make him a target for particular scrutiny from the tabloids - and if he doesn't, then the club should make a point of impressing it upon him fast.

Arguably Nolan deserves greater censure, though: as captain, he should have known far better than to have instigated an open-doored party - not least because of the identity of his houseguest and the very circumstances in which Rocky came to be staying, and his own supposed position of responsibility and care. Not appropriate behaviour for someone about to be commemorated with three different programme covers for tomorrow's match with Blackburn - one for each goal of his hat-trick against 5under1and.

It's a depressing scenario: just as we've returned to the Premier League and are playing well, just as we have an assured and dignified manager quietly going about his job and an owner who appears to have learned the value of silence and non-intervention, along comes another scandal to destabilise us once more.

Unlike a certain red-shirted Shrek lookalike, Rocky seems to have an uncanny ability to ignore off-field problems and scandal when he pulls on the shirt. His header at West Ham won us the game two days before he appeared in court and was found guilty of assault, and, having woken up to Sunday's NOTW front page, he went on to turn in another match-winning performance in the capital. So, while his off-field conduct is giving serious cause for concern, his displays on the pitch are arguably worthy of an England call-up.

Former Toon manager Glenn Roeder possibly has a point in arguing that Fabio Capello would be giving out the wrong message by picking Rocky and has advised the striker to live "a quieter life". We can but hope, Glenn - I'm all for getting "GROW UP" tattooed on the inside of both of his eyelids. No surprise, though, that ASBO doesn't agree: "Sometimes you need the players who don't always toe the line. Hopefully they will stop worrying about Goody Two Shoes image which the sponsors want for England." One eye on your own prospects there, eh, Joey?

If the Twitter feed's to be believed, mind, there's a perfectly innocent explanation for the whole incident: "Mrs Nolan had been baking, it was flour, and Andy and the girls were only playing Bucking Bronco upstairs. Jeez anything to sell a paper..."

* Note "I" not "we" here - I'm not claiming to speak for the other half of Black & White & Read All Over here. We don't always sing from the same hymn sheet, you know...

Fab and Flappyhandski

Another superb display and winner in the capital, with Fabio Capello looking on, looks to have put Rocky in the frame for an England call-up for the forthcoming friendly against France. Arsene Wenger had the unusually good grace to stop whingeing for a moment and endorse Rocky's claim for inclusion: "He has presence, charisma, confidence and is intelligent on the ball. I had doubts about him when I saw him a year ago but he has improved tremendously." When Wenger waxes lyrical about a young player, he's usually got a point. Let's just hope for Rocky's sake that Capello only reads the back pages, eh?

Meanwhile, ASBO - who might himself be in danger of a phone call from Fab if he carries on the way he has been - has revealed our cunning plan on Sunday: target our opponents' weakest link, the man nicknamed Flappyhandski. In truth, though, I don't think we actually put him under as much aerial pressure as we should, and the victory owed at least as much to the fact that Chris Hughton's stifling defensive tactics were spot on and implemented in exemplary fashion by the players.

Beatings and bairns

Fraser Forster was in action for Celtic again at the weekend - or rather he wasn't, watching on as his temporary team-mates ruthlessly thrashed hapless Aberdeen 9-0. Dons manager Mark McGhee has since claimed he feels secure and "comfortable" in his role. Er, that'd be shell-shock and delusion you're suffering from, Mark...

It was an equally miserable weekend north of the border for another former Toon man, Colin Calderwood watching on as his new Hibs side lost the Edinburgh derby to Hearts despite having home advantage.

In other old boy news, the Daily Heil has reported that Nicky Butt could dust off his boots to appear in the Hong Kong League for South China. Meanwhile, John Barnes - one of Sky's pundits for the Arsenal game - became a father for the seventh time during the ensuing Liverpool v Chelsea match, but opted to stay at work rather than immediately rush to his wife's bedside. Over to Heather from Wiltshire for insightful comment: "LOWLIFE"...

Monday, November 08, 2010

Rocky delivers knockout blow

Arsenal 0 - 1 Newcastle Utd

Oh how pleasing to be able to use that title in a back page sense - even if his alleged antics are once more front-page news...

OK, hands up who thought that we'd follow up the destruction of the Mackems by returning home from the Emirates with all three points? Or that, having ultimately strolled to a comfortable victory on our previous trip to London a fortnight ago, we'd manage to repeat the trick?

It would have been grossly unfair on any player to have been left out in the wake of last Sunday's display, so Chris Hughton opted for a subtle yet crucial change of tactics rather than personnel for a game that promised to be a far sterner test than the one posed by 5under1and. Rocky and Big Lad appeared to have been asked to drop deeper to link up play where necessary and ensure that we weren't overrun by Arsenal's five-man midfield - and it proved to be a masterstroke.

Much had been made of the 4-0 League Cup defeat we suffered at the Gunners' hands a week and a half ago, but Hughton wisely read more into the performances than the scoreline, the latter warped by bad luck and bad refereeing. Only Tim Krul and Mike Williamson started both games, while Rocky's cameo as substitute had given us sufficient impetus and incision to rattle the Londoners' back line and hinted at the trouble he might cause them over a full 90 minutes.

We started brightly, bossing possession with surprising ease, and pressed with purpose but no end product. Arsenal seemed content to let us have the ball, safe in the knowledge that they could rip us apart on the counter-attack.

Hairy moments were few and far between, though. Tim Krul could have been caught out by a Cesc Fabregas free-kick that took a slight deflection and smacked back off the crossbar, and made a superb one-handed save to tip Samir Nasri's shot over. But by and large we were comfortable, not least because Marouane Chamakh was spectacularly out of sorts up front for the Gunners.

Just as I was fearing we might not go in 0-0 at the break, a goal came - but for us. From ASBO's free-kick, Lukasz Fabianski underlined for the umpteenth time why Arsene Wenger should have signed a world-class 'keeper in Shay Given long ago by stuttering out of his six-yard area and allowing Rocky to storm in and power a header into the empty net.

Had we poked the hornets' nest? Three minutes into the second half it very much looked that way, Theo Walcott hitting the face of the bar with a shot from close range. But the anticipated onslaught never came and instead the pattern reverted to that of the first half, with us in control to such an extent that "Oles" for successfully completed passes were coming from the jubilant away end. Robin van Persie, Andrey Arshavin and Niklas Bendtner all came on for the home side as they struggled to find any of their usual fluency, but thankfully to no avail.

The ineffectiveness of the likes of Chamakh, Fabregas and Walcott wasn't simply a matter of them being off-colour - it was also a measure of how well we had managed to nullify their threat. Williamson and Sideshow Bob were excellent, while Danny Simpson enjoyed arguably his best game for the club and Cheik Tiote continued to make a mockery of his modest transfer fee by rendering Fabregas utterly impotent. Going forward, ASBO's right-footed delivery from the flank or through the middle was a potent weapon and Rocky, ably assisted by Big Lad, perpetually outmuscled and terrorised Sebastien Squillaci and Laurent Koscielny. Like Mrs Nolan, they'll be waking up in cold sweats at the thought of pony-tailed bruisers...

We had the added pleasure of riling Wenger - clad in what appeared to be a club-crested sleeping bag - with a leisurely approach to taking set-pieces. Given that it's nine years since we last won at Arsenal, surely he could understand us wanting to pause and savour the moment? Perhaps he was late for a secret assignation...

Gael Clichy and Fabregas had both been booked for malicious tackles and two minutes into stoppage time Koscielny was sent off for clumsily dragging down Big Lad's replacement Nile Ranger. Perhaps a tad harsh as Squillaci may have been able to cover, but Mike Dean's decision had no bearing on the outcome anyway, the final whistle following soon after.

Before we last triumphed on the Gunners' turf in December 2001, the game that so memorably ended the four-year London hoodoo, we hadn't even contemplated the possibility of victory and so it was a revelation to discover that the three points had taken us to the top of the Premier League. This time, once again, few (if any) of us had foreseen success, and so our propulsion to fourth came as a very pleasant surprise (we did drop back down to fifth by the end of the day, though, with Man City's defeat of West Brom). No one expects us to stay there, but with Blackburn and Fulham the visitors to St James' this week, we have a great opportunity to cling on for a while yet.

Arsenal fans' views: Another Arsenal Blog, Arsenal Insider, Goodplaya, Gooner Talk, The Gunning Hawk

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Quote of the day

"I know Chris has been disappointed that Newcastle didn't renew his contract when they got promotion this year. It's standard form when a manager gets promoted that they renew his contract. I think it happened with West Brom and Blackpool when they got promoted. I'd say there was frustration for him."

Former Republic of Ireland manager Brian Kerr divulges what we all suspected but what Chris Hughton has been careful to keep concealed.

Speaking to Irish newspaper the Independent, Kerr was denying reports that he's set to be named as Colin Calderwood's successor. He acknowledged that the pair have been in regular contact, but only because in his capacity as manager of the Faroe Islands he's overseeing the maturation of one of our youngsters, Joan Simun Edmundsson. If he was to be appointed, then it would be a case of reversed roles, Hughton having been Kerr's assistant on the Republic bench.

The Great Washed

We don't usually do this kind of thing, but seeing as Ian asked nicely and he has a good blog... There's a 10% discount for Early Bath's black and white striped soaps for any Newcastle fan who enters the promotional code '5-1'. But the offer only runs until we next lose a game, so with the visit to Arsenal tomorrow you'll most likely need to be quick...

No doubt Early Bath customers from 5under1and are in short supply.

A Month Of Saturdays: October 2010

You know those sorts of films that engage and entertain right up to about fifteen minutes from the end, when a painfully contrived and/or predictable ending kicks in and you're left with the feeling that the previous two hours would have been better spent making a quilt out of your belly-button fluff?

How much rarer are those movies that meander merrily along with little sense of direction or hint of what lies ahead, only to come together in a blazingly amazing climax that takes the breath away.

If our October had been a film, it'd most certainly have been of the latter variety: loss, draw, win, loss - and then, on the final day of the month, a spectacularly sound 5-1 thrashing of the old enemy in which captain Kevin Nolan hit a hat-trick, Big Lad continued his thoroughly agreeable personal vendetta against the Mackems with a brace and Titus Bramble was so desperate to escape the torrent of boos that he earned himself an early bath for a scything challenge. It was a glorious afternoon that served as a severe chastening to those many overconfident Mackems who seemed to think they're now top dogs in the North-East, and evidence to suggest that Agent Bruce may be busy accomplishing what Agent Chopra couldn't - namely, taking them down from the inside.

Of course, every film needs a star and there's no doubt whatsoever who October's was. At the heart of everything - whether good or bad - was Bigger Lad. Chris Hughton's a man noted for his calm reserve but, even by his standards, referring to our number 9's "ups and downs" was understatement in the extreme. One goal (a winner) and two superb performances were only a fraction of the story...

The month began amidst talk of a potential call-up to the full England squad. Not only was he overlooked by Fabio Capello, he was also dropped by his club manager Hughton for the trip to Eastlands - but then came news that a player described by Llambiarse as "the future of the club" had agreed a new five-year deal. "Knuckle down and focus" was our plea.

Sadly, Bigger Lad seemed to take "knuckle down" to mean "punch", and barely a week later he was up in court charged with assaulting his ex-girlfriend, subsequently being ordered to shack up with club captain Nolan. If the scenario made many contemplate its suitability for use as the basis for a sitcom, others saw an opportunity to even scores, with Bigger Lad's Range Rover unceremoniously flambeed on the Nolans' driveway. Rumours that Steven Taylor was spotted skulking away with a balaclava, empty petrol can and box of matches are unsubstantiated.

There then followed the indignity of being publically counselled on the subject of bad behaviour by first Kieron Dyer (who seems to have been putting his injury recovery time at West Ham to good use by discovering the concept of contrition) and then ASBO (who seems to see himself as some kind of born-again Good Samaritan-type figure). A second successive Monday court hearing saw the man now rechristened Rocky found guilty of assault while leathered in the Bigg Market last December, escaping with just a fine on the grounds that the glassing was accidental.

Everything finally came pretty much full circle with a rampant display in the derby which was witnessed in the flesh by Capello's right-hand man Franco Baldini. Might the day yet come when Rocky picks up the phone and the voice on the other end of the line is more likely to be Capello than his solicitor?

When it came to assaults in October, though, our players were almost as sinned against as sinning. Man City's midfield hatchet man Nigel De Jong took barely three minutes of our game at Eastlands to snap the leg of on-loan wizard Hatem Ben Arfa with an appallingly aggressive challenge, referee Martin Atkinson adding insult to long-term injury by not even showing the Dutchman a yellow card. (De Jong was subsequently dropped from the Dutch squad, though found support in the form of international colleague Mark van Bommel, a man used to justifying thuggery.) Incredibly, worse decisions were to follow - a penalty awarded for Mike Williamson's clean tackle on Mary Shelley's Carlos Tevez outside the area, and a shake of the head when Big Lad was poleaxed by Joleon Lescott at the opposite end. A very good performance went unrewarded and we went down 2-1.

When the Premier League campaign resumed after the international break with the home game against Wigan, Ben Arfa's injury, allied to Nolan's absence, meant that for the first time in the league this season Hughton opted to start with a pair of strikers, Rocky and Peter Lovenkrands. The 2-2 scoreline was a disappointment - though they were the first goals the Latics had conceded on the road and, at 2-1 down deep into stoppage time, we would certainly have taken the point. It was a case of history repeating itself the right way around - in the previous St James' meeting between the two sides, a central defender grabbed the vital equaliser with seconds remaining to salvage a 2-2 draw, only this time it wasn't Shambles for the visitors but Sideshow Bob for us.

Victory at struggling West Ham the following weekend should have been dedicated to the magistrates who insisted that Rocky reside chez Nolan, as the pair scored both of our goals, the first finished by the captain following a superb knock-down from his long-haired lodger. Clearly those long hours together spent working on moves on the XBox and in the back garden (once Rocky had painted over the graffiti on the garage door, that is) were paying off.

The visit of Arsenal in the League Cup was rather less of a Cockney knees-up. The Gunners' first, an excruciating own goal from Tim Krul, was no doubt comical for everyone except us and our second-string side, while for Theo Walcott's second referee Andre Marriner remarkably succeeded in wresting the dubious accolade of Worst Refereeing Decision of the Month from Martin Atkinson's grasp, ignoring two offsides and one blatant foul. Hughton brought on Rocky and Spidermag to terrorise Arsenal's back line to great effect, but chasing the game we left ourselves open at the back and were cruelly punished by Niklas Bendtner and Walcott.

After that, though, came the demolition derby - the perfect conclusion to the month after which all was forgotten.

Our exit from the League Cup increased the likelihood of Haris Vuckic, Tamas Kadar and Nile Ranger - who all featured against Arsenal - being sent out on loan. In October our three existing loanees experienced contrasting fortunes. While Fraser Forster's winning sequence between the sticks for Celtic was only brought to an end by Rangers, our man giving Hughton food for thought by declaring a desire to be first choice, and Kazenga LuaLua continued to sparkle for League One table-toppers Brighton, Ben Tozer's spell at League Two side Northampton ended in calamitous fashion - four second-half goals conceded to hand three points to bottom club Hereford and a red card for violent conduct for good measure. Also gaining valuable experience was Joan Simun Edmundsson - though that was for his national side the Faroe Islands, with the prospect of first-team football in black and white still some way off.

Amidst the reports on our potential future came news of those from our recent past, namely Xisco (lauded by Hughton for his professionalism and commitment in training) and JFK. The latter's successor suffered the not inconsiderable blow of losing his right-hand man Colin Calderwood to Hibs and also - incredibly - found himself the subject of scandalous speculation over his Tyneside future.

You wouldn't have found many fans calling for Hughton's head in October (and none, surely, after the destruction of the Mackems), and so clearly the rumours arose from within the club hierarchy or were exaggerated and snowballed through subsequent media reporting - so we were ourselves culpable by virtue of mentioning it, even if only to express our bemusement and support for the manager. What does it take for him to be offered a decent new deal? Perhaps he should grow a pony-tail and take to battery...

Friday, November 05, 2010

Quote of the day

"It is 71 days until the next derby at our place, not that we are counting. I hope we can repeat the same dosage when they come to our place. It was typical of that club’s etiquette."

Fighting talk from Agent Bruce, nettled by the fact that 'Daydream Believer' got an airing at the end of Sunday's match. Chortle chortle.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Top Legear?

The Journal are reporting comments from Anderlecht winger Jonathan Legear which suggest that a move to St James' Park may be on the cards: "Newcastle has contacted my agent to let him know they are interested in me".

If true, that would seem to confirm a desire to attack on the flanks and play to the strengths of the developing partnership between Rocky and Big Lad. Not sure I agree with journo Mark Douglas that "midfield is the one area in which Newcastle probably need reinforcements – with the squad pretty thin on the ground if they don’t strengthen", though. Cover in the full-back positions and a pacy goalpoacher are more urgently required, I'd say. It's also worth noting that the recruitment of a new winger may pave the way for Kazenga LuaLua's departure.

In limbo

What's this? A sensible, well-argued piece about Newcastle in the national media?! Why yes, I do believe it is - courtesy of Joe Kinnear's favourite journo Simon Bird of the Mirror.

Bird outlines the club's primarily financial rationale behind keeping Chris Hughton waiting for a new deal, noting the general agreement among the fans that years of lavish overspending and excess had to be brought to an end for the long-term viability of the club. But he's also spot on in pointing out that leaving Hughton in limbo is counter-productive to fostering the sort of stability the club so desperately needs, and that the fans' support for the manager is unswerving. He notes that rumours of a possible ousting arose elsewhere (namely the media) and that "contrary to the old myth" most of us aren't fickle. Surely the man who against the odds got us back into the top flight at the first time of asking, who has set us on the way to survival and who continues to conduct himself with modesty and dignity (in stark contrast to most of his Premier League counterparts) deserves better than being left hanging, uncertain of his own future?

Caution and parsimony are two of our new watchwords, but so should be common sense.

The joy of Sixfields

Ben Tozer has returned to Northampton for another month on loan. Let's hope this stint with the League Two strugglers begins in a similar fashion to the last one but doesn't end in the same way...

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Oh he does like to be beside the seaside

We've been giving occasional updates on the fortunes of our various young loanees so far this season, but a longer piece on how Kazenga LuaLua is faring in his second spell at Brighton has just gone up on The Two Unfortunates. What will happen when his time's up is anyone's guess - personally speaking, though, I think he might decide to jump ship.

Monday, November 01, 2010

Shambolic Mackems battered

Newcastle Utd 5 - 1 The Great Unwashed

Yesterday saw Newcastle record their biggest win against the Great Unwashed since the 1950s as Kevin Nolan and Big Lad put Ol' Cauliflower Face's rabble to the sword in spectacular style.

Chris Hughton opted to stick with the 4-4-2 formation which had proved successful away to West Ham, whilst OCF plumped for his favoured 4-5-1 and included Titus Bramble at the heart of his defence.

Initial exchanges saw Newcastle dominating possession, but the Great Unwashed looking the more potent on the break with Darren Bent and Danny Welbeck both firing wide when presented with decent opportunities. Elsewhere, it was Newcastle who looked more in tune with the derby demands with both Tiote and Rocky finding themselves in Phil Dowd's book in the first 15 minutes of the match. However, the Great Unwashed were the more stretched, with their defence increasingly required to go to ground to make last-ditch sliding tackles, with Phil Bardsley in particular producing an excellent sliding tackle to deny Rocky after a marauding run from halfway to the edge of the Gallowgate box.

With Newcastle continuing to press, the breakthrough, when it came, was a joyous occasion. ASBO's corner was headed down by Mike Williamson and Kevin Nolan spectacularly flicked a bicycle kick into the roof of the net, prompting wild jubilation and a reprisal of Robbie Elliot's funky chicken goal celebration from Nolan.

Ten minutes later Nolan was once again clucking with delight after Rocky's scissor kick fell kindly for him, and he was able to take a touch before slotting the ball past Simon Mignolet in the Mackem net.

Ol' Cauliflower Face tried to stem the black and white tide, throwing on World Cup star Asamoah Gyan and switching to 4-4-2, but to no great effect and with the visitors looking increasingly groggy against our repeated pressing it wasn't hugely surprising when they creaked again before half-time when Nedum Onuoha tripped Spidermag in the box after a typically mazy run from the Argentine. There was to be no first half hat-trick for Nolan, though, as it was Big Lad on penalty duties and he fired a bullet-like shot into the bottom corner to leave Mignolet no chance.

3-0 up at half-time, then, and it was always going to be a question of whether Chris Hughton could inspire his charges to keep pressing on in the second half, or whether the visitors might stage some form of revival. Brilliantly, any hopes of a turnaround were shattered shortly after half-time when Rocky again surged towards goal only for his charge to be stopped by a scything lunge from Titus Bramble which rightly saw our old boy sent down the tunnel and a chance to enjoy more time in the shower.

Whilst the resultant free-kick came to nothing, the Mackems grew increasingly desperate, ultimately seeing their entire defence pick up bookings, and in a couple of cases reasonably fortunate to remain on the pitch. With Big Lad and Rocky both proving more than a match for their opponents, Newcastle continued to rip through their shambolic opposition and when Rocky's bullet header cannoned back off the crossbar it was his strike partner who profited, slamming home the rebound to increase our lead to four.

With the result beyond any doubt, the only questions remaining were whether either Nolan or Big Lad could become only the third Newcastle player to score a hat-trick in this fixture and how many more goals we could score. Sure enough, another goal was soon forthcoming with Big Lad heading a corner towards the far post only for Nolan to pop up and head it home to ensure he went home with the match ball (presumably so he could enjoy a kick around with Rocky in his back garden later).

The only small negative on an otherwise perfect day was the failure to keep a clean sheet, with Darren Bent nipping in front of Tim Krul to fire home in stoppage time. However, that goal, coming at the end of a truly miserable display, did nothing to appease the small handful of Mackems who'd stayed to the bitter end.

For the manager, it was another well-directed nudge to Jabba to get the contract negotiations underway, and for the team it was an incredibly impressive performance which will thankfully live long in the memory.

Other reports: BBC, Guardian (written by That Bloody Woman, in surprisingly magnanimous form)

Quote of the day

"Newcastle is perfect for me."

The words of arguably our most consistent performer of the season, Cheik Tiote, speaking to the Guardian ahead of Sunday's derby match (report to follow).

If he continues to perform at or above his current level, and in particular his ability to win and keep possession in a congested midfield, the feeling will be mutual for a long time to come.