Saturday, November 06, 2010

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...


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