Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Quote of the day

"[Billy Davies] sounded like a man in denial and there has been a lot of that at St James' Park lately. More than a week after Steven Taylor had his jaw doubly broken in an alleged altercation with Andy Carroll Newcastle still refuse to comment on the incident. Considering Taylor has been left feeding through a straw as he recovers from complex surgery and Carroll sports bandages on both hands such silence is profoundly depressing. So, too, is Hughton's decision to keep selecting a striker whose current good form seems to have obscured a bigger picture. This entire episode has disappointed Hughton's admirers, leaving him looking weak."

Louise Taylor can't resist following up Saturday's anti-Hughton froth with more of the same in her report on last night's game. When .com first flagged up the Mackem tendencies of someone they've now taken to referring to as "that woman", I was inclined to view it sceptically as mere paranoia, but it really does seem as though she'll take any opportunity to stick the boot in.

While it is perhaps surprising that Bigger Lad doesn't appear to have been disciplined, I for one am very pleased that for once we seem determined to deal with the matter behind closed doors. And as for all these "disappointed admirers" who have left Hughton "looking weak", I'd love to know where she found them...

We're the lumberjacks and we're very much OK

Newcastle Utd 2 - 0 Nottingham Forest

In the sort of fixture described by countless half-witted pundits and armchair enthusiasts as "a classic six-pointer" (someone should have set up some kind of swear box in aid of the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation), we chopped fellow Championship promotion-chasers Forest down to size to take a massive step closer to a Premier League return - but not before the Tricky Trees had lived up to their nickname.

The form book - which revealed that we had won our last six at home and Forest had lost their last six away - suggested that it might not be unceremoniously defenestrated by the visitors, but the Reds rejoiced in victory over us in October, when our fine early-season form was in real danger of unravelling, and we were wary of the threat they posed. So it was something of a relief that we were not far off full strength, able to welcome back Jose Enrique, Mike Williamson and Peter Lovenkrands from injury, with Tamas Kadar, Ryan Taylor and Nicky Butt making way.

In teeming rain, Forest started marginally the brighter, but the majority of the first-half chances fell to us. Bigger Lad - whose appearance at a 50 Cent gig in Manchester last week underlined that he wasn't just wearing gloves because he was cold - nearly struck first blood, but his athletic volley from Wayne Routledge's floated cross was well saved by Lee Camp.

The visitors survived a strenuous penalty appeal from the stands when Lovenkrands plunged to the turf in the box, but in truth January transfer target James Perch's tackle was perfectly timed. In the ensuing melee, Bigger Lad weaved from side to side trying to find a gap but couldn't squeeze his shot through a determined cluster of red shirts. Lovenkrands rather fortuitously found himself with a chance shortly before the interval, but could only prod wide.

Forest's only real opportunity in the first period had been sliced comically wide by Dexter Blackstock from a prime position between the posts, but the fluidity of their five-man midfield - and in particular the lively Paul Anderson and Radoslaw Majewski - will have given Chris Hughton food for thought.

All the more so, indeed, when the game resumed, Billy Davies seeming to have spent the break impressing upon his charges that a point wouldn't really be enough for them if they were to hold out any hope of automatic promotion. Nathan Tyson, a striker playing wide on the right, headed a great chance straight at Steve Harper.

Enrique had been caught on the wrong side of his man on that occasion, but soon made amends with a pair of crucial interventions under pressure, while Williamson stuck out a boot to prevent another shooting opportunity.

Danny Guthrie fired a warning free-kick over Forest's crossbar, but it took a moment of inspiration from Big Lad to break the deadlock. On early in the second period for Bigger Lad, he profited when Kevin Nolan seized upon a fortunate ricochet and fed the ball into him, creating the space before skidding his left-footed shot in off the far post.

From then on, our confidence soared as Forest's evaporated. No one was more ebullient than Routledge, a free spirit darting at the Reds' defence from all angles and proving himself pleasingly hard to knock off the ball. Unfortunately for him and us, a fierce volley from the edge of the area was straight at Camp.

The chances suddenly started piling up: Nolan had an angled drive pushed behind for a corner, and Camp was also called upon to repel two more curling Guthrie free-kicks, the second particularly testing.

But, as though spurred on by the possibility of the increasingly prominent Routledge stealing the man-of-the-match award, it was Enrique who sealed the win in stoppage time. The Spaniard worked the ball neatly on the left before gambling on a sortie into the penalty area. Big Lad rolled the ball into his path with the sort of deft backheel few of us thought he was capable of, and Enrique jinked inside a challenge before firing home at the near post. It was not just his first goal for Newcastle but his first senior goal full stop - little wonder, then, that after the game he confessed to being unsure of how to celebrate. Those in the stands certainly did, though.

The facts now are thus: should Forest lose at Bristol City on Saturday (and we've had a recent reminder that Ashton Gate isn't an easy place to visit) and we win at Peterborough, we'll be promoted. Posh have shown flickering signs of life under the temporary charge of Jim Gannon, but they're rock bottom of the division and heading through the other exit door, so we will rightly be fully expected to fulfil our side of the deal. A good time for the Robins' Bradley Orr to remember his first club and score a goal or two...

Other reports: BBC

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Hail the hitman

Doncaster Rovers 0 - 1 Newcastle Utd

Well, well, well. I never had Bigger Lad down as a closet thesp, but our errant leading man seems to have found time in his busy schedule of (allegedly) battering all and sundry to read and memorise the script, and then pop up right on cue.

Already up on an assault charge and now potentially in hot water for a tete-a-tete with teammate and fellow Geordie Steven Taylor which left the latter nursing a broken jaw, Bigger Lad appears to have interpreted his job title of "striker" rather too literally. But at least he remains mindful of his on-pitch responsibilities, tonight's winner against Doncaster his tenth goal in eleven games and his fifth in successive away games. C'mon Andy, make up your mind - do you want to derail our season, or don't you?

Bigger Lad was an important presence throughout a game which saw Chris Hughton make three changes from the side that salvaged a point in swashbuckling style at Bristol City on Saturday. One Size was ruled out through injury, while Jose Enrique dropped to the bench (Hughton presumably cautious to ease our one natural first-team left-back back into action). Tamas Kadar and Ryan Taylor came in and Danny Simpson switched flanks. There was a change in formation too as Hughton, wary of Donny's quality on the ball, plumped for an additional defensive midfielder in the form of Nicky Butt ahead of Leon Best.

We began reasonably well but as the half progressed Sean O'Driscoll's play-off chasing side started to get into their stride. Old boy James Coppinger may have been nowhere to be seen, thankfully, but ex-Mackem Martin Woods was causing us problems, no doubt keen to make amends for the missed penalty on Tyneside that cost his team at least a share of the spoils.

Having benefited from a weekend off due to the terms of his loan deal preventing him from facing parent club Sheffield Utd, the hosts' Billy Sharp lived up to his name, forcing Steve Harper into a smart save - and then didn't, fluffing an easier opportunity from closer in.

Sharp and Bigger Lad have a few things in common - being their respective clubs' top scorers, misusing their fists - and the latter seemed to draw inspiration from his opposite number, testing the reflexes of pensionable 'keeper Neil Sullivan in the Doncaster goal.

The all-important breakthrough came just before the hour mark. Wayne Routledge darted down the right wing (Spidermag having reverted to the left following Saturday's full-back-torturing masterclass) and fed Bigger Lad, who fended off a challenge and finished well.

Donny could have been level almost immediately but, when Sharp followed up a rebound, an offside flag came to our rescue. That scare aside, we were relatively comfortable for the rest of the game and indeed could have extended our lead through Bigger Lad and Kevin Nolan.

Fittingly, given the unsavoury backdrop to the match and his previous form away to Doncaster, ASBO seized the opportunity to make his long-awaited/long-dreaded return to first-team action as a replacement for Danny Guthrie. He's just made his latest penitent profession of wanting to be "a good man" and to repay the fans, but presumably he's disappointed in Bigger Lad for breaking his fist rather than choosing to maim Taylor with a big fat lit Cuban, and will therefore be intensifying his behind-the-scenes coaching.

As the Viva Rovers match preview - which was good enough to recommend this 'ere site - pointed out, the biggest threat to our bid for automatic promotion now is ourselves. Self-implosion, abject failure, public humiliation - all are never too far away. But tonight's three points - which took us five clear of the Baggies and maintained the ten-point advantage over Forest - do at least mean that we're guaranteed a play-off position at worst, and at the start of the season that would have been perceived as success.

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

Tuesday, March 23, 2010


In a season which has, refreshingly, been largely bereft of scandal and intrigue with headlines focusing on our table topping form rather than anything else, it is typical of Newcastle that it would never last.

Sure enough, the Times is today carrying reports of a training ground bust-up between Steven Taylor and Bigger Lad, which has apparently left the former with a suspected broken jaw.

That a salacious story would emerge featuring two of our best players, both locals who should understand the importance of representing the club in their behaviour, is somewhat depressing.

If true, then it will almost certainly rule Taylor out for the rest of the season, and also does little to enhance the unwanted side of Bigger Lad's reputation. It's all well and good becoming the new Duncan Ferguson, but is it really too much to ask that he only models himself on our erstwhile striker's on-pitch behaviour?

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Jolly Gut show

Bristol City 2 - 2 Newcastle Utd

Resilience once more to the fore, as we left Brizzle in the drizzle with one point which could so nearly have been three. 2-0 down at half-time, a Spidermag-inspired Newcastle fought back onto level terms and finished pressing for a winner that wouldn't quite come.

We went into the match knowing that Forest had beaten bottom side Peterborough (as expected) and that Preston hadn't quite managed to recover from conceding two goals inside the first ten minutes at The Hawthorns. But we were boosted by the continued presence of Wayne Routledge, Fabricio Coloccini and Jose Enrique in the starting line-up, the only change from Wednesday's dismissive defeat of Scunthorpe being Leon Best, in for the injured Peter Lovenkrands.

Having lost their previous home game 5-2 to Doncaster and under the caretaker charge of Keith Millen for the first time since Gary Johnson's departure in midweek, the Robins could have been forgiven for starting nervily, but in fact they - and particularly the movement of their front pairing, Nicky Maynard and Danny Haynes - caused our back line problems from the off.

Escaping an optimistic handball shout inside the first minute, our hosts came close to scoring twice, Haynes heading onto the roof of the net and then finding a determined One Size blocking the trajectory of his shot. When they took the lead ten minutes in, it was from an unlikely source. Steve Harper saved but couldn't gather Maynard's free-kick (awarded very cheaply for an alleged foul by Routledge) and defender Lewin Nyatanga reacted quickest to prod the ball into our net.

Best wasted a good chance presented to him by slack Robins defending before supplying Kevin Nolan with an opportunity, but the recently crowned Championship star performer was unable to direct his header beyond the reach of Dean Gerken, the City 'keeper carrying on where he left off in October.

And it got worse before it got better. Spidermag was giving ex-Toon player Bradley Orr plenty to think about on our left, and went down claiming a foul - only for Maynard to collect the subsequent long clearance, move infield and fire a perfect strike across Harper and in off the far post.

With half-time seconds away, we very nearly reaped the reward for neat approach play, Danny Guthrie rounding Gerkin only for Paul Hartley to clear off the line. It would have been just the fillip we needed going into the break, but we could at least draw some comfort from the fact that we were unfortunate to be trailing by two goals, especially having been in control of the ball for long periods. A few more efforts on goal and things might look rosier.

Chris Hughton was forced into making a change barely five minutes into the second half, One Size pulling up to be replaced by Tamas Kadar. We soon reasserted our possessive dominance but, with Best and Bigger Lad proving a dysfunctional pairing and substitute Evander Sno escaping censure for striking out at Danny Simpson off the ball, the breakthrough was looking increasingly improbable.

When it did finally come, it was unsurprisingly the result of a mistake. Spidermag caught Cole Skuse (and the TV cameras) napping from Gerken's throw out, expertly rounding the 'keeper and rolling the ball into the empty net.

Four minutes later we were level, an incisive move culminating in Routledge squaring the ball for Bigger Lad to slide home and add to his burgeoning collection of priceless goals.

By this point Routledge was playing down the left, Spidermag having been switched to the right flank where he was enjoying himself immensely. At times four red-shirted players seemed to have been assigned to track our Argentinian winger - all of whom were bamboozled by his skills on more than a couple of occasions, as Orr had been in the first half. Fed at every opportunity, he created a couple of chances for himself, but the best fell to, well, Best, whose thumping header was spectacularly touched over the bar by Gerken.

It's strange to complain of feeling hard-done-by when your team's fought back from 2-0 down to claim a point, but the truth is that in that closing quarter of an hour we could easily have condemned an admittedly spirited Robins side to another defeat. Still, given the situation with 20 minutes left to play, this was a draw that should have felt like a win - so let's look on it as such.

Other reports: BBC

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Deadly duo do it again (and again, and again)

Newcastle Utd 3 - 0 Scunthorpe Utd

Back in October, when Scunthorpe inflicted a defeat on us, I commented that the result demonstrated that beyond our first-choice central defensive pairing, our squad wasn't strong enough to sustain us through the long slog ahead.

Whilst we struggled to come to terms with conditions at Scunthorpe, on the back of a poor performance at Nottingham Forest, our season looked like it might be falling apart.

With one half of our first-choice defensive pairing missing, it could have been a repeat story last night, but Hughton has strengthened the squad since those dark October days and, going into the match with a nine point and two game cushion over third-placed Forest, we easily outclassed a Scunthorpe side who were the ones left ruing their defensive shortcomings.

As early as the tenth minute, Bigger Lad had nodded home from a Danny Guthrie corner to give us a lead we never looked like losing. With his equally in-form strike partner Peter Lovenkrands adding a second, following a neat pass from Wayne Routledge, the game was safe as early as the 22nd minute. And this after a Kevin Nolan effort had been chalked off and Lovenkrands had struck the crossbar.

Guthrie again turned provider in the second half, his long pass setting Bigger Lad free to chip the ball into the Gallowgate net, and the team wrapped up a comfortable victory without ever needing to find top gear.

On the positives, the recent performances of Guthrie in his preferred central midfield birth coupled with the in-form strike pairing have seen us hit a rich vein at just the right time (contrast that with Forest's recent collapse in confidence, which has seen them drop well away from West Brom).

Bitter experience has taught me (and Steve Harper) that a twelve point lead with a game in hand can be overturned - but it's particularly reassuring to see that in his post-match comments Chris Hughton remains as focused as ever.

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

Rocking Robins

While we were strolling to an easy victory over Scunthorpe last night (Paul's match report to follow), our next opponents Bristol City were busy parting company with manager of four and a half years Gary Johnson. The separation of the ways was hastened by Tuesday's game against struggling Plymouth, in which the Robins came back from two goals down only to concede a third at the death.

Quite what his assistant Keith Millen - thrown in at the deep end in a caretaking role - makes of the timing is anyone's guess. Given that his side were thumped 6-0 on their own patch by Cardiff in January, he may well be looking forward to our visit with considerable trepidation. But on the other hand, I suppose, the pressure's off because we're expected to win. And if we're to do that, we'll need to do something we couldn't muster in the reverse fixture back in October: namely, score a goal...

Nol tops poll

Congratulations to Kevin Nolan who has been named the Championship's star player in the annual FourFourTwo Awards. Voted for by magazine readers and players/managers, they recognise the best players in the Football League.

Also making it in to the top 50 were Steve Harper, Steven Taylor, Alan Smith and Leon Best.

Notable omissions Enrique, Coloccini and Spidermag can all feel themselves hard done to, as can our current striking partnership of Bigger Lad and Lovenkrands - although the fact that voting takes place in February means that their current hot streaks in front of goal were too late for the voters (and presumably also explains Leon Best's inclusion based on his early season Coventry form rather than anything he's so far shown in a Toon shirt).

Of our promotion-chasing rivals, both West Brom and Forest also had five players each in the top 50, with Baggies midfielder Graham Dorrans finishing second behind Nolan in the overall standings.

That so many of our players were recognised, and that a good case could be made for at least a further five of their teammates being included, demonstrates how we've managed to get ourselves into our current league position, and stands as testament to the work done by Messrs Hughton and Calderwood, and the galvanising effects of the meeting which followed our infamous capitulation to Leyton Orient back in July.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Dowie to fill Hull's Brown hole

With Phil Brown now seeking a fresh backer for his Cuprinol habit, the Tigers have turned to Iain Dowie to fill the vacancy they've made for themselves, and try and save them from relegation with nine games to go.

Sound familiar?

Still, at least Dowie's got experience of trying to save a club which has spent much of the season floundering badly with reported player unrest, and in these austere times it's good to know that Hull's investment in the headsets and walkie talkies more suited to call centre employees than football managers won't have gone to waste.

You never know, he might just take the Tigers on a run which sees Ol' Cauliflower Face's lot get sucked into the relegation mire.  We can only dream.

And if the worst happens, he's big on bouncebackability.

Hot and not-so-hot pursuit

Another game, another dodgy penalty awarded to the Baggies - once again for a foul on Giles Barnes and once again tucked away by Graham Dorrans. The only surprise, I guess, is that the spot-kick wasn't gifted to them by Jonny Moss. Ishmael Miller added a second a minute from time to help them post an impressive 2-0 win at fourth-placed Swansea and move menacingly to within a point of us.

Better - and ultimately more significant - news from Oakwell, though, where Barnsley's Daniel Bogdanovic scored twice against Forest, who obviously don't like Maltesers. Dexter Blackstock replied, but the visitors slumped to their sixth consecutive away defeat, ensuring the gap between ourselves and third still stands at nine points but we now have two games in hand over both Forest and West Brom.

With the Baggies breathing down our necks, a win over Scunthorpe has become even more imperative. It's certainly feasible, though in Paul Hayes and Gary Hooper the Iron have a classic double act strikeforce and we shouldn't forget that following October's dismal defeat at Glanford Park they're chasing an unlikely double. We might now have added motivation to push for the win, but then so have they, given that four of the six sides closest to them at the foot of the table picked up at least a point in tonight's fixtures.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Superhero Monday

You've heard fatuous talk of Sky's Super Sunday - how's about Superhero Monday? Well, that's what's on the cards on the 29th when faltering promotion rivals Forest are the visitors to St James' Park...

It's being reported on the web (appropriately enough...) that in honour of Jonas Gutierrez's Spiderman mask, which made its very belated debut following the Argentinian wizard's splendid solo goal in the thrashing of Barnsley, Toon fans sat in the stands will don their own.

But it's not all about fun and frivolity or someone making a quick buck - if you buy a mask from Magicbox's website, they'll donate £1 of the £9.99 to the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation.

Let's just hope Spidermag chooses to mark the himself occasion by getting another goal...

Brown and out

.com may have beaten us to the punch with the "You're not singing anymore" headline, but we still thought odious Mackem crooner Phil Brown getting the boot at Hull was worthy of comment.

Tigers chairman Adam Pearson decided the Tango Man's time was up at the end of a week in which captain George Boateng led by example in getting himself sent off in the first half against Arsenal, the team suffered the indignity of conceding an injury-time winner to professional barn-door-misser Nicklas Bendtner, and Brown was forced to issue a public apology after a spat between Jimmy Bullard and Nicky Barmby was witnessed by members of the Women's Institute.

Best of luck finding new employment, Phil - I know Cuprinol doesn't come cheap.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Doggedness denies Smogs

Middlesbrough 2 - 2 Newcastle Utd

Following our focus on Bigger Lad's quest to claim the vacant number 9 shirt in February's Month Of Saturdays, it was once again Handy Andy to the rescue at the Riverside. We were trailing 2-1 to the Smogs with ten minutes remaining when he jabbed home to secure a valuable if barely deserved point. After last weekend's thrashing of Barnsley, this was very much a case of resilience over brilliance.

Mike Williamson's hand injury meant One Size stepped into the starting XI, but there was some cheer to be gleaned by the presence of both Jose Enrique and Wayne Routledge on the bench.

Middlesbrough started the better and could have been awarded a penalty when Fabricio Coloccini clashed with Scott McDonald in the area, referee Lee Mason thankfully and correctly concluding that Boro's Aussie striker had tripped over his own feet. But we took the lead against the run of play, a neat move and a very clever through-ball from Spidermag finished clinically by the in-form Peter Lovenkrands for his first goal on opposition turf this season.

Unfortunately, the goal roused the Smogs rather than deflating them and we were pressed back, forced to endure a barrage of corners and shots. It only seemed like a matter of time before they equalised, and sure enough it came on 36 minutes. Barry Robson - one of no fewer than four players in the Boro side poached from Gordon Strachan's former club Celtic in January - had been their most impressive performer in the middle of the park and had already had Steve Harper at full stretch to push a curling free-kick around the post when he combined with McDonald and rifled a rocket into the bottom corner from 20 yards.

All we could muster in reply was another effort from Lovenkrands, who beat the onrushing 'keeper Danny Coyne to Bigger Lad's headed flick-on but could only loft the ball into the stand. It was no more than a half-chance, though.

Stern words were needed at half-time, but Chris Hughton's plans were disrupted early in the second period with another unwelcome injury to a central defender, Coloccini departing to be replaced by Ryan Taylor with Tamas Kadar moving into the middle. The Hungarian youngster came as close as anyone to restoring our advantage, his header tipped over the bar by Coyne, who was also nearly caught out by a Spidermag cross.

But the impetus remained with the Smogs and it was they who looked the likelier to score next. The thickness of Harper's leg denied ex-Mackem Julio Arca, but our trusty custodian could do little when Chris Killen headed Robson's free-kick to his Antipodean strike partner McDonald, who swivelled to volley in from close range - Kevin Nolan inadvertently blocking our 'keeper's movement.

Predictably enough the natives celebrated like they'd discovered having six fingers was fashionable, so we took great pleasure in pissing on their parmos when Taylor's whipped cross fell for an unmarked Bigger Lad to prod past Coyne. "By our admission and his own, it wasn't one of Andy Carroll's better games today and the chance he had was very much a half-chance", said Hughton after the match. "But this is a lad who is in good goalscoring form and when you are in that type of form, they are the type of goals you score."

After spending most of the game trying to contain the Smogs, for the last ten minutes we were suddenly very much on the front foot and Bigger Lad could even have snatched a winner. On a day when we generally looked rather sluggish and complacent, though, a point was a decent return, just as it was in very similar circumstances at Swansea four weeks ago.

At one point - with us leading through Lovenkrands' goal and West Brom and Forest trailing to Blackpool and Preston respectively - the bigger picture looked very rosy indeed. As it turned out, we still increased the gap to third by a point, with Forest giving themselves too much to do to overturn a 3-0 deficit despite a rousing second-half comeback.

The Baggies, though, inched closer, having eventually run out 3-2 victors over the Seasiders. Their winner came from the penalty spot after a trip on Giles Barnes was bizarrely deemed to have taken place inside the area. Guess who the referee was...

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

Quote of the day

"I didn't watch cartoons, I was too busy playing football."

So says Alan Shearer, who grows increasingly - and slightly comically - annoyed by the Guardian's Small Talk questions.

Other revelations include Alan's fondness for peas, apples, Lionel Ritchie and, surprise, surprise, golf.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Quote of the day

"Jonathan Edwards, Alan Shearer - to be in that category was a massive honour. The main thing now would be winning the Championship with Newcastle."

Newly crowned Sport Newcastle Sports Personality of the Year Steven Taylor gets his priorities straight - and is hoping to feature in our run-in.

While they've been decent enough in his absence, neither Mike Williamson nor One Size has really made the vacancy alongside Fabricio Coloccini their own, so Taylor can probably expect to walk back into the side once he's fully fit.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

A Month Of Saturdays: February 2010

At the start of the season it was clear to everyone exactly what our mutual target had to be: promotion back to the Premier League at the first attempt. But if that was the large carrot, then - as became clear in February - there was a smaller yet still significant carrot dangling in front of some of the players: namely, the possibility of pulling on the famous number 9 jersey.

In handing new signing Leon Best the number 20 shirt, Chris Hughton revealed the number 9 would be kept vacant for the season, explaining: "It can be a heavy number to carry, a burden, and wearing it is an achievement which I want somebody to grow into". A rather crass and crude attempt at man-motivation, you might think - but the fact is that for too long our players have been complacent about wearing the shirt, seemingly unable to comprehend that (as the idiom has it) you've got to earn your stripes. This is of course true of all positions from back to front, but there remains a special symbolism surrounding the number 9, one which may perhaps be overplayed but which nevertheless can reduce grown men on Tyneside to dewy-eyed, sentimental reverie.

Non-natives have filled the position with aplomb and to immense popular acclaim - Malcolm McDonald most significantly, though Micky Quinn and Andy Cole are two names worth mentioning from more recent years - but nothing warms our collective cockles quite so much as a Geordie number 9 banging in the goals. Big Lad may have begun the season well, most noteably with a hat-trick against Reading, but has been injured for much of the campaign and in any case has been around far too long and made far too little impact in that time to be a realistic or worthy successor to the likes of Jackie Milburn and Wor Al.

February, though, saw another local boy staking a serious claim for the shirt, Bigger Lad plundering five goals to take his tally for the season to 11. That said, in a month when the memory of those tight and scrappy wins of the autumn was obliterated by some fluid, effervescent performances and hefty winning margins, Peter Lovenkrands seemed determined to press his regular strike partner all the way, hitting the net four times himself.

It all begin with the 5-1 Friday night thrashing of Cardiff - as unexpected as it was enjoyable, given that the promotion-chasing Bluebirds came into the game in good shape and had notched up a stunning 6-0 triumph at Ashton Gate when last on opposition turf. Bigger Lad helped himself to two and saw another shot hit the post and bundled in by the hapless Gabor Gyepes, before the Hungarian denied him his hat-trick with a last-ditch clearance. Lovenkrands too meant business, stepping off the bench to replace debutant Best and score twice himself.

A few days later, still caught up in the euphoria of the win, I bristled at our being belittled by new West Ham owner and noted pornographer David Sullivan. But my smug pronouncements that - contrary to Sullivan's insinuations - everything (well, nearly everything) was rosy in the St James' Park garden soon came back to chomp me hard in the arse. Derby it was who inflicted our fourth and heaviest league defeat of the season to confirm themselves as perhaps the most inexplicable of our bogey sides. Presumably feeling that those responsible for taking Cardiff apart all deserved another run-out together, Hughton had for once resisted the temptation to tinker with the starting XI - the outcome no doubt confirming that his general policy of rotating and freshening up the side before every game should prevail in future.

After the display at Pride Park it was imperative that we took something from a very difficult trip to Swansea. For much of the second half it looked as we'd miss out, David Cotterill's goal separating the two sides, but we were belatedly rewarded for our resilience (if not quality football - that was exhibited by the Swans alone) with an equaliser from the head of Bigger Lad piercing our opponents' formidable defence. Best supplied the excellent cross - his most significant contribution in a black and white shirt to date.

Back at home and back within our comfort zone, we looked a different prospect altogether, dishing out another pasting, this time for Coventry. The in-form Sky Blues had the temerity to take the lead, but a Wayne Routledge-inspired Utd proceeded to rout the shell-shocked visitors, Bigger Lad notching the all-important second goal to effect the turnaround.

Equally beneficial to our goal difference was the subsequent 3-0 win over Preston. The loss of Routledge to injury was a blow, and the performance wasn't so fluent and the victory not so comprehensive as the scoreline might suggest, but most telling was the vocal recognition at last afforded to Hughton from the stands - recognition that was soon publicly echoed by one prominent fan.

However, with no win on the road since early December, the question of why we were struggling to reproduce our home form on our travels had been growing increasingly pertinent. Thankfully, though, those concerns were largely laid to rest by a dominant display at Vicarage Road when we overcame hosts Watford as Patrick Van Aanholt's all-too-brief loan period came to an end. Fabricio Coloccini set the ball rolling with only his second goal for the club, before Bigger Lad added what proved to be the match-winner.

So, Bigger Lad's claim that "relegation has done well for me" was clearly borne out over the course of the month's six fixtures - but with establishing himself as the focal point of our attack has come an added pressure and responsibility. February also saw him charged with assault and consequently make a fleeting court appearance.

He wasn't alone in finding himself in trouble with PC Plod, former Magpies Gazza, Agent Chopra and Didi Hamann also falling foul of the law, and of course he remains innocent until proven guilty. But in a month when I said hello to one Toon legend and we bade farewell to another, Bigger Lad should appreciate that, while the promise is there, he's still got some way to go both on and off the pitch before he can hope to be mentioned in the same breath.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Setting the record straight

Dear Jabba,

I note with interest the comments of your drinking buddy/lackey seeking to "set the record straight" and highlighting that we should all be grateful to you for your continued patronage and investment in our club, without which, we would be "in a similar position to Portsmouth".

I gather you have invested upwards of £36m into the club this season to keep us afloat, and this is on top of your previous investments since you purchased our club.

Of course, it is worth remembering that, when you purchased the club, you did so without following the customary due diligence process, and therefore it was hardly surprising that when opening the books you found that we weren't in the thriving financial health you presumably had anticipated. To be honest, had you even thought to ask any Newcastle fan at the time, the chances are we could all have advised you of the parlous state of the club's finances. Similarly, if you had spent five minutes on Google (which is the same method that one former employee of yours thought appropriate for scouting footballers), you would have found a website which sets all this out for you in detail.

As you will no doubt recall, when you acquired the club, we were ensconced in the middle of the Premier League, under the stewardship of a proven if desperately dour and uninspiring manager. We were unlikely to go down and thereby fall off the Premier League gravy train, but equally were unlikely to win too many games with our depressing football and certainly not push on towards a European place.

You, not unreasonably, chose to rid yourself of this manager and employed our old favourite Kevin Keegan. Unfortunately, you then chose to undermine this appointment by hiring a poisoned dwarf and some cronies, all of whom were, as I understand it, based in London, and none of whom knew a great deal about successfully managing a football club in the top tier of the English league.

You then proceeded to tie Keegan's hands, and through your spokespeople spread lies in public.

Having gone so far, you eventually foisted an unwanted player on Keegan and he quite reasonably walked away. The club then spiralled down, not helped by the appointment of a new manager with demonstrable heart problems and a certain way with words guaranteed to make an impression on the media.

To no great surprise, this appointment backfired on grounds of ill health and after a period of caretaker stewardship you appointed Alan Shearer with too few games to turn the club around. We were relegated.

You said you were behind Alan Shearer, but ignored his advice.

You attempted to sell the club, and failed.

You have taken us through a relegation. You have made us a laughing stock. You have made many poor decisions.

Through the undoubted hard work of Chris Hughton, the players and staff, we now find ourselves in a position where our return to the Premier League looks distinctly possible.

At such point, the value of our club, your asset, will increase. You will then be able to recoup your investment by selling the club once the financial crisis engulfing the world economy recedes. A fact which, I am certain, is not lost on you.

Please do not insult my intelligence by suggesting that you are continuing to fund the club, so as to keep it afloat, out of the goodness of your heart.

If you do not keep the club afloat, you will lose even more money - the short term investment will, almost certainly, enable you to recoup much (if not all) of your money in the long term. It is therefore in your interests to restore the club to a much more secure financial footing, as it is unlikely that lighting will strike twice and that you will find anyone stupid enough to buy the club without first carrying out due diligence. The repeated reports of your ongoing investment ensure that anyone seeking to buy the club will carry out a thorough examination of our finances before making you an offer.

Whilst your continuing stewardship currently remains unavoidable and, like many working relationships we may reach a stage where each party tolerates the other, please do not insult my intelligence by having your lackey ask that I express my gratitude for all you have done for my club.



Six of the best

Newcastle Utd 6 - 1 Barnsley

Mark Robins' Tykes came to Tyneside boasting one of the division's better away records, but left with the tails very firmly between their legs after an almighty thrashing on Saturday.

After a pretty sluggish start, the game changed just before half-time when Lovenkrands ran on to Fabrice Pancrate's through-ball and went down in the box as he tried to evade the challenge of Barnsley 'keeper Luke Steele. With Steele sent for an early bath, Lovenkrands picked himself up and hammered the resultant penalty past substitute 'keeper David Preece.

So, 1-0 up at half time and playing ten men, things looked pretty rosy.

Thankfully, with the comfort of our home record behind them, the team cut loose in the second half. Firstly, Bigger Lad latched onto a bad mistake by the Tykes' right-back to cross for Lovenkrands to nod home his second. Then Danny Guthrie, enjoying a rare start in his favoured central midfield role, fired home from 25 yards.

Minutes later, Gutierrez slalomed in from the left before firing a right-footed shot into the top corner and, after 19 months of waiting, he finally pulled the fabled Spiderman mask from the recesses of his shorts and fired webs at the crowd in celebration. It may only be his second goal for the club, but like his first, it was a real cracker. Unlike the mask which, to be honest, looked a bit rubbish. Still, if he keeps firing goals like that, I'll be happy to see it many more times.

Guthrie then added a fifth (his second) with a free-kick that went past everyone before creeping in at the far post (Bigger Lad optimistically trying to claim in skimmed off his hair band...) Finally, a long ball from Tamas Kadar found its way to Kevin Nolan who rounded Preece to slot home our sixth.

Frustratingly, Danny Simpson still had time for a shocking defensive header which allowed Daniel Bogdanovic to deprive us of a clean sheet.

With West Brom losing, the win extended our lead at the top of the table, and also boosted our goal difference. It also showed the confidence currently coursing through the squad's veins, with Lovenkrands, Spidermag and Danny Guthrie all turning in excellent performances.

On the minus side, Jose Enrique's return from injury only lasted 33 minutes before he limped from the field to be replaced by Kadar. It's to be hoped that he won't be missing for too long.

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

Friday, March 05, 2010

If the cap fits

A little while ago, Ben posted his thoughts on the impact that a salary cap would have on our prospects of Premier League survival, in the event that we win promotion this season.

Watching Monday night's edition of Late Kick Off, it was announced by Steve Stone (who currently works with our U15s) that Chris Hughton has already been operating under such a cap, and his transfer dealings in January were presumably within that structure. The threshold in question: £15,000 per week.

Now I know that I'd be more than happy with that as a pay packet, but even in these austere times is that threshold going to be high enough to attract players of sufficient calibre to keep us up?

Obviously, it's not clear whether that threshold would rise (to somewhere around the £30k mark perhaps) should promotion be secured. I'm all for intelligent fiscal strategies, and the years of Fat Fred throwing money at players regardless of the financial consequences are, thankfully, behind us.

However, we've equally got to be able to sustain a strong enough squad to make survival in the top flight a realistic goal. To do that, Jabba will need to either loosen the purse strings or flog the club to someone else who will. If he doesn't, we could well fall into the trap of becoming a yo-yo club: the Boing Boing Magpies, if you will.

Quote of the day

"We'd like to be able to go out on the town after a win - we always used to and enjoy the crowd - but now it's very difficult for us to do that."

And whose fault's that, then, Llambiarse? In any case, I imagine the real reason you and Jabba want to be free to go out on the town is so you can make a beeline for Blu Bambu and keep your eye on Bigger Lad, isn't it?

It's a long way to Tipperary Plymouth, it's a long way to go (especially on a Monday night)

So, our fixture away to Plymouth has been switched from a regular Saturday afternoon 3pm kick-off to a Monday night game to satisfy Sky's whims. The only possible explanation for this most incredibly stupid of decisions has to be that there's a Plymouth fan at Murdoch's company who was aggrieved that we mustered a draw in the FA Cup game at Home Park, thereby forcing their fans to travel up to Tyneside on a week night for the replay, and so was hell-bent on exacting revenge...

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Diego's des 'rez

Jonas Gutierrez's chances of going to the World Cup were boosted by another 90 minutes for his country on Wednesday, his Argentina side pulling off a 1-0 friendly win in Germany - no mean feat. The fact that he appears to be a fixture in the national side despite only coming up against Championship defenders in his day job suggests that manager Diego Maradona really rates him.

Gutierrez certainly had a more successful stint of international duty than three other members of our squad: Bigger Lad played as England U21 went down 2-1 at home to group leaders Greece in a European Championships qualifier; Leon Best came on as a sub and fluffed a good chance in Brazil's 2-0 victory over the Republic of Ireland; and Tamas Kadar was red-carded for Hungary U21 as they went down by the same scoreline in Italy.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

The Little Waster strikes again

According to recent wafflings from a "club source", our wage bill is still unsustainably high for a Championship club and Jabba continues to bail us out day by day. Well, just think how much worse it would be if we hadn't managed to flog Kieron Dyer.

According to Nick Igoe, the financial director of the side generous and foolish enough to take Dyer off our hands, West Ham will end up spending a staggering £34m on him and Freddie Ljungberg over the course of their contracts. The Hammers' return on their investment? 32 matches between them - a figure Ljungberg isn't going to contribute to any further, having left one year into a four-year deal.

It's a bit mean-spirited, I know, but after all the negative and mocking press and comments we've had for being shambolically run by clueless clowns, there's a small part of me that reacts to the current plights of the likes of West Ham, Pompey and Cardiff with Schadenfreude. Just goes to show that we're not alone - though of course that doesn't make our own situation any better.

Nob and Nobby

I don't suppose it should have been too surprising to encounter no-necked text pest Craig Bellamy in a Cardiff nightspot on Saturday night, given his roots in the Ely area of the city (and his history of getting into scrapes in the Welsh capital) - but what certainly did take me aback was the identity of his companion, dressed in pristine white shirt: one Nolberto Solano.

While Bellamy was busy banging in a brace at the Bridge to send Chelsea to their first home defeat for 18 months, Nobby's Saturday afternoon was spent warming the bench as his new club Leicester did us a big favour by delivering a heavy blow to their local rivals' Forest's promotion hopes.

So it was quite a way for the pair of them to have travelled, and to hardly your typical crass Cristal-on-tap footballers' hangout. Gwdihw's a rough-around-the-edges, leftfield and slightly eccentric cafe bar that was playing host to the mini music festival our friends had organised. If only our Peruvian friend had brought his trumpet along, he could have joined in.

To his credit, Nobby dealt politely with the grinning idiot blathering about Newcastle and thrusting a sweaty palm in his direction when he was trying to get a drink, and posed for a photo (blame the quality on the fact that shortly after it was taken the photographer decided to himself off home as he couldn't stand up properly...).

Bellamy, meanwhile, claimed he had a clause in his contract which meant he'd be "fucked" if he was photographed, but at least had the decency to donate £5 (in pound coins) to the charity in aid of which the festival was being held. We'll have a little chat about Wor Al next time, Craig.


Monday, March 01, 2010

Farewell to a local hero

RIP Charlie Crowe, who's passed away aged 85. A contemporary of Wor Jackie, the long-serving Walker-born-and-bred defender was the last surviving member of our 1951 FA Cup winning side.

Like another local hero who left us last year, though, Charlie won't just be consigned to sepia-tinted memory: his legacy lives on in the form of the appeal he set up to buy a new MRI scanner for research into a range of conditions including Alzheimer's, from which he suffered personally for the last few years of his life. Donations can be made by clicking here.

Quote of the day

"I’ve been doing a lot of adverts recently. I have done a lot of work for Strongbow, Specsavers and PC World. It pays well but it doesn’t do a lot for your CV or career prospects, so I thought I’d do my own film to get a break."

Someone with a mercenary attitude desperate to make a killing on Tyneside - and yet not a footballer? Say hello to Warren Llambias - actor, co-writer and lead producer of new football comedy The Shouting Men, which tracks the adventures a bunch of Gillingham fans who travel to Newcastle for an FA Cup match.

If the surname sounds familiar, that should be no surprise - he's the son of our current chairman. Don't all get caught up in the stampede cinema-wards, now...

Saturday afternoon's alright (for fighting)

Watford 1 - 2 Newcastle Utd

A battling rather than swashbuckling performance - epitomised by Fabricio Coloccini at one end of a gluepot pitch and Bigger Lad at the other - was enough to see off Elton John's Watford, completing another league double and bringing us our first away win since the trip to the Ricoh Arena in early December.

Chris Hughton for once resisted the temptation to shuffle his pack, his only change from the side which beat Preston 3-0 being the enforced replacement of the injured Peter Lovenkrands with Leon Best.

The Hornets could easily have taken the lead in the opening few minutes, Steve Harper taking the sting out of a Jon Harley shot before gathering at the second attempt. But instead we gained the early advantage, Coloccini nodding into the net after the home side failed to clear a Danny Guthrie free-kick.

Bigger Lad had set up the goal, and from a Spiderman cross went close himself with a hooked volley over his shoulder that was cheeky, audacious and very nearly brilliant. If his court appearance had fazed him at all, then he certainly wasn't letting it show.

Watford may have gradually grown into the game, but Harper was rarely troubled and we struck again decisively early after the break. This time Bigger Lad did get on the scoresheet, escaping the attentions of his marker (Geordie Martin Taylor, perhaps?) from Guthrie's corner and powering a header past Scott Loach. The set piece had been well won by Patrick Van Aanholt, whose capabilities going forward have meant Jose Enrique's absence through injury has been less conspicuous - so it's disappointing to now have to wave him off back to parent club Chelsea.

Bigger Lad could have settled the result but strayed offside and put his header wide in any case, subsequently remonstrating with Best that the ball should have been delivered earlier. Not quite the slick link-up play that resulted in the equaliser at Swansea.

As we contentedly sat back, happy to soak up any pressure, Watford naturally came more to the fore, but the assured Coloccini continued to remind Diego Maradona that he might yet be worth a place in his Argentinian World Cup squad alongside Spiderman (even if he is only excelling against weak Championship strikeforces). Alongside him, former Hornet Mike Williamson ignored the boo boys in the home areas to help preserve our clean sheet with a capable performance.

In the event our goal was breached, but only in the last minute of normal time and only in unsavoury fashion, Will Hoskins profiting from a deflected shot and what appeared to be an offside starting position to fire between the exposed Harper's legs.

We saw out injury time without further alarm and celebrated an impressive achievement on Hughton's part - his side having lost once in 19 matches since his permanent appointment in October means that the beginning of his managerial tenure is now the most successful in the club's history.

Elsewhere, the Baggies came from behind to beat Derby 3-1, but Forest suffered a fourth consecutive away defeat without scoring, this time routed by Nigel Pearson's Leicester, and so we've now extended our lead over second to six points and (more importantly) over third to eight points.

Other reports: BBC, Guardian