Tuesday, March 08, 2011

A Month Of Saturdays: February 2011

February began with the fallout from Rocky's record-breaking deadline-day transfer to Liverpool - an undignified and childish public spat between the club, who seemed unwilling to concede that they had been desperate to take the cash, and the player, who it transpired had tried to renegotiate his contract just weeks after inking a new improved five-year deal. Each sought to conceal that they'd got what they wanted - Jabba the hefty transfer fee and Rocky a whacking great pay increase, albeit at the cost of leaving his hometown club.

But even though our former number nine and his foster father both attempted to draw a line under the affair, we initially found it difficult to move on. In our first fixture since Rocky's exit, we slumped to a defeat as abject as any we've suffered this season, looking bereft not only of ideas and quality but (arguably more worryingly) also of fight and guts. To compound matters, Rocky's most natural stand-in Big Lad had his cheekbone staved in by a Fulham elbow, and the fact that the Cottagers' winning goal was scored by Damien Duff only rubbed salt into the wound.

What happened next was truly remarkable. Not so much the first half of the home game with Arsenal, during which we picked up where we left off at Craven Cottage and served ourselves up like suicidal mint-sauce-slathered lambs to the slaughter, but the second period, when we demonstrated what can be achieved with pure belief and determination, even against the best footballing side in the division. King Kev turned 60 later in the month, and the match was a glorious throwback to his first spell in charge.

One Gunners red card, two penalties from ASBO, a close-range finish from Best and - to cap it all - a spectacular long-range volley from Cheik Tiote saw us become the first side in Premier League history to claw a way back heroically from a four-goal deficit to claim a share of the spoils. Forget Rocky, we had a new talisman in the form of the Ivorian, who had returned from suspension for the game and ran the length of the pitch to celebrate his first goal in black and white. Afterwards, as everyone tried and failed to catch their breaths, uncharitable Arsenal fans took after their club's manager in whingeing that the afternoon's key man was actually referee Phil Dowd, but - given he was also in charge for the League Cup victory at Stamford Bridge and the thumping of 5under1and - it's fair to say the tubby little attention-seeker's becoming something of a lucky mascot.

Wisely, Alan Pardew didn't sit around basking in the glory of having delivered an inspirational half-time team-talk, instead acknowledging that those four goals shouldn't detract from our paucity of striking options. The transfer window may have closed but that didn't stop us scouring the globe for free agents. Among those we wanted was World Cup and European Championship winner and former Gunners legend Thierry Henry - but the player we actually got was of a rather different calibre: portly second-tier journeyman Shefki Kuqi. Pardew declared later in the month that the demands made of him by Jabba meant "I have to bring players here of a good age who can add value"; quite how signing the Finn fitted in with this policy is anyone's guess. It was the equivalent of rummaging around in the fridge and coming up with a mouldy cabbage and a six-week-old pint of milk. I'd suggest we might have been better off with Stephane Guivarc'h and his mysterious apostrophe, though that really would be being unkind to Kuqi.

He made his debut as a late substitute against a former club, Blackburn. Ultimately the outcome was the same as the previous weekend - a respectable point, though we arguably deserved better - but the match itself was a marked contrast to the extraordinary contest with Arsenal. Peter Lovenkrands hit the bar and Sideshow Bob came close to bagging another volley to go with that collector's item at home to Spurs, but that was about the sum total of the excitement.

Better was to follow three days later with an impressively disciplined and decisive victory over soon-to-be-crowned League Cup winners Birmingham, whose starting line-up and bench were populated by a whole host of former friends and foes equally desperate to do us over. Thankfully, the evening's star man was Spidermag, who for once provided consistently excellent delivery from the left flank, Lovenkrands and Best the grateful beneficiaries at the start of each half.

So in a sense it was disappointing that we couldn't manage to repeat the feat at home to Bolton, especially having taken the lead. Off the pitch, responsibility seems an alien concept to former Trotter Nolan; on it, though, he continues to take the duties of captaincy seriously. But his goal was cancelled out by Daniel Sturridge, and when Ryan Taylor was red-carded we looked vulnerable and ultimately had to be content with a solitary point.

As ever, Tiote was at the heart of things, crossing for Nolan's header though also at fault for Bolton's equaliser. He's professed a love of life on Tyneside, but it remains to be seen whether the staggering new six-and-a-half-year deal we subsequently handed the midfielder signalled a determination to retain him or was rather more cynically calculated to ensure we can milk the "big boys" for as much as possible in the summer.

Jose Enrique's future was also the subject of speculation in February, not least because his own talks about a new contract are on ice until our Premier League status is confirmed. Like Tiote, the Spaniard has been one of our best players this campaign, and so reports (since denied) that he was critical of our performances and described interest from Liverpool, Man Utd and Villa as "flattering" were disconcerting.

Still, as a fan it's probably better to be disconcerted than to be berated by your own chairman for not attending games and potentially costing the club its stars...




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