Friday, October 28, 2011

Gael force knocks the wind out of our sails

Blackburn 4 - 3 Newcastle Utd (aet)

Well, we all knew the unbeaten run had to be ended by someone - but did it really have to be Blackburn, the Premier League's basement club (and not without good reason)? An extraordinary match culminated in our first defeat of the season, which saw us exit the League Cup just as things start to get interesting (though, in truth, the presence of Man Utd, Arsenal, Chelsea, Man City and Liverpool in the quarter-final draw suggests our name probably wasn't destined to be on the trophy for the first time this year anyway).

Alan Pardew's team selection was a pre-match talking point, the Silver Fox opting to retain several first-teamers. Mr T and Saylor both missed out with knee-knack and nose-knack respectively, while Obertan Kenobi, Leon O'Best and Raylor were rested. In came French pair HBA and Sylvain Marveaux, Danny Guthrie, James Perch (could Sideshow Bob make him look decent?) and Davide Santon, the latter for his full debut. The bench was a strikingly defender-free zone, featuring Mehdi Abeid, Dan Gosling, Little Big Lad, Peter Lovenkrands and the Lone Ranger (back in the fold) alongside Obertan Kenobi.

For his part, under-fire Rovers manager Steve Kean picked an equally attack-minded side featuring Yakubu and David Goodwillie up front with Morten Gamst Pedersen and Toon target Junior Hoilett on the wings and forward-thinking midfielder Ruben Rochina in the middle. The Spaniard it was who gave the home side an early lead, lashing into the top corner unmarked after full-back Martin Olsson's unchallenged run and pull-back. We might have been wearing orange, but the defence was stood around like lemons.

We almost hit back immediately, Demba Ba belting a shot off the post, and the Senegalese striker later came agonisingly close to touching in Danny Guthrie's low cross-shot at the far post. In sharp contrast to the league game at St James' in which he bagged a hat-trick, nothing was quite going for him.

The balance of play, though, was with Blackburn, who were regularly keeping Tim Krul's gloves warm (if not genuinely extending him). Pedersen, as is his wont, seemed to have raised his game just for our visit.

That pattern continued after the break, until what looked like being the critical passage of play shortly after the hour mark. No sooner had it been confirmed that Ba's luck really was out, Christopher Samba having dragged him to the deck in the penalty area without punishment, than Rovers broke down the other end of the pitch and Krul clipped Rochina just as he'd touched the ball on. The Dutchman was yellow-carded (Rochina having been just about headed away from goal) and then beaten from the spot by ex-Smog Yakubu.

The Silver Fox's go-for-broke introduction of Little Big Lad for Danny Simpson initially promised to reap reward, Obertan Kenobi and Lovenkrands also joining the action soon after. But, as the game drifted into injury time, we still hadn't mustered a single effort on target. That all changed in the 92nd minute, though, Guthrie given time and space to arrow a daisy-cutter inside Mark Bunn's right-hand post from distance.

Merely a consolation goal? With our current doggedness and team spirit, not a bit of it. Our second effort on target came three minutes later, Dreamboat following up Saturday's first goal for the club with an even better dead-ball strike into the top corner that had the Darwen End discoing like mad. A phenomenal comeback by any standards.

And yet half-way through the first period of extra time we found ourselves behind again, Pedersen's long-range free-kick taking a wicked deflection and flying past Krul. But still we refused to be beaten. Obertan Kenobi did what he's done too rarely of late, beating his full-back to drill in a low cross which caused panic in the six-yard area. Referee Robert Madley spotted Rovers substitute Grant Hanley's manhandling of Lovenkrands and the Dane tucked away the resultant penalty.

Lest we heap too much praise on our ex-Man Utd winger, though, he was shockingly culpable for the goal which finally killed us off. A shoot-out was a matter of seconds away when that man Pedersen's free-kick was nodded back across goal by Samba for Gael Givet - supposed to have been tracked by our substitute - to glance the ball over the line. The pulsating contest was brought to a close shortly afterwards, with us finishing on the wrong end of a 4-3 scoreline having been on the right end of one in the previous round.

Alan Pardew insisted we deserved to win the game, and in the circumstances defeat was certainly cruel - but, to be blunt, you can't defend like that or take 92 minutes to muster a shot on target and expect to triumph. A strong team struggled to cope with Blackburn's supposedly modest threat and the lack of defensive cover on the bench is worrying. We missed Saylor's commitment in the centre of defence and, even more crucially, Mr T's minesweeping act in front of the back four. With much sterner tests to come, starting at Stoke on Monday, is our season about to come spectacularly off the rails?

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

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Thursday, October 27, 2011

Give bigotry the boot

What's so hard about signing up to a deadline-free, target-free set of pledges to work towards eliminating discrimination in football on the grounds of sexuality? Nothing. So why, over seven months since it was launched, have Newcastle not endorsed the Government Charter for Action to stamp out homophobia and transphobia? That said, we're not alone - Wycombe have made the news this week for becoming (incredibly) the first club to support it. It's a shameful state of affairs (about which I've written more here), and one you can do your bit to affect by signing up to the Charter yourself. A case for NUST to take up, too, I'd suggest...

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Wednesday, October 26, 2011

A loan spell: "better than doing nothing"

With Steve Harper on loan at Brighton - "better than doing nothing", he's said - what of our other loan 'keepers?

It's been a bumpy ride of late for Fraser Forster, with Celtic enjoying Europa League football but languishing ten points behind arch rivals Rangers in the Scottish Premier League. The Bhoys lost to Hearts before Forster conceded three first-half to lowly Kilmarnock - though his teammates fought back to force a draw thanks in large part to two goals from ex-Mackem lump Anthony Stokes, once barred from the Dark Place's Glass Spider club by Royston Keane.

Meanwhile, Ole Soderberg is currently on a month's loan at Blue Square Bet Premier outfit Darlington. The game against Newport County on 1st October - a 2-0 win for his side - may have been the young Swede's first-team debut, and he may only have played five more times since, but it seems he already feels justified in criticising his colleagues. Three wins in those six appearances - including a rollercoaster 4-3 against Stockport - haven't been enough to save Mark Cooper's job, though, the manager given the boot by chairman Raj Singh after the weekend defeat at Braintree.

And lastly to a loan defender, James Tavernier, whose bad mistake contributed to Carlisle's 4-0 thumping at league leaders Charlton on Saturday. The Cumbrians weren't down for long, though, a quick three-goal blitz last night putting the Addicks' promotion rivals Sheffield Wednesday to the sword. The clean sheets seem to have dried up somewhat, but the experience can only be good for Tavernier.

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Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Big Lad, little problem

Three minutes of substitute action on Saturday was apparently all it took for Big Lad to twang his hamstring. Alan Pardew broke the news that our saviour against Spurs is expected to be out of action for four to six weeks.

Could this be the first sign that things are about to get much tougher for us? Ordinarily we wouldn't worry too much about Big Lad's enforced absence - he's consistently inconsistent, after all - but it does heap the pressure on Leon O'Best and Demba Ba both to perform (which they didn't against Wigan) and to stay fit. HBA might be assured of more football as a result, but he wouldn't be able to supply the general physical power of our B&B double act. We'll need height and strength if we're to get anything from the trip to the Britannia Stadium, for a start (which is also why I suspect Obertan Kenobi will continue to be preferred to Sylvain Marveaux for that fixture).



Seagull Steve

Farewell, albeit temporarily, to Steve Harper, our erstwhile first-choice 'keeper having yesterday joined Kazenga LuaLua on loan at Championship outfit Brighton.

After years playing underemployed understudy to Shay Given followed by a couple of much-deserved seasons in the limelight, Harper has this campaign once again found himself out of favour, displaced by Tim Krul. Harsh, it's true, but even he couldn't dispute the Dutchman's brilliance. Since being handed his chance by Alan Pardew, Krul's not put a foot wrong.

Pardew's comment that Harper's "unfortunate to have a top young goalkeeper like Tim come through and push him to one side" glosses over the fact that Krul's selection has been the manager's decision, or that Pardew also chose to bring in another 'keeper over the summer, Charlton's Rob Elliot. The loan period is for an initial month, so he could well be back on Tyneside before too long - but the writing does seem to be on the wall.

Harper didn't have to wait long for his debut, slotting straight into the Seagulls side that took on West Ham at the Amex, at the expense of Casper Ankergren. And it was a familiar face who got the better of him for what proved to be the only goal of the game, Kevin Nolan scoring from distance to put Fat Sam's side second and condemn the division's early-season pacesetters to a seventh consecutive match without a win.

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Sunday, October 23, 2011

Way (Cab)aye man!

Newcastle Utd 1 - 0 Wigan

Stick that in your pipe and smoke it, Dave! An otherwise undistinguished display was illuminated by a splendid late Yohan Cabaye goal which proved enough to secure us a rather fortuitous victory and send Whelan's Wigan to their sixth successive Premier League defeat. Dave would for once not be deluded in claiming that his side deserved a point - but that classy finish from the Frenchman nicknamed Dreamboat on Twitter was worthy of winning any game.

Alan Pardew's starting XI was unchanged for the fifth successive match, Cabaye being one of eight ever-presents. Eyebrows were only raised with the substitutes selected, Peter Lovenkrands and Dan Gosling replaced by Alan Smith and James Perch, the latter recently a loan target for Derby but apparently still part of Pardew's plans as long as Mike Williamson remains on the injured list.

What we boast in terms of form and confidence Wigan most definitely lack, so it was perhaps inevitable that we started out in casual and complacent fashion. Tim Krul was forced into a quite superb save to push Victor Moses' deflected volley onto the roof of the net and the dangerous Hugo Rodallega blasted wide when bearing down on goal, before being the recipient of a hefty challenge from Cabaye that earned our ultimate hero a booking.

When we did wake up, it was a gradual process, with a leisurely stretch and yawn, rather than by leaping up and into action, no alarm clock alerting us to it being a workday. Neat interplay between Raylor and Spidermag on the left resulted in the Argentine standing a beautifully flighted cross up to Leon O'Best, whose header was well beaten out by Ali Al Habsi. Saylor also went close, powering a header wide from a corner.

Pardew had what he referred to as "a little chat" with the players at the interval - not quite the stirring oratory of half-time in February's meeting with Arsenal, you'd imagine, but certainly enough to urge them into a hungrier and more purposeful second-half performance.

Key to that was the replacement of O'Best by HBA, who posed a different problem for Wigan's defence, dropping deeper to draw out defenders and seeking to take them on through the middle rather than always relying on service from the flanks. Even then, though, more possession, a few blocked shots and a flicked header from Ba that Al Habsi gratefully grabbed on the line were all we had to show for it - and Columbian Rodallega had again gone close, rippling Krul's side netting.

Pardew responded to the continued stalemate by replacing Ba, significantly less effective than in recent weeks, with Big Lad and Obertan Kenobe, surely in line to be dropped, with Sylvain Marveaux. The stage was set for Big Lad to repeat last weekend's trick, but it was actually Marveaux who had the bigger impact. He'd only been on the pitch for five minutes when his neat lay-off to the edge of the area was dispatched into Al Habsi's top corner by Cabaye. Desperately unlucky not to score against Villa last month, he richly deserved his first goal for the club.

Even then, Wigan could have scored, Saylor losing Mohamed Diame from a set-piece, but thankfully for us the French midfielder couldn't quite direct his header on target.

A decidedly scruffy win, then, and one (in Pardew's words) that was more "flat bitter" than "champagne football". But then I rather like bitter, I like clean sheets (and our defensive play being lauded by Messrs Hansen and Lawrenson on Match Of The Day) and I certainly like seeing us now level on points with Chelsea and five points clear of our closest challengers, fifth-placed Liverpool. Those who once again point to the quality of the opposition would do well to remember that this wasn't a fixture we won last season, or the season we were relegated.

A Wigan fan's verdict: Jesus Was A Wiganer (live Twitter updates)

Other reports: BBC, Guardian (in which TBW spots a red card offence by O'Best that no one else saw...)

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Saturday, October 22, 2011

The silly season

Poor old red tops. With all still going swimmingly at St James' Park (no "bombs" as yet), what is there left to write about?

How's about Sideshow Bob's luscious locks? The Argentine defender, quite exceptional this season (particularly against Spurs), has declared: "I will never cut off my hair". Apparently he's been shorn before, by his more senior defensive colleagues at AC Milan Paolo Maldini and Alessandro Costacurta, but thinks none of his current teammates would dare take a pair of scissors to that unmistakeable barnet. I wouldn't have put it past ASBO, mind...

And then there's Demba Ba's new-found love of darts, which led to the inevitable photo opportunity and which he claims is helping him to focus on hitting a small target. He also said he's now settled in at the club, and rubbished the idea that his observance of Ramadan was responsible for his poor early-season form. Let's hope he doesn't take to using youth team players for target practice...

On the subject of Man City's "Super" Mario, surely a player who can one day declare that he's growing up and embracing the quiet life and that very night set his own house on fire by mucking around with fireworks in his bathroom should be wearing black and white? Perhaps he'll be the striker we pursue in the January transfer window. Then the press really would have some "bombs" to report on...

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The future's bright - for us, at least

Something you may have missed this week: the Football League voted in favour of the Premier League's Elite Player Performance Plan. The EPPP has essentially been formulated to enable Premier League clubs to get the best young players into their academies and working with the best coaches from a young age. All fine for the future of Premier League outfits like ourselves, as well as of the national side, but what about the Football League?

Bound up with the adoption of the EPPP was the scrapping of the tribunal system, by which smaller clubs are assured of a fair fee when their brightest prospects are poached by big boys like ourselves. Teenagers under 17 will now be available for a fraction of their true potential worth, which ultimately threatens the whole future of youth academies at clubs in the Championship, League One and League Two - and indeed the future of the clubs themselves. Those who develop and bring through young players into the first team before then selling them to help balance the books - Crewe, for example - are now facing a severe challenge to their whole philosophy and financial security.

So why, you might ask, did the Football League adopt the EPPP? Well, it's because the Premier League threatened to withdraw the £5m it gives to Football League clubs annually for youth development if the EPPP wasn't approved. But £5m amongst 72 clubs is an absolute pittance compared to the money clubs can make from developing and selling players (think, for instance, of the millions Southampton banked by flogging Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to Arsenal), so it really was like turkeys voting for Christmas.

While fans of Football League clubs are dumbfounded by the move (and the Football League chairman Greg Clarke's bizarre volte-face on the issue), as a Newcastle supporter I for one am angry and embarrassed by the bullying and blackmailing tactics of the Premier League. And as for the nerve of Premier League chief Richard Scudamore dismissing the Football League clubs critical of the EPPP as "coming at the issue from an economic perspective"...

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Thursday, October 20, 2011

The only way is up neither up nor down

Could talk of the all-important 40-point mark, "relegation six-pointers" and "squeaky bum time" become a thing of the past? It might if certain unnamed foreign owners of Premier League clubs have their way.

Without the possibility of promotion or the threat of relegation, the game would be immeasurably poorer - no excitement, no sense of uncertainty, no point. But, as ludicrous as the idea of doing away with them might sound, that's already the situation in Scotland, where there's no straightforward route from the regional leagues up into the national leagues and vice versa. A friend of mine supports Forres Mechanics, who were founder members of the Highland Football League in 1893 and have been stuck there ever since, managing to win the title just once in all that time. How the fans are able to sum up any interest or enthusiasm is completely beyond me.

Even those for whom we have precious little time have been voicing their opposition to the potential proposal. Taggart lambasted it as "suicide" and 'Appy 'Arry labelled it "scandalous". Grudging credit where it's due, but even Deluded Dave has branded it as "the most stupid suggestion I've ever heard in my life" - a more significant stance than those of Taggart and 'Appy 'Arry simply because the Premier League becoming a closed shop would be to Wigan's benefit. (The Latics owner actually threatened to withdraw his club from the league if the idea became reality - as things stand, Saturday's visitors to St James' Park could be waving the Premier League farewell regardless...)

Of course, it's tempting to speculate who might be behind the suggestion. Not hard to imagine that Blackburn owners Venkys might be guilty of fowl play, given that it would keep their dead men walking in the division. I wouldn't put it past Liverpool either, American owner John Henry being used to the franchise system in the US and managing director Ian Ayre having voiced a much-publicised disregard for what's fair in pursuit of narrow self-interest.*

Thankfully, even if there was some momentum behind the proposal, the FA would apparently retain the right to veto it. So they might yet prove their worth after all...

(* Incidentally, here's True Faith's eloquent commentary on Ayre's remarks.)


Premier League chief executive Richard Scudamore has dismissed the suggestion as "ridiculous", claiming that no owners have actually declared their support for it - and indeed Blackburn and Liverpool are among those who've come out to announce they're satisfied with the current system. A storm in a teacup, then, it seems, and one that leaves League Managers' Association chief Richard Bevan (who made the initial comments) looking a little bit foolish.

Still, it's interesting that Man City and the Mackems refused to comment on the issue, and Arsenal actually announced they "did not have a stance". Surely you're either for the status quo or you want change?

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Practice makes perfect

The BBC's Alastair Macgowan has taken time off from all those impressions to write an appraisal of our defensive improvement this season, with considerable assistance from first-team coach Steve Stone.

The stats certainly bear out the impression of things being much better (and not just in terms of our parsimony), but in truth the primary reason behind it turns out to be good, honest practice. Apparently Alan Pardew splits the squad in two twice a week and himself works closely with the defenders to instill his "principles" into them and ensure they're aware that positioning is key. Hardly rocket science, though it might as well have been for some of Pardew's predecessors. You have to add in the fact that our defence has been settled, fit and in form (Sideshow Bob in particular), but that would hardly explain how players with obvious limitations like Danny Simpson and Raylor have functioned well within a solid unit - so credit where it's due.

The article does however perpetuate the myth that we had a horrendously porous defence in the mid-90s. Stone is himself guilty on that front, alluding to Phillippe Albert as a weak link: "Newcastle have been a bit gung-ho in the past with the centre-halves marauding forward and the like, but you can't really play like that in Premier League". That disguises the fact that we still had one of the meanest defences in the division at the time - just one that wasn't quite as mean as Man Utd's...

Stone generally talks highly of Pardew as an astute tactician, also giving an insight into the manager's softly-softly methods: "He speaks very well and speaks in a way that gets players on side with him. It's not a rollocking, it's asking them to do it rather than telling them to do it so everybody feels part of a group. He treats players like adults where I've seen other managers treat players like kids and they don't respond to that at all." Over the years we've had plenty of players who behave like they're kids (and we do still have the Lone Ranger on our books), but fair play to Pardew - his approach does seem to be working.

Hopefully we're going to get an opportunity to get used to these "Where did it all go right?" style pieces...

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Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Quote of the day

"Having a fit squad now, we have got everyone pushing each other and you know if you are not quite at it, you have got someone else ready to step in."

Flush with confidence after Sunday's superb equaliser, Big Lad gives Demba Ba and Leon O'Best a friendly nudge. Not that our current first-choice strikeforce weren't "at it" against Spurs - on the contrary, they both played very well before being withdrawn - so it'll be interesting to see whether Pardew feels Sunday's hero has done enough to get himself a starting place against Wigan.



Monday, October 17, 2011

Balancing act

According to comments in Sunday's programme, the club are reportedly on course to break even this financial year. Significantly, this break-even point is to be reached before player sales are taken into account.

Having previously generated losses in the region of £35 million for the financial years 2008-09 and 2009-10, reports suggest that in 2010-11 our loss has come down to below £5 million and that we hope to turn the corner this year.

Bearing in mind that those figures tally in with the relegation season (that'll be wages to Little Saint Mick, Captain Pasty, etc.), the Championship season (that'll be the loss of TV revenue) and last season (that'll be wages for the likes of ASBO, Kevin Nolan and Jose Enrique) it represents the fruition of our careful (some might say tight-fisted) approach to running the club.

To be fair to Jabba and Llambiarse, while in playing terms they have continually followed each good decision with a howlingly bad one, off the field their understanding of the need to balance the books and clear the mess which they inherited from Fat Fred and Dirty Doug is finally bearing fruit, which is commendable.

The impact of our breaking even appears extensive. Firstly it ensures we're in line to meet all the FIFA Fair Play requirements when they kick in. Secondly it means that money generated from player sales should no longer be required to service debts but instead can be used to strengthen the playing squad and improve facilities. But thirdly (and perhaps most significantly) it also makes us a far more attractive prospect to investors seeking to take the club off Jabba's hands (assuming he's still interested in selling).

The one caveat to all this is that the club is presumably still carrying the interest-free loans which Jabba has provided and which he will presumably, at some stage, want repaying. However, at least we are presumably clearing other debts (e.g. any outstanding bank loans) and as such we look to be moving in the right direction.

Financially, if we can continue to operate in this manner then in the medium term we should hopefully see an upturn in fortunes, as without massive debts to service we will get to a stage where money spent in the club shop, on season tickets, etc. actually has a bearing on our player recruitment and hopefully our fortunes on the pitch. The optimist in me is terribly excited by this.

Jabba and Llambiarse may still have big question marks hanging over them (and the broken promises of a additional striker in the summer illustrates why that is the case) but at least their tight hold on the purse strings appears to be paying some dividends (figuratively speaking), and for that credit where it is due.

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Thirty-something coming of age at last?

Newcastle Utd 2 - 2 Spurs

Might it be that Big Lad's been the wrong side of 30 all along, and now finally finds himself the right side? Having celebrated the milestone birthday in the week, our infuriatingly inconsistent striker, on as a substitute, belted in a sweet left-footed equaliser with four minutes of normal time remaining, setting up a frantic finish and ultimately ensuring that Spurs had to share the spoils.

That he had to wait until the 71st minute to be introduced to the action was down to Alan Pardew's understandable reluctance to tinker with a winning formula. The starting XI was very familiar, featuring no fewer than eight ever-presents (including the entire back five). Demba Ba was passed fit to partner Leon O'Best, while Yohan Cabaye was also given the all-clear after his recent exertions with France.

The first period was characterised by a lot of neat passing from both sides, but precious little in the way of goalmouth action. Wary of the threat posed by a visiting side who'd romped to four successive league wins, we were relatively cautious in our approach. A tame Ba header and a whipped Ryan Taylor free-kick claimed by Brad Friedel from the tip of O'Best's outstretched toe (remarkably quick reactions for an octagenarian) was pretty much all we had to show for our general control of the game. Mr T was excelling himself, tackling and intercepting like a man possessed to foil Spurs' advances, while Sideshow Bob was once again marshalling his defence superbly.

So it was something of a shock when our captain was partly culpable for our opponents taking the lead on 40 minutes. His risky ball into Cabaye saw the Frenchman ruthlessly mugged by Jake Livermore. Emmanuel Adebayor burst into the box and tumbled over Steven Taylor's left leg, our man dismayed to discover that there was to be no repeat of his let-off at Wolves and that Lee Probert had pointed to the spot. Rafael van der Vaart blasted the penalty goalwards and Tim Krul didn't stand a chance.

If there was a sense of injustice about the half-time scoreline, we didn't allow ourselves to dwell on it, instead fighting back within three minutes of the restart. Spidermag took the plaudits for a darting run beyond two players and a perfectly floated cross that the onrushing Ba met awkwardly six yards out. Friedel trapped the ball between his knees but his momentum took him over the line and into the back of the net. That's now five goals in three games for the Senegalese striker - surely a good enough reason to crack a smile, eh, Demba?

With both sides now playing a significantly higher line, chances began to come with greater frequency. Mr T was running out of a bit of steam (before picking up his customary booking), which enabled Luka Modric to attack us more effectively from deep. From one such foray he set up Adebayor to flash a shot just wide of the far post, while Obertan Kenobe - otherwise a waste of space on our right - did likewise at the opposite end.

'Appy 'Arry demonstrated the riches at his disposal by bringing on Jermain Defoe for van der Vaart, and the arch poacher took just five minutes to wound us. Controlling Scott Parker's pass, he turned inside Ryan Taylor before promptly dispatching a clinical shot into the bottom left-hand corner of Krul's net.

Pardew's response was to freshen up our strikeforce, replacing Ba and the commendably hard-working O'Best with HBA and Big Lad. While the former looked a little short of match fitness, regularly dribbling into crunching challenges and squandering possession, the latter made an immediate impression, discomforting centre-back pairing Younes Kaboul and Toon old boy Sebastien Bassong.

A curling long-ranger from Mr T - trying to reprise his spectacular strike, and only Toon goal to date, against Spurs' North London rivals - and a Ryan Taylor free-kick served notice of the fact that we weren't beaten yet. And, sure enough, when Spurs failed to clear their lines, a neat touch from Cabaye sent Big Lad in wide on the left and he hammered the ball home with a Rocky-esque thump.

We could have fallen behind again if it hadn't have been for a desperate Steven Taylor block and a smart Krul save, both to deny Defoe. But in a frenetic five minutes of stoppage time, during which we laid siege to the visitors' goal, we came tantalisingly close to taking all three points. Sideshow Bob, absolutely magnificent in the second half and surely a contender for the league's most in-form defender, had two opportunities to repeat last season's trick of scoring against Spurs but couldn't take either, and Spidermag jinked his way into a shooting position only to skim his drive straight at Friedel, so a point apiece and consolidating fourth place it was.

In amongst all of the late drama, Davide Santon made his long-awaited first-team debut, coming on for Danny Simpson - perhaps it's his place that's under threat from the Italian, not Ryan Taylor's. Pardew will also have a selection dilemma as regards picking two from Ba, O'Best and Big Lad for next weekend's visit of Wigan, and I'd hope he sees sense, drops Obertan Kenobe and hands HBA a free role behind the strikers. But that's for another day - we should be relatively contented with a sound performance and result against a side of superstars.

A Spurs fan's perspective: Dear Mr Levy

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

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Thursday, October 13, 2011

Have you ever seen a Latic in Milan?

Another day, another thinly veiled jibe from Deluded Dave Whelan. Responding to Liverpool managing director Ian Ayre's controversial appeal for the right for Premier League clubs to be able to negotiate their own overseas TV deals, the Wigan chairman said: "What we have is the finest league in the whole world and what Liverpool are calling for would absolutely wreck it. The likes of Wigan, Bolton, Blackburn, Wolves, Sunderland and Newcastle couldn't compete". Whelan's attempt to equate his tinpot club and ours in terms of overseas fanbase and interest is laughable. Were Ayre to get his way, we'd be in a far more secure position than Wigan.

An incensed Whelan declared: "It is absolutely scandalous. It would kill Wigan Athletic. It would kill Blackburn". Dave, while I agree with the sentiment (any change to the rules would plough up any residual notion of a level playing field), statements like that do a good job of convincing me that Ayre might be on to something after all...

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Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Big day for Big Lad

Happy 30th birthday, Big Lad. 308 first team appearances in eleven years and we're still none the wiser as to whether you're actually any good...



Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Sign of the times

The club auctioning off the old East Stand sign letter by letter to the highest bidder and the new one bearing Ashley's stamp - a metaphor for something, perhaps?



ASBO opens up

A few points of interest in this interview with ASBO, as he talks about his departure from Tyneside, his relationship with Alan Shearer ("He tries to be cutting-edge"), Twitter and the democratic music policy he helped to instigate in the St James' Park dressing room.

Recent comments from Alan Pardew, meanwhile, hint that ASBO's departure has been for the good of the club: "In the past they've had a few names who weren't pulling 100 per cent. I look around my dressing room and I don't have anybody like that. Everybody is pulling, we're all having a go, and there's no siege mentality - and with some of the media criticism we could have had that - we've just tried to be the best we can be." While you couldn't accuse ASBO of giving less than 100%, at least in his last season and a bit at the club, he was at fault when it came to the direction in which he was pulling...

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Monday, October 10, 2011

Ooof, j'ai mal a la cheville

Worrying news from Paris on Friday, with early-season star man Yohan Cabaye limping out of France's victory over Albania in the 47th minute following a hefty stamp on his left ankle. Thankfully, though, it seems as though it wasn't too bad after all and he may yet even be in contention for les Bleus' next fixture tomorrow night. Much as we'd hope he'd be left out (as Tim Krul and Spidermag were for the Netherlands and Argentina respectively), it looks unlikely given that the game against Bosnia remains crucial.

Meanwhile, the diagnosis is significantly grimmer for the Little Waster, now expected to be sidelined for some time. As Cabaye might say, plus ca change...

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Thursday, October 06, 2011

A Month Of Saturdays: September 2011

September brought news of a striker warned for the umpteenth time about his extra-curricular boozing habits; a midfielder engaging in a public campaign of petty name-calling against a Premier League rival; and a defender suspended following his arrest on suspicion of sexual assault - for the third time - and possession of Class A drugs. What was the connection? Rocky, ASBO and Agent Shambles - for twas they - are all ex-Newcastle players.

The emphasis is very much on the "ex". For a club used to being rocked by off-field scandal as well as on-pitch calamity, September was a disarmingly quiet month for us. While our three old boys were admonished, embarrassed and arrested respectively elsewhere - and while Blue Square Premier striking partners were busy taking a leaf out of Lee Bowyer and the Little Waster's book, scrapping with each other on the pitch - Alan Pardew expressed sympathy for North-East newshounds, usually horrifically overworked but suddenly finding themselves sat twiddling their thumbs. Forget about "bombs going off" - there wasn't really even so much as a cap gun (though there were paintball guns all round). (Of course, Pardew's sympathy would be understandable if, as one wag speculated, stability might result in his own unemployment...)

Inevitably a large reason for the relative calm - and the paintballing trip - was the departure of ASBO at the tail end of August. No more childish spats, Twitter feuds or dressing room rebellions to report, just the whiff of something slighty fishy about the deal that took him to QPR. At the start of the month, though, most interest was focused on failed bids rather than contentious sales, as Paul bemoaned our inability to land Rocky's replacement during the transfer window. Our irritation was assuaged by neither Llambiarse's nonsensical attempt at an explanation/defence (come off it, Del Boy - every club faced the same difficulty of having to work through "complex and protracted" negotiations, and what was the Bryan Ruiz bid if not "knee-jerk"?) nor the weasely words of the Q&A session printed in the Ronny Gill. Pardew stuck his neck out and ventured a gentle criticism of his paymasters, while we lived in fear that free agent James Beattie would be announced as the answer to our prayers but took succour from the possibility that we might one day be able to wrest some control of the club back from Jabba.

The international break over, it was a curious quirk of fate that life AA (After ASBO) should begin with us facing his new side at Loftus Road. The Scouse workie ticket, captaining the side, showed our lacklustre midfield what we were missing, though the limelight was stolen by fellow debutant Shaun Wright-Phillips and Adel Taarabt. Still, we rode our luck and, thanks to a couple of splendid goalline clearances from Danny Simpson and Steven Taylor, escaped back up the A1 with another clean sheet and a point.

A week later and our resilience was given a sterner test, as we fell a goal behind at Villa Park, a ground that in recent seasons has become synonymous with misery. Thankfully, though, Mr T and Yohan Cabaye were back to their usual selves, turning in magnificent displays as Leon O'Best continued his knack of finding the net from point-blank range and only his compatriot Shay Given, once of this parish, prevented us from claiming all three points.

"If Demba Ba could only start scoring, we might be in danger of getting excited", Paul claimed at the end of that report - so the Senegalese striker's match-winning treble against Blackburn was the cause of much merriment. While our defence largely held firm again (in the face of one of the division's weakest attacks, admittedly), our expansive and incisive forward play, spearheaded by Ba, was a delight. Perhaps, we speculated, we'd found the striker we so craved after all. What's that old adage about things being in the last place you look?

Between the fixtures against Villa and Blackburn we took time out to hammer another nail into the coffin of Steve McLaren's short managerial reign on the banks of the River Trent. In truth Championship strugglers Forest played well and fought back to level no fewer than three times, but Sideshow Bob finally finished them off with penalties looming and sent us into the next round of the League Cup.

The fine form of the first team meant that others had to be patient and bide their time - most notably the fit-again HBA and Dan Gosling, the latter pushing hard for a place by putting in impressive shifts for England U21s and the Reserves as well as triumphing in X Factor duels with international teammates. Davide Santon too sat September out, his alleged fragile confidence matched by a fragile knee which needed draining to recover.

While those three spent the month largely behind the scenes, one fan spent a morning - and wrote about it. Perhaps Tim Krul should be henceforth christened Bananaman? The club, meanwhile, will be hoping that local lasses are keen to show their support for the club behind closed doors with the launch of a new range of branded lingerie. I think we can agree that, despite the early disillusionment with dithering in the transfer market, September was far from pants.



Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Quote of the day

"Winning football is about 11 players running for 90 minutes, or 94 minutes, with a winning mentality. I cannot have players who just wait for the ball. We need a team, we need work and commitment. That is football. We need this mentality because with our mentality anything is possible. We cannot afford to have players standing there waiting for the ball."

Republic of Ireland manager Giovanni O'Trapattoni explains why Leon O'Best hasn't been rewarded for his early-season form with an international recall.

Clearly the Italian hasn't been watching our games very closely this season - O'Best may be a player of limited abilities, but his selfless running and determination in the games against Villa and Blackburn in particular were exemplary. And that's not to mention his Premier League goalscoring record for us.

In other news, last night's 3-0 win for the Reserves at Bolton was notable for three things: a brace for Sylvain Marveaux, a debut at this level for U18 hotshot JJ Hooper and another decent performance from Dan Gosling, whom new Doncaster manager Dean Saunders is rumoured to be eyeing up as a potential loan signing.

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Brothers in arms

A warm welcome to the world to Newcastle's youngest supporter (or at least one of the youngest). Jacob, born in the very early hours of Monday morning, is my Black & White & Read All Over co-author's third son. Congratulations to Paul (and Lisa) - and may their brood follow in the footsteps of the Watsons, the Caldwells and the Ameobis in pulling on black and white jerseys together.

Paternity leave means you'll just have to put up with me alone until next week...

Money, money, money, must be funny, in a rich man's world

For an owner for whom financial prudence is apparently imperative, losing £50,000 on one roll of a dice makes an interesting change. Perhaps it was that pint that made Jabba feel flush and reckless - much as that downed pint in the stands at the Emirates was closely followed by events which led to King Kev's departure and our relegation? I wonder what Alan Pardew made of watching Jabba happily splash the cash...

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Monday, October 03, 2011

Who's the wanker thoroughly bloody nice bloke in the black?

Wolves 1 - 2 Newcastle Utd

ASBO may not have been present to irritate Wolves - something Alan Pardew lamented after the game, claiming he "might have stopped or slowed down the game" - but we still managed to upset them with a combination of clinical finishing, breathtaking goalkeeping, committed defending and, perhaps most crucially, the not inconsiderable assistance of the officials.

Following last weekend's fluent victory over Blackburn, Pardew understandably named an unchanged starting XI, with Hatem Ben Arfa and Davide Santon both still awaiting their first Premier League starts of the season. Wolves came into the game off the back of three straight defeats, the 3-0 capitulation at home to ASBO's new side QPR abject to say the least, but they proved to be far tougher opponents than that match would have suggested. Their tally of 25 efforts on goal tells its own story - but, after Tuesday's paintballing trip, our players must be getting used to coming under heavy enemy fire.

Tim Krul had already been called into action to deny Jamie O'Hara and Kevin Doyle by the time Demba Ba's clever flicked header from Yohan Cabaye's corner beat Wayne Hennessey at his near post. Now Ramadan's over, clearly it's a case of feed the Ba and he will score...

Having fallen behind, Wolves continued to threaten, though we were determined to trade blows, having efforts of our own from Spidermag and Mr T. While Obertan Kenobe was busy banishing all memories of his scintillating display against Blackburn, on the other flank Spidermag's performance seemed an acknowledgement that our offer of a contract extension (which he accepted) was indeed conditional on greater involvement in the decisive action. The Argentine tried his luck on several occasions, doing so to best effect in the 38th minute when he nipped in to mesmerise dithering Wolves defenders, burst into the box and slide a left-footed shot across Hennessey into the bottom corner. There was then the added pleasure of seeing Karl Henry go into the book, ASBO's assailant later hauled off by Mick McCarthy before even an hour had been played.

Steven Taylor was for once outshining Sideshow Bob, tackling and blocking with relish, but was extremely fortuitous not to concede a penalty shortly before the break when referee Mark Halsey conveniently ignored the fact that our defender's clumsy challenge on O'Hara had taken place well inside the area.

In the second period Krul really earned himself the match ball, pulling off a string of sensational stops to prevent a resurgent Wolves from getting a foothold in the game. There were opportunities to add to our lead, but we seemed relatively comfortable with the two strikes we'd already registered - something we could have come to regret.

With Ba replaced by Peter Lovenkrands and us flagging in the heat just as Wolves were working up a late head of steam, Krul was finally beaten by a header from the unmarked Steven Fletcher and, but for a dubious decision in the 94th minute from the assistant referee, we might have snatched an inglorious draw from the jaws of victory. Matt Jarvis headed Adam Hammill's ball back to Kevin Doyle, who forced the ball in at the second attempt - but the officials adjudged the initial cross to have drifted behind the by-line. We might currently be playing well, but we certainly can't deny we got the rub of the green in this one.

The win kept us in fourth, though it had temporarily pushed us up to the even headier heights of third before Chelsea's tonking of Bolton yesterday afternoon. It means we've now gone ten games unbeaten stretching back to the Liverpool defeat at the start of May, and also confirms us as having the best defensive record of any team in the top four divisions - a bewildering statistic for a club hardly noted for the ability to protect its goal.

We're used to regarding international breaks as a welcome respite and opportunity to recharge, regroup and refocus, but this one's an intrusion to be cursed. That said, our next opponents, the equally in-form Spurs, will feel much the same way, and they're likely to have more players in action for their countries than we are - so perhaps it might yet work in our favour?

A Wolves fan's verdict: Wolves Blog

Other reports: BBC, Observer

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