Saturday, December 31, 2011

Jingle Bellers

Liverpool 3 - 1 Newcastle Utd

So, as feared, our horrendous run of results at Anfield continued and the curse of the old boy did indeed strike - but it was the No-Necked Text Pest whose brace did the damage, Rocky contriving to leave the scoresheet untroubled. Steven Gerrard came on to grab the Scousers' third, and is probably off out celebrating in time-honoured fashion as I write.

While the demotion of Leon O'Best to the bench was expected, the Silver Fox sprung a selection surprise by choosing to replace him with Haris Vuckic rather than HBA, the player whose goal had been the vital spark in the Boxing Day win at Bolton. Vuckic seemed to have been asked to occupy an advanced midfield role in a 4-5-1 formation, but the ploy never really worked, not least because the Slovenian youngster was lost and off the pace from the first whistle.

Had the first real shot of the game, a long-ranger from the home side's Charlie Adam, flown in, the assist would have had to have been credited to referee Lee Probert for intercepting Obertan Kenobi's dribble out of defence. That effort rose over the bar, though Stewart Downing brought Tim Krul into action low down at his near post.

However, on 25 minutes we were the side that nudged in front - somewhat fortuitously it has to be said. While Vuckic jogged to the touchline for treatment after getting belted in the face, Raylor whipped a curling right-footed cross in from the left which Dreamboat, deep in the area, flicked goalwards with his head. With Demba Ba breathing down his neck, Daniel Agger shouldered the ball past Jose Reina, who had already committed himself to diving to his left.

Rattled by that setback, Liverpool responded with a flurry of balls into our box. When Adam's low cross from the right was prodded partially clear by Mr T, the No-Necked Text Pest was perfectly positioned to arrow a shot into the bottom left-hand corner, Mike Williamson having shifted to his left to unwittingly create the necessary gap.

It could have got worse before the break, with Martin Skrtel - looking slightly less like a neo-Nazi, now he's got some hair - heading narrowly wide and our left flank looking vulnerable owing to the bookings collected by both Spidermag and Raylor.

The latter made way for Davide Santon at the interval, but we remained on the back foot. Dreamboat made a wince-inducing challenge on Jay Spearing that went unpunished (but that may well result in retrospective disciplinary action), but otherwise it was the hapless Rocky who was the focus, fluffing opportunities aplenty including one moment when he miscontrolled a perfect pass over the defence straight into Krul's hands.

That ball had been delivered by Gerrard, by now on for Adam, while the Silver Fox belatedly made the right decision and replaced Vuckic with HBA on 65 minutes. Two minutes later, though, we were behind. Probert's award of a free-kick to Liverpool for a Mr T challenge on Agger was appalling, but from that point we - and by that I mean Danny Simpson - should have defended it better. With everyone in place, Simpson suddenly backpedalled frantically to the line as if tracking an imaginary runner, then advanced again just as the No-Necked Text Pest struck the dead ball. Sadly, it was enough to distract the normally infallible Krul and the ball squeezed between 'keeper and defender and flew in.

Ba, so often our saviour this season, very nearly hauled us level, a clever run and angled shot somehow hacked off the line by Skrtel with the away end howling at the linesman to award a goal. For Liverpool, though, Rocky was getting closer, thumping a header off the crossbar. Having provided that cross, Gerrard opted to take matters into his own hands, bursting untracked onto a Jordan Henderson pass and slipping the ball through Krul's legs from an acute angle.

At that point all ambition, hope and belief seemed to evaporate and we played out the final quarter of an hour like a side incapable of conceiving that salvaging a draw might still be possible. Little Big Lad replaced Obertan Kenobi but was no better in terms of trickery or penetration, and our only consolation was the fact that an aerial confrontation with the magnificent Sideshow Bob had seen the home side's two-goal striker leave the pitch prematurely with a bloodied face. Like Dreamboat, our skipper can perhaps also expect to hear from the FA.

This was our fifth league defeat of the season, and while not our worst it certainly wasn't particularly pretty. Perhaps most worryingly, it was the first time we'd taken the lead and lost - hopefully not the reappearance of an all-too-familiar failing...

A Liverpool fan's view: Liverpool Football Club Blog

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

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Friday, December 30, 2011

Quote of the day

"You never want to lose great players and we never wanted to lose Andy. I'd take him back if I had the chance. If the fee offered by Liverpool had not been so high, he'd still be here."

Wishful thinking from the Silver Fox - I'm not sure what Liverpool would accept for their £35m misfiring* striker, but somehow I doubt they'd be prepared to cut their losses so severely as to make the fee palatable to Jabba...

* True at time of writing, probably not true by 9.30 tonight.



Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Quality B&B not to the Trotters' taste

Bolton 0 - 2 Newcastle Utd

Given our propensity for Boxing Day calamities (and a winless sequence stretching all the way back to 1988), a trip to Bolton - where we'd lost seven out of eight and suffered a 5-1 shellacking last season - was not really the post-Christmas fixture we'd asked Santa for. Thankfully, as it turned out the more telling pre-match stat was that the Trotters had been beaten in all but one of their home games this campaign, and we strolled to a comfortable victory.

Clinical finishing by B&B (HBA and Demba Ba) ultimately proved the difference between the two sides but arguably of equal importance was the return of Mike Williamson, who started a match for the first time since early May. If memories of the torrid time he endured at the Reebok last time out were playing on his mind, it certainly didn't show. The Silver Fox singling him out for post-match praise was also a comment on James Perch's efforts to fill the central defensive breach, of course - but, as harsh as it might seem, the truth is that Williamson looked to be the Premier League defender that Perch simply isn't.

A largely incident-free first half will have come as something of a relief to anyone in the sold-out crowd suffering from a pounding festive hangover, if not to the Match Of The Day editors. Raylor, restored to the starting line-up in place of the injured Davide Santon, forced Jussi Jaaskelainen into diving to push away a 25-yard free-kick, while Tim Krul had to do the same to deny Martin Petrov. Leon O'Best had an opportunity towards the end of the half but headed wide, his early-season golden touch seeming to have deserted him.

After the interval the Trotters' £4m turkey David Ngog helped create an opening for strike partner Ivan Klasnic, only for the Croatian to trip over his own feet. Helpfully for us, that haplessness soon spread throughout the home side. HBA, on for O'Best (who had left the pitch muttering his dissatisfaction with an entirely justifiable decision by the Silver Fox) on the hour mark, took just eight minutes to get onto the scoresheet. Chris Eagles surrendered possession cheaply to Spidermag, and the overlapping Raylor's low pull-back was elegantly stroked home on the volley by the substitute for only his second Toon goal.

Two minutes later we extended our advantage. This time it was Paul Robinson who gifted the ball to Mr T. Obertan Kenobi had time and space to measure his skidding cross into the six-yard area, where Ba made a monkey of Chelsea-bound Gary Cahill, darting in to slice the ball into the top corner. The Senegalese striker's two spectacular strikes against West Brom were ultimately without reward, so it was pleasing to see him notch an instinctive poacher's goal that did count.

Owen Coyle's response was to replace his front pairing with Kevin Davies and Tuncay, but neither the Trotters' oft-underestimated target man nor the ex-Smoggie could lever their side back into the game and we held out for a gift-wrapped win to cheer an away end in fine spirits (even the Spiderman hauled out by police...).

With the trip to Anfield and the home fixture against Man Utd to come, I don't think many would be prepared to claim that we've definitely emerged out the other side of our sticky period, but this was an unexpected and therefore particularly welcome result after our poor recent run.

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

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Sunday, December 25, 2011

Season's greetings

Merry Christmas to all our readers! Here's hoping we've all been sufficiently good this year for Santa to bring us three points at Bolton tomorrow...

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Baggie blues

A couple of months back, out of the blue, we received an email to the B&W&RAO account from a chap called Adam, an old schoolfriend of mine with whom I'd long lost touch. Turns out that, visiting Run Geordie Run's site, he'd noticed my name immediately above his in the list of sponsors, done a quick Google search and stumbled across this 'ere blog. So it's thanks to the site that we're Newcastle united again. Serendipity I salute you!

Anyway, we've wasted no time in roping Adam into a contributor's role, and below is his first piece, a report on a painful evening on Tyneside...

Newcastle Utd 2 - 3 West Brom

It’s official: the slump has hit. If a recession can be defined as two successive quarters of negative growth, then that seems a fair label for the team’s current plight. Alas, it seems that despite our bright start to the season the Silver Fox is proving no more successful at abolishing boom and bust than Gordon Brown. One point from three matches against the two Manchester clubs and Chelsea is one thing; the same tally from games against Norwich, Swansea and West Brom is quite another. And talking of money, it won’t have escaped many fans’ attention that we now haven’t won a home game since St James’ Park became the Sp**ts Di**ct Ar**a.

To be fair to Roy Hodgson’s side, the Baggies produced an excellent counter-attacking display and despite Newcastle’s superior possession the scoreline could easily have been worse. Meanwhile our makeshift defence, which looked surprisingly competent with Saylor and Sideshow Bob in the middle, last night appeared ponderous and porous as Peter Odemwingie and Shane Long made hay.

With Dreamboat suspended and Dans Guthrie and Gosling out, the big question ahead of kick-off was the identity of Mr T’s partner in central midfield. Speculation about Mehdi Abeid was silenced with the announcement that Haris Vuckic would make his first Premier League start. Aside from this change, the Silver Fox fielded the same side that drew with Swansea on Saturday.

The game started quietly, with Newcastle having most of the play and James Perch looking unusually tidy at the back. However, any delusions of defensive competence were shattered in the 20th minute when a loose pass from Mr T was intercepted and Chris Brunt’s weighted through-ball arced past Sideshow Bob for the pacy Odemwingie to control and finish with a crisp shot which pinged in off the left-hand upright.

Newcastle hit back almost immediately with Ba putting the ball in the Baggies’ net only for the effort to be ruled offside on account of Leon O’Best straying. Only a few minutes later Tim Krul (who had a poor game by his standards, including some woeful kicking) prevented further ignominy by tipping a wayward Brunt cross onto the bar. The pressure was clearly getting to one exasperated if confused punter who urged an ineffective Spidermag to "piss off back to the Falklands".

Shortly after the half-hour nerves were calmed when Newcastle drew level. Obertan Kenobi’s mazy run led to a clumsy challenge by Jerome Thomas on the edge of the West Brom area. With Raylor on the bench, the free-kick mantle fell to Ba who took two steps and powered the ball into the top right corner, Foster’s glove not being enough to prevent a goal. The momentum was now with Newcastle with Obertan Kenobi nearly getting on the end of a deep Spidermag cross.

Just when it felt like we were in charge, however, another defensive howler provided a reality check as once again we demonstrated our aerial vulnerability. Ba conceded a free-kick mid-way inside his own half and Brunt floated the ball over to the far post, where Perch and Tiote somehow allowed Paul Scharner a free header back across goal. This was pounced upon by Gareth McAuley, who nodded past the sprawling Krul. To their credit Newcastle again hit back within a minute, the lively Vuckic rattling the stanchion with a thunderbolt. Unfortunately the rebound proved just too high for Ba, who sent his header looping over.

At the break Raylor came on for Santon and was soon involved when his neat tackle and run set up Ba, who curled a shot just wide. Two minutes later the Senegalese striker went one better and found the net only to have a second attempt chalked off due to a wandering O’Best. In a game that fully merited the description "end-to-end", it was the Baggies who went close next, as the ever-troublesome Long rounded Krul only to skew a shot off the bar.

On the hour the Silver Fox mixed things up with the introduction of HBA, who added a new dimension to the home team’s increasingly stodgy play. Most of Newcastle’s threats in the next period stemmed from his willingness to run at defenders, which caused problems even if it rarely resulted in a clean end product. However with ten minutes to go HBA got his reward, after a neat exchange with Ba on the edge of the West Brom area allowed the latter to drive home for his second of the game and 13th of the season. Newcastle nearly pressed home the advantage shortly afterwards when Vuckic’s 35-yard rasper was tipped over by Foster.

Given the rate at which both sides were creating chances, the scoreline was unlikely to stay level for long. And so it proved with five minutes to go, when Long’s looping cross was headed back across the area by Odemwingie for Scharner to poke home. One can only assume that this attack interrupted a festive game of cribbage between Perch and Simpson, who showed all the defensive awareness of a pair of pensioners nodding off during the Queen’s Speech.

Fortunately things were more animated upfront. Newcastle attacked straight from the kick-off and a repeat of last season’s scoreline looked on the cards when Mr T volleyed HBA’s near-post delivery only for Foster to pull off another good save. Mr T was involved again at the death when his scooped pass was knocked down for Vuckic to shoot but unfortunately a debut goal was not to be for the young Slovenian.

All in all, no shortage of excitement but this result above all others points to the real lack of strength in depth on Barrack Road. If Jabba and Llambiarse didn’t know it before, then arranging defensive cover in the January window is now an absolute, A1 priority. Our continued effervescence in the attacking third offers some consolation but the loss of Ba and Mr T for the African Nations Cup next month threatens to turn the slump into an all-out meltdown. With O’Best looking increasingly out of sorts, some offensive reinforcements would surely be a shrewd move too. Step forward Messrs Long and Odemwingie...

Thanks Adam! At least there was some small comfort in the form of Vuckic's performance, I suppose...

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

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No Mod cons

It's back to the drawing board as far as our January transfer plans go, it seems, following the news that Modibo Maigo failed a rigorous club medical in London last week. The deal for the Sochaux striker was being viewed as pretty much done, so its breakdown is a bit of a blow.

The player has understandably been rather nettled by events, insisting on his fitness after trying to persuade our medical staff to accept a second opinion. It's probably particularly galling knowing that we have in the past taken chances on signings with dubious injury records - most notably Demba Ba, of course, who continues to impress despite our slump in form, banging in his 12th and 13th goals of the campaign against the Baggies.

We are already looking elsewhere, including - apparently - at Crystal Palace whizzkid Wilfried Zaha, who was one of Man Utd's chief tormentors when the Eagles sprang that shock defeat on the Reds at Old Trafford in the League Cup. Several things stand in the way of bringing the electrifyingly quick teenager to Tyneside, though: the mooted £10m fee, more than Jabba is likely to want to part with in a single lump sum these days; the certainty of there being other interested parties (and Palace manager Dougie Freedman's assertion that he's "better than a Newcastle"); the fact that Peter Beardsley can't seem to time his scouting trips right...



Wednesday, December 21, 2011

All Rhodes lead to St James'?

Last month I mentioned our alleged interest in Huddersfield striker Jordan Rhodes. Well, here's the fruit of my recent research into the Terriers' goal machine. Suffice to say that if we were to make a move in January, we'd face stiff competition...



Tuesday, December 20, 2011

This barren land

Newcastle Utd 0 - 0 Swansea City

Despite a stirring pre-match tribute to Gary Speed, we were unable to rouse our attacking instincts to the point where we could breach Swansea's miserly defence on Saturday.

The Silver Fox was able to welcome back his first-choice midfield pairing of Mr T and Dreamboat and also the return of Sideshow Bob as captain and Leon O'Best up front in what was a significantly strengthened side from the one battered into submission by Norwich a week ago. Only the continuing presence of James Perch in our back line looked to be a significant concern. With Raylor absent through injury, it also allowed Davide Santon an opportunity to stake his claim for a regular start at left-back.

The restoration of the Ba/Best combination up front looked to pay dividends, with the two combining regularly to carve out chances which our Senegalese striker was unable to quite convert, either being thwarted by foul play, the woodwork or Tim Krul's compatriot Michel Vorm.

With Dreamboat stroking the ball around beautifully, we dominated the first half, with both Ba and Sideshow Bob hitting the posts, the former after a clever lay-off from the chest of O'Best and the latter from a beautifully flighted free kick.

Goalless at half-time, unfortunately we couldn't press on and snatch victory in the second half. Big Lad almost broke the deadlock within seconds of replacing Best as he latched on to Santon's clever through ball, only to see his shot fail to ripple the net.

At the other end, the return of Sideshow Bob undoubtedly steadied the ship, with only one real scare when Scott Sinclair shot wide when well placed. Otherwise, the clean sheet constituted a welcome return to our defensive miserliness, only for our attack to themselves founder.

To be honest, we'll play far worse this season and win games, albeit our failure to take maximum points against Swansea was frustrating. Of perhaps wider significance was the return of Mike Williamson to the bench after a run-out for the reserves earlier in the week, and a late appearance for Haris Vuckic in place of Mr T, both representing a timely return to the first-team squad with the hectic Christmas schedule arriving.

However, as with our last home game, the stark reality of the importance of matters was put into context by the sight of Gary Speed's family stood on the pitch as the home crowd, led by opera singer Gwyn Hughes Jones, sang 'Bread of Heaven', while the East Stand held up cards to display a black number 11 against a white background. That, not the subsequent frustration, was undoubtedly the overriding memory from the day.

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

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Saturday, December 17, 2011

Naming names

In response to the most recent installment of A Month Of Saturdays, regular US reader Bob enquired as to how the UK media were approaching the issue of what to call our stadium. The truth is that I wasn't sure, but it seems as though the BBC - who we'd have hoped would have been the last to bow to Jabba's whim - have started calling it by his chosen name. Enough to prompt fanzine True Faith into organising a petition for those wanting to express indignation at the ground being referred to as anything other than St James' Park.

So, if you feel as passionately about it as they - and Paul and I - do, then click here to stick your name down and defend our ground's good name.



Friday, December 16, 2011

Quote of the day

"I have never met a more determined pro in my career."

Staggeringly, Colin Wanker was referring to none other than the Little Waster, who it's now feared will miss the whole campaign through injury first sustained within seven minutes of making his QPR debut. To be fair to Wanker, though, he might have been referring to Dyer's determination not to leave the treatment room. (Incidentally, I wonder if Dyer'll get any sympathy from his fellow ex-Toon colleague, or whether ASBO will be too busy learning the basics of leftist power analysis and generative grammar...)

In other news, a couple of ne'er-do-wells from the Dark Place have been arrested after damaging cars in the centre of Newcastle. Not exactly a big story, except for the fact that the two meat-headed morons in question actually play for the Mackems... I imagine Messrs Bendtner and Cattermole (the latter the club captain, no less) were like safari park chimps, snapping windscreen wipers and smearing shit on paintwork. Welcome to Sunderland, Martin O'Neill - this is what you've got to work with.

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Just a bit of banter

Not Toon-related in any way, shape or form, and to be honest it's less like shooting fish in a barrel than like shooting a blue whale in a pond, but Marina Hyde's ridiculing of the attempts of Richard Keys and Andy Gray ("Keysy and Grayey") to sell themselves as professional after-dinner entertainers is brilliant.

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Thursday, December 15, 2011

I ain't consultin' no professional, fool

The wonders of modern medicine, the specialist know-how of fitness specialists and physiotherapists, the expertise of sports psychologists. All fine and well but, according to the Mirror, not enough for Mr T, who has allegedly tried to speed up recovery from his knee injury by heading home to the Ivory Coast to pay a visit to "his favourite witch doctor" and get the curse lifted.

Two things struck me about this, apart from the obvious WTF?. Firstly, the article refers to this particular witch doctor being Mr T's "favourite" - like he knows loads of others to choose from. And secondly, if he did indeed fly back home, then I assume he had to be given some drugged milk first.

Meanwhile, the Silver Fox has been taking notes from the managerspeak textbook by reiterating our determination to cling on to the midfielder in the transfer window while at the same time making clear that that resolve would evaporate if Chelsea, Man Utd or whoever were to offer us the right price...



Quote of the day

"I want to stay at this club for a long, long time and, hopefully, because I am still only 23, I can do that. I am loving life, and going to places like Old Trafford is special."

Music to our ears from Tim Krul. It seems he hasn't realised that he could be going to Old Trafford every other week if he was to move to Man Utd - long may his ignorance continue.

Also talking enthusiastically about the club of late is Obertan Kenobi, who experienced life both in Manchester and St James' Park: "I have never experienced anything like this at Newcastle. So many people follow the club and the passion around it. It's unbelievable. All the people wearing the shirts. It is great in a way but sometimes quite hard and we have been lucky with the results so far. It is good – you feel really loved." There was a caveat, though: "But I think it may be difficult when we lose." And, predictably enough, the Frenchman expressed puzzlement about the Geordie dress code: "I don't understand English people. It's freezing and just to look cool they wear T-shirts. I prefer looking really horrible, staying in my car and keeping warm..."

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Saint Michael

After the aerial mauling we got at Norwich last weekend, Mike Williamson's return to fitness really couldn't have come at a much more opportune moment. The lanky centre-half, sidelined with injury for the whole campaign thus far, featured in a behind-closed-doors game against Bolton on Tuesday, and so now looks likely to be involved for Saturday's visit of Swansea.

Better still, we may also be able to call upon the calming and assured influence of our skipper Sideshow Bob alongside him. The Swans are as poor on the road as they are effective at home, but the presence of both players in the side to help stop Danny Graham from scoring against his hometown club would be most welcome.

Who will pay the price for the Carrow Road calamities isn't totally certain, but I'd expect the Silver Fox to drop James Perch and Davide Santon and restore Raylor and Danny Simpson to the full-back positions they'd occupied all season up until our injury crisis bit. Santon may have "enjoyed" an inauspicious full Premier League debut but may not have to wait too long for more regular first-team action if, as has been reported, Simpson has rejected a new deal and is inching (or being inched) towards the exit door. (Anyone else get the impression from that Ronnie Gill article that Lee Ryder's trying to plead on Simpson's behalf? Surely he's got an agent for that sort of thing, Lee...)

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Tackling exclusion - but hard enough?

Kick It Out: a vital campaign having real successes in the fight against exclusion and discrimination in the national game, or a load of well-meant hot air achieving nothing? In conjunction with the Football Supporters' Federation, they're asking for fans' perceptions of the campaign, its merits and flaws. Click here to share your views.



Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Brown and out

Never let it be said that we don't hold grudges. It was with great amusement that we read today of the Mackem Tango Man's sacking by Preston. Having proven incapable of keeping the Lilywhites in the Championship, he's been given the boot for their steady downward slide from the summit of League One. The club's move may have been prompted by the arrival of that most unlovable of chaps Peter Ridsdale - if so, then I'm warming to him ever so slightly.

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Monday, December 12, 2011

Gosling's early bath helps Canaries triumph

Norwich City 4 - 2 Newcastle Utd

A Newcastle side shorn of centre-halves was made to suffer as Delia's Canaries ruled the sky on Saturday. Goals from Grant Holt (x2), Wes Hoolahan and Steve Morison left us with too great an obstacle to overcome, despite Demba Ba's best efforts. That Dan Gosling endured something of a horror show in midfield, culminating in his sending off, only compounded our woes.

With Sideshow Bob, Saylor and Mike Williamson all unavailable, the Silver Fox was left with no choice but to reshuffle our back line, opting to partner James Perch with Danny Simpson in the centre, bringing Davide Santon in at left-back and switching Raylor to the right. Unfortunately, our back line of full-backs always looked a little on the short side, and shorn of the physicality of both Sideshow Bob and Saylor the chances of us keeping a clean sheet looked slim.

Further forward we welcomed back Spidermag from his one-game ban, the Argentine taking the captain's armband in his countryman's absence, and with Danny Guthrie now sidelined for six weeks, Gosling was handed a rare start in the centre. Up front, HBA's poor show last week saw him kept on the bench with Big Lad preferred to Leon O'Best to partner Ba.

It was the home side who broke the deadlock first, with Tim Krul catching a ball and the linesman bizarrely ruling that he'd carried it out for a corner. That the Dutchman's feet and hands didn't move backwards meant that either it should have been a goal kick or else play should have carried on. However, the official saw it differently, and we failed to deal with the resulting corner, allowing Hoolahan to force the ball home as it pinged around our box.

Thankfully, we managed to claw back the deficit before half-time with Dreamboat chipping the ball beautifully over the Norwich backline and picking out the onrushing Ba, who controlled the ball brilliantly with his first touch before slotting home with his second.

The second half, however, saw Norwich continue to capitalise on our aerial weakness with both Holt and Morison scoring headers - the latter after Gosling had contrived to lay the ball beautifully out to the winger on the Norwich right for him to float a cross on the head of the man Gosling should, I think, have been marking.

Gosling, already booked, then managed to pick up a straight red card after he left his foot in a tackle with Russell Martin. While hardly the worst foul you'll see all year, given that he was already on a booking, the chances of him getting away with it looked remote and he duly received his marching orders.

That we got back into the game at all from there was testament to Ba, who latched on to Big Lad's fine pass after he'd done well to win the ball near the half-way line. His ball fed Ba who slotted the ball home to give us a fighting chance.

Unfortunately, the fight was then knocked out of us by Holt, who rose highest to power another header home and secure another home win for the Canaries.

Hopefully, at least one, if not both, of Williamson and Sideshow Bob might be available for Swansea's visit to St James' Park on Saturday. If not, we could be in for another torrid afternoon.

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

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Friday, December 09, 2011

Claret and blues for JJ

I know that during his time in the goldfish bowl Jermaine Jenas became good friends with the Little Waster, but there is such a thing as taking paying homage to your role model a step too far. I suppose we should just view it as divine justice, given that Villa fobbed Stephen Ireland off on our treatment room last season...

Elsewhere, unwise blabberings to Dutch journalists suggest that perhaps losing out to Fulham over Costa Rican striker Bryan Ruiz on transfer deadline day wasn't such a disaster (well, those blabberings and the fact that he's been a pricey flop thus far this season). Meanwhile, Lamine Diatta (remember him? Probably not) has joined Habib Beye as part of Dean Saunders' increasingly multinational (and aged) squad at Doncaster.



A Month Of Saturdays: November 2011

Over the years we've become accustomed to our beloved black and whites inspiring outbreaks of bewilderment and head-scratching a-plenty - but not like this. THIS was delicious, something to savour: hosts of journalists, wrong-footed by our entirely unexpected success, striving to put their pinkies on exactly where and exactly how it all went right.

But, as has been evident so often before, the author of our club's fate is clearly an aficionado of the work of Thomas Hardy, and so, with a sense of crushing inevitability, delight was followed with despair. The very day that Paul chose to survey those story-of-our-success articles, it was announced that Jabba, in his infinite wisdom, had decided to rename St James' Park as the Sports Direct Arena. (With hindsight, of course, the replacement of the old East Stand sign with one bearing Sports Direct branding looked like a stealthy move, a precursor to the announcement.)

Just what is it that compels Jabba and Llambiarse to so often undermine any good work they may have done or obliterate any good will they may have accumulated? Clearly there are a whole host of factors which have contributed to a hugely encouraging opening third of the season, but the duo can take some credit for getting things shipshape behind the scenes and helping to provide the platform for a unified team playing (and winning) with spirit, skill and a one-for-all-and-all-for-one attitude. But no sooner have Jabba and Llambiarse given us what we want than the pair memorably referred to by ASBO as "those two cretins" give the media and the rest of the footballing world what THEY want - namely, off-field turmoil, discord and high farce.

Disappointingly, given the mutterings of mutiny among some fans who were once again left feeling ignored and bulldozered by an indifferent hierarchy, the genuine opposition and protest extended little further than one man prising up a brick in disgust. It was left to the chief executive of Virgin Money, the new owners of current-but-not-for-much-longer sponsors Northern Rock, to pour icily cold water on the contention that changing the stadium name - pissing on over one hundred years of heritage, essentially - was justifiable on commercial grounds (or, in Llambiarse's words, "inviting people to come in").

And then, typically, once the organ grinder had made the decision, his monkey just had to go and compound matters by ill-advisedly allowing his gob to open while in company. There were echoes of Fat Fred and Deadly Doug's famous ridiculing of Wor Al as "Mary Poppins" in Llambiarse's unguarded comments about the Lion of Gosforth - a man whose very name, as my personal travels through Southeast Asia during the month proved, remains indissolubly associated with the club, as well as being a key term in the international lingua franca of football.

Not content with publicly slagging off one legend, Llambiarse moved on to take aim at King Kev (unable to handle the pressure) and Chris Hughton (incapable of making a decision), before announcing in a way that seems to suggest a bizarre degree of pride: "You guys don’t ­understand how fucking ­horrible we can be". I think we've all got a fair idea now, thanks Del Boy, but - as Paul suggested - no doubt you'll still find some ingenious way to upset and disgust us again in the future.

The Silver Fox came in for praise for apparently daring to have his own views and express them to the hierarchy - but wasn't that exactly what caused the breakdown of the relationship with King Kev? And, in any case, the manager is all too aware that the circumstances in which he's being asked to operate are largely beyond his control. His comments about the forthcoming transfer window suggested someone steeling themselves for another January shafting. It's inevitable that other clubs will be sniffing around our players, but we're under no obligation to sell and so that interest will only be a problem if it excites Jabba into cashing in. Which, given his past track record, is worryingly likely.

The player arguably most in the spotlight in November (though not as a subject of transfer speculation) was, oddly enough, Raylor. The man who began the season as a makeshift left-back enjoyed his finest moment in a black and white shirt against Everton, easily securing Match of the Day's Goal of the Month just five days in with a sensational long-range volley. That goal, one of the best St James' Park has seen for many a year, put us 2-0 up following Johnny Heitinga's own goal, and while Jack Rodwell pulled one back on the stroke of half-time and the visitors dominated the second period, we clung on for another tremendous win which cemented our third place going into the final international break of the year.

Fast forward a fortnight and it was a rather different story. A nightmarish five-minute period immediately before the break at the Etihad saw Raylor literally hand Man City a penalty and then gift Micah Richards a second goal. We'd repelled our hosts well prior to that, and even threatened ourselves. After the interval, the inventive HBA struck the post before blotting his copybook by presenting City with another spot-kick. Our unbeaten run in the Premier League at an end, our only consolation for a gutsy David v Goliath display was a first Toon goal for substitute Dan Gosling. HBA's encounter with Nigel de Jong had been the pre-match focus, but whether the Frenchman actually met his leg-breaking assailant after the game, as was apparently agreed, I'm not sure.

If that result was supposed to signal a dramatic downturn in our fortunes, though, especially with a trip to Old Trafford next up, then we didn't seem to have read the script. We matched the champions blow for blow until the late bombardment given momentum by Spidermag's sending-off, and while the penalty which brought Demba Ba's equaliser and ultimately secured a valiant draw was dubious, anything which leaves Taggart's face an even deeper shade of puce than normal has to be celebrated as thoroughly well deserved.

Instrumental in this season's French revolution has been Dreamboat, so it was good to get to know him a little bit better courtesy of an interview written up by a clearly smitten, gooey-eyed TBW. Among the most interesting titbits were the facts that he could have chosen to play his international football for Vietnam, and that one of those who recommended he sign for us was Franck Dumas - it seems the club made far more of an impression on Dumas during his short six-appearance-long stay than he did on it...

Dreamboat may be an aesthete's dream at times, a highly skillful player with an excellent range of passing, but he also appreciates the value of hard graft and the need to apply himself at all times. An excellent role model, in other words, for some of the younger squad members. While Kazenga LuaLua was finally released to become a Seagull permanently, the loose cannon that is the Lone Ranger was shipped out to Barnsley on loan and Tamas Kadar moaned about a lack of first-team opportunities, Little Big Lad was rewarded for his conscientiousness and head-down attitude with a new contract (and some racist abuse on Twitter).

Everywhere you looked in November there were ex-Mags in the news: David Ginola, Dietmar Hamann, Little Saint Mick, Habib Beye, Andy O'Brien, Lomano Tresor LuaLua, Carl Cort (the latter for winning his second cap for Guyana, not for getting himself banned from another supermarket, in case you were wondering). Congratulations were in order to Lee Clark, whose Huddersfield side set a new Football League record of 43 games unbeaten before finally succumbing to League One leaders Charlton. A future Toon manager, perhaps?

Meanwhile, it was an unhappy month for all of our agents currently or formerly planted down at the Dark Place. While Agent Bramble served a club suspension following his arrest on suspicion of sexual assault, Agent Bruce was booted out and onto the dole by Ellis Short after a particularly dismal home defeat to Wigan and Agent Chopra, now at Ipswich, came clean about the extent of his gambling addiction.

The month was drawing to a close, the glee at having foiled Fergie's mob still fresh, when the news broke that Gary Speed had died at the age of just 42. Like the rest of the footballing world, we were stunned and saddened at the premature death of someone who always conducted himself with dignity, who was an excellent servant for the club and who clearly had a huge impact on everyone he met, both within and outside the game. Jabba and Llambiarse can muck about with superficial rebranding and relabelling all they want, but they'll never touch the club's soul in the way Speed's death did.



Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Keanly contested

The weekend's FA Cup Third Round draw saw us pitted against familiar foes, Blackburn Rovers, whom we've already met (and lost to) in the League Cup this season. Unlike that tie, however, this time we've been given home advantage, for the first time in the FA Cup Third Round since 2006. Whether Steve Kean will still be in charge of Venky's (chicken) basket-case club remains to be seen, with the side struggling in the relegation zone, though at least ex-Smog striker Yakubu seems to be doing his best to keep the manager in a job.

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Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Krul can't keep Blues at bay

Newcastle Utd 0 - 3 Chelsea

Even after a few days of reflection, it's still very hard to decide quite what to make of Saturday's meeting with Chelsea. A thrilling encounter in which we could have had the upper hand early on but which we ended up losing by some margin. A valiant defeat against a previously out-of-sorts bunch of superstars who had to turn in perhaps their best performance of the season to beat us. A match in which we were desperately unlucky and yet which we still probably deserved to lose. A contest which served as a yardstick of how far we've come, going toe-to-toe with one of the Big Boys, but which ultimately saw us in disarray, injuries to key defenders proving costly.

For those inclined to dwell on "What if?" moments, the game's key incident took place as early as the fourth minute. Dreamboat slipped a clever pass in to Demba Ba, who was bundled over by David Luiz. That it was a foul and that the Portuguese defender - the Blues' answer to our own Sideshow Bob in the barnet stakes - was the last man is beyond dispute. So referee Mike Dean's decision to show a yellow card was utterly unfathomable to all present. If he felt a foul was committed, it had to be a red card; if not, then either no free-kick or even a booking for Ba for simulation. According to an understandably incensed Silver Fox, Dean later admitted his mistake - too late for us, though.

By contrast, he had no hesitation in awarding a potentially crucial decision against us eight minutes later. Dreamboat made the mistake of dangling a leg out in the area, Daniel Sturridge made the most of it and Dean justifiably pointed to the spot. It wasn't the leg up that the visitors had hoped for, though, with Tim Krul diving low to his left to push Frank Lampard's penalty onto the post and away.

Rather than berating his team-mate for squandering the opportunity, Sturridge seemed to decide he'd take out his frustration on our back four. In the next ten minutes he screamed past Raylor and scythed into shooting positions no fewer than four times, hitting the post once, denied by Krul once and firing wide twice. While we seemed to have Didier Drogba, a regular scourge, well shackled, it was worrying that the Blues' third forward Juan Mata was, like Sturridge, finding space on his flank.

It wasn't all one-way traffic, though, and twice Ba came close to giving us the lead. First his instinctive flicked volley from Peter Lovenkrands' cross was tipped over at full stretch by Petr Cech, and then he nodded a downward header from a Danny Guthrie cross off the face of the far post.

By that point, though, we'd suffered our first injury blow, Sideshow Bob passing the captain's armband to Saylor to be replaced by James Perch. And sure enough our fears about the former Forest man's capabilities at this level were underlined as Chelsea took the lead. Slack marking from a throw-in (hotly disputed by the crowd, but Raylor conceded the ball had flicked off his forehead) allowed Mata time to loft a cross to the near post, where Drogba stole a yard on Perch to thump a header into the roof of the net.

In days gone by, our inferiority complex would have kicked in, but not now. Of course, a side who have to turn to a player like James Perch are hardly on the same level as one who can name a £50m player among their substitutes, but the crucial point is that we refused to acknowledge that fact and came out for the second half in spirited and tenacious mood. It helped that the ineffective HBA, largely nullified by Oriel Romeu, was replaced by the more boisterous Big Lad, but there was a collective rolling up of sleeves.

Big Lad was soon into the action, skimming a long-ranger wide of the left-hand post. Drogba occasionally threatened to add to his tally at the other end, but actually came closest to scoring for us, heading a Dreamboat corner onto his own crossbar under pressure from Ba. The Blues immediately broke downfield with alarming alacrity, Krul foiling Ramires to our great relief.

Since the break, though, we'd got a better grip on the slippery Sturridge and Mata and were gaining in momentum. Lovenkrands, somewhat lucky to get the suspended Spidermag's place on the left side of midfield, was withdrawn, and within three minutes of getting onto the pitch Little Big Lad had had an effort blocked on the line by the increasingly ponderous John Terry.

Our last real chance saw both brothers thwarted, first Big Lad cracking the crossbar with a tremendous shot from outside the area and then Little Big Lad's follow-up smothered by Cech. Guthrie whacked a long-ranger over the bar, but we were running out of ideas and Chelsea sensed the opportunity to finish us off. Perch, who had actually acquitted himself well since that mistake for the goal, did well to block Fernando Torres' shot, but the Spaniard was able to feed fellow substitute Salomon Kalou and the flick his shot received off Krul's fingertips was enough to send it past the man covering in vain on the line.

Saylor had pulled up moments earlier, his immobility crucial to the goal, and with all three substitutions made, we were reduced to ten men. Sturridge finally got the better of Krul in injury time, a goal his display probably merited, but, as far as rubbing salt in the wound of defeat goes, that was nothing compared to the news that we're likely to be without Saylor for the rest of the campaign.

That injury, and the less severe one suffered by Sideshow Bob, cast a long shadow over the next few weeks and months. We're now down to sixth and without our first-choice central defensive unit, one of the meanest in the English leagues.

But the moving and impeccably observed pre-match tribute to Gary Speed helps to put it all into perspective. What's a 3-0 defeat and the temporary loss of a couple of players to injury compared to the permanent loss of a legend of the game at a tragically early age, but more importantly of a son, a husband and a father? We should take pride in another good performance and in the fact that, being spirited, courageous, professional, hard-working and determined, we're currently a side in Speed's image.

A Chelsea fan's verdict: Chelsea FC Blog

Other reports: BBC, Observer

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Thursday, December 01, 2011

The fear

If there's one thing guaranteed to bring the Silver Fox out in a cold sweat, it seems, it's the prospect of the looming transfer window, now just a month away. While it's eagerly awaited by some managers, presenting an opportunity to plug gaps, ship out the unwanted and generally freshen up a stale squad, our gaffer's perspective is somewhat different. This season's unexpected success has brought a new challenge: keeping hold of our best performers for the second half of the season when the big boys are in the market to strengthen and have the financial clout to do so.

Key candidates almost certain to be targeted include Mr T, Dreamboat, Demba Ba and Sideshow Bob, all outstanding thus far this season. If us supporters were looking for reassurances that any advances will be resisted, we weren't given any: "Nothing is certain here. We could lose one of our great players, who knows? Some of the financial decisions are taken out of my hands. I want to strengthen in one or two areas but we'll have to be on our guard against one of our best players going when the window opens. You can never think you're OK." He's clearly learned lessons from the chastening experience of the Rocky affair, so should I suppose be commended for his realism and honesty - but at the same time what we really want to hear are guarantees that Jabba won't allow our rivals to decimate the squad in pursuit of a quick buck. Over to you, Jabba...

Of course, a more immediate challenge is the visit of Chelsea on Saturday. In that respect, too, the Silver Fox has been talking about fear - though in that instance he thinks it's his opposite number Andre Villas-Boas and his Blues side who'll be the ones quaking in their boots. Not so sure about that, but our visitors are certainly underperforming and under pressure, and we're in sufficiently good form and spirit to make life very difficult indeed for them.

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No Brucey bonus as Ol' Cauliflower Face is left feeling Short-changed

"If others see fit to make a change then so be it but I'm ready for the challenge ahead." Famous last words from Ol' Cauliflower Face, now that "others" - well, Mackem owner Ellis Short - have indeed seen fit to "make a change" and given him the boot. Now the only challenge he faces is deciding what daytime TV to watch.

The final straw was Saturday's dismal Dark Place defeat by his former club Wigan, previously rock bottom of the table, during and after which the Great Unwashed booed with a vigour suggesting pantomime season has already begun down there.

Being a Geordie - a plastic one, despite his numerous protestations to the contrary - they never really took to him, and you have to salute Agent Bruce for leaving them within touching distance of the brown stuff. Highlights of his reign include sanctioning the sale of the club's prime goalscorer and then allowing Darren Bent's readymade replacement to leave for top-class football in, er, the United Arab Emirates - as well, of course, as masterminding our 5-1 thrashing of the miserable wretches last Halloween and the almost equally sweet win at the start of this campaign.



Aye Ayatollah

Not content with broadcasting his opinions via Twitter, ASBO has seized the offer of a soap box provided by QPR podcast Open All R's to reignite old feuds: "The manager was different class but I wouldn't want to go back and work for those two cretins. Ashley is the Ayatollah. Nothing happens without his say".

His dislike of Jabba and Lambiarse and subsequent departure wasn't just a personality clash, or the result of his having issues with authority, though - apparently it revolved around a more general dispute over bonuses. Certainly ASBO's talk of insubordination from senior players filtering "back to boardroom level", and of Jabba being determined to wield "power and control", would help to explain the exits of Kevin Nolan and Chris Hughton, as well as the sidelining of Steve Harper and Alan Smith.

Whatever the truth, though, one thing's for sure: if I was a QPR fan, I'd be getting increasingly irritated with how much greater interest ASBO seems to have in his previous club than in his current one...

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Idle hands

Contrasting fortunes for our two loan 'keepers at the weekend. While Fraser Forster sat twiddling his thumbs as his outfield team-mates blasted five past his opposite number in the St Mirren goal, Ole Soderberg did likewise, though only because he didn't even feature in the squad for League One strugglers Chesterfield, who remain rooted to the foot of the table after the 1-0 defeat to Sheffield Utd.

Meanwhile, making his debut for the Steel City's other outfit was James Tavernier, having swapped Brunton Park for Hillsborough. The defender helped his new side to a clean sheet as they ambled to victory over Leyton Orient. Up the M1 Nile Ranger was also making his first appearance for temporary employers - though by the time he came off the Barnsley bench the Tykes already had the 2-1 lead over Leeds that won them the game.

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