Monday, February 28, 2011

The quiet life

Jermaine Jenas may have famously fled the "goldfish bowl", swapping Newcastle for London to escape the close scrutiny of the local media and fans, but speaking to the Daily Heil Cheik Tiote has claimed he decided to stay put for exactly the opposite reason. Far from finding Tyneside an unbearable pressure cooker atmosphere, he sees it as somewhere for a quiet life - unlike the capital: "Newcastle life is good for me. It is not like London - London is too busy, there are too many people. Newcastle is not so busy. That makes it easier to focus on your job. For me it is important."

Of course, the real revelation of the interview is the fact that there was a genuine approach for Tiote on transfer deadline day, from Chelsea, and that we were able to cling on to him. No doubt that prompted his new six-and-a-half-year contract - though, as the Journal's Stuart Rayner pointed out, the deal "is less a financial arrangement between club and midfielder, more a series of statements of intent".

Some, Rayner notes, may perceive the deal as arguably being "naively romantic" - but, on the contrary, it may actually be hard-nosed pragmatism. Perhaps we're resigned to losing the Ivorian in the summer and Jabba's determined to ensure he reaps maximum profit. Rocky all over again, in other words.

Ultimately, though, could we see Tiote being good enough to play for one of the sides in contention to qualify for next season's Champions League? The answer has to be yes - and, as painful and damaging as his loss would undoubtedly be, we couldn't really begrudge him that opportunity given the immense contribution he's already made to our season.



Quacking but not cracking up

Newcastle 1 - 1 Bolton

Skipper Kevin Nolan marked our return to Premier League action after a weekend off with a goal against his former club - celebrated with what he's christened "the quack" - but Ryan Taylor's red card meant that ultimately we had to be satisfied with a point.

Taylor was a surprise inclusion in the starting line-up, ASBO dropping out after picking up a tweak in the warm-up, but that was Alan Pardew's only change from the side that beat the new League Cup winners a week last Tuesday.

We began with all the offensive intent of a team out to avenge that 5-1 savaging at the Reebok in November and had already gone close twice - a Leon Best shot and strike partner Peter Lovenkrands' clever volley - before taking the lead. Cheik Tiote set about repaying us for the new six-and-a-half-year deal he's just been handed by whipping in a right-footed cross from the left that Nolan flicked past Jussi Jaaskelainen and several attendant Bolton defenders.

Best was proving himself a real unsettling force to the Trotters' central defence and ex-Smog lunk David Wheater in particular. He had one effort blocked, headed another over and was also felled in the area by Paul Robinson only to be flagged offside.

Sadly, our inability to capitalise on that dominance was to prove costly. Tiote, so often brilliant for us this season, gave us a flash of his Achilles heel, overplaying on the edge of his own penalty area. Johan Elmander nicked the ball to Daniel Sturridge and the on-loan Chelsea striker needed no invitation to shoot past Steve Harper and continue his impressive goalscoring form.

If the equaliser came harshly against the run of play, the likelihood of our being able to regroup and regain control of the match receded just eight minutes after the break. Taylor lost the ball in midfield, and while Pardew was probably right to suggest afterwards that there was no malice in his lunging tackle on Johan Elmander, referee Chris Foy was entirely justified in curtailing the Scouser's first first-team appearance for some time. Taylor, Coloccini, Williamson: if Bolton's Swedish forward ever does sign for Newcastle, then the line of new team-mates he'll be expecting apologies from will be quite lengthy...

The visitors seized the initiative handed to them, but while the holes that were opening up gave cause for alarm, particularly with Martin Petrov looking dangerous, we didn't buckle. Pardew went for insurance in replacing the out-of-sorts Spidermag with Steven Taylor, while fellow substitute Nile Ranger, afforded the best part of 25 minutes at Lovenkrands' expense, was only denied a first top-flight goal by an unfortunately eagle-eyed linesman. Bolton almost did our job for us, Robinson perilously close to chesting a back-pass beyond Jaaskelainen and Marcos Alonso a bit lucky not to join Ryan Taylor for an early bath.

A home draw against a side who had lost their previous six league games on the road, especially with the chances we created, wouldn't look too clever if it wasn't for the circumstances. As it was, though, deprived of the increasingly talismanic ASBO and having to play for well over half an hour with ten men, a point to nudge us closer to safety was probably welcome.

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

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Oba the moon

On an afternoon when fellow Toon old boys Scott Parker and Damien Duff also scored vital goals for West Ham and Fulham respectively, Obafemi Martins stole the headlines. The Birmingham substitute, on loan from Rubin Kazan, came on to prod the ball into an empty net following a mix-up between Arsenal's Wojciech Szczesny and Laurent Koscielny in the 89th minute of the League Cup Final. Quite a way in which to open his Blues account, and unsurprisingly the Nigerian striker's familiar gymnastic routine was dusted off.

Aside from leaving Arsene Wenger ruminating on yet another trophy-winning opportunity squandered, the goal ensured winners' medals for both Lee Bowyer and Stephen Carr as well as Martins. It beggars belief that Carr, the one-paced chugger whose tackling and positional sense used to so infuriate us, has now gone from the soccer scrapheap to captaining a Premier League side to silverware.

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Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Quote of the day

"The agenda has been set and I have to work to that. They want players here with value. In defence of Mike Ashley, there are times when players have come to this club with no future value, even though they have been successful. That is an area he does not want to be involved in again. Without naming names, that is something I have to understand. I have to bring players here of a good age who can add value."

Yes, no "naming names", Alan, but are you vigorously gesticulating in Sol Campbell's direction?

Nothing much to report in the build-up to Saturday's home game against Bolton, so let's turn instead to Rocky. According to his new manager Kenny Dalglish, he's not yet ready to make his bow for Liverpool. Presumably, as a 50 Cent fan, he'll be desperate to get back to full fitness as soon as possible if it means an end to bonding sessions with the gaffer at Boyzone concerts. You wonder if canny Kenny had promised him a night out with the lads?

Meanwhile, Mackem chairman Niall Quinn has continued his offensive on his own club's stayaway fans, claiming that if attendances don't pick up, then their recent spending levels will be unsustainable and they may well have to start flogging off the family silver. We don't seem to have any such concerns, thankfully - something to be said in favour of Jabba's tightfistedness.

And finally, here's a rarity - a football blog written by a woman. Terrace Bint's a really good 'un an' all.

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Tuesday, February 22, 2011

A tall order?

Today's Ronny Gill is claiming that we're going to be offered Peter Crouch in the summer. But will we be interested in the man who helped Spurs to beat Italian champions elect AC Milan in their own back yard last week?

There's no doubting that Crouchinho is a very good player and would to an extent serve as a replacement for Rocky. But the price would have to be right (unlikely, given that everyone knows we're flush with the Scousers' cash), as would the wages - particularly for someone who, at 29, would buck our trend of signing youth.

What's more, 'Appy 'Arry only currently has three strikers for his van-der-Vaart-friendly 4-5-1 formation, of whom Crouch has been the most successful. Practically all of the Dutch playmaker's goals seem to have been volleyed finishes from two yards out following knock-downs from his gangly team-mate - which begs the question why 'Arry would be so keen to flog him.



Monday, February 21, 2011

Quote of the day*

"It is flattering that Liverpool are interested. I've also heard that Manchester United and Aston Villa have asked about me. They are both big teams and I'm not closing the door on anyone. I'm ambitious and want to play in the Champions League. I want to win things. I'm OK at Newcastle but I aspire to more. I love the fans here and suffered with them when we were relegated. But we have to be realistic. Newcastle aren't performing well."

Jose Enrique's alleged comments to a Spanish journalist, as reported by the Sun. He's since issued the standard defence - namely, that what he actually said has been taken out of context and grossly misrepresented.

It's a difficult one to call, this. On the one hand, as I've said before, it's no surprise that Champions League clubs might be sniffing around given the level of his performances over the last season and a half, and no doubt knowing you're in demand is flattering. However, the comment about us not performing well just doesn't ring true - fair enough, the actual results haven't been great since Christmas, but the displays have been largely good and deserving of better points rewards - so it's to be hoped this is primarily media mischief-making.

Meanwhile, Fraser Forster made amends for his recent red card against Rangers in the Scottish Cup by keeping a clean sheet as Celtic strode to a 3-0 win and an eight-point advantage over their Old Firm rivals at the top of the SPL. It was a good weekend for a couple of our other loanees too, with Ben Tozer scoring Northampton's goal in a 1-1 draw with Aldershot and fellow defender James Tavernier playing his part in a 7-2 romp for Gateshead at Wrexham. Among the Heed's scorers was Martin Brittain, who's been plying his trade there since 2009.

And finally, there's a review of the book to which Paul and I contributed, Pay As You Play, up on The Two Unfortunates. While Gershenkron flags up the limitations of the Current Transfer Purchase Price as a measurement (it can't take into account wages, for instance), his verdict is largely favourable.

* Well, last Friday, at least.

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Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Swashbuckling Spidermag helps put Second City strugglers to the sword

Birmingham 0 - 2 Newcastle Utd

We could have been forgiven for feeling sorry for ourselves. The Fulham blip aside, four fine performances had gleaned no more than a solitary point on each occasion. But no, we tried, tried, tried again and - at the sixth time of asking - claimed the win we've so richly deserved.

Having suffered only two home defeats all season and boasting two eye-catching loan signings in the shape of David Bentley and Obafemi Martins, Birmingham were never likely to be a pushover. Martins lined up alongside two other Brum players no doubt intent on proving a point: captain Stephen Carr, allowed to leave St James' Park having repeatedly failed to impress, and Sebastian Larsson, a January transfer target whom we felt wasn't worth the terms he was demanding. And with Lee Bowyer and ex-Mackem Rat Boy Phillips lurking menacingly on the Blues' bench, it looked like a scriptwriter's dream.

So credit to us for introducing a very early and unexpected plot twist. Alan Pardew had kept faith with the same front pairing that drew a blank at Ewood Park, and that faith was repaid handsomely within two minutes when Spidermag teased in a delicious cross for Peter Lovenkrands to finish neatly.

Spidermag had capitalised on good work from Jose Enrique, who picked up where he left off against Blackburn by skinning Carr. But our Spaniard looked equally dangerous in defence, allowing himself to be pickpocketed by Martins. The Nigerian set up Peter-Crouch-on-stilts striker Nikola Zigic, who was only denied by a superb Steve Harper save.

The Serbian beanpole was always going to be difficult to keep quiet, but we were doing an admirable job. Though the home side gradually started to assert themselves, particularly through underrated midfielder Craig Gardner, we remained calm and assured, keeping them at arm's length and making it through to the break with our lead intact. That's now a half-time clean sheet in each of our last seven away games of any description - which just serves to make the Arsenal result all the more extraordinary.

Stick or twist - that was the question as the second period began. And once again we twisted with the half only a few minutes old. Spidermag again supplied the ammunition from the left, Leon Best delivering the headed finish from close range - just desserts on a night when he led the line as well as we could have hoped. Big Lad might yet have trouble reclaiming his starting place.

If it was a relief to see Martins depart before the hour mark, expressions in the away dugout and stand were grimmer when the lively Lovenkrands' evening was curtailed by injury. Zigic continued to threaten on occasions, but Roger Johnson spurned the Blues' best opportunity, heading straight at Harper from a corner. Meanwhile, Johnson and his defensive colleagues were kept on their toes by some snappy Newcastle breaks, Spidermag scything down the flank and Best and Cheik Tiote both trying their luck with shots on goal.

With 15 minutes remaining, Best was afforded a standing ovation as he left the pitch. Birmingham, desperate to weasel their way back into the game, turned appropriately enough to 37-year-old Rat Boy. Thankfully, though, our sometime scourge made little impression - and neither did fellow substitute Cameron Jerome, other than a fluffed effort as the clock ran down, leaving the sizeable Toon contingent of a crowd 6000 larger than witnessed the Second City derby last month thoroughly satisfied at a job well done.

We're now unbeaten at St Andrews in seven visits in all competitions and have closed the gap on 5under1and to just two points. More importantly, though, we've given ourselves eight points worth of breathing space over 18th-placed Wigan. Stick that in your pipe and smoke it, Whelan.

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

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Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Clean sheets all round

Blackburn Rovers 0 - 0 Newcastle Utd

An ultimately frustrating afternoon in the North West saw Newcastle return from Ewood Park with one point added to the total, but left with a nagging sense that it could have been more.

Opting to stick with the same starting XI who had in turn capitulated horribly, then come back magnificently, against Arsenal last week, Newcastle looked reasonably well matched against a Blackburn side who haven't plunged down the table, as one might have anticipated, having ditched Fat Sam earlier in the season. Instead it was the home side who perhaps squandered the first decent chance, when Roque Santa Cruz powered an effort against the post.

However, with Jose Enrique enjoying a fine game, Newcastle's left back started to prompt our attacks, and his magnificent long ball fell for Lovenkrands whose first-time lob left Paul Robinson stranded, only to bounce back off the crossbar and away from Leon Best who had followed in the Dane's shot.

Going forward, our most likely source of supply looked to be our left back, who was making significant inroads down our left, often producing a better end product than Spidermag.

Unfortunately, we couldn't quite manage to find that little bit of quality, or the little slice of luck, needed to beat the Blackburn defence, with Sideshow Bob's powerful shot straight at the keeper our best effort of the second half.

Late on, Pardew threw on Nile Ranger and new boy Shefki Kuqi, but neither was really afforded sufficient time, or opportunity, to make an impact and the game ended goalless.

The draw keeps us in the top half, but with only a handful of points separating us from the drop zone, we could do to pick up a win away to Birmingham to start to put significant distance between us and the drop zone.

Other reports: BBC, Observer

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Monday, February 14, 2011

El juego que espera*

Safety first - that's Alan Pardew's response to the question of when talks of a new contract for Jose Enrique can begin. Recruited by Fat Sam in 2007 at a cost of £6.3m, the Spaniard will be a free agent next summer. Initially underwhelming, he's currently in superb form, and with performances like Saturday's at Ewood Park (Paul's match report to come) he's certainly doing his bit to hasten Premier League survival for the team and discussions over a new deal for himself.

Not surprisingly, a clutch of top-flight rivals are allegedly casting covetous glances in Enrique's direction - including Liverpool, in desperate need of a decent left-back after the walking disaster that's been Paul Konchesky. His affection for Newcastle is evident, but it remains to be seen how Jabba will react to the anticipated demands of improved terms when talks do get underway. He could yet find himself once again supplying the ammunition for Rocky - hopefully not, though.

Speaking of whom... If those responsible for setting ablaze Rocky's new motor back in October fancy torching another Range Rover parked on Kevin Nolan's drive, they've got a great window of opportunity. Our skipper's Chelsea tractor won't be going anywhere for the next 60 days, after he was banned from driving for speeding today. Another one to chalk up for the Toon Motoring Hall Of Shame.

On a happier note, happy 60th birthday to Kevin Keegan. Appropriate that the man who sang inflicted on the world 'Head Over Heels In Love' should reach that ripe old age on Valentine's Day. Many happy returns, King Kev.

(* "The waiting game" in Spanish, if Babelfish is to be trusted...)

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Saturday, February 12, 2011

Quote of the day

"Our attendances are down for a couple of reasons and I would never criticise anyone who doesn't come to the stadium because of financial constraints but I despise those who spend far more than the price of a ticket watching some overseas commentator describing the action."

The potentially landmark European court verdict on pubs' rights to show televised 3pm matches has clearly (and amusingly) got the Mackems' normally softly-spoken chairman riled.

Still, I suppose Quinny at least has the guts to express his contempt for his own club's fans openly - unlike our own Jabba, who continues to do so covertly. The loss (or relocation) of the St James' Park singing section without consultation is just the latest instance. I'm sure the fact that that's where much of the anti-Jabba sentiment originates is just a coincidence...

Quinn isn't the only grumpy-pants at the Stadium of Shite. Ol' Cauliflower Face has had his strangely shaped nose put out of joint by Fabio Capello, who dared to suggest that Darren Bent would be more likely to feature for England now that he's swapped the Dark Place for Villa Park.

And finally, the Metro are reporting that Little Saint Mick might be set for a return to Newcastle. Don't panic, though - we're talking about Australian outfit Newcastle Jets, who will apparently offer a racehorse to tempt him to leave Man Utd for the A-League...

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Friday, February 11, 2011

Finn deal finalised

Our desperation in the wake of Rocky's hasty exit was confirmed with the recruitment of free agent Shefki Kuqi, Alan Pardew commenting: "We needed another option up front because we are a little light there due to the temporary loss of Shola, and Shefki will provide us with something different." Yes, Alan, signing up that great lump will certainly address the lightness issue...

Kuqi, understandably, is delighted at the turn of events: "I don't really have the words to describe how happy I am. To get this chance is a massive thing for me". Rather like Pardew and Graeme Souness before him, the Finn probably can't believe his luck at our charity.

All that said, the name "Sibierski" does keep cropping up. When we signed the bit-part player from Man City on a free transfer, we referred to him as "the equivalent of a cheap, crap sparkler" amidst a fireworks display of an August transfer deadline day - and yet a year later we had to chow down on humble pie, conceding that he'd been a surprisingly good addition. Here's hoping (and praying) that Kuqi can have the same impact - but having seen him play for Stockport, Blackburn, Ipswich, Crystal Palace and Swansea, I for one won't be holding my breath.

In any case, his window of opportunity might not be as wide open as had been first thought. According to Pardew, Big Lad could be in line to return sooner than expected - two or three weeks, perhaps - clad in a protective mask of the sort usually sported by NBA basketball players. A masked man up front will sit nicely with having Spidermag on the wing. Perhaps they can form a crime-fighting duo - though there'd be less to do around the club now that Rocky's left.

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Quote of the day

"I was prepared to pay so much because those French jerseys from '98 are very hard to come across. There are only six in circulation: a Zidane, a Trezeguet, a Desailly, a Boghossian and two Guivarc'hs."

An interesting titbit courtesy of distraught French fan Olivier Demolis, whose David Trezeguet '98 World Cup final shirt was destroyed by customs officials convinced it was a fake. Who would have thought "sought-after" might be an adjective legitimately applied to "Guivarc'h"? The nominal striker's contribution to France's World Cup triumph (five games, no goals) was about as impressive as his contribution on Tyneside (four games, one goal - and that in a 4-1 thrashing at home to Liverpool). The worst striker ever to play in the Premier League, according to a 2009 feature in the Daily Heil - and for once we're actually inclined to agree with Dacre's rag.

On the subject of fleeting visitors to St James' Park, here's a half-decent guide to the stadium and its environs. And while I'm on the subject of links, Billy Furious' report on the Arsenal match captures the despondency, passion, madness and joy of the occasion far better than my own effort.

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Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Kuqi, Kuqi, who?!!

Loath as I am to be negative about any player before they've even kicked a ball for us, it's hard not to be bewildered by the news that we're apparently hoping to replace a £35m menace to world-class Premier League defenders with a 34-year-old journeyman lunk who couldn't cut in the Championship. "Plenty of experience"? Yes, not much of it any good, though. The very definition of the phrase "Beggars can't be choosers"?

There must be better options than the Finn. We've been linked with two other strikers seeking gainful employment, ex-Smog Jeremie Aliadiere and Brazilian Ewerthon, but surely if we had any nous we'd have had a punt on Bolton's Johan Elmander even before Rocky left, just to be on the safe side. The Swedish international doesn't sound that struck on staying in Lancashire - ungrateful, you could say, given that the Trotters paid £8m for him and stuck by him through a thin couple of seasons - and with his contract up in the summer we could potentially have got him at a knock-down price. Wouldn't it be nice to be glad of the club's foresight for once, rather than ruefully reflecting on events with hindsight?

Better news in the form of Saturday's match-winner (well, it felt like that...) Cheik Tiote telling the Ronny Gill that he's got no intention of going anywhere, despite rumours of interest from on high. That's only reassuring to a point, though - after all, Rocky said much the same thing repeatedly (as did his manager) only for the price to be right.

It's no surprise that clubs of the calibre of Man Utd and Chelsea might be sniffing around. He's been nothing short of a revelation this season, a tireless worker who shields our defence from getting too stressed and strained - and, as if he wasn't valuable enough, he's now added spectacular goalscoring to his repertoire. The best £3.5m spent in the summer? Hard to believe sometimes that he cost a tenth of the fee Liverpool paid for Rocky...

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Tuesday, February 08, 2011

And then there was one?

So, Leon Best and Nile Ranger have dropped out of the Republic of Ireland and England U20 squads respectively. Please, please, please let the withdrawals be precautionary. In Best's case, however, that seems unlikely - it's being reported that he's suffering from hamstring-hamstrungness.

With doubts hanging over both players' heads, Big Lad sidelined for the next few weeks, the Xisco Kid back in Spain and Rocky busy getting his feet under the table on Merseyside, that leaves us with one striker: Peter Lovenkrands. 4-5-1 formation for Blackburn on Saturday, anyone?

Equally concerning as the striker situation, arguably, is the fact that Cheik Tiote will be pressed into action for the Ivory Coast against African rivals Mali tonight. At least the game's taking place in France so the trip won't be as long and draining as it might have been, but knowing that Saturday's hero, one of our most precious players, will be involved in a meaningless kickabout has me rather nervous. After Saturday's extraordinary events, might his international teammate Emmanuel Eboue be tempted to play him a hospital ball or two?

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Quote of the day

"There's no point whingeing about referees after games. It's not going to change the result."

Try telling that to your manager as well as Jack Wilshere, Theo.... Interesting to hear a player - albeit an unusually level-headed one - alert to the potential pitfalls of Twitter. Jose Enrique has already landed himself in trouble thanks to the site - how long before Danny Simpson and Nile Ranger follow suit?

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Monday, February 07, 2011

Mission impossible

Newcastle Utd 4 - 4 Arsenal

Incredible. Simply incredible.

Players, commentators, pundits, hacks - please take note: THAT was a game of two halves.

On a weekend of remarkable top-flight matches, ours was the most extraordinary as we became the first team in Premier League history (or, as Sky would have it, since time began) to come back from a four-goal deficit and claim a point. Arsenal can whinge all they like about incidents in the sensational second half, but nothing can detract from the fact that that 45-minute period was one of the most stirring we've ever produced. When even ASBO confesses post-match to being left speechless, you know you've just witnessed something quite stunning.

With Big Lad ruled out through injury, Peter Lovenkrands got the nod ahead of Nile Ranger to partner Leon Best. We were however boosted by the return from suspension of Cheik Tiote, who took Danny Guthrie's place in midfield. Little did we know quite how significant the Ivorian's contribution would turn out to be.

At first, though, Tiote seemed as incapable of coping with Arsenal as anyone in black and white. Less than a minute had elapsed when Theo Walcott, our League Cup scourge, easily outpaced Sideshow Bob to slide the ball past Steve Harper; and only three when Johan Djourou scored his first ever goal for the Gunners, a header from Andrey Arshavin's free-kick. It seemed as though we were intent on losing the game even more quickly than we had against Man City on Boxing Day.

On that occasion, we managed to stabilise and fight back - this time, though, our predicament just continued to worsen. First Robin van Persie tucked in from Walcott's low cross, and then, as if to prove they could mark the Dutchman even less effectively than that, our defence gave him a free header. Arsenal had achieved the same 4-0 scoreline as in the League Cup game with just 26 minutes on the clock. Utterly shellshocked, we found ourselves staring down the barrel of the Premier League's heaviest defeat.

That Arsenal didn't add more before the break was only thanks to their easing off the gas and even then Harper was called upon to deny van Persie his hat-trick. Some Gunners fans online were apparently complaining about it being so easy it was boring, and it would have been hard to disagree. We had been simply atrocious in every single respect, woefully outclassed by a side that needs no invitation to put teams stylishly to the sword. It was like shooting suicidal fish in a barrel.

Alan Pardew refused to divulge what was said in the dressing room at half-time, but as rousing rallying cries go it must have been positively Churchillian. The side he sent out for the second period may have contained exactly the same personnel, but in attitude, application, determination, spirit and urgency it was totally unrecognisable. The same could be said of the Gunners, who somehow metamorphosised from confident, dominant and deadly to nervous, panicky and hopelessly vulnerable.

I say "somehow", but the Gunners' manager, players and fans alike seem to have largely ignored their own team's alarming frailities and attributed the amazing capitulation to a series of decisions made by the referee. Gunnerblog was at least prepared to concede Arsenal's failings, but still quipped: "now we know what Newcastle spent that £35m on: Phil Dowd". So, just to pander to them, let's have a full judicial review of the incidents.

ASBO tackle on Abou Diaby
Referee's decision: no free-kick. Make no mistake, it was an aggressive challenge, but the ball was won cleanly and his studs weren't showing and neither did he leap in with both feet. It was certainly less dangerous than Nigel de Jong's leg-breaking tackle on Hatem Ben Arfa, which was not punished during the game or on appeal. Verdict: correct.

Diaby grappling with ASBO and Kevin Nolan
Referee's decision: red card. The Arsenal midfielder lost the plot and can't have any complaints whatsoever about being dismissed. Verdict: correct.

Laurent Koscielny tackle on Best
Referee's decision: penalty. Perhaps not the most stonewall spot-kick you've ever seen, but it was a rash, clumsy challenge at best. Verdict: correct.

Nolan grappling with Wojciech Szczesny
Referee's decision: yellow card. Our skipper's desire to retrieve the ball after ASBO's penalty was understandable, as was his frustration with the Pole for clinging onto it, but to get him in a headlock - particularly in view of the fact that Diaby had recently been dismissed for much the same thing - was extremely foolish and he was very lucky to be let off with just a caution. Verdict: incorrect.

Koscielny challenge on Mike Williamson
Referee's decision: penalty. Very, very soft. If this was a foul, then there'd be a spot-kick every five minutes. Verdict: incorrect.

Van Persie "goal"
Referee's decision: disallowed. It was tight, but the Dutchman was offside. Verdict: correct.

So, of the six contentious decisions that the Gunners felt went against them, in only two instances do they have any cause for complaint. And it's worth remembering that we were also on the wrong end of a poor decision, Best having a goal disallowed despite being played well onside by Tomas Rosicky.

Shortly after that effort was ruled out, with the score at 1-4, Best did beat Szczesny through perseverance, and when ASBO's second penalty hit the back of the net we had seven minutes to draw level. As it turned out, we needed just four of them. When ASBO's free-kick was headed clear to the edge of the area, Tiote steadied himself and hit a peach of a left-foot volley right into the corner. An incontrovertibly brilliant goal, and some way to score your first for the club.

Incredibly, we could still have snatched all three points. Nile Ranger, who had terrified our ten-man opponents since replacing Lovenkrands, chested the ball into the path of Nolan, whose shot skimmed agonisingly wide of the post. Such was the manner of Arsenal's collapse and the strength of character we had displayed, a winner would probably have been merited.

Now that the dust has settled on a momentous afternoon at St James' Park, it's worth reflecting soberly on the fact that, despite the heroics and despite still clinging to a position in the top half of the table, we actually now find ourselves one point closer to the relegation zone than at the start of the weekend. Looking forwards, if we defend like we did in the first half, demotion is a distinct possibility - but if we perform with the same spirit as we did in the second, then safety is more than achievable.

As for Dowd, we're getting quite fond of him. His two previous fixtures featuring us this season were the unexpected League Cup win at Stamford Bridge and the thrashing of 5under1and...

Arsenal fans' views (most of which roughly translate as "WE WUZ ROBBED, PHIL DOWD IS A BAD MAN" and very few of which have the good grace to accept we destroyed them in the second half): A Cultured Left Foot, Another Arsenal Blog, Arseblog, Arsenal FC Blog, Arsenalinsider, East Lower, Goodplaya, Gunnerblog, The Gunning Hawk

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

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Sunday, February 06, 2011

Forster first in the bath

Not a good afternoon for Fraser Forster, who chose a particularly inopportune moment to receive his first red card for Celtic: an Old Firm game in the Scottish Cup. Thankfully for our on-loan 'keeper, it didn't prove too costly, despite the simultaneous concession of a penalty which Rangers duly scored, as Celtic battled to force a replay.

By contrast, joy unconfined for the No-Necked Text Pest, who captained his hometown club to victory over bitter derby rivals Swansea, scoring the decisive goal from distance with barely five minutes left on the clock. Wonder if he'll be out on the town to celebrate?

Speaking of former strikers, click here to witness a fan's spectacularly unsuccessful attempt to burn a shirt in protest at Rocky's departure. If he needs tips on how to set things ablaze, he should get in contact with the person responsible for torching Rocky's Range Rover...

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Saturday, February 05, 2011

A Month Of Saturdays: January 2011

December's instalment of A Month Of Saturdays dwelt on a bombshell delivered when the month was only a few days old: the unceremonious ousting of Chris Hughton. (Hughton, incidentally, continued to maintain his dignified stance towards his treatment by Jabba into the new year, despite the fact that he should justifiably be more bitter than a pint of Sam Allardyce's home-brew.) By contrast, January's instalment inevitably centres on an equally dramatic sequence of events that took place in the final hours of the very last day of the month.

Back in November I began by noting how Rocky was again the focus of attention. He is once more this month, though - sadly - for the last time. Strange to think how little he featured in our thoughts for most of January, how peripheral he was to goings-on at St James' Park - an injury sustained at White Hart Lane in the final game of 2010 meant that he didn't kick a ball in anger all month and made only fleeting appearances in blog posts round these parts. Of course, all that changed on the 31st.

The other half of Black & White & Read All Over has already given his verdict on the deal that took Rocky from his hometown club to Liverpool (and on our January transfer window dealings in general). By and large I'm in agreement that, on balance, selling our number nine was the right move. Firstly, with just six months of serious top-flight experience behind him (albeit a remarkably successful six months), he's a player with significant potential rather than a proven Premier League performer. Secondly, despite numerous scrapes and lurid headlines, he remains a liability off the pitch, displaying no signs of recognising his responsibilities and growing up; indeed, January brought further rumours of foolish misbehaviour which suggest that incidences of accidental glassings and vehicular conflagrations are set to rise on Merseyside. Thirdly, and most significantly, the frankly incredible £35m fee - which was inflated by soon-to-be-Torresless Liverpool's desperation and the lateness of the hour and which made him the most expensive British player in history - was just too good to turn down.

However, if that makes me sound as though I would have been delighted to pack him off onto Jabba's helicopter personally, I also had (and continue to have) some serious concerns. It's another case of a local lad - someone who knows more than most what it means to wear the shirt - leaving the club. Alan Pardew, meanwhile, was left wiping egg from his face, having spent all month announcing to everyone from weaselly hacks to the checkout girl in his local Asda that "Andy's not for sale". Indeed, he admitted asking Jabba for assurances that Rocky would be retained as a condition of taking the job - so his apparent post-sale shellshock suggests the relationship between manager and owner may already be soured. (At least Pardew had the consolation of getting himself an assistant, someone who would be immediately at home in the St James' Park dugout, John Carver.)

More significantly, though, the decision was a calculated gamble on Jabba's part that Premier League survival will be achievable without our talisman, the player around whom our whole style has been structured and developed. What was most disconcerting (though, from past history, perhaps not entirely surprising) was our lack of any cogent contingency plan, evident in the frantic and bizarre eleventh-hour approaches for Charles N'Somnia and Jason Puncheon - neither of whom would have come close to filling Rocky's size nines. We may now have £35m burning a sizeable hole in our pocket (assuming the full fee is destined for the transfer kitty, that is), but with the transfer window shut that's of no use or consolation to us now.

Speculation throughout January saw us linked with the usual host of players great (David Beckham), small (Max Gradel) and brilliantly named (Tranquillo Barnetta), but at least there were two new arrivals to St James' Park to report. You could argue that Hatem Ben Arfa doesn't really count, his loan deal from Marseille having been made permanent (a snip at £5m), but given that he's been sidelined since October's meeting with Nigel de Jong, having him back fit will be like welcoming a new player to the team. While the Frenchman is looking to regain fitness, Stephen Ireland, a loan signing from Villa, is looking to rediscover the form that less than two years ago made him shine brightest even amongst Man City's myriad stars. Both promise to give us added attacking momentum in midfield - and, in the wake of Rocky's departure, the goalscoring responsibility is going to have to be shouldered by everyone.

At the same time, however, Wayne Routledge's move back to QPR has deprived us of pace on the right flank and a potential supply line for the strikers, as frustratingly inconsistent as he's been. Twitter fiend Routledge wasn't the only player to be farmed out on loan, with the Xisco Kid rejoining Deportivo La Coruna in a deadline-day deal and Ryan Donaldson, Tamas Kadar, Matthew Grieve, James Tavernier and Joan Simun Edmundsson all handed the opportunity to follow in the footsteps of Fraser Forster, Kazenga LuaLua and Ben Tozer and impress others.

The key question is whether, when our loanees return, they'll be doing so to a Premier League club. With Rocky gone, confidence in our ability to avoid relegation is wavering - but glass-half-full types could with some justification point to the fact that January's broadly positive results were achieved without his involvement. Despite the opposition, despite the venue, despite our past history of New Year hangovers, we managed to pull off a victory in our first game of 2011, and a comfortable one at that, Big Lad grabbing the goal that hopefully laid our Latics away jinx to rest and nudging his way towards a call-up for the country of his birth. Better was to come three days later - or should I say Best? If not actively maligned, our Irish striker wasn't exactly feted either - until he bagged a hat-trick as a hapless Hammers side were trounced 5-0.

Only we could follow up those two excellent displays with an embarrassingly spineless capitulation to our old FA Cup foes Stevenage in front of a gloating nation of armchair viewers. Expect to see Michael Bostick's daisy-cutter drive jostling with Ronnie Radford's thunderbolt in compilations of legendary giant-killings for years to come. In the short term, though, our concerns centred on the red card rightly dished out to substitute Cheik Tiote - when his appeal against the consequent three-match suspension was rejected, as I'd anticipated, we realised we'd be without our protective shield for the trip to the Dark Place.

In truth, though, we didn't really seem to miss him, either when his nominal replacement Alan Smith was on the Stadium of Shite pitch or after he'd left it through injury. We took the lead shortly after half-time, Kevin Nolan reprising his role as 5under1and's worst nightmare, and, with Darren Bent pleasingly out of sorts, we coped comfortably with what relatively little pressure the Mackems put us under. There was even a first opportunity to see the Lesser Spotted Dan Gosling in black and white. But we were cruelly denied a fully deserved victory by a tragicomic injury-time goal credited to Asamoah Gyan, who knew nothing about it.

However we occupied ourselves the following week, it certainly wasn't spent learning from our mistakes. And, as the saying goes, those who don't learn from their mistakes are destined to repeat them. A good all-round performance against Champions League hopefuls Spurs saw us leading deep into stoppage time courtesy of Sideshow Bob's splendidly un-centre-half-like finish - only for Aaron Lennon to leave us with a very nasty feeling of deja vu. So that's four points squandered - let's hope we don't come to rue them as much as the four points we dropped to injury-time equalisers at home to Stoke and Wigan in 2009/10.

So, some light relief needed - and thankfully you can always rely on the Mackems for that. There were plenty of things to chuckle at in January: Ol' Cauliflower Face being denied the opportunity to bait us with a riposte to the Halloween airing of 'Daydream Believer'; the derby day teenage pitch invader frogmarched to our training ground by his dad to apologise to Steve Harper; and Ol' Cauliflower Face claiming the addition of David Miliband to the club's board would bring them "street cred".

However, gloating about the departure of their talismanic lead striker for an exorbitant fee turned out to be tempting fate - as I feared. No prizes for guessing who's Mr February in our official club calendar. At least no one got Rocky's face tattooed on their leg in January. You didn't, did you?



No helping hand from Henry

The transfer window may have closed but, with Rocky sold and Big Lad out for up to six weeks with his fractured cheekbone, we're continuing to scour the globe for anyone unattached or out-of-contract who might possibly be able to fill the void. Today's Express claims we offered former Arsenal striker and sometime international basketball player Thierry Henry more than £100,000 a week to entice him to St James' Park from the MLS.

The scourge of the Republic of Ireland was of course one of the finest players in world football - but the operative word is "was" and he no longer has the va va voom of yore. Still, desperate times call for desperate (and short-termist) measures, and he would almost certainly have been a better option than the other available ex-Arsenal Frenchman whose name is being bandied about, Jeremie Aliadiere.

Meanwhile, Wayne Routledge continues to look more at home in the Championship, scoring a decisive late goal last night that helped QPR extend their lead at the top of the table.

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Friday, February 04, 2011

Quote of the day

"I have got massive respect for Newcastle, they are my team and my home club and I'm not really going to talk about what happened there. It means a lot to me but I am a Liverpool player now and that is what I have to concentrate on."

A rare show of off-field level-headedness from Rocky, attempting to draw a line under the undignified he-said-she-said squabbling in the media that followed his move to Anfield.

Less wise, perhaps, was skipper Kevin Nolan going on Liverpool's TV channel to say how "delighted" he is for his former housemate - something he's thankfully acknowledged and, in so doing, suggested he's as keen to move on as Rocky: "If fans don't like it, I apologise. I'm getting quite sick of the Andy Carroll saga. I just want to put it to bed and get on with it. The last thing I want is to start upsetting our fans because they have been brilliant. There's no-one more disappointed than me. Not only have we lost a top player but I've lost a good mate who was very close."

Meanwhile, the break-up of the relationship has left at least one person scratching their head...

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Thursday, February 03, 2011

Duffed up

Fulham 1 - 0 Newcastle Utd

Before we start, it's worth remembering that whether we still had someone in our number nine shirt or not, he wouldn't have played last night due to injury. Therefore, Rocky's presence in our squad would have made no difference whatsoever to the team which Alan Pardew sent out last night against Fulham.

The fact that we lost, and looked pretty toothless in attack, does however become more alarming when you think that we don't now have the luxury of thinking our leading goalscorer is only a little way shy of returning to the first team.

The game itself was a pretty tight affair, with few chances for either side. Up front for Newcastle, Leon Best partnered Big Lad as Pardew sent out the same team which had drawn with Spurs in our last league match. Unfortunately for us (and in a twist faintly reminiscent of the Shearer injury following the sale of Ferdinand) we lost Big Lad early in proceedings thanks to a fractured cheekbone courtesy of Steve Sidwell's elbow. This left Pardew to bring on Nile Ranger to partner Best.

While we did a pretty good job of closing down the space and preventing Fulham from really getting going, unfortunately we were unable to fashion any decent chances of our own - our best moment being a Best header which sailed over the bar. At the other end, Mike Williamson looked to be pushing his luck on a couple of occasions, but Steve Harper wasn't really extended.

The second half, however, saw a marked improvement in our hosts' performance, as they started to press forward and soon enough our erstwhile winger Damien Duff began to carve out chances, although his poor shooting saw us let off twice in relatively quick succession. However, a long ball over the top saw the Irishman catch Jose Enrique napping, and he had enough pace to hold off the Spaniard before knocking the ball past Steve Harper to give Fulham a one goal lead.

At the other end, we never really looked like getting back on terms, our best chance being a turn and shot by Ranger which he didn't properly connect with and which Schwarzer was able to save. Lovenkrands replaced Best late on, but the Dane never looked like finding an opportunity to get us back on level terms.

What was perhaps most alarming was the disspirited look of the team as a whole. The Rocky saga seems to have deflated the side, and our previously good team spirit, which presumably was boosted by the trip to Portugal, already looks in short supply. It's easy to read too much into one match, but with Arsenal our next opponents, it doesn't look as though things are likely to pick up any time soon. Hopefully Big Lad will be back on the pitch (presumably sporting a mask) sooner rather than later, given that he now looks our most potent attacking weapon.

What is apparent is that Pardew needs to earn his money now by getting the team to pull together again - and quickly.

Fulham fans' views: Craven Cottage Newsround, Fulham FC Blog

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

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Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Passing the blame

The fall-out from the Rocky saga continues, with claim and counter-claim being made by both the player and the club.

For what it's worth, I think it boils down to this:

Liverpool offer big money, which at the very least causes the club to pause and think.

Liverpool speak to Rocky's agent and tell him what he could be earning.

Agent speaks to Rocky.

Rocky speaks to Pardew and asks to renegotiate contract he signed in October (presumably asking for comparable amount to that Liverpool are now offering him).

Club decide to take the money and stick Rocky on Jabba's helicopter.

Rocky flies off and signs for Liverpool.

If he didn't want to go, he needn't have signed the contract at Liverpool. Equally, if we weren't tempted by the cash, we should have just told Liverpool to get stuffed and the player to honour his contract.

However, if he really did try and renegotiate a contract he only signed three months ago, it makes him look a bit greedy (even if that's what Liverpool told his agent they'd pay him).

Nevertheless, as I said earlier, provided we stay up, and provided the cash is used to bring in more players, then it isn't the worst deal in the world. How many of us honestly think he's worth £35 million (which to put it in context makes him the seventh most expensive player of all time)?

All the claim and counter-claim crap doesn't change the fact he's now at Liverpool and our number nine shirt is empty. It's all about a win tomorrow night more than anything else. It's still our club, and regardless of who is wearing the shirts, they are the ones that matter.

Rocky is gone and no amount of childish bickering about who is responsible is going to change things.

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Reflections on the window

So here we are, another 24 hours of madness at St James' Park, and the close of another transfer window. Presumably everyone at Sky Sports News spends much of today in a cold shower.

Anyway, reflecting on the transfer window as a whole largely involves reflecting on events of the last 24 hours. However, before we get onto 31st January 2011, it's worth remembering that for our part, the remainder of the transfer window had seemed largely successful. We confirmed Hatem Ben Arfa's permanent arrival and then spent the rest of the month watching as Alan Pardew repeated his mantra that Rocky wasn't for sale at any price, and that we were resisting bids from all of our star performers, whilst also seeking to add players if they became available.

Making space in the squad was Wayne Routledge, who found himself back at QPR on loan, and instantly proved what a devastating force he is in the Championship.

Pardew himself had previously stated that any player he might bring in had to be big enough to wear the shirt, so presumably mental strength was pretty high up the wish list.

Then 31st January arrived, and things all went a bit awry. Firstly, Liverpool suddenly found themselves imminently short of a striker and cash-rich. They knocked on our door, waving big bags of cash and presumably saying "Watch your striker, mister". To which, after some to-ing and fro-ing, the club decided to wave Rocky goodbye.

Now, as I pointed out yesterday, £35 million is an awful lot of money for a player who has the potential to be a world-beater, but who also has a bit of a history as a people-beater, and whose career could just as quickly go downhill (if his party lifestyle gets the better of him) as it could continue on an upwards trajectory.

There are, however, two caveats to this. The first is that we must stay up. If we are now relegated because we can't score enough goals, then this will look like the worst deal in history. Secondly, Pardew needs to be given the cash to spend on strengthening the squad and finding replacements. If that happens, then £35 million buys several very good players who would bolster the team and the squad, and should make us a much more stable Premier League club going forward (assuming we don't waste it on crap). Of course, if Jabba just banks the cash, then again this becomes a disastrous move (albeit one over which we currently have no control).

The player, apparently, was reluctant to go (as this text transcript suggests), but equally, seems to have done OK out of the deal, with reports of a phenomenal wage hike coming his way. Should enable him to replace his burnt out car, anyway. Of course, if he ends up having to live with his new captain, it's to be hoped they don't get in a fracas over the choice of music on the stereo...

Also slinking out of the door, and keeping a typically low profile, was the Xisco Kid who is now back in Spain with Deportivo La Coruna on loan - hopefully that's one loan deal which will become a permanent transfer.

With Rocky gone to pastures new, we did manage to add the midfielder we'd been chasing for a while, with Stephen Ireland eventually arriving after some curious reports suggesting that he'd failed his medical. Whilst undoubtedly a technically gifted individual, does anyone think that Ireland's record indicates he has the mental strength to wear the shirt (something which Pardew stressed was imperative)? I hope he proves to be a fine acquisition, but there must be a question mark over his signing (albeit on loan).

Then, with the clock ticking down, and Sky Sports News reaching fever pitch, rumours surfaced that we'd bid between £10-£12 million for the Zog. Given that we don't need another left winger, we flogged the player (under a cloud) for £6 million two years ago and that Dave Whelan and Jabba really don't get on, this just seems like the biggest bag of rubbish I've heard in ages. Thankfully it didn't come to pass.

Apparently, we were also gazumped by Blackpool who trumped our bid to take Jason Puncheon on loan from Southampton.

Where we go from here is crucial. Planning must start now for the summer, with the identification of the targets that we are going to look to bring in. With an attacking line up of Ameobi, Ranger (who really must start taking his chances), Lovenkrands and Best, we don't look the best equipped strike force in the country, and a lot of pressure will now rest on the shoulders of ASBO and Nolan to ensure the team picks up enough points to ensure our survival so that we can really look to kick on over the summer.

What all this does for the credibility of Pardew is up for debate, but either he was lying when he said Rocky wasn't for sale at any price, or he wasn't being informed of Jabba's feelings on the subject. Either way, it can't make his life any easier.

If we're to move on from this quickly, then a win on Wednesday is an important step forward. A defeat, and the feelings of betrayal and mutiny in the stands might well begin to boil over - again.

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