Thursday, May 31, 2012

View From The Home End: summer SWOT analysis

(Image courtesy of

So, Paul's taken stock of the season just finished - now thoughts are necessarily turning to the summer ahead, and to the new campaign beyond that. Given that we find ourselves in the strange position of supporting a club increasingly widely hailed as a shining example of prudent (financial) management, it's perhaps an opportune moment to carry out a SWOT analysis to assess exactly where we're at. Here's how that wonderful oracle Wikipedia defines the method:
  • Strengths: characteristics of the business, or project team that give it an advantage over others
  • Weaknesses (or Limitations): are characteristics that place the team at a disadvantage relative to others
  • Opportunities: external chances to improve performance (e.g. make greater profits) in the environment
  • Threats: external elements in the environment that could cause trouble for the business or project
So, my aim is to identify a few key issues and attempt to classify them according to the above four categories (though some issues will inevitably refuse to be pigeonholed in just one) - of course, feel free to debate the issues themselves or my classification of them in the comments box, or add anything obvious I've overlooked.


Firm foundations
This is equally true of the playing staff and of the business. As last season proved, we have a strong first team that can compete with and defeat the best, and some useful fringe players to step in and do a job where required. Off the pitch, our financial house is now very much in order - something for which even the most fervent Jabbaphobe must give our owner credit. In both respects we're in a prime position to capitalise and build on an unexpectedly successful campaign (the summer won't be swallowed up with torment, turmoil and soul-searching this year, for sure), and it's now down to the quality of Jabba and Llambiarse's decision making and in particular how much weight they choose to give to ambition relative to caution.

Transfer and contract policy
Much of our success has (rightly) been attributed to our transfer policy: essentially, sell star players at a premium (if possible) and bring in younger, superior replacements for lower fees and on lower salaries. It was this policy that saw the likes of Kevin Nolan, ASBO and Jose Enrique packed off down the A1 and Dreamboat, Demba Ba, Papiss Cisse and Davide Santon recruited in their stead. Our scouting network, headed up by Graham Carr, is no doubt now the envy of most Premier League clubs, and we've developed a strategy of moving swiftly, decisively and often under the radar of both rival clubs and the media when it comes to signing players - Cisse being a case in point. The summer recruitment drive, which has already begun with the arrivals of both Romain Amalfitano and Lubomir Satka, promises to be fruitful - and is very unlikely to result in us being saddled with past-it, benchwarming cash drains like Sol Campbell.

We're an increasingly attractive proposition for potential new signings, able to offer the promise of Europa League football as well as the very real prospect of going one competition better for 2013/4 (and maybe even a domestic cup of some sort) next season. Players of the calibre of HBA, Dreamboat, Cisse and Ba were enticed to Tyneside by little more than a vision, and now that that vision is taking shape there's cause to be optimistic that we can compete for some of Europe's best. The club seems to have grasped the concept of making players feel welcome - even if this is merely a matter of holding international days at the training ground and serving up goat curry - and it's notable how often personal recommendations of the club by current players now seem to be a factor in our transfer dealings. Here's hoping Dreamboat can give the hard sell to his France and former Lille teammate Mathieu Debuchy, and that Tim Krul has a word in Luuk de Jong's ear during Euro 2012.


Transfer and contract policy
First, our whole transfer model is predicated upon the ability of Carr and his team to unearth quality cheaply, and they've by and large worked miracles so far - but (and perhaps this is the pessimist in me) you have to wonder how much longer can they continue to pull rabbits out of hats? (And, as Paul suggested, not all the rabbits they've pulled out have been quite as remarkable as Cisse or Mr T - Sylvain Marveaux, Obertan Kenobi, Dan Gosling and Mehdi Abeid are all yet to truly impress or even make much of an impact at all.) Second, our relatively modest means coupled with a rigid wage structure (both of which have been made transparently obvious to all around) mean we'll inevitably miss out on the services of desirable players, either because we're outbid for them or because they know they can earn themselves a bigger paypacket elsewhere. And finally, Jabba's determination to play hardball in contract negotiations with current staff could well result in the departure of a dependable first-teamer, Danny Simpson, leaving us even shorter in a position in which we already needed to strengthen.

Integration of youth/academy players
Paul was right to identify this as an area of concern. Krul, Saylor, Big Lad and Rocky have graduated from the youth set-up to the first team in recent years, but we just don't have the same track record as (say) Man Utd, Arsenal or even the Smogs of regenerating from within. It's a problem that needs to be addressed if we're to become a more self-sustainable operation and if cherrypicking young talent from around Europe like Satka isn't to be a pointless exercise. Shane Ferguson, Haris Vuckic and Little Big Lad all showed fleeting glimpses of promise last season, but next season is high time they - and the likes of Michael Richardson, James Tavernier and Abeid - all stepped up to the plate.

Unrealistic expectations
I'm loath to include this, given all the (generally misplaced) accusations of being wildly unrealistic that us Newcastle fans have had to endure over the years. However, for once we have reason for real optimism so there's a danger that even the most characteristically downbeat supporter might start to get carried away with thoughts of Champions League qualification and title challenges. Such expectation levels could potentially create unrest, internal divisions and unnecessary pressure if our summer activities in the transfer market are deemed unsatisfactory or if the team makes a slow start to the new campaign. It's notable, then, that the Silver Fox is ahead of the game, seeking to dampen hopes before thoughts have even fully turned to the season to come.


I don't know about you, but it irritates me no end when European qualification is talked up as a prized target and yet bemoaned as a burden by the manager as soon as it's been achieved. Let's look at the positives instead: in addition to making us more attractive to transfer targets, our participation in the Europa League presents us with the chance to have a tilt at a fourth trophy and (if the Silver Fox feels it's appropriate) to give fringe players some game time while also blooding youngsters, something I've identified as key above. Most importantly, however, given it's been argued that our prospective development and progress is dependent upon revenue growth, European football will mean more money flowing through turnstiles and greater income from televised fixtures.

Stadium naming rights
Removing the St James' Park signage and inviting corporations to rebrand our ground was a flagrant bid to boost the cash coming into our coffers. The summer is make-or-break for what remains an incredibly unpopular decision - the close season presents the ideal time and opportunity for Jabba, Llambiarse and assorted club suits to pursue and secure a wadge of wonga in return for naming rights. If they can't strike a financially palatable deal in the circumstances - with the club upwardly mobile and once again on the global stage - then the scheme should just be unceremoniously abandoned.


The circling vultures
Our finances being in rude good health, there's no accountant-prompted imperative to sell players. However, as Jabba has made clear, everyone is expendable given the right price. We're arguably most at risk of losing Mr T, with both Man Utd and Chelsea among those rumoured to be sniffing around him, while all and sundry are well aware of the fee required to trigger Demba Ba's release clause, thanks to West Ham's gobshite chairman David Sullivan. Just as our recruitment drive may be hit by a refusal to fork out a fortune in wages, current members of the squad might be tempted to jump ship if sufficiently sizeable salaries are waved under their noses. However, perhaps we should actually just accept and even celebrate the fact that we now have the ethos of a stereotypical selling club; perhaps we should classify the presence of lurking poachers as an opportunity rather than a threat. After all, as suggested above, that ethos has borne considerable fruit over the last two years and could well continue to do so as long as fees received are reinvested shrewdly.

Euro 2012
This summer's imminent international tournament is very much a double-edged sword - just one that cuts us both ways. Not only will it mean greater exposure for some of our star performers (Dreamboat and HBA in particular, but perhaps Krul too), and therefore increased predatory interest in their acquisition; it will also almost inevitably result in long-term targets like Debuchy coming to wider attention, pushing up prices and alerting those with deeper pockets.

Olympics, Europe and African Cup of Nations
OK, so here comes the complaint I was trying to avoid earlier: our current squad might well struggle to cope with the demands of three domestic competitions plus the Europa League. Factor in the facts that some of our key players are still to face the rigours of Euro 2012 before getting a well-deserved breather, and that Cisse and Ba could yet be pressed into action for Senegal in the Olympics before both accompanying Mr T to the African Cup of Nations in January, and we start to look somewhat stretched. That deficiency will be offset if we can get the most out of our fringe and youth players. However, with the full-back positions not nailed down, Alan Smith and Peter Lovenkrands goners, and Danny Guthrie, Leon Best and Nile Ranger all possibly following them out of the door, reinforcements are certainly needed for us to be suitably competitive on all fronts.

The 'big boys'
As much as we'd like to think this season's fifth place was achieved purely through our own exceptional efforts, the truth is that we undoubtedly profited greatly as a consequence of the shoddy and occasionally shambolic performances turned in by Chelsea and especially Liverpool. If we're to repeat the feat next year, we certainly can't be complacent and expect either club to perform so poorly again - much-improved rivals are very much something for the objective-setters to bear in mind.

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Tuesday, May 29, 2012

View from the Home End: end of season reflections

(Image courtesy of richbunce)

This time last year, I reviewed our 2010-11 campaign and pronounced myself relatively content with how things had unfolded. While our season tailed off following Rocky’s departure, a twelfth-placed finish (even if it could have been so much better, but for a final-day collapse against WBA) marked a good return to the Premier League.

So what to make of this season, where we’ve managed to climb seven places to fifth despite the loss of some of last year’s star men? Obviously, like pretty much every single Toon fan, I’ve been delighted with the way this year has panned out, with the joy of seeing us play some great football, score some truly spectacular goals and win regularly added to the fact we’ve looked a happy and contented ship off the park.

While we may have shipped out some of last season’s star performers, with Nolan, ASBO and Jose Enrique all departing before August was finished, the reality is that in signing Dreamboat, Demba Ba and Davide Santon we did more than enough to replace the departees before they were missed, and when Papiss Cisse was added to the mix in January we had the icing to a very appetising cake. While the new boys all did well, with Dreamboat, Ba and Cisse all bedding in quickly and effectively (and Santon enjoying an encouraging first season if at times finding himself caught out by opponents), the other really pleasing development this year has been the performance of some of the fringe players.

Last year, Ben suggested that he wouldn’t be upset if Perchinho and Raylor both moved on to pastures new, but as the season unfolded first Raylor (as Jose Enrique’s replacement) and latterly Perchinho (as a versatile full-back, centre-half and central midfielder) have both shown that they weren’t out of the depth. Though we’ve been critical of Perchinho in particular, credit where it's due to a player who has clearly worked very hard on the training ground to the point where seeing his name on the team sheet became reassuring rather than alarming. Special mention also to Danny Guthrie, who had a fitful season in and out of the side, and looks destined for the exit door, but whose performances this year were always excellent – outshining his more feted midfield companions on occasion.

Of the signings made last summer, only Obertan Kenobi and Sylvain Marveaux have really failed to shine, the former despite plenty of chances to do so and the latter due to an injury which kept him out for the vast majority of the season. However, though they may not have excelled, one player whose black and white career has taken off this season is HBA who went from being a slightly erratic and defensively suspect winger to one of the most exciting attacking players I’ve witnessed, forming part of a dynamic front three with Ba and Cisse as the season reached its conclusion. Not only did he score two spectacular solo goals, against Blackburn and Bolton, but his all-round play and work rate has also improved and he deservedly joined Dreamboat in the French squad for Euro 2012.

Spidermag too has shown his value to the team, featuring in more games than any other player, either as a winger, a full-back or in a more withdrawn holding midfield role – showing composure and hardwork in equal measure, and along with his mate and captain, Sideshow Bob, the two have both provided strong leadership on and off the pitch (the latter’s performances deservedly seeing him picked in the PFA Premier League team of the season).

Twelve months ago, we speculated that the choice for the Silver Fox was which of our young keepers would go on loan and which would be Steve Harper’s understudy.  With Fraser Forster enduring a fairly torrid pre-season match, Tim Krul well and truly won that battle, but also succeeded in displacing Harper as our first-choice keeper with aplomb, with Harps forced out on loan himself in a bid to keep his hand in. The only worry in this is that, with Harper surely on his way out, second-choice 'keeper Rob Eliott has a lot to do to convince anyone that he’s capable of filling Krul’s gloves should his services be required.

Off the pitch, Jabba and Llambiarse did their best to unsettle things with their crass rebranding of St James’ Park (prompting a fan-led mock funeral). However, that aside, they backed their manager well in the transfer market and the accounts suggest we’re well placed to satisfy the financial fair play requirements when they take effect.

The only downer this season is the failure of our youngsters (with the obvious exception of Krul) to come through. While Little Big lad showed early promise before injury took it toll, the Lone Ranger consistently proved himself to be intent on a path of career destruction and the likes of Tamas Kadar and Phil Airey drifted out of the picture altogether.

For now though, as we bask in a sense of a season well done, the perennial question remains; namely how many of this seasons star performers will still be with us at the end of August? While the Europa League may prove an attractive proposition for some, it also carries with it the headaches of regular Thursday/Sunday matches (something the Silver Fox is acutely aware of) and if we’re to enjoy success we’ll doubtless need to add greater depth to the playing squad. However, that’s a discussion for another day.

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Lightning strikes twice

Well, the Xisco Kid, to be more precise. After mustering a grand total of one goal prior to Wednesday, our misfit striker came off the bench to score two vital winners for Deportivo La Coruna in the space of a week. Those goals, against Tarragona and then Huesca, helped propel Depor back into the top flight at the first time of asking following last season's relegation.

Talking of Newcastle players who've recently assisted in other clubs' successful promotion bids, new arrival Romain Amalfitano has been speaking about his "winning mentality" but remains modest and realistic enough to realise that just breaking into the team is going to be tough. His apparent versatility could be a useful asset but could equally prevent him from staking a claim to a regular place.

Meanwhile, Amalfitano's compatriots HBA and Dreamboat both lined up for France on Sunday as les Bleus recovered from two goals down to beat upstarts Iceland 3-2. Dreamboat was deployed in a somewhat unfamiliar anchoring role, while HBA had a hand in the strike that gave France a foothold back in the game, one which came from the boot of wanted man Mathieu Debuchy. Iceland's second, incidentally, was scored by another player once linked with us, Kolbeinn Sigthorsson.

There were also recent international friendly appearances for Tim Krul, unfortunate to be between the sticks as the Netherlands fell to a shock home defeat by Bulgaria, and Papiss Cisse, named as the Senegalese captain for what proved to be a narrow victory over Morocco.

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Monday, May 28, 2012

Net profit and loss

Congratulations to Tim Krul, who has - as anticipated - been named in the Dutch squad for Euro 2012. Our young custodian will be battling with Swansea's Michel Vorm for the role of back-up to the national number one, Roma's Maarten Stekelenburg.

From our perspective, hopefully he might put his time with the squad to good effect by talking up life on Tyneside to Toon target Luuk de Jong. (Unfortunately, he can't do likewise for Heerenveen's Bas Dost, the 32-goal striker having been omitted and now the confirmed subject of a £7m bid from newly promoted West Ham.) Whatever his relations with de Jong, though, they're likely to be decidedly friendlier and less frosty than with the squad's star striker, Robin van Persie. Rumours of training-ground bust-ups imminent, methinks...

While our current first-choice 'keeper enjoys himself in Poland and the Ukraine, the player he's replaced once again finds himself contemplating his future. Steve Harper seems resigned to the fact that he'll need to go out on loan again to get the first-team action he craves - and I suspect he's right.

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FC Twente's squad list = our shopping list

Friday brought news of a fresh transfer link, with the agent of Roberto Rosales claiming that we're vying with Porto for his signature. Like Douglas and Luuk de Jong, the Venezuelan right-back plays for Steve McLaren's FC Twente - perhaps we should just go the whole hog and sign their entire squad...

So is this interest evidence that the deal for Dreamboat's mate Mathieu Debuchy has hit a snag? Or that we're simply keen not to put all of our eggs in one basket? Or even that, with Danny Simpson's departure looking increasingly likely, we're contemplating recruiting a pair of players for that position? Time will tell.



Sunday, May 27, 2012

Quote of the day

"One good example of successful recovery was Newcastle United, which was relegated in 2008 to 2009 but then moved back up in 2009 to 2010. The team had a strategic recovery plan in place to secure promotion on the first attempt because it recognized the considerable challenge it would face financially without the significant influx of money from the EPL's television contracts. The team reduced operating costs while maintaining a Premier League quality squad, and implemented a marketing plan that maintained memberships, attendance, and sponsorships."

It's official: we're now being held up by academics as a shining model of how to run a successful business. The extract above is taken from a book I happen to be currently working on, Advanced Theory and Practice in Sport Marketing. While we can forgive the US-based authors for the awkward Americanisms, we should perhaps point out that the strategy described above wasn't exactly a stroke of genius - in fact, it represented a huge (albeit calculated) gamble. Still, it paid off and we're now sitting pretty as a result.



ASBO by name...

Commiserations to ASBO, whose latest escapades on the pitch at the Etihad have landed him a twelve-match ban. Still, one of his QPR teammates will be delighted: the Little Waster, who now has at least one guaranteed companion on the sidelines for the early part of next season...

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Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Romain invasion

A warm welcome to the club to Romain Amalfitano, the forward-thinking midfielder having joined the club as expected. He fits our recent bill to a tee - young (22), French and on a free transfer - and arrives on Tyneside fresh from helping Stade de Reims to promotion to Ligue 1.

He wasn't our first official signing of the summer, though - that honour fell to 16-year-old centre-back Lubomir Satka, recruited from our one-time European opponents FK ZTS Dubnica. Very much one for the future.

The Slovakian could soon be joined in our defensive ranks by a pair of Frenchmen: Mathieu Debuchy, the Lille right-back still firmly on our radar, and Mapou Yanga-Mwiba. The latter's name would be difficult enough to pronounce, let alone work into a chant, but we like a challenge.

Yanga-Mwiba is in France's provisional squad for Euro 2012 and helped unfancied Montpellier claim the title ahead of the likes of Marseille and moneybags PSG. The club's president Louis Nicollin looked on as expensively acquired big names flopped before relegation prompted a policy rethink, resulting in a shoestring budget and a strict wage cap. According to the BBC's Matt Spiro, "modern-day Montpellier is founded on hard work, exceptional spirit, homegrown talent and some extremely shrewd signings". Remind you of anyone in particular? (And yes, let's count Big Lad as "homegrown talent"...)

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Quote of the day

"I’m hoping that I will educate our fans for next season. If they think we can finish fifth with a European campaign and the finances we’ve got, it’s impossible. I honestly believe that you need to be a bit more open with the fans. The problem some managers have is they’re not open enough. This year, I’m sure we’ll say something like, ‘We’re looking for a top-eight finish, hopefully attack one of the cups and have a great run in Europe. I wouldn’t say we couldn’t challenge for the top six if we got knocked out of Europe. Then we wouldn’t have those extra 13 games."

The Silver Fox tells the London Evening Standard that a healthy dose of realism is required. And so the careful management of the fans' expectations begins - probably wise, to be fair.



Top of the crocks

Compromising photos of Tony Fernandes: surely that can be the only explanation for QPR's decision to hand the Little Waster another year-long contract, despite managing a grand total of seven minutes in a Hoops shirt last season? Presumably he sprained his wrist inking the deal and will now be out of action until the new year.

While the Little Waster snuggles down on a bed of fivers, QPR have opted to release a host of players, including two formerly of this parish, Peter Ramage and One Size.

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Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Fifth suits us just fine

So, Saturday saw Chelsea somewhat fortuitously crowned winners of the Champions League. Just as well we didn't get fourth spot, then - it would have been all the more painful to have an invitation to dine at Europe's top table in our hand only for it to be ripped away by Didier Drogba and UEFA. Commiserations to Spurs, whose manager's face will have sagged even more than usual at the news (and the prospect of some of his stars getting itchy feet)...

Anyway, back to us. I wonder what odds you'd have got pre-season on us finishing higher the winners of the Champions League, the FA Cup and the League Cup? Over the next few days, Paul will be looking at the secrets (now not so secret) of our success, while I'll be looking to the future.



Thursday, May 17, 2012

King Kenny deposed

Oh dear. Poor old King Kenny, eh? Turns out John Henry and Fenway Sports Group are republicans.

Everyone in the media has professed shock at the sacking - I find it hard to fathom why. Former Toon managerial misery-guts Dalglish stepped into the breach during Liverpool's hour of need last season, steering them away from trouble and then following up that rescue mission with the capture of the League Cup and FA Cup final losers medals. But this campaign's eighth-placed finish was embarrassing, his signings have generally proven to be expensive flops (namely north-east trio Rocky, Stewart Downing and Jordan Henderson - how the latter has been included in Roy Hodgson's standby list for Euro 2012 I have no idea...) and his surly, spiky demeanour in interviews and contemptible public defence of Luis Suarez's actions were unacceptable.

Also being told to do one from a north-west club famous for playing in red is Little Saint Mick, now 32 and soon to be released upon expiry of his contract after three years at Old Trafford - or, to be more precise, in the Old Trafford treatment room... Owen's stats at Man Utd, in terms of appearances made, were even worse (relatively speaking) than in his four-year stint on Tyneside - but I suppose the signing represented less of a risk for Taggart because they weren't paying him a king's ransom and had factored his regular non-appearance into the terms of the contract. If only we'd done likewise.

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Terriers turn on Smudger

Alan Smith may have scored an injury-time winner as a substitute for MK Dons on Tuesday, but his evening wasn't just soured by the fact that that goal wasn't enough to prevent Huddersfield from reaching the League 1 play-off final. It actually got worse after the final whistle, when a handful of home supporters took the opportunity to attack the former Leeds man on the Galpharm pitch. "Muppets", was Dons manager Karl Robinson's assessment.

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Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Damp squib

Everton 3 - 1 Newcastle Utd

Results elsewhere meant that even if we'd won this game 20-0 it wouldn't have changed the fact that we finished fifth in the league.

As it was, we didn't win 20-0, but rather were undone by a side resurgent since the January transfer window provided them with a goalscoring threat.

Despite a bright start in which HBA came close to opening the scoring, we faded once Steven Pienaar had seen his long-range shot deflect off Mike Williamson and loop out of reach of Tim Krul to give the home side the lead. With Spurs already ahead and Arsenal also scoring early (albeit being subsequently pegged back by West Brom) things looked pretty bleak and Nikica Jelavic added a second eleven minutes later, beating Sideshow Bob to the ball and reacting quickest to Krul's parry to stab home a second.

With hopes fading rapidly Jonny Heitinga's header from a corner with our entire defence seemingly napping just put a further nail in the coffin of our Champions League hopes.

While we were able to claw one back when Tony Hibbert nodded past Timmy Tourettes under pressure from Cisse, we couldn't manage a second which would have lead to a possible grandstand finish (albeit probably not one to rival Man City's).

The only further point of interest was substitute Tim Cahill managing to pick up a red card for grabbing Dreamboat around the throat as the match ended.

Other notable occurances saw the Silver Fox replace both full-backs at half time, with Santon and Perchinho making way for Raylor and the returning Sylvain Marveaux, albeit to little net effect.

It's a mark of how far we've come that this defeat felt like a blow when the reality is that this has been a fantastic season which has seen our manager recognised by his peers for a fantastic achievement and our captain voted into the PFA Premiership Team of the Season, and even if we'd produced the win we all craved, results elsewhere meant that it would all have been in vain anyway.

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

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Peer review reaps rewards for the Silver Fox

Our Champions League challenge may have gone up in smoke on Sunday (Paul's match report to come), but the awards just keep on coming for the Silver Fox. First he was named as the Premier League's manager of the year, and now he's scooped the LMA's annual prize - which is arguably more significant as it's a reflection of the respect and admiration of his peers. Credit to him, too, for modestly refusing to celebrate the plaudit as a personal triumph: "This award is not just for me. Everything we have achieved has been achieved as a result of an incredible team effort. The board, my coaching staff, backroom team, players and our magnificent supporters - they all play a crucial role and I thank every one of them".

One interesting footnote was the LMA Special Merit Award given to Lee Clark, our old boy currently out of work since being given the boot by Huddersfield. His old side reached the League 1 play-off final tonight, though MK Dons ran them very close in the end, one Alan Smith scoring an injury-time goal to set up a nervy finish.

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Quotes of the day

"Shearers still on my case... I know I f***** up Alan, thanks for stating the obvious"

"Whilst were both stating the obvious about each other, can I just say for the record what a great player u were. Well better me.."

"But I have a better hair (which is not hard), wear well better shirts on TV and have a personality (something u lack)

"P.S. My final point, ur a s*** pundit/manager.."

"I really don't like that p****, in fact I honestly despise him... Goodnight"

Just when you might have thought ASBO would want to keep his head down (after yet another red card in a critical fixture, this time for elbowing Carlos Tevez before kneeing Sergio Aguero and aiming a headbutt at Vincent Kompany), up he pops on Twitter to reignite his feud with Wor Al. What exactly was the latter supposed to say when asked about ASBO's conduct in his capacity as a Match of the Day pundit? "It just shows admirable commitment and fight for the cause"? Anyway, good to see that ASBO isn't bitter and is able to let bygones be bygones...

ASBO also claimed: "My favourite memory of him though is when he dropped his spuds when Keano put it on him". Funny, that - I don't remember it quite in the same way, and neither do the video records...

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Friday, May 11, 2012

Silverware for the Silver Fox

The perfect personal fillip for the Silver Fox going into Sunday's crunch fixture at Everton: he's been named as the Premier League's manager of the year. Well deserved, you have to say, given what he's achieved with a bunch of players who pre-season weren't fancied as anything special - even if they've since proven themselves to be otherwise. His tactics and man-management skills have been largely spot on, and it's in no small part thanks to him that we head to Merseyside knowing that, whatever happens at Goodison Park, we're guaranteed of at least fifth spot.

Not that the manager's resting on his laurels. Interviewed together with John Carver on Radio Newcastle this evening, he stated his dissatisfaction with the quality of our set pieces and claimed to be considering appointing a specialist coach. No more flat corners cleared by the first man? Amen to that!

The Silver Fox also spoke about transfer plans, including a goalscoring central defender as well as a pal of Dreamboat's rumoured to be Mathieu Debuchy. The Lille player is a right-back, implying that we might be seriously contemplating a future without the man the stats suggest is the division's best...

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Euro jackpot for Toon stars

Congratulations to HBA and Dreamboat, who've both made it into the French squad for Euro 2012. The latter would have been miffed to have been excluded, but the call-up may well have come as a surprise to HBA, given that he hasn't turned out for Les Bleus since August 2010, shortly before Nigel de Jong intervened to rearrange the bones in his leg. Laurent Blanc or his scouts must have been impressed by his form in the second half of the season - and, in view of some of the goals he's scored, that's hardly a revelation.

While our French duo could well face England in Poland and the Ukraine, there's a good chance that on 26th July Old Trafford will witness Team GB's defence attempting to do what many Premier League back fours haven't been able to manage - namely, contain our Senegalese strike pair Papiss Cisse and Demba Ba. Tediously enough, the Cisse-to-leave rumours have already begun, with the player quoted as saying that, while he's "happy for now" at St James' Park, his dream is to play for Real Madrid. It's since been claimed that this is just media shit-stirring, apparently - not the first time comments supposedly made by a Newcastle player in an interview given or at least reported in France have been rubbished.

With the season soon to be over, thoughts are inevitably turning to where the next value-for-money gems are to be unearthed. Stade de Reims midfielder Romain Amalfitano is rumoured to have already signed, and we've looked to France again in bringing Marseille's young defender Christophe Lowinsky in on trial. Perhaps mindful of the fact that Mr T came from Dutch football, we also seem to be scrutinising opportunities in the Netherlands, with talk of moves for FC Twente defender Douglas and his striker team-mate Luuk de Jong persisting alongside a claim that we're among a clutch of clubs keen to clip the wings of Heerenveen by poaching Luciano Narsingh and Oussama Assaidi (though Fulham are apparently in pole position).

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Tuesday, May 08, 2012

A bridge Tou far?

Newcastle Utd 0 - 2 Man City

A valiant effort against Man City at St James' Park on Sunday wasn't quite enough to stave off defeat - though we can feel proud at having given the champions elect a very good game and a number of scares. Pundits droned on that City's cross-Manchester rivals could have few complaints about our efforts and endeavour, neglecting the fact that the game had critical import for our Champions League challenge too. That so much was riding on the result for both sides led to a gripping and dramatic match.

Not surprisingly given Wednesday evening's heroics, the Silver Fox selected an unchanged side, meaning that Perchinho continued to deputise for the injured Danny Simpson at right-back. In terms of formation, though, we seemed to have switched to a more traditional 4-4-2, with HBA appearing on the right-hand flank rather than pushing forwards to make a trio with Papiss Cisse and Demba Ba.

Caution appeared to be the watchword early on, as we allowed the visitors to dictate the game while hoping to catch them on the break. City's superstars stroked the ball around comfortably, though Mr T - patched up following his encounter with John Obi Mikel's elbow - was buzzing about like a man possessed, crunching into tackles to protect his defence. Tim Krul made fairly straightforward saves from Sergio Aguero and David Silva, and looked on without distress when back-in-the-fold black sheep Carlos Tevez tried his luck with a free-kick.

The gulf between our midfield and forwards was too large for the opening half hour, but when we did belatedly start to threaten, the signs suddenly looked promising. Ba blasted over from the edge of the area and was then denied by a Vincent Kompany block. The ball bounced invitingly for HBA to strike it, but Joe Hart parried away at his near post.

Still, we were thankful to get in all square at the break. When the tricky Silva fed Gareth Barry, his second attempt found its way past Krul only for the well-placed Davide Santon to knock it off the line, a combination of Krul and Sideshow Bob clearing the danger. That's two goal-line clearances in two games from our Italian full-back - good to know that, in Simpson's absence, someone else is stepping up to that particular plate.

The second half began in much the same way, with City controlling possession but failing to cause much alarm. It was at this point that Roberto Mancini decided to introduce professional leg-breaker Nigel de Jong for the ineffective Samir Nasri. A bizarrely defensive move, it seemed - but not so. The Dutch destroyer stationed himself in front of the back four, with Yaya Toure given licence to push forwards - and, as his compatriot Mr T started to tire, City's midfield man mountain soon reaped the benefits. When Aguero laid the ball off on the edge of the area, our closing down could have been sharper, but credit to Toure for clipping a precise curler past Krul.

Drawn out of our shell, we were increasingly vulnerable to City raids and Aguero should have doubled their advantage shortly afterwards, his shot rolling mercifully wide of Krul's left-hand post. Perchinho and HBA left the action for Shane Ferguson and Big Lad, with Spidermag filling in at left-back to enable to Ferguson to worry City on the wing. Our persistence forced a couple of opportunities, with Cisse heading harmlessly over and Big Lad seeing a ferocious shot blocked.

It wasn't to be, though. With a minute remaining and City apparently content to wind the clock down, Gael Clichy caught us napping, playing in Toure inside the area. The Ivorian took a touch and then knocked the ball coolly past Krul.

As well as we performed, we should acknowledge that title-chasers were the better side. No shame in defeat, though, and the applause that greeted the players' post-match lap of honour to mark the last home fixture of the season was richly deserved - recognition of an extraordinary campaign that could yet hold yet more joy. Arsenal and Spurs both picked up points, meaning final-day victories will secure them third and fourth place respectively regardless of what we can achieve at Goodison Park, but their failure to win ensures the dream of Champions League qualification isn't dead just yet.

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

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Friday, May 04, 2012

The law of Papiss

Chelski 0 – 2 Newcastle Utd

Two breathtaking goals from Papiss Cisse saw Newcastle defeat the FA Cup and Champions League finalists at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday night and put right the horror of the first half against Wigan last Saturday.

The Silver Fox made only one change from the team who started so abysmally against Wigan, with Perchinho in for the injured Danny Simpson. For the home team, Roberto di Matteo shuffled the pack, with Frank Lampard, Didier Drogba and Juan Mata all dropping to the bench with Fernando Torres (back amongst the goals for the first time since he joined the Blues) leading the line.

Thankfully, for us it was a case of normal service is resumed, with an intensity and hunger in our play which was simply absent on Saturday. When Davide Santon surged forward down the left he was able to thread the ball through to Papiss Cisse on the edge of the Cheski box. Cisse controlled the ball with his right foot, before catching it sweetly on the half-volley with his left and it rocketed past Petr Cech into the net to give us the lead.

Although Chelski sought to come back at us, Torres was too isolated and well marshalled by Williamson and Sideshow Bob to cause us too many difficulties, and the home side’s best chance in the first half was a header easily saved by Tim Krul.

At the other end Demba Ba’s quest to re-find his goalscoring touch continued with one shot drawing a smart save from Cech and our man then hitting the bar after the resultant corner was fired to him on the edge of the box.

Still, one goal up at half-time it was always going to be tough in the second half, and so it proved, with Cheski employing fair means and foul in a bid to get back into it. Thankfully, their attacking edge continued to be blunted, with di Matteo forced to throw on Mata, Lampard and Drogba in a quest to force an equaliser.

Shockingly by that stage we’d lost Mr T, the victim of a deliberate flying elbow from Jon Obi Mikel right in front of referee Mark Halsey, who did nothing. Mr T was down for a long time, eventually departing on a stretcher sporting a neck brace.

With Chelski still pressing as the 90th minute arrived, they were no doubt delighted to see the fourth official show ten minutes of added time (to account for the injury to Mr T), a farcical situation whereby they injure our player and then potentially look to profit from ten extra minutes to get a goal.

Thankfully though it was Newcastle who again found the net, with Raylor (on for Mr T)’s throw chested down by fellow sub Big Lad into the path of Cisse, who spanked a shot with the outside of his right foot, the ball swerving through the air so that it looped over Cech and in at the far post for a physics-defying goal of the season. Not everyone agreed, though, with comedian Kevin Day tweeting he overheard someone say: “How’s that a good goal, it was going out before it went in”. If you haven’t seen it, you need to find it on YouTube.

From there Newcastle were able to comfortably see out the match, with Mr T watching the last few minutes from the dug-out, having received stitches in a nasty gash in his head. As one of my friends put it, “Tiote is the kind of guy who would run off a broken neck”.

With Spurs winning at Bolton, it means we’re still fifth, level on points with them and a point behind Arsenal, and reliant on one of them to slip up in their last two games if we're to finish in the top four. Even if we fall short of that goal, a first win at Stamford Bridge since 1986 and the manner of it (two great goals and a fifteenth clean sheet) is something to savour.

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

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A Month Of Saturdays: April 2012

(Image courtesy of WolfSoul)

"April is the cruellest month"? Seriously, Mr Eliot? I beg to differ - on the contrary, it was really rather spiffing from where I'm sitting, right from Day 1, when Liverpool came to Toon.

The match had been billed as the quintessential "six-pointer" of cliched punditry: win, and we would be marching on towards Europe; lose, and we would have allowed the Reds to claw back some of the deficit. In truth, though, the outcome was never in doubt as we made the team who, courtesy of the Suarez affair, the whole country (rightly, in my view) loves to hate look like April fools. Papiss Cisse scored once in each half, Rocky was booked for a staggeringly pathetic penalty box dive before being hauled off and Pepe Reina was red-carded for clashing heads with Perchinho, resulting in the delicious sight of the diminutive Jose Enrique in goal, barracked by thousands of Toon fans reminding him of his doomy summer predictions of our demise.

A much tougher assignment than crushing King Kenny's crapshower followed on Good Friday with a trip to Swansea. The Liberty Stadium has been such a fortress for the Swans this season that they've virtually constructed a moat, drawbridge and crenellations - and yet we turned up, weathered substantial (if unfocused) pressure and won the game at a canter with another brace from Cisse, both courtesy of clinical passes from Dreamboat. The Senegalese striker's second was particularly eye-catching - a delicate curling lob over Michel Vorm that had many an onlooker drooling.

Cisse was on target again three days later when we welcomed Bolton to St James' (and from that familiar borderline offside position - that smile must have charmed a few linesmen), but it was HBA who stole the headlines with a mind-bogglingly brilliant solo run from inside his own half and a neat finish that finally broke what had been becoming an increasingly stale stalemate.

Five wins on the spin, then - and at a time of the season when momentum is critical. Would the following fortnight spent twiddling our thumbs (thanks to Chelsea's involvement in the FA Cup) have a negative effect, though? No, came the blunt answer, not a bit of it, as we recorded a resounding 3-0 smashing of Stoke. As if envious of the way that, in recent weeks, the limelight had been hogged by Cisse and HBA, Dreamboat made himself the centre of attention, scoring twice during an excellent personal performance. Nevertheless, Cisse still weighed in with a goal...

European qualification of some sort - an undreamt-of possibility pre-season - was guaranteed with that result and others elsewhere, and the Silver Fox claimed to be hoping to enlist the number-crunching services of  Carol Vorderman to help work out all the different permutations (which were further complicated by Chelsea's unlikely progression past Barcelona into the Champions League final). In the circumstances, who could blame him for coming over all Hannibal Smith and revelling in best-laid plans coming to fruition? Not us, certainly. (An aside: here's Hannibal, we've already got Mr T (and may do for some time to come, thankfully), Dreamboat would have to be Face - so who's our Murdoch? A maverick outsider who's full of tricks though confesses to not always being of sound mind - it's probably HBA, isn't it?)

So what of the reasons for our success? Both our scouting network and the shrewd financial policy of which the Silver Fox proudly spoke were instrumental in us bringing in supremely talented and yet just about under-the-radar signings like Cisse, HBA and Dreamboat, all of whom were exceptional in April. While those three provided much of our forward momentum and goal threat, Demba Ba continually impressed in a modified for-the-good-of-the-team role and Spidermag was as hard-working and enthusiastic as ever - but it's also worth noting that the month's four consecutive clean sheets were no coincidence, either. April saw our defensive maestro Sideshow Bob rightly honoured with a place in the PFA Premier League Team of the Season and Danny Simpson - yes, unflashy, no-nonsense Danny Simpson - named as (statistically speaking, at least) the best right-back in the division. There are a lot of sung heroes at the club at the moment, but Simpson is of the unsung variety. Those "fans" whose abuse forced him to quit Twitter should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves.

Perchinho would still be an unsung hero were it not for the fact that his increasingly assured appearances are now celebrated in lusty song. Rather less celebrated, though, is his attempt at fine cuisine - a jacket potato - as revealed by Mike Williamson (still, better than Big Lad's somewhat Victorian attitude to culinary matters...). Williamson wasn't the only player to attribute our achievements to food, glorious food: Saylor spoke about the "weird meals" on themed team bonding days "but I'm one of them who will try anything", while Cisse waxed lyrical about the yassa (Senegalese goat curry) served up by the club chef to make him feel at home. (I don't know what's so special about his equivalent of Wor Al's chicken and beans or Ba's strawberry syrup, but it certainly works a treat.) Supporters too - one as young as four - did their bit to help Cisse settle in.

However, when our hotshot's luck ran out - he hit both the crossbar and post at the DW Stadium - so did ours, and in spectacular fashion. Suffering a 4-0 defeat to relegation-threatened opponents when you've just won six games in a row probably merited the pre-match odds of 66/1, but, while we were certainly below par, Wigan performed out of their skins, one of the division's form sides adding our scalp to those of Man Utd and Arsenal.

Still, that scoreline and results elsewhere left us in fifth as the month came to an end - hardly something to bemoan, particularly given the prospect of JFK's return to Tyneside, a reminder of one of the most horrific episodes of our recent past. Perhaps, though, we should be actually be thankful to the sweary old duffer - after all, as Saylor acknowledged, relegation was the best thing that could have happened to us. As we seem to be doing a rather good job of demonstrating.



Thursday, May 03, 2012

Quotes of the day

"Wow just seen cisses goal. Goal of the season for me."

"2 of the best goals of the season both scored by the same player in 1 game. Pardew has made 4 out of the leagues best 5 signings this season."

Wayne Rooney and Little Saint Mick respectively take to Twitter to comment on Papiss Cisse's two breathtaking strikes against Chelsea (Paul's match report to follow). They really must have been special for Mick to say something nice about us. Both players are no doubt desperate Cisse repeats the trick on Sunday...

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Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Filling the shirt

"When I took that number I admit I was a little bit scared, it was a big number, and there was such a big expectation with it but at the same time I thought ‘Well, why shouldn’t I wear this shirt and show everyone what I can do?' "

Papiss Cisse, talking to the Telegraph recently through French interpreter Lauren (which begs the question what has happened to Olivier Bernard?) sheds some light on his background, his love for the Peugeot 206 and his approach to goalscoring.

He also mentions he recently watched a certain football film, and the parallels with Santiago Munez aren't lost on him either - hopefully, like Munez, his goals will fire us into the Champions League. Hopefully we won't then flog him on to Real Madrid in the summer.



Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Off to see the wizard

An insight from the Daily Heil (six words I never thought I'd type together) as to what life is really like behind the curtain at Newcastle's training ground.

Thankfully even drawing back the veil doesn’t just reveal an old man pretending to be something he’s not, but instead a whole bunch of people who appear absolutely thrilled to be washing kit/cleaning boots/cooking goat curry etc. as part of the well-oiled machine that currently is Newcastle Utd.

Well worth a read if you've got a few minutes, my favourite snippet being the fact that SBR had to be educated on the difference between a washing machine and a tumble dryer, and managed to persuade the laundry team to wash and press his suits and shirts for him. (Mind, given SBR couldn't always tell the difference between his own players, it's hardly a shock that he mixed up laundry appliances).



Quote of the day

"We don't want it to be a good season, we want it to be an excellent season. We've still got a great chance to kick on and surprise a few people."

With Champions League qualification still possibly within our reach, I take your point, Danny - but I think it's fair to say we've already "surprised a few people" (ourselves included) and the identity of our final three opponents mean we might struggle to banish the demons of the DW.