Thursday, August 30, 2012

The (bad) luck of the draw

So that's the League Cup dream over for another season, then - we've only gone and been handed a trip to Old Trafford in the Third Round draw. Still, I suppose they might stuff the side with fringe players and unblooded youngsters, so there's a sniff of a chance - though with tonight's victory over Atromitos meaning we have ongoing European commitments, we're likely to do likewise.

Paul's report on tonight's game, and details of who we'll face in the group stage, to follow.

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Rocky road out of Anfield

So it seems that Rocky's finally got the not-so-veiled message Brendan Rodgers has been spouting in the press for weeks: he's not wanted at Anfield. His escape route (on loan) hasn't led him to St James' Park, though, but to Upton Park and a reunion with Fat Sam, whom he claims was a key factor in the decision. He'll certainly provide a focal point for the Hammers' hoof-and-hope style under Allardyce, but how long before the temptations of the capital get to him and he's being forced into being taken in by Kevin Nolan and family?

Elsewhere, one-time target Jordan Rhodes is set to leave Huddersfield to join Blackburn for a cool £8m - an absurd sum for a newly relegated and financially unstable club to be chucking around. Still, he's likely to do well for them - his first job being to step into the boots of crocked former Toon striker Leon O'Best.

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Quote of the day

"If you can't do your business in the summer, then I don't know why because there is plenty of time."

A telling statement from the Silver Fox, in the midst of a complaint about the fact that the transfer window stretches beyond the start of the season until the end of August. The implication, of course, is that, with a day to go before the window closes and with all around us engaged in frenzied activity, we've already done all of our business and are happy to settle with what we've got. Not exactly reassuring, is it? Retaining our key players was one objective of the summer - but the other was to add further quality and strength to the squad, and I suspect few fans are likely to agree with the manager that Vurnon Anita, Romain Amalfitano, Gael Bigirimana and Curtis Good constitute a sufficiently impressive shopping basket.

Regardless of our transfer policy, one long-term target (and one who's expressed a desire to come) Mathieu Debuchy might be reconsidering now that his club Lille have made it into the Champions League even without the spark supplied by the player who destroyed us on Saturday evening, Eden Hazard. Incidentally, Celtic also made it through - no doubt the delight (and relief) of Fraser Forster and all those who barracked me for suggesting the Hoops had little to look forward to this campaign.

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Blyth blown off-course

Saturday's afternoon off afforded me the opportunity to indulge my inner Harry Pearson and go all Far Corner by heading to watch Blyth Spartans take on Hednesford Town. Report (containing plenty of Toon references) filed here.

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Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Not-so-handy Andy

Incredible, isn't it, that managers should already be finding themselves handed their P45s. First to go was Toon old boy Andy Thorn, given the boot by Coventry. The Sky Blues were unbeaten under Thorn, though they did surrender leads to record draws in their three league fixtures.

Thorn generally comes across as glum and unenthusiastic in interviews (hardly positive attributes in someone who is supposed to inspire), but you have to wonder why the board were prepared to stand by the man who took the club down to League One and allow him the summer to try reshaping the squad, only to sack him four games into the season. The new man (who, if the Coventry board have even a shred of common sense, won't be the Poison Dwarf) will inherit Thorn's squad with no opportunity to make adjustments and additions of his own until January.

Incidentally, a Thorn-less Coventry defeated Championship outfit Birmingham in the League Cup to put more pressure on Lee Clark. His side have suffered a poor start to the campaign, picking up just one point in the league since the Cup thrashing of Barnet. Clark was downcast after Saturday's loss at Watford, demanding better performances from those he's brought in, and while Darren Ambrose helped Peter Lovenkrands to give Blues the lead at the Ricoh, it wasn't enough and his mood certainly won't have improved.

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RIP Freddie Fletcher

RIP Freddie Fletcher, former chief executive and Sir John Hall's compadre in the reconstruction and rehabilitation of the club in the 1990s. The current hierarchy acknowledged his role in attracting some of our most eyecatching signings of the decade (Wor Al included), while Lady Elsie Robson paid tribute to him for his generous support of the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation from its inception.



Johnson: a bit jealous

Having scoffed at the Mackems forking out a fortune for Steven Fletcher, I think it has to be conceded that Adam Johnson is an excellent acquisition, and reasonable value for money at £10m. His debut was delayed by Saturday's waterlogged pitch down at the Dark Place (an internal inquiry is ongoing as to why a newly laid pitch should have been unplayable when all around the region non-league matches were taking place without problem...), but Morecambe paid the price as he set up both goals for James McClean in the League Cup.

Though Liverpool and Spurs were both rumoured to have been interested in Johnson, the Mackems seem to have been unchallenged for his signature - a bit irritating, as I think he'd have been a useful addition to our squad, comfortable on either flank.

Meanwhile, Little Saint Mick continues to tout himself around, still optimistic that a Premier League club will offer him shelter from the harsh realities of being past it in their treatment room. Given that the Mackems have signed both Fletcher and Louis Saha in the last week, his destination seems unlikely to be Sunderland.

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Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Trouble in paradise

Chelsea 2 - 0 Newcastle Utd

Would you Adam and Eve it? Chelsea's new import Eden Hazard was instrumental in defeating us on the site of one of last season's most remarkable victories. It wasn't that we hadn't heeded the Hazard warning spelled out in the Blues' first two games, but more that we weren't able to do anything to stop him - and I suspect we won't be the last club to fall prey to the Belgian's wiles.

The Silver Fox predictably bemoaned the decision to play the fixture on Saturday evening, less than 48 hours after the conclusion of the away Europa League qualifier in Greece, due to the Notting Hill Carnival - but in truth, though ten of those involved travelled to Atromitos, only two of the starters (Papiss Cisse and Vurnon Anita, again deputising for Mr T) kicked off in that game. Saturday's starting line-up threw up no surprises other than the welcome return of Sideshow Bob as the side's skipper.

We began looking quite neat and competitive, but Chelsea's front players - most notably Hazard, Juan Mata and Fernando Torres - carried considerable threat, and it all started to unravel once the latter had burst into the box and fallen theatrically over Anita's unwisely wafted leg. With Frank Lampard warming the bench, Hazard assumed spot-kick duties and found the back of Tim Krul's net without fuss.

Though disspirited, we didn't buckle, and Cisse had a couple of half-chances he could perhaps have done better with. Three games without scoring hardly constitutes a drought, but you do feel he's in desperate need of a goal. The uphill task of overhauling the Champions League winners became all the more difficult, though, when in stoppage time at the end of the first half Torres exchanged passes with Hazard and clipped a delicious outside-of-the-foot shot into Krul's top corner. Perhaps we could have applied more pressure on the ball, and perhaps Davide Santon could have tracked Torres more effectively, but my instinct was just to shrug my shoulders and doff my proverbial hat at a well-crafted goal.

If Hazard had illuminated the first half, then HBA seemed to take it upon himself to rescue a point early in the second period, bamboozling Blues defenders and skimming a shot narrowly wide of Petr Cech's far post. The Czech 'keeper was also ruffled by a trio of efforts from Demba Ba as he looked more dangerous than his compatriot Cisse up front.

Dreamboat, by contrast, had an afternoon to forget, outshone by former Lille colleague Hazard, and was replaced (somewhat curiously) by Perchinho, while Sylvain Marveaux came on for Davide Santon and Danny Simpson made way for Raylor. The latter was never afforded the opportunity to whip in a trademark free-kick on goal, and it was curious that French duo Romain Amalfitano and Obertan Kenobe remained rooted to the bench when we needed an injection of attacking impetus.

The game drifted towards a disappointing conclusion, though we should concede that the best team won and we only had the pretence of control in the second half, our hosts more than capable of adding to their tally. The result neatly underlined the disparity between the two clubs - we may have finished above Chelsea last term, when they suffered a poor winter and had their eye off the ball at the end of the Premier League season, but Roman Abramovich spent big and cannily over the summer (£20m Brazilian Oscar was an unused substitute) and we're now very much chasing their coat-tails. The two Manchester clubs won't have it all their own way this season.

No disgrace in defeat, then - let's draw a line under it and move on.

A Chelsea fan's perspective (with added graphics...): We Ain't Got No History

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

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Monday, August 27, 2012

Eight years on

Sunday marked the eighth birthday of Black & White & Read All Over.

Staggeringly, it's now eight years since we flogged Jonathan Woodgate to Real Madrid and began a completely futile pursuit of a young Everton striker with an appreciation for grandmothers.

Over the last eight years, we've watched and endured countless stirring victories and even more gut-wrenching moments of self-destruction, marquee signings flop and managers come and go with more frequency than is frankly healthy.

Interestingly, we're now back in a broadly similar position to the one we enjoyed then, with a team who finished fifth last season looking to kick on again under a silver-haired manager playing decent football and embarking on hopefully a fruitful European adventure.

Back in 2004 it didn't take too long for the wheels to fall off and the dark era of Sourness to be ushered in. Hopefully this time round the Silver Fox can look forward to another productive season at the helm with the support of an owner who isn't sharpening the knives behind his back.

Ha'way the lads!



Friday, August 24, 2012

Quote of the day

"The spirit of English football is amazing and I realised that from an early age from my time in the North East with Newcastle. The people up here have something special about them, they are really passionate about football and I really enjoyed my time at Newcastle for sure."

Louis Saha, recently hoodwinked into signing for the Mackems, fondly recalls his brief spell on loan at St James' Park in 1998-9. It's perhaps worth pointing out that the Frenchman scored as many goals against us on his Spurs debut in February (two) as he did during that loan stint. Needless to say, I'm not looking forward to us facing him again.

Meanwhile, another new arrival at the Dark Place is Steven Fletcher, for whom the Mackems have forked out a fee of £12m, which looks ridiculous when you consider our outlay on Papiss Cisse or the paltry £5m Spurs paid for Emmanuel Adebayor. The Scottish lunk has suffered relegation from the Premier League twice before, with Burnley and then Wolves. Wouldn't it be a shame if lightning struck for a third time?

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Raylor belter ensures Greek bailout

Atromitos 1 – 1 Newcastle Utd

A heavily rotated and relatively inexperienced team and sweltering heat meant that I viewed last night’s match with a fair degree of trepidation.

With a total overhaul of the team, the Silver Fox handed first starts to Vurnon Anita and Gael Bigirimana, brought James Tavernier in at right-back and gave Steve Harper his first start for the club in over a season. Up front, Papiss Cisse kept his place, with Sylvain Marveaux, Obertan Kenobe and Dan Gosling for support. At the back, Perchinho partnered captain for the day Mike Williamson in the centre of defence with Raylor assuming the left-back role.

As might be expected, it was the home side who started the brighter, with Denis Epstein looking dangerous down their left and our former striker Shefki Kuqi’s younger brother Njazi also looking lively.

Having served warning once, it was Atromitos who opened the scoring when a diagonal ball over the top caught Tavernier out and allowed Epstein to get behind him and slot the ball under the out-rushing Harper.

Newcastle looked to get back into the game, but Obertan Kenobe in particular endured a pretty poor game, leaving Cisse isolated, and our best threat looked to be from set pieces, with Raylor’s long throws and free kicks causing the home side difficulties. His first free kick bought a good save from the 'keeper, with his feet, but his second, on the stroke of half time, was even better and brought us back level.

The second half saw both sides waste decent chances, with Obertan Kenobe firing over on the volley and late substitute Adam Campbell (whose appearance from the bench saw him break Rocky’s record and become the youngest player to ever play for us in Europe) linking well with fellow substitute Romain Amalfitano but unable to fashion a winner.

At the end, with the heat taking its toll on both teams, a draw was a fair result and one which means a clean sheet next week will guarantee our passage to the group stage. Aside from Campbell’s appearance, both Bigirimana and Anita enjoyed good games in the heart of midfield and Raylor again took the opportunity to remind the Silver Fox of his potency with a dead ball. The other point of note is Steve Harper’s reinstatement as our second-choice 'keeper – proving there’s life in the old dog yet.

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

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Thursday, August 23, 2012

A winger and a prayer

We were sorry to learn that former Toon man Kevin Sheedy is suffering from bowel cancer. When lured to the club by Kevin Keegan in 1992, the Irishman was admittedly in the twilight of his playing career but it was still some coup to be a second-tier side able to boast someone who had picked up two league titles, an FA Cup and the European Cup Winners' Cup during a golden period with Everton in the mid-1980s.

Arguably the most memorable moments of Sheedy's time on Tyneside were his winner at Peterborough in the midst of our record-breaking eleven-game winning streak at the start of the promotion season, and then his ferocious tackle on Leicester defender Simon Grayson that resulted in a red card and left the current Huddersfield manager with a hole in his shinpad. Hardly the most faint-hearted or dainty of wingers, then - and that fighting spirit should stand him in good stead now.

On a different note, Chelsea warmed up for our visit to Stamford Bridge on Saturday with a win against Reading. The 4-2 victory was far from routine, though, with Danny Guthrie giving the Premier League new boys a 2-1 lead they held for a long portion of the match. There remains hope that we can reprise last season's extraordinary triumph - though perhaps not that it might be accomplished with such a flash of inspiration and brilliance. I'd take a deflection off Perchinho's arse if it gets us something to take back up the A1...

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Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Friends reunited

Today saw a reunion of two familiar faces, as Sebastien Bassong left Spurs for Chris Hughton's Norwich. It didn't really work out at White Hart Lane for the Cameroon international defender, and he's cited the Canaries' new manager as a critical factor in his decision to make the move: "He was the first man to give me a training session in England when I came from France. He knows me really well and so I am very happy to work for him again".

Bassong was flogged off for £8m in our post-relegation firesale in 2009, and I did wonder whether his availability and our failure to sign an experienced centre-back (Curtis Good being one for the future) might mean we showed an interest - but it wasn't to be. Despite suffering defeat on Tyneside at the weekend, Spurs seem content to continue haemorrhaging central defenders - Ledley King has retired, Ryan Nelsen's short-term deal expired and acceptance of a £7.5m bid for Michael Dawson means he's soon likely to be joining up with Nelsen across the capital at QPR.

Spurs have also confirmed today that the painfully drawn-out deal for Man City striker Emmanuel Adebayor has finally been concluded - we should probably be grateful that it wasn't wrapped up in time for Saturday's game.

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Tuesday, August 21, 2012

When push comes to shove

As we'd anticipated, the Silver Fox is up on a misconduct charge for his shove on assistant referee Peter Kirkup during Saturday's win over Spurs. Minimal though the contact was, I don't think he can really have any complaints if a brief touchline ban is forthcoming - as he himself accepted, it wasn't exactly edifying conduct and the FA, with their emphasis on the Respect agenda, are likely to take a dim view of it.

It may well not have made any difference, but personally I'd have preferred to see more contrition in his post-match interview, rather than his beaming declaration that the incident was "ridiculous". A straight-faced expression of regret and an apology (rather than just saying "I'll have to apologise") might have stood him in better stead when he comes before the panel.

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Monday, August 20, 2012

Ba and HBA sink Spurs

Newcastle Utd 2 - 1 Spurs

The 2012-13 season began with a bang on Saturday at St James’ Park, with two goals from Demba Ba and HBA enough to see off last season’s fourth-place finishers Spurs.

Opting for a 4-4-2 formation, the Silver Fox welcomed back Saylor for his first competitive start since he hobbled off the pitch last January, partnering him with Perchinho (in the absence of the recovering Sideshow Bob, and leaving Mike Williamson on the bench) at the heart of our defence. Otherwise, the team sheet looked very similar to much of last season, with Ba and Papiss Cisse up front and Dreamboat and Mr T anchoring the midfield with Spidermag and HBA down the flanks.

With AVB currently seeking to impose his philosophy on Droopy’s old Spurs, and currently with only one recognised striker and a want-away midfielder on the books, if not the pitch, this looked a pretty good time to play a team who haven’t won at St James’ Park for eight years.

We started sluggishly, struggling to find fluidity in midfield and create any meaningful supply for our Senagalese strike force. At the other end, Gylfi Sigurdson had a shot well saved by Tim Krul (although a goal wouldn’t have stood as the new fulcrum of the Spurs midfield was wrongly flagged offside) and both Jermain Defoe and Gareth Bale hit the woodwork.

Half-time arrived with the match still goalless and we opted to reorientate ourselves, ditching 4-4-2 in favour of last season’s 4-3-3 formation, which pushed HBA into a more advanced role. The change paid off, with slick passing between Dreamboat and HBA seeing the ball find Danny Simpson (now apparently here for the remainder of the season at least) whose deep cross was only headed up by Kyle Walker. The ball fell to Ba on the left of the Spurs box and he stroked the ball past the despairing dive of Brad Friedel to give us the lead. Ba then promptly headed for the Strawberry Corner to pray (not “rub his face in the mud” as the idiot on Channel 5 News commented later in the evening).

With the midfield starting to tick and HBA looking increasingly threatening, we started to look a more composed side – composure clearly evidenced by Saylor, who stopped the ball going out for a corner, before dropping on his front to head the ball back along the ground to Krul to allow the keeper to pick up the ball.

By that stage, the Silver Fox had been sent to the stand, having pushed the linesman after he failed to award a throw-in when the ball looked to have gone out off a Spurs player. With his walkie-talkie seemingly not working, reserve coach Willie Donachie was left doing shuttle runs up and down the stairs to relay messages to John Carver on the bench.

Presumably one of those messages was to give new boy Vurnon Anita some game time, so he came on to replace Dreamboat, and looked solid, showing some good touches.

Defensively, it was a shame that we weren’t able to keep a clean sheet, with Defoe popping up at the back post to knock home a rebound after Krul had saved his initial effort from a Spurs corner.

Thankfully though, that wasn’t to be the last word, and HBA took a short corner, before receiving the ball back and bursting into the box between Aaron Lennon and Rafael van der Vaart, both of whom stuck out legs to clip the Frenchman and concede a penalty. With Ba the appointed penalty taker, and John Carver getting quite exasperated on the touchline, it was HBA who managed to wrestle control of the ball before calmly slotting home having sent Friedel the wrong way.

That goal took the wind out of Spurs' sails, and with Defoe their only recognised striker, they couldn’t create any further chances to threaten Krul’s goal.

Aside from a good start against a team who look likely to be one of the sides with whom we’re battling if we want to qualify for Europe in some form next season, it was a good win. Undoubtedly we’ll play with more fluency this season, but a win should never be sniffed at, and with HBA picking up where he left off last season, we could be in for some very special performances over the coming weeks and months.

The only negative is the prospect of an FA punishment for the Silver Fox, who accepted after the match that he shouldn’t have pushed the linesman and could well face further sanction as a consequence.

Spurs fans' perspectives: Dear Mr Levy, TottenhamBlog, Triffic Tottenham

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

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Sunday, August 19, 2012

Quote of the day

"Sunderland also wanted me but I chose Newcastle because they really wanted me and they play wonderful football."

If Vurnon Anita's passing and tackling are as incisive as his ability to complement his new employers while simultaneously belittling our local rivals, he could be a very big hit indeed.



Friday, August 17, 2012

Prediction time

With the whistle about to blow on another Premier League season, and having assessed both our summer and the strengths and weaknesses of our opponents (here and here) it's time for me to make my annual stab in the dark and predict how I think the table will look come May 2013.

So, without further ado, here goes:

1. Man City
2. Man Utd
3. Arsenal
4. Chelski
5. Spurs
6. Liverpool
7. Newcastle Utd
8. Everton
9. The Great Unwashed
10. Fulham
11. Aston Villa
12. QPR
13. Stoke
14. West Ham
15. West Brom
16. Norwich
17. Reading
18. Swansea
19. Wigan
20. Southampton

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Thursday, August 16, 2012

Know Your Enemies 2012/3: Part 2

Time for the second instalment of our look at the teams we'll be facing this coming season...


"There is no way we will be in this situation again in my time here". So said Mark Hughes in the wake of QPR's final-day escape from relegation, and their feverish transfer activity over the summer certainly bears out that determination. No doubt nettled by the fact that they had been promoted as champions and yet saw their Championship inferiors Norwich and Swansea both survive in comfort and no little style, the West Londoners have gone into recruitment overdrive. Astute acquisitions are everywhere. Mark Hughes returned to his old stomping ground Old Trafford to pick up the crumbs from Taggart's table (the ever-reliable and hard-working Ji-Sung Park and loanee Fabio) and was a key factor in persuading Blackburn's much sought-after out-of-contract Junior Hoilett to sign. Samba Diakite is a significant upgrade on Shaun Derry, while in Djibril Cisse, Bobby Zamora and Andrew Johnson they've assembled a trio of strikers who, though all the wrong side of thirty, certainly know how to find the net in the top flight.

This coming season Hughes has every right to expect much more from two of his flair players, Adel Taarabt and Shaun Wright-Phillips, but also has the managerial migraine that is ASBO to contend with, our old boy beginning the campaign banned, fined and stripped of the captaincy for his misdemeanours in that sensational game at the Etihad. If there's a worry for the club as a whole, it's hubris - they may be in danger of overreaching and overstretching themselves in pursuit of success. Just ask Portsmouth how that can pan out.


I'd imagine it feels pretty good to be a Reading fan right now. Having hit form at exactly the right time and surfed the wave to secure the Championship title, the Royals are now returning to the Premier League under new ownership, with the promise of significant investment that that entails, albeit in a stadium still bearing the former owner's name. The team's achievements have been accomplished under the calm, methodical stewardship of Brian McDermott, an excellent example of the value of old Liverpool strategy of promoting from within.

McDermott's greatest transfer coup has been to persuade Pavel Pogrebnyak that, despite a fruitful loan spell with Fulham, his future lies in Berkshire. His was the marquee signing that served as a statement of intent, but Reading have also been canny in recruiting less flashy reinforcements across the back line in the form of Chris Gunter, Adrian Mariappa and former Royal Nicky Shorey, while Danny Guthrie will add experience (if not class and dining etiquette) to the midfield. However, it's doubtful that some of their most impressive Championship performers will be as effective at the higher level. Jimmy Kebe, for instance, will find life much tougher faced with Premier League full-backs. Adam Le Fondre, meanwhile, is a throwback to the days of predatory fox-in-the-box poachers, when the modern Premier League striker needs to be a much more complete footballer.


How things change. In autumn 2008 Portsmouth were taking on and nearly beating AC Milan in Europe, while south coast rivals Southampton ended the season in administration and relegated to League One. Fast forward three years and, while Pompey are in League One without a single senior player on their books and the threat of liquidation hanging over them, the Saints are back in the big time. If they can get beyond the Schadenfreude and start looking for inspiration, then Norwich are proof positive that survival after two consecutive promotions is possible. Star striker Rickie Lambert will no doubt have noted Grant Holt's success at bullying and breaching Premier League defences while the more celebrated likes of Rocky floundered.

Lambert's strike partner is likely to be former Burnley man Jay Rodriguez, for whom Southampton perhaps unwisely smashed their record transfer fee. Throw Billy Sharp, another Championship stalwart, into the mix and it's clear that the Saints are taking a considerable gamble on goalscorers unproven in the Premier League. They've done well to snap up highly-rated Palace youngster Nathaniel Clyne, and already boast the talented Adam Lallana and Team GB representative Jack Cork in midfield, but question marks hang over their strength in depth. It'll be interesting to see whether manager Nigel Adkins can keep up his Mr Nice Guy persona in the face of the stresses, strains and psychological mind games he'll endure in the top flight. It might not be long before he's missing his Football League Show banter with Mark "Clem" Clemmit - and there's a chance they might get to resume their pally encounters in a year's time.


If you're looking for subtlety, finesse and grace and find yourself at the Britannia Stadium, then either you need to invest in a new satnav or you've arrived on false pretences - Jonathan Woodgate was let go earlier this summer. Even when Stoke scored a contender for goal of the season (as Peter Crouch's effort against Man City was, until Papiss Cisse took aim against Chelsea), it's notable that the ball never touched the ground from the 'keeper's kick to hitting the back of the net. Yes, the Potters have a system and they're sticking to it - unsurprisingly, given that it's proven brutally effective for four successive seasons now and enabled them to survive and flourish despite minimal financial outlay. "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" seems to be the club's motto - though things do often break when they're around, namely noses...

Last summer Crouch replaced Kenwyne Jones as the large of Stoke's little-and-large strike partnership, and Tony Pulis is now looking to upgrade on the little, eager to land Little Saint Mick as an improvement on Jonathan Walters. The baseball-capped Welshman is nothing if not pragmatic, having responded to the hefty price tag Wolves hung around Matt Jarvis' neck by promptly signing fellow winger Michael Kightly instead. The good news for Stoke's opponents is that bogeyman Rory Delap is nearing the end of his career; the bad news is that his protege Ryan Shotton is developing his own version of the Irishman's fabled throw-in, capable of causing as much panic in defences as the sight of salad in a kebab does in Sunderland.


Speak of the devils. The Mackems seem to have been having great trouble attracting players to the Dark Place. Funny, that. Most pressing was a new striker - Niklas Bendtner has returned to Arsenal and Asamoah Gyan has sealed his escape, while of those left Stephane Sessegnon couldn't make it into double figures last season, Connor Wickham has failed to live up to even the most modest expectations and Fraizer Campbell is far more familiar with the physio than he is with his teammates. Little wonder, then, that they were so desperate to sweet-talk free agent Louis Saha into joining and remain keen on snaring Wolves' Steven Fletcher. To date, their only other new signing has been Carlos Cuellar, another past-his-best defender to keep Wes Brown and John O'Shea company.

Nevertheless, there remains some hope even for these most hopeless of wretches. Sunderland are strongest on the flanks, where Sebastian Larsson provides Beckham-esque delivery and recently unearthed talent James McClean offers energy and penetration, and in Martin O'Neill they're undeservedly blessed with a potential saviour. How long before he acknowledges that having Lee Cattermole - a player who makes ASBO look like a tranquillised Buddhist - as captain is a car crash just waiting to happen?


Through the tenures of Roberto Martinez, Paulo Sousa and Brendan Rodgers, Swansea have developed a footballing philosophy that is the complete antithesis of Stoke's, and the new man charged with its exposition is Michael Laudrup. The Dane has called upon his connections in pursuing a transfer policy that has seemed largely focused on players with single names who either sound like Pokemon characters (Michu) or conjure up deeply unpleasant repressed memories of X Factor contestants (Chico). One exception is Dutch midfielder Jonathan De Guzman, borrowed from Villareal and set to make a big impression at the Liberty Stadium.

As a former winger himself, Laudrup will presumably be keen to ensure the Swans continue to use pacy wide men Scott Sinclair, Nathan Dyer and Wayne Routledge to their best advantage. He's no doubt less than enamoured of his predecessor's attempts to lure his best players to Liverpool - Joe Allen has already left, and Rodgers is rumoured to be lining up a bid to take Ashley Williams to Anfield too. Together with Angel Rangel, Neil Taylor and Spurs loanee Steven Caulker, Williams was critical in creating the circumstances in which Swansea's rightly lauded total football could thrive last season - if Laudrup and chairman Huw Jenkins allow that supporting wall to be removed, the whole edifice might collapse.


How very typical that Spurs should trounce us 5-0 immediately before embarking on a catastrophic run of form that ultimately deprived them of Champions League qualification and cost 'Appy 'Arry his job. That resulted in Andre Villas-Boas being granted a second crack of the Premier League whip, and he was soon at loggerheads with Luka Modric, the Croatian the subject of intense transfer speculation for the second successive summer and someone who Chelsea, under the Portuguese, were eager to recruit. Thus far Spurs have just about won the battle, as they have with Gareth Bale, but Modric now looks increasingly likely to be lining up for Jose Mourinho's Real Madrid.

In between trying to fight off unwanted attention for the pair, Daniel Levy has spent much of the summer wrangling with Emmanuel Adebayor and his representatives, still unable to agree personal terms on a deal for the man who spearheaded the attack last term. Jermain Defoe might be itching for more regular first-team football, but without Adebayor (or a suitable alternative) Spurs look woefully short-staffed up front. On a more positive note, Belgian centre-back Jan Vertonghen is an excellent addition, especially in light of Ledley King's retirement, and may perhaps be partnered by Steven Caulker, who's on the cusp of a major breakthrough. Gylfi Sigurdsson, fresh from making a huge impact on loan at Swansea, has chosen Spurs over Liverpool and bolsters an already impressive midfield in which Sandro continues to look more assured. Factor in Kyle Walker, arguably the best right-back in the division at present, and Rafael van der Vaart, desperate to put the Netherlands' dismal performance at Euro 2012 behind him, and Spurs have the potential to mount a reasonable title challenge - assuming they aren't fed any dodgy lasagne, that is.

West Brom

Though 'Arry had looked odds-on to land the England job, it eventually went to Roy Hodgson, leaving West Brom seeking a replacement. They found one in the form of Steve Clarke, once of this parish and until recently Kenny Dalglish's number two, who followed Hodgson's footsteps from Anfield to the Hawthorns via a brief period of unemployment. Whether he is able to make himself comfortable or barely has time to singe his buttocks on the managerial hotseat depends partly on the success of his signings.

A primary objective appears to have been to beef up the front line, with disgruntled Chelsea youth Romelu Lukaku and experienced Swedish marksman Markus Rosenberg set to give the likes of Peter Odemwingie and Shane Long serious competition. Midfield recruits Claudio Yacob and Yassine El Ghanassy are a more unknown quantity, while Ben Foster has now swapped Birmingham for the Black Country on a permanent basis. However, it's largely players like Chris Brunt and Jonas Olsson, unheralded by many other than Baggies supporters, who have been instrumental in the club's survival - and may well be again.

West Ham

When West Ham clinched an immediate return to the top tier through the play-offs, the overriding emotion was probably one of relief. Had the Hammers not squeaked through against Blackpool, their retention of players on Premier League wages and riskily substantial January expenditure might well have resulted in financial meltdown. The crucial goal that day was scored by Ricardo Vaz Te, a mid-season recruit finally coming good on the early promise he showed at Bolton. Fat Sam doesn't seem to have much faith in his other strikers Carlton Cole, Nicky Maynard and Sam Baldock, having taken the gamble we weren't prepared to take on Modibo Maiga and expressing unrequited love for Rocky.

QPR's acquisition of Robert Green led to the purchase of not one but two new 'keepers, veteran Jussi Jaaskelainen and Stephen Henderson both happy to be offered escape routes from relegated Bolton and Portsmouth respectively. Fat Sam's sides are rarely a soft touch - usually quite the opposite - and the addition of Mohamed Diame and Alou Diarra to the midfield should ensure that the Hammers are combative where it matters most. Mark Noble and James Tomkins are both a year older and wiser, and, with our former skipper Kevin Nolan adept at the art of popping up unexpectedly in the six-yard area like a mole with an unerring sense of timing, Upton Park probably won't be playing host to Championship football for at least another year.


Just what is it that's keeping Roberto Martinez at Wigan? Surely it can't be the prospect of yet another season of struggle, working alchemical magic to turn base metals like Franco di Santo into something with at least the occasional lustre of gold? Maybe Dave Whelan shackles the Spaniard in his cellar every May. With attractive vacancies aplenty in the Premier League this summer (Liverpool, Spurs, Villa), it's remarkable that one of the division's shrewdest and most likeable managers will once again begin the season in the DW dugout.

Survival last season was secured without the assistance of Hugo Rodallega, the contract rebel frozen out of the first team (potentially a classic case of cutting off your nose to spite your face) and now at Fulham. His replacement is Arouna Kone, fresh from a productive loan spell at Levante. The Ivorian striker might not be the most loyal of players, though - he'd only inked a permanent deal with the Spaniish outfit in May... Martinez has also looked to La Liga to stiffen up his defence, stealing Real Mallorca's Ivan Ramis from under Fat Sam's snout, while (thus far successfully) fending off Chelsea's menacing approach for midfield gem Victor Moses. Given the Latics' extraordinary ability to scrape to safety against all the odds, only a fool would predict relegation - so allow me to do the honours.

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'Non merci!

At last! Our first major transfer signing of the summer, and it's only midway through August... Contrary to expectations, the new arrival isn't Mathieu Debuchy but Dutch international Vurnon Anita, prised away from Ajax for a fee of nearly £7m.

Anita can provide cover in both full-back positions, but in negotiations with the Silver Fox he made it clear where he would prefer to be deployed: "They know that I want to play in a defensive midfield place and that's why they brought me here". With Mr T (like Dreamboat) reportedly facing a race against time to be fit, Anita could make his debut in the Ivorian's position against Spurs on Saturday - and of course the assurances he seems to have got from the Silver Fox suggest that he might well have been signed to replace our talismanic midfielder more permanently.

Selling Mr T for a whopping fee having brought in a cheaper, younger replacement would fit our business model perfectly, but we're under no pressure or obligation to offload him and I'd hope we don't rush into anything - not least because a deal might end up strengthening our rivals.

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Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Know Your Enemies 2012/3: Part 1

Yes, it's that time of year again when I foolishly record for posterity my appraisals of our Premier League opponents - you know, writing off sides who end up surviving comfortably and serving up puff pieces for players who spectacularly fail to live up to their billing (Roger Johnson at Wolves being last season's classic example)...


If you ever find yourself round Arsene Wenger's house for tea, it's a pretty safe bet that you won't find meat and potatoes on the menu. No, it'll be tapas - continental, tasty, lots of spice and zest, a bit insubstantial. The Professor has once again spunked his pocket money on European flair and firepower - Spanish winger Santi Cazorla and strikers Lukas Podolski and Olivier Giroud - rather than addressing the long-standing soft-centredness that has meant that Arsenal have been the Vincibles and not won silverware of any description since 2005.

In fairness to Wenger, he's probably hoping that one of Abou Diaby, Alex Song or Emmanuel Frimpong steps up and develops into the Vieira-esque midfield enforcer the Gunners have been so sorely lacking, and the return of Jack Wilshere can't come soon enough. Meanwhile there were signs last season that Laurent Koscielny was starting to come good and that sub-editor's nightmare Wojciech Szczesny has the potential to become the top-quality 'keeper they've been without for so long. Though Wenger may maintain otherwise, Giroud and Podolski were obviously recruited to replace contract rebel Robin van Persie - but, with the Dutchman still at the Emirates for the time being, Arsenal have a formidable array of forwards to choose from. One thing's for certain - whether van Persie stays or goes, the Gunners will need to become much less Robin-reliant.

Aston Villa

I'm not sure Villa fans do joy (or indeed anything other than dour, glum and gallows humour), but even they must be feeling close to cheerily chipper at the summer's events. First of all - and most critically - despised former Bluenose Alex McLeish was given the boot, having seen his mission to relegate both Birmingham clubs in successive seasons foiled at the death. Then came his replacement, Paul Lambert, an upwardly mobile and increasingly well-respected young manager with a hunger for success and a passion for hard work. And then there are the new signings, and in particular an intriguing trio of arrivals from the Eredivisie: Moroccan midfielder Karim El Ahmadi, Australian winger Brett Holman and (after some protracted transfer shenanigans) uncompromising Dutch international defender Ron Vlaar.

Lambert has cleared out some of the old guard, selling Carlos Cuellar and James Collins, perhaps out of recognition that the club is blessed with a promising clutch of youngsters: Marc Albrighton, Barry Bannan, Ciaran Clark, Gary Gardner and potential hotshot Andreas Weimann. Add to that the fact that Darren Bent - one of the league's deadliest finishers - is back to full fitness, Charles N'Somnia must surely improve on his first season in claret and blue, and his ex-Toon colleague Shay Given has retired from international football to concentrate on his day job, and there are plenty of reasons for the perma-grumbling long-suffering Villa faithful to at least try mustering a smile.


Someone at Stamford Bridge seems to have decided that Arsene Wenger's transfer strategy would be worth pursuing for Chelsea too - namely, scouring the globe and hoovering up the best forwards available. The Blues can consider themselves fortunate to have landed arguably the most wanted man in Europe this summer, Belgian flying machine Eden Hazard, and have also shelled out the best part of a further £30m on Marko Marin and Oscar, one of the stars of Brazil's losing Olympic finalists. As statements of intent go, it's quite clear - they're not happy at finishing below us upstarts, and are capable of flexing their financial muscles to chilling effect.

Andre Villas-Boas' undoing was attempting to phase out some of the more senior members of the squad (John Terry and Frank Lampard, basically) too quickly, a challenge which remains for his successor. Roberto di Matteo has the cushion of a heroic salvage operation behind him (the Champions League and FA Cup - not a bad double to win), but Roman Abramovich has shown on several occasions that he's not swayed by sentiment, unprepared to allow managers to trade on former glories and ruthless at the slightest hint of trouble. Responsibility for the Italian's longevity rests at least in part with Fernando Torres, very much the main man he wanted to be now that Didier Drogba has trotted off to stud in China.


Forever the bridesmaids, Everton missed out on European football by a whisker last season, the delight at finishing above Liverpool in seventh tempered by their Merseyside rivals' qualification for the Europa League by virtue of winning the League Cup. Had they not suffered a sluggish start to the campaign and been able to get Nikica Jelavic and Steven Pienaar on board sooner, they may well have placed higher. In the Croatian, David Moyes seems to have found a figurehead for their attack, while the permanent return of prodigal son Pienaar to Goodison Park from the wilderness at Spurs has now been sealed.

The Toffees will need the South African's guile and energy, now that mercurial loanee Royston Drenthe has left, though Leon Osman has quietly established himself as one of the league's most underrated performers. Defensively Moyes' men are sound, Phil Jagielka and Johnny Heitinga providing a solid platform and Leighton Baines- still at the club despite persistent rumours of interest from Man Utd - an additional attacking threat down the left. However, the moneymen's millions have spirited away Jack Rodwell and, while Goodison Park's corner flags may be breathing a sigh of relief at no longer being used as punchbags, Evertonians will also be mourning the departure of long-term servant of the club Tim Cahill.


Poor Fulham. Not only have they suffered the indignity of having two key members of their strikeforce, Bobby Zamora and now Andrew Johnson, poached by their former manager Mark Hughes, now in charge of their nouveau riche west London neighbours QPR; they also looked on in dismay as Pavel Pogrebnyak, an undisputed hit on loan at Craven Cottage last campaign, spurned their advances in favour of cosying up with Premier League new boys Reading. And it could get worse, with Fantasy Football fans' favourite Clint Dempsey (listed as a midfielder, plays up front) allegedly coveted by a host of clubs including Liverpool. That would have left just long-haired layabout Bryan Ruiz, if it wasn't for the fact that Martin Jol managed to pick up Mladen Petric following his release by Hamburg.

In midfield, Danny Murphy has departed, bizarrely choosing to join the circus at Blackburn rather than bow out gracefully, but the Cottagers still boast the muscle of Mahamadou Diarra, once upon a time a 26m euro signing for Real Madrid, and craft in wide areas from Moussa Dembele and Damien Duff. Much depends on the fitness of defensive lynchpin Brede Hangeland, though a breakthrough season for exciting youngster Kerim Frei would also help.


As was widely anticipated, lifting the League Cup wasn't enough to save King Kenny from being deposed following a miserable Premier League campaign which saw the Reds lose as many games as they won and finish a full 13 points below us in eighth. Few beyond Merseyside felt any sympathy for Dalglish or the club, though, their campaign having been blighted by the shameful Luis Suarez v Patrice Evra affair, which was as ugly as the now-departed Dirk Kuyt. Forward-thinking football philosopher Brendan Rodgers is the new man at the helm (a sharp contrast to his surly, old-school predecessor), but the clear lesson of the recent past - namely, avoid splurging obscene amounts in the domestic transfer market - doesn't seem to have been heeded. Rocky and Jordan Henderson should stand as cautionary examples, and yet £15m has still been lavished on Joe Allen, a promising enough talent but surely overpriced given that we picked up Mr T and Dreamboat for a combined total of around £8m.

The price tag that Rocky was burdened with wasn't his fault, though, and while his partnership with Suarez hasn't worked out thus far, there were signs towards the end of last season, and particularly in the FA Cup Final, that he may yet have a future at Anfield - if he can fend off the challenge of new signing Fabio Borini, that is. Also unsettled is Daniel Agger, the subject of interest from Man City - though personally I rate his central defensive partner Martin Skrtel more highly. Should the Dane leave, Rodgers is reported to be eyeing up Ashley Williams as a replacement, which would mean breaching his gentleman's agreement with former employers Swansea for a second time. Crucial to the Scousers' chances of improvement is both Steven Gerrard and Lucas Leiva staying fit.

Man City

What do you get for the man who has everything? Well, until recently - and much to the frustration of that man, Roberto Mancini - it seemed as though the answer was nothing. The Italian had refused to allow himself to get caught up in the euphoria of City's first top-tier title win since 1968, instead looking to strengthen the squad. And what a squad it already is: a superb goalkeeper (Joe Hart), the division's best defender (skipper Vincent Kompany), midfield power and finesse (Yaya Toure) and electrifying skill (David Silva, Samir Nasri, Adam Johnson) and awesome firepower (Sergio Aguero, Edin Dzeko, back-in-the-fold Carlos Tevez, lunatic genius Mario Balotelli). It's telling that fat-salaried strikers Emmanuel Adebayor and Roque Santa Cruz, plus John Guidetti, the Swedish forward who racked up 20 goals in 23 appearances on loan at Feyenoord last season, are nowhere near the first XI.

In the wake of Mancini's public plea for expenditure, owner Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al-Nahyan finally reached down the back of the sofa and found £12m in loose change to secure the benchwarming services of Everton's Jack Rodwell. It's hard to see where else reinforcements are required - central defence appears to have been identified as one area of concern, in light of the approach for Liverpool's Agger - but Mancini will be conscious of the fact that last season's title race was far more closely contested than it should have been.

Man Utd

Quite how Man Utd were within seconds of lifting the trophy remains a mystery. Multi-million-pound signing David De Gea's Old Trafford career got off to a decidedly shaky start, though he did grow in confidence once restored to the team following Anders Lindegaard's absence through injury; with Nemanja Vidic laid up long-term, Jonny Evans, Chris Smalling, Phil Jones and the previously imperious Rio Ferdinand all looked fallible; and they were so bereft of central midfield options in January that Taggart had to coax 37-year-old Paul Scholes away from a life of tea, biscuits and Bargain Hunt in front of the fire. Though that move smacked of desperation (and certainly spoke volumes for the quality of the squad), it was completely vindicated as the midfield maestro came close to inspiring the Red Devils to glory once again.

That Man Utd squandered a nine-point lead at the top would have left them smarting enough; that it was their "noisy neighbours" who pipped them to the prize, and in such excruciating circumstances, having already humiliated them 6-1 on their own turf, will be all the inspiration they need to gain revenge in the forthcoming campaign. Taggart's response has been to sign goalscoring midfielders Shinji Kagawa from Borussia Dortmund and young prospect Nick Powell from Crewe, and to make aggressive moves for Robin van Persie. If he's able to pair the Dutchman with Wayne Rooney, then Roberto Mancini - and the rest of us - will be justifiably worried.


There might be someone new in the Canaries' manager's office, but the club's transfer policy apparently remains the same: gradually and stealthily sign up the entire Leeds midfield. Skillful playmaker Robert Snodgrass finds himself reunited with Jonny Howson and Bradley Johnson at Carrow Road, while one-time £9m defender Michael Turner has arrived from Sunderland and midfielder Jacob Butterfield from Barnsley. Their new gaffer is Chris Hughton, who we're delighted to see getting another opportunity to manage in the top flight following his decidedly unfortunate experience on Tyneside.

This time last summer many - myself included - were speculating whether two successive promotions would mean that the Premier League was too much too soon for Norwich, but their overwhelmingly British squad exhibited stereotypically British qualities - fight, grit, determination - and no little ability to prove the sceptics wrong. No one epitomised the "Let's be 'avin' you!" spirit more than Grant Holt, the journeyman striker hitting 17 goals and claiming the club's Player of the Year award for the third consecutive season. Contractual wrangles have been ironed out, confirming that his future lies at Carrow Road, and the Canaries' fate once again rests firmly on his broad shoulders.

* * * * *

Part 2 will follow tomorrow.

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Tuesday, August 14, 2012

View From The Home End

Image courtesy of Solfrost

Emerging from the Olympic bubble which has enveloped the country over the last two and a half weeks, and completely consumed the nation’s sporting energies, it now falls to me to summarise our summer transfer activity and prospects for the season ahead. 

The difficulty in writing such a preview is that, with just over two weeks left to run, it’s a fairly safe bet that we’re likely to be in for a sudden surge in the transfer market which could see us bolstering our squad, or fending off destabilising last-minute approaches for players. 

This time last year, I don’t think any of us expected to witness the gloriously successful and fantastically entertaining feast which the Silver Fox and his players served up. Their reward for that particular labour is a place in the Europa League, and something of an increase in expectation levels. 

Pleasingly, whilst he shone for France at the European Championships (which currently feel like a lifetime ago), Dreamboat remains on Tyneside. Keeping him company is Demba Ba, whose release clause went untriggered as July turned to August and with Ramadan due to finish on Sunday, his religious observances (and those of his fellow Muslims in the squad) shouldn’t last too long into the new season. 

The challenge for the team will be to seek to finish in broadly the same league position this season, while battling on the additional attritional front of the Europa League, which is where the Silver Fox is likely, I think, to turn to some of his younger summer recruits and those hovering around the fringe of the squad. This could, and should, be a very big year for Haris Vuckic, Little Big Lad and James Tavernier amongst others.

While the likes of Curtis Good and Gael Bigirimana have arrived, we’re still left trying to pick up Matthieu Debuchy, with other reported targets Douglas and Vurnon Anita also yet to venture through the terminal at Newcastle Airport. Similarly, our pursuit of a striker seems to have stalled with Rocky remaining at Anfield and other targets not (yet) materialising.

Without further players arriving, the squad looks broadly the same strength as last year, with fringe players such as Lovenkrands, O'Best and Guthrie having departed but younger players hopefully now better equipped to step into their shoes. The worry will be if we suffer a couple of injuries up front (or Senegal qualify for the African Cup of Nations) and we're left relying on Big Lad with HBA or Little Big Lad for support. Similarly, with Danny Simpson's contract impasse no closer to a resolution, we still need to boost our defensive ranks both at full back and also centrally.

However, if we can bolster the squad (and in particular the defence) before the end of August, whilst also rebuffing any late attention for our own first-choice players, this could yet prove to be another enjoyable, if much less surprising, season. The prospect of European trips is a welcome one, albeit I worry that the sheer number of games will really test our resources to the limit.

Ha'way the lads!

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Monday, August 13, 2012

Jabba's Rangers rescue

So, what to make of Jabba's reported investment in Rangers? It's too soon to comment at length, but perhaps a few initial thoughts might be justified.

On the one hand, he deserves great credit for the way he's reversed and rectified decades of financial mismanagement, and what he does with his money is his own business. On the other hand, that doesn't stop me from feeling unhappy at our owner helping to prop up a club who find themselves in dire straits through their own shameful misconduct.

There's no direct conflict of interest in that the two clubs are in different leagues and the possibility of them meeting in European competition looks remote, at least for the next two or three seasons. However, Jabba's interest in Rangers does become an issue if it starts to interfere with his day job at the helm of Newcastle - and, given the conspicuous absence of notable arrivals over the course of the summer, it might be suggested that he should be devoting all of his energies to our cause rather than allowing himself to be diverted to that of another club.

Add to that the fact that there's talk of Rangers borrowing up to nine of our players. What purpose would be served by sending our youngsters to play in the fourth tier of Scottish football? While the benefits to Rangers are obvious, they certainly aren't so to us. Unless, perhaps, the arrangement hints at plans to establish Rangers as a feeder club. The issue has been raised in connection to the Pozzos' recent takeover of Watford - new manager Gianfranco Zola denied that was the intention, though the Hornets then borrowed no fewer than five players from the Pozzos' Italian and Spanish sides Udinese and Granada respectively. I can imagine how Rangers fans might feel about the prospect of being nothing more than a breeding ground for talent which we then hoover up (or a dumping ground for our development squad) - and I doubt many of our fans would be too comfortable with it either.

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Sunday, August 12, 2012

Red spells danger

A humbling 4-1 defeat to Championship opposition: not the best way to wrap up our pre-season campaign, with the opening league fixture against Spurs just a week away.

Sporting their controversial new red home shirts, Cardiff rocketed into a three-goal half-time lead courtesy of a double from Aron Gunnarsson sandwiching an effort from Joe Ralls. We fought back with a Big Lad penalty awarded for a foul on Spidermag, but it didn't herald a storming comeback, the Bluebirds' new Slovenian striker Etien Velikonja adding a fourth for the home side.

Still, I suppose it could have been worse - the damage could have been done by the No-Necked Text Pest, who's just agreed a return to his hometown club...

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RIP Sid Waddell

RIP Sid Waddell, the "voice of darts" with the memorable turn of phrase who also happened to be Northumberland-born and a lifelong Newcastle supporter. His passing leaves us with two high-profile sports pundit/commentator fans: Gabby Logan and the odious John McCririck. How better for those of us of a certain age to pay tribute to Waddell than to relive the theme tune of the genius Toon-flavoured 80s kids' TV show he wrote, Jossy's Giants?



Our mission: splitting the Atrom

Greece can expect a timely boost to their ailing economy - or at least hostelries in Athens - courtesy of Friday's draw for the Fourth Qualifying Round of the Europa League. Yes, we're off to face Atromitos in the Greek capital. While we know the tie will take place on Wednesday 22nd or Thursday 23rd August, it's not yet clear whether we'll be hosting or on the road - the draw meant we would have been away first, but the club has lodged an appeal which might hopefully ease the burden of having a teatime kick-off at Chelsea the following Saturday.



Thursday, August 09, 2012

A Month Of Saturdays: July 2012

(Image courtesy of Craig Deakin)

July began with a progress report on three of our key transfer targets. By the end of the month, though, the idea of a progress report would have been laughable - in the cases of Twente defender Douglas and Lille right-back Mathieu Debuchy, progress was negligible at best, while the third player, Luuk de Jong, had plumped for Borussia Monchengladbach. The Dutch striker wasn't the only forward we'd missed out on, with Junior Hoilett renewing acquaintance with his former gaffer Mark Hughes at QPR and Fat Sam taking a gamble we weren't prepared to take in signing Modibo Maiga from Sochaux.

Plenty more fish in the sea? Possibly. Marseille's Loic Remy was allegedly on our radar, and we were also reported to be eyeing up a deal to bring Rocky back to St James' Park. But, while the Silver Fox tried out some of the tricks and techniques plucked straight out of Taggart's dog-eared copy of The Mind Games Manual, while we pondered exactly how our former number nine might fit into the currently favoured formation and style of play (much as he might at a poetry workshop for dwarves, you'd imagine), and while assorted Bigg Market hostelries set about doubling levels of door security, Fat Sam stole in with a loan bid that looked set to spirit the pony-tailed powerhouse away from Merseyside in the direction of Upton Park.

What was certain was that we needed reinforcements up front, especially in light of various departures. Leon O'Best, who started his Newcastle career viewed as a bit of a joke and ended it as something approaching a cult figure, bought into Venky's apparent mission to destroy Blackburn Rovers, but left his beleaguered boss Steve Kean tearing out imaginary hair by picking up a six-month injury lay-off in a pre-season friendly. A Championship outfit was also the chosen destination of another fringe forward, Peter Lovenkrands, who became Lee Clark's first signing at Birmingham, while fellow free agent Alan Smith joined MK Dons and, after two seasons on loan to Celtic, Fraser Forster finally inked a permanent deal with the Scottish outfit (giving me the occasion to inadvertently rile a Hoops fan or two).

One player who was lured to Tyneside was Gael Bigirimana, but - despite boasting considerable potential and a host of glowing character references from those who had worked with him at Coventry - even his arrival gave cause for concern. Not only does the Burundi-born midfielder look like Mr T, but he plays in the same position - did it mean we were about to flog off our athletic, tenacious defensive shield and replace him with a teenager whose only experience of first-team football thus far is as part of a side relegated to League One? Like James Tavernier and Michael Richardson, both awarded new contracts in July, he's some way from being the finished article.

Nevertheless, Bigirimana did catch the eye in our initial pre-season fixtures in Germany and Austria - as did fellow new boy Romain Amalfitano. Demba Ba seized the early opportunity to shine, too. Over the second half of last season, he had to get used to playing second fiddle to virtuoso soloist Papiss Cisse, but of the pair - to whom fine tribute was paid by proud Tyneside parents - it was Ba who hit the goals trail early, scoring the winner against Monaco and then finding the net against Braga. That the duo were available to be selected by the Silver Fox was largely due to their surprise omission from Senegal's Olympic squad. No less welcome was the news that Senegal had been paired with Mr T's Ivory Coast in the final qualifying round of the Africa Cup of Nations - a stroke of good fortune, meaning that we won't have to cope without all three come January.

Also among the goals was Saylor, giving us the lead against Olympiakos in a game we eventually won to lift the Trofeu Internacional de Futebol do Guadiana. Injured since December and so absent for the whole of our sensational March/April winning streak, it was no wonder that - according to John Carver - he was "itching" to get back into action and remind the Silver Fox (and Mike Williamson) of his abilities.

The only first teamer not to see any pre-season action in July was HBA, given time to recover from (and cool off after) the Euros. That tournament seemed like eons ago by the end of the month, when Olympics frenzy was in full swing and St James' Park - temporarily referred to in the mainstream media by its proper name, once again - played host to the likes of Switzerland, South Korea and Mexico. The enthusiastic reaction of our international visitors - despite some teething troubles at the turnstiles - suggested that perhaps the Games would serve as a useful promotional tool to kickstart our recruitment drive. Much better to cling to that hope, and celebrate our pre-season silverware, than to dwell on the talk of the Bogeyman (well, Barcelona) stalking Dreamboat, at least...



Wednesday, August 08, 2012

'Pool party

At last - a thumping friendly win. Hartlepool were our obliging victims, going down 5-1 on their own patch thanks in large part to a brace from Sylvain Marveaux. His goals, plus one from Big Lad (who later went off nursing an injury), meant we were cruising at 3-0 up with only 12 minutes elapsed. Further strikes followed in the second period from substitutes Haris Vuckic and Obertan Kenobi, with the Monkey Hangers' consolation coming courtesy of Anthony Sweeney.

The game saw first-team debuts for both Curtis Good and young 'keeper Jak Alnwick, while there was also a first run-out of the pre-season for HBA, who had a hand in Vuckic's goal.

So, Cardiff away on Saturday, and then we get down to business for real...



Nuts for Brazil

So our hosting of Olympic football is now over and St James' Park reverts to its Jabba-given name, at least officially. Nine matches took place on Tyneside, the last two men's games featuring Brazil, with Saturday's exciting 3-2 comeback victory against Honduras witnessed by more than 42,000 spectators.

Neymar was among those on show in yellow on both occasions, scoring a penalty against Honduras, but he was arguably outshone by Internacional striker Leandro Damiao, who grabbed three goals over the course of the two games and also won the spot-kick for his side. Damiao - who scored twice again tonight as Brazil defeated Team GB's conquerors South Korea at Old Trafford to reach the final - continues to be linked with Spurs, but here's hoping that he and some of his teammates, like those visiting fans and journalists, took a shine to the stadium, the crowd and the city...



Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Mike's the man for the Rams

It didn't take teenage defender Michael Hoganson long to find a new club following his release by Newcastle, Derby stepping in to sign him up. Given that he never got close to the first-team squad during his time on Tyneside, it's a bit surprising that the 18-year-old left-back has been snapped up so swiftly by a Championship side - though his new manager Nigel Clough has stressed that Hoganson can expect to feature primarily in the club's Under 21 XI.

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Monday, August 06, 2012

Patience is a virtue

Privately he may be getting as anxious as the rest of us, but publicly at least the Silver Fox is remaining calm at the lack of big-name signings. Youthful trio Romain Amalfitano, Gael Bigirimana and, most recently, Curtis Good have all been recruited, but I doubt any of them would start the season expecting to be fixtures in the first team. With transfer rumours rumbling on - most notably Lille president Michel Seydoux rejecting another bid for Mathieu Debuchy and declaring that he'll be staying in France only for the player to reiterate his desire and determination to leave - the Silver Fox has claimed to be happy to play the waiting game and leave the negotiations to his superiors. And, in fairness, their recent track record of pulling rabbits out of hats is pretty good.

One thing that the manager can celebrate is the retention of Demba Ba. That much-publicised release clause in his contract expired at the end of July, and while that doesn't necessarily mean he won't leave, it does enable us to justifiably make any purchasing club look rather foolish for their tardiness by charging a hefty fee.

Meanwhile, like an attractive woman sick of being eyed up and pawed at on the dancefloor by a leery oaf, Rocky has finally told Fat Sam to fuck off. Whether he's spurned Fat Sam's advances because he's pining for his first love remains to be seen - and even then we may not be prepared to go as far as Liverpool demand to reciprocate those feelings. Still, John Henry and company may have other things on their mind now that shirt sponsors Standard Chartered stand accused of laundering vast sums of money in cahoots with Iran...

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Trouble at t'mill town

The Two Unfortunates' season preview kicked off today with a lengthy piece on the woes of Leon O'Best's new club Blackburn contributed by yours truly. Hard to imagine, I know, but Rovers seem to be in a more parlous and farcical state than even we've managed over the years...

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Touchline tackler gets more than he bargained for


Sunday, August 05, 2012

A friendly in name only

A shame that the only thing to report from yesterday's dull 0-0 with Den Haag was the fact that some of our players were reportedly subjected to racial abuse by a minority of home supporters. The club issued a terse statement saying that the matter would be discussed and resolved privately with our hosts. It must have left a sour taste in the mouth of Tim Krul in particular, who had been vocal in his delight at going back to play at his first club in the run-up to the game.

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Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Good news

Confirmation then that Curtis Good has finally signed on the dotted line and joined the club on a six-year contract worth a rumoured £10k per week.

While it seems unlikely that he'll be ousting Sideshow Bob from the side immediately, the length of the contract implies that we've got high hopes that Good will develop into a real star in the future under the tutelage of the Newcastle coaching team.

The fine line for the Silver Fox will be whether he still needs to add an additional centre-half to bolster the squad over the next couple of seasons, or whether the likes of Good and James Tavernier, who has been providing centre-back cover during pre-season, are sufficiently well equipped that no further cover is required.

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