Sunday, September 30, 2012

A helping hand

Reading 2 - 2 Newcastle Utd

A 2-2 draw away from home, the point salvaged late and in controversial and decidedly fortuitous circumstances by a Demba Ba brace - sound familiar? For Goodison Park a fortnight ago, read the Madejski yesterday, though on this occasion we were grateful to the officials for failing to spot a crucial handball rather than to award a clear goal to our opponents. We were also less deserving of avoiding defeat.

The Silver Fox's plans were hit by the absence of both Sideshow Bob and Dreamboat, the former having experienced a recurrence of his hamstring strain and the latter suffering from a mouth infection following the removal of his wisdom teeth. Given his past history, perhaps the Frenchman would be advised to steer well clear of dentists in future... That meant that Saylor and Mike Williamson continued their recent partnership in central defence, while Doppelgangers Mr T and Gael Bigirimana formed a decidedly defensive-looking central midfield duo.

As a result we lined up with a 4-4-2 formation, Spidermag and HBA operating on the flanks - a formation which has regularly failed to get the best out of our forwards and which in the first half once again didn't work. Though both Mr T and Bigirimana enjoyed decent enough games in their customary roles, Dreamboat's creativity was sorely missed. HBA was peripheral to the action, trying to take on too many players when he did get the ball, and though we looked to carry some threat on the break we couldn't fashion any chances of note. Spidermag and Papiss Cisse both shot high and wide from distance, while Saylor and Cisse couldn't quite make contact when a free-kick caused consternation in the Royals' six-yard area.

Meanwhile the home side - who had, to our relief, left Danny Guthrie on the bench - had the lion's share of possession and territory without ringing many alarm bells. That said, Russian striker Pavel Pogrebnyak started to impose himself more on the game - and centre-backs Saylor and Williamson - as the half wore on, forcing Steve Harper into one superb tip-over from a powerful header. Overall, though, the first 45 minutes were instantly forgettable, and I was left feeling envious of the two young lads in front of me playing with their Spiderman toys throughout - at least they were entertained.

Slightly surprisingly, the Silver Fox sent out the same side for the second period, and when the first change came, on 56 minutes, it was enforced. Saylor departed with a knock, James Tavernier's arrival pushing Perchinho into the centre - and two minutes later Mali winger Jimmy Kebe, utterly anonymous in the first half, jabbed in a low shot that wrong-footed both Perchinho and Harper.

To say we were stung into a response would be an understatement. Less than sixty seconds had elapsed when Mr T floated a beautiful through-ball for Ba to lash home spectacularly on the volley in front of the away end. Relief - but not for long. Three minutes later, Royals skipper Jobi McAnuff swung in a left-wing cross and Noel Hunt, whose impressive workrate and closing-down had aggravated us all afternoon, stole in front of Perchinho to glance a header past Harper.

Up went the goal celebration music again (along with the mascot delivering pizza to spectators at half-time, a signal that Reading retain a Football League club mentality) and at last there was some noise and atmosphere. Credit to the home supporters for an impressive ignorance of the concept of irony, asking us why we didn't just go back to our "shithole" while seemingly under the impression that a wasteland of roundabouts and business parks offers vistas to rival Rome and Paris...

Reading looked to have got a grip of the game, their work ethic triumphing over our supposedly superior players' sluggishness. Our hosts remained fragile at the back, though, and as on Wednesday the introduction of Shane Ferguson proved key. Bigirimana's departure meant Spidermag moved into a more central role, with the young Northern Irishman afforded an opportunity to torment Royals right-back Shaun Cummings which he seized with both hands. And a hand was indeed critical in the equaliser, Ferguson's cross knocked home by a flying Ba. Our free-scoring striker led with his head and the ball flashed into the net, so, though an understandably irritated Brian McDermott labelled it "a blatant error", the officials could be forgiven for not spotting that the crucial contact was with his hand. Like his manager, Ba had the good grace to confess - though only in the post-match interview rather than at the time.

That should have been our cue to go on and win the game, having both the momentum and quality to do so, but it was the home side who came closest to securing the three points that their performance (and ours) merited. Veteran substitute Jason Roberts drew a superb save from Harper and also had a shot deflected behind for a corner, while McAnuff spanked a curling shot off the far post, but we clung on for a point.

McDermott declared himself "gutted", and we were certainly unfortunate that Reading, fired up by Wednesday's League Cup win at QPR, served up easily their best Premier League display of the season. It made for an uncomfortable return to an old stamping ground for the Silver Fox, who conceded "Reading gave us a good going over today". The first-half formation was his responsibility, but injuries were partly to blame and he couldn't account for the below-par performances of too many of our players, HBA and particularly Cisse horribly out of sorts. A vast improvement will be needed for Sunday, when we face a Man Utd side wounded by home defeat to Spurs - before which we have a tricky Europa League fixture against Bordeaux to negotiate.

A Reading fan's perspective: The Tilehurst End

Other reports: BBC, Observer

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Saturday, September 29, 2012

Quote of the day

"This club gives me a great opportunity to win a trophy. We have a great team, great players, great staff. A trophy along the line? That might put an added pressure on myself but really and truly if you are not in this game to handle the pressure then you shouldn’t be in it. The percentage chance of me winning a trophy at Manchester United will be a lot higher than here, but that doesn’t mean I can’t do it [with Newcastle]."

That's all fine and well, Silver Fox, but then couldn't/shouldn't you have played a slightly stronger team against Taggart's reserves in the League Cup on Wednesday? And what's with the use of "will" rather than "would" in relation to Man Utd - are you convinced of getting Taggart's job once he finally relinquishes the reins? You've only just committed to another eight years with us, remember...

Also speaking ahead of the Reading clash has been - inevitably - Danny Guthrie, who revealed that Brian McDermott's stalkerish tactics (tracking him down on honeymoon) were key in persuading him to sign for the Royals. He also described the experience of getting a run in the first team through injury and then being dropped to make way for the fit-again player as "very frustrating" (though he doesn't harbour any bitterness towards the Silver Fox), and cast doubt on our ability to crack the top four. Here's hoping we can make a start on proving him wrong down at the Madejski.

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Friday, September 28, 2012

Question time

Thanks to Reading blog The Tilehurst End for inviting us to participate in a preview feature ahead of tomorrow's match against the Royals. You can read the piece here. I'd stand by my view that we don't have much to fear from our opponents, but should have added that our biggest enemy (as usual) could be ourselves...

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Look to the future

The year 2020. Just imagine it: computers and mobile phones that can operated by brainwaves, hoverboards the primary mode of transport, everyone walking about in Bacofoil suits. And the Silver Fox still in charge of Newcastle. At least that's the plan, the manager having just signed a whopping new long-term contract. He's not alone, either - John Carver, Steve Stone and goalkeeping coach Andy Woodman have also all agreed new eight-year deals.

Responding to the news, Derek Llambias used the examples of Man Utd and Arsenal as proof that "stability gives you the best platform to achieve success". Which is all fine and well, but the pessimistic part of me can't help but fear (no offence to the Silver Fox) that things might go pear-shaped and we'll be stuck knowing that jettisoning the manager and his team will be an extraordinarily expensive move. Given our recent history of having to continue paying off managers long after they've been given the boot, you do wonder whether this is Mike Ashley's wisest move.

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Dirty money

An interesting post about the ethics of sponsorship over on the always excellent Two Unfortunates, which makes reference to our being sponsored for a short while by taxpayers' money via Northern Rock. I've politely disagreed with the assessment of that particular situation - why not pay a visit, have a read and add your own view?

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Thursday, September 27, 2012

A missed opportunity

Man Utd 2 - 1 Newcastle Utd

So that's that for another year. A disappointing night - and not because we got the customary battering at Old Trafford. On the contrary, in fact - it was a narrow defeat, the disappointment centring on the fact that our hosts were there for the taking and yet we didn't seem to believe in ourselves enough to do the job.

As anticipated, the Silver Fox drafted in a raft of fringe first-teamers, with only Mike Williamson and Perchinho remaining from Sunday's starting XI against Norwich. That meant starts for Rob Elliot, James Tavernier (in the unfamiliar position of left-back), Dan Gosling, Obertan Kenobi, Sylvain Marveaux, Haris Vuckic and Big Lad - though there was also the welcome sight of both Sideshow Bob and Mr T back from injury to give us some steel through the centre.

Meanwhile, Taggart fielded his own fit-again star, Shrek taking up his place in an ominous-looking Man Utd attack alongside Danny Welbeck and Javier Hernandez. Darren Fletcher was also included as captain, but it was a back four with just one full senior appearance and one senior sub appearance between them - and the presence of flappy-handed David de Gea between the sticks - that should have given us real encouragement of a victory.

Not that you'd have guessed it from our first-half performance. Vuckic and Big Lad failed to form a functional partnership, and our best opportunity of scoring seemed to come from dead balls delivered by Marveaux's left boot. Gosling horribly fluffed a volley from a Big Lad flick-on, while the striker should have done better than planting a header straight at de Gea and Tavernier concluded an adventurous foray forwards by firing a skimming shot wide.

At the other end, Hernandez made a mess of a near-post header from debutant right-back Marnick Vermijl's cross while Elliot, carrying on where he left off in Portugal last Thursday, pulled off a superb reaction stop to deny Anderson before pushing away a fierce Welbeck drive. Tom Cleverley came even closer, firing into the side netting when a goal looked certain, but sadly we weren't destined to make it to the break on level terms. A quick scurrying burst from Anderson was enough to create some space and, holding off a tame challenge from Gosling, the Brazilian bent his shot in off the inside of Elliot's right-hand post.

The Silver Fox's half-time team talk no doubt drew renewed attention to Man Utd's potential defensive frailty, and when we emerged from the tunnel for the second period it seemed to be with rediscovered vigour and vim. Forcing our opponents onto the back foot, we fashioned a handful of half-chances before tricksy footwork from Vuckic ended with the Slovenian curling inches past the base of the far post. But the difficulty of the task at hand doubled shortly afterwards, Cleverley afforded just too much room to place a shot clinically beyond Elliot from the edge of the area.

2-0 down at Old Trafford usually translates as game over, but within four minutes we'd reduced the deficit - and all the plaudits have to go to the Silver Fox. He threw on Shane Ferguson and Papiss Cisse for Sideshow Bob and Vuckic, and the former's deliciously whipped left-wing cross was headed in at point-blank range by our previously goalshy Senegalese striker - just the sort of chance-on-a-plate he needed (particularly after Sunday's excruciatingly bad spot-kick miss).

From that point on, we bossed possession and took the game to our hosts, asking plenty of searching questions of de Gea and his inexperienced defence with a succession of angled crosses and aerial balls. The closest we came to an equaliser was when Cisse - that familiar spring suddenly back in his step - smashed the crossbar with an audacious overhead kick, while Gosling curled one long-ranger just high and wide before prodding another presentable opportunity from a Big Lad knock-down straight to de Gea.

That's not to say, though, that we weren't slightly fortunate not to concede a third, Hernandez testing the durability of the Old Trafford woodwork himself and Shrek looking increasingly menacing before being mercifully withdrawn with a quarter of an hour remaining.

When tallying up the evening's cons, next to the result and the consequent cup exit you could list Vuckic's inability to show anything more than flashes of quality and our French wingers' failure to roast their rookie full-backs. None of them did much to advance their claims for a regular place in the first team. However, the performance of James Tavernier was a major plus, suggesting we have a pacy, assured player who can operate on both flanks, as were the incident-free returns of Sideshow Bob and Mr T (the latter in particular superb in the tackle). Perhaps most crucially, though, it was a relief just to see Cisse back on the scoresheet - hopefully a hot streak will follow.

Another silver lining? Man Utd's victory earned them a nasty trip to Stamford Bridge in the next round - something we could have done without...

A Man Utd fan's perspective: Red Rants

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

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Tuesday, September 25, 2012

No happy return for Chris

Newcastle Utd 1 - 0 Norwich City

Chris Hughton was welcomed back to St James’ Park by fans and players alike on Sunday for his first return visit as an away team manager, but it was thankfully the Silver Fox who was left smiling at the result after a scrappy win against a solid if unspectacular Norwich side.

Following our Thursday night European adventure, the team was again heavily reshuffled, with only the back four remaining in place and Demba Ba and Papiss Cisse restored to the starting line-up. Pleasingly, we were also able to welcome Mr T back on the bench, while interestingly Sylvain Marveaux dropped out of the squad altogether, with Little Big Lad seemingly taking his place on the bench.

In addition to the returning Hughton, one old boy less warmly received was Sebastien Bassong, whose return only lasted eight minutes before he departed nursing a hamstring problem, to be replaced by ex-Mackem Michael Turner.

While Norwich started brightly, it was Newcastle who drew first blood when Steve Harper threw the ball out to HBA and he cut infield, accelerated away from his marker and then threaded a beautiful ball past seven Norwich players and into the path of Ba. Our in-form striker controlled the ball with his first touch and then rolled it under the on-rushing John Ruddy and into the Gallowgate goal to give us the lead.

With both sides struggling for fluency, and Norwich struggling in front of goal this season, chances were relatively limited, although Ba and HBA nearly repeated their first goal trick later in the half, only for ball to just evade our number 19.

Unfortunately, his Senegalese compatriot’s woes in front of goal continue, with one miskick from a fine Davide Santon cross appearing to rebound off his own leg, before Dreamboat blazed over. With half-time almost upon us, Mike Williamson was clumsily fouled in the box by Steve Morison which saw us awarded a penalty. With Ba or HBA the likely takers, it appears captain Spidermag had other ideas and convinced the team that Cisse should take the kick in a bid to get off the mark for the season. Sadly the plan backfired as the penalty went sailing high and wide of the goal.

In the second half, we looked to back off a bit, although chances for Saylor, Obertan Kenobi (on as a substitute for Cisse) and Ba could have made the game safe.  At the other end, Harper produced a fine save, getting off his line quickly to close down Andrew Surman when he managed to get through on goal.

Hearteningly, Mr T was introduced with about 15 minutes to go and immediately demonstrated what we’d missed, both in terms of his competitive ability and also his solid passing and confidence on the ball (even if it didn’t take him too long to pick up our only booking of the match!).

At the end of the day, we’re still lacking fluency but managing to grind out results. If we can carry the run going past Wednesday night’s League Cup jaunt to Old Trafford (a handy five miles from the home of the game’s appointed referee Anthony Taylor) then we’ll be doing well. With Mr T now returning to fitness and Sideshow Bob also expected to return, it could be an interesting blend of youth and experience from both sides which could make for a fairly even contest.

For now, though, it’s a case of saying thank you to Hughton and wishing him well for the rest of the season (apart from our excursion to Carrow Road, obviously) and focusing with the job in hand. Cisse’s goal will come, but at the same time by trying to force it we may just have made the problem worse.

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

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Monday, September 24, 2012

Boot boy


Friday, September 21, 2012

Drawing a blank

Maritimo 0 – 0 Newcastle Utd

After a battling performance against Everton on Monday, and with Norwich the visitors to St James’ Park on Sunday, it was inevitable that the Silver Fox would opt to shuffle the pack for our first fixture in the bloated league phase of Europe’s secondary competition.

Sure enough out went the front six and Harper, and in came Rob Elliot for a rare start in goal together with Bigi and Dan Gosling in central midfield, Obertan Kenobi and Romain Amalfitano down the flanks and Haris Vuckic just behind stand-in captain Big Lad.  Wisely, however, we retained the same back four who played against Everton to provide a base of experience and solidity.

Unsurprisingly it was the home side who started brightest, with Elliot forced to make a couple of early stops which helped settle any pre-match nerves our third-choice keeper might have had. 

Slowly we started to establish a platform in the game, with Gosling and Bigi both getting stuck into the midfield battle, and we almost got a goal before half-time, with Big Lad and Gosling both hitting the post. At the other end, Saylor was perhaps lucky to get away with a stray elbow and Williamson with a possible back-pass which the referee chose to ignore.

After the break, Big Lad almost scored one of the goals of the season, embarking on a run from halfway which saw him beat a couple of defenders before curling the ball beyond the 'keeper and agonisingly back off the crossbar. The Silver Fox opted to throw the recovering Little Big Lad into the mix, thus enabling the Ameobis to become the first brothers to play for us in the same European game.

In the end, though, we were thankful for Davide Santon stepping into Danny Simpson’s boots and clearing a shot off the line to ensure we returned to Tyneside with a point. 

While we never quite managed to craft a goal, missing the cutting edge which Demba Ba, Papiss Cisse, Dreamboat or HBA (serving the last of his three-game European ban) might have provided, this should nonetheless go down as a solid defensive performance in which Elliot and Bigi both advanced their claims for greater first-team involvement and the likes of Vuckic, Amalfitano and Little Big Lad got a touch more experience on the big stage. 

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

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Thursday, September 20, 2012

Ba humbug

What to make of the comments made by Demba Ba's agent Alex Gontran in the wake of Monday's thrilling draw at Everton, secured by two Ba goals? "Since returning from the Africa Cup of Nations, Demba doesn't understand the management. If he continues to be a substitute all season, we'll look at other solutions."

Well, for a start, Ba hasn't even been a substitute all season so far - on the contrary, he'd only been omitted from the starting line-up once before Monday, and that was for the trip to Atromitos in the Europa League. Instead, the issue is perhaps that he (or his agent) feels as though compatriot Papiss Cisse is getting favoured ahead of him at present. It may have been true that Ba was forced into a less familiar self-sacrificing role for the good of the team when Cisse arrived from Freiburg last season, but this campaign Ba's been deployed more centrally while Cisse has not been immune to being benched, having sat out the return fixture against Atromitos.

Paul has suggested that surely the ideal solution is for the Silver Fox to pick them both but simply alternate which of the pair spearheads the attack, therefore making them take turns in the less natural wider role. Eminently sensible - except there will be times when going with what is essentially a front three (with HBA) isn't a wise move. We tried it at Stamford Bridge and were comfortably beaten, so I don't think the Silver Fox was necessarily wrong to switch to 4-5-1 for another tough away game - the problem in the first half against Everton was more the fact that the players within that system let him down, especially Ba's replacement Sylvain Marveaux.

The Silver Fox's reaction to Gontran's little tantrum has been predictable enough in some respects - "I have spoken to Demba [about his agent] and told him I was disappointed with some of the comments around him" - but he did also drop the significant bombshell that the £7m release clause in Ba's contract hasn't expired after all and could yet be triggered. I suppose 'Appy 'Arry's currently between jobs, so someone's got to tout around the price tag of one of our best players...

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Wednesday, September 19, 2012

It's a cover-up

So it seems the club have cottoned onto the perverse fashion for adult onesies. Can they seriously see them catching on on the terraces? Still, I suppose they expected Geordie men to puff their chests out in bright pink shirts not so very long ago, so you never know.

I wonder whether wearing black and white from head to toe in this way would make you a potential target for the marvellous Full-Kit Wanker Twitter feed?



Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Dem's the breaks

Everton 2 - 2 Newcastle Utd

We may have rode our luck, twice falling behind and twice relieved at the incompetence of the officials ruling out legitimate Everton goals, but a brace from Demba Ba plundered a very welcome point on a ground where in recent years we've struggled to do anything other than capitulate.

Not that the first half implied that this visit would be any different. The Silver Fox, who viewed the game from a vantage point in the stands out of necessity rather than choice, declared that our display in those first 45 minutes had left him "shocked": "We were as bad as we've ever been since I've been in charge". He insisted that the fundamental problem was a curious lack of belief - true enough, but that deflects attention away from his choice of personnel, having opted for a lone striker in Papiss Cisse, Ba making way for the extra midfielder Sylvain Marveaux. The injuries to Tim Krul, Danny Simpson and Sideshow Bob meant that Steve Harper, Mike Williamson and Perchinho deputised.

Everton seized the initiative from the whistle, Nikica Jelavic marginally offside when he slid in to knock the ball over the line from barely a yard before colliding with the post - an incident which meant he limped off before the break. By that point, though, our hosts were firmly in control, thanks in no small part to the combination play of Leighton Baines and Steven Pienaar down their left. The latter seems to have picked up exactly where he left off before that hugely disappointing spell on the sidelines at Spurs, while the former set about exploiting a lacklustre and ill-disciplined (in positional terms) performance from Marveaux with considerable relish, operating almost like an extra winger. It was Spidermag, though, who lost the England left-back when he exchanged quick passes with Pienaar, burst into the area and drove a low shot beyond Harper.

Further opportunities came and went for the Toffees. With Dreamboat utterly anonymous, Marouane Fellaini was bossing central midfield while his compatriot Kevin Mirallas buzzed about industriously, whizzing one shot narrowly past the post and warming Harper's palms with others. However, the closest Everton came to extending the lead their dominance merited was courtesy of central defender Phil Jagielka, whose skimming half-volley flicked the outside of Harper's far post.

We were largely woeful - overrun when they were in possession and hounded into errors on those brief occasions when we had the ball. Even still, there exists a bizarre parallel universe in which we could have gone into the half-time break in front. Marveaux's one telling contribution was to swing in a free-kick that wasn't properly cleared, allowing Cisse to stroke a shot just wide of the post with Tim Howard rooted to the spot. We came even closer soon afterwards, HBA's cut-back bundled towards goal by a combination of Vurnon Anita and Leon Osman only for that man Baines to excel in his defensive duties and hack it off the line.

If the Silver Fox must shoulder some responsibility for that shoddy first-half performance, then he should also receive much credit for taking bold tactical decisions to remedy the situation. Marveaux was unsurprisingly the player to make way for Ba (it seems odd to have chosen him in the first place - if he'd wanted Ba's replacement in the starting XI to operate on the right-hand side of midfield, surely Obertan Kenobi would have been a more obvious option?). He also sought to bandage up the Achilles heel Everton had targeted by swapping Perchinho and Anita positionally.

It didn't take long for those decisions to be vindicated. Perchinho brought stability and assurance in defensive midfield, while the Dutch international's pace was crucial in nullifying the threat of Baines and Pienaar. It was Ba, though, who made the most immediate impact, just four minutes after leaving the bench. Dreamboat suddenly seemed to wake up, robbing Osman in a promising position and slotting one of his perfect diagonal passes through for the Senegalese striker to finish expertly.

From that point forth, we were a team transformed. Cisse, who often cut an isolated, frustrated figure in the first half, now had a partner and Everton's central defence now had a significant challenge on their hands. He almost scored one of his trademark spectaculars, trying to lob Howard on the volley following a truly Brazilian-esque lofted ball from Perchinho, and the Newcastle corner count started to mount.

Nevertheless, Everton continued to get chances of their own, both Osman and Pienaar guilty of missing the target, while mushroom-haired midfielder Fellaini was unlucky to see a perfectly good goal disallowed for offside. If the home team were aggrieved at that injustice, then they were positively baying for blood when Jelavic's replacement Victor Anichebe saw his header cross our line off the underside of the bar, only for the officials to decide Williamson had punted it away safely in the nick of time. And, as if that wasn't enough, referee Mike Jones compounded the errors by halting a three-on-one break (in our favour) to issue a yellow card to one of the Toffees' number. HBA - not alone in being far more effective in the second period - was the player stopped in his tracks then, but he got another opportunity to scamper clear of the defence shortly afterwards, only for Howard to foil him with an excellent block.

And then the dramatic finale. Anichebe struck first, outwitting Saylor and Harper with a neat turn and firm shot into the bottom corner. But, with injury time just seconds away, route one football reaped rewards. Williamson's long hoof was chested on by Big Lad, who had been introduced for the once-again-goalless Cisse, leaving Ba to prod home from close range. Up until the interval, when he was summoned for, he'd presumably spent his time on the bench guzzling strawberry syrup in preparation.

While it may not have been a win, or even a consistent and coherent performance, this was a far more satisfying result than our last draw, at home to Villa. The opposition were tougher and in better shape, for a start, so fighting back to parity when a side like Man Utd were dispatched from Goodison Park with a bloody nose, and particularly in light of our injury list and recent results there, constituted success.

Hopefully that stirring second half can help to kick-start a season that hasn't quite got going yet. The games are certainly coming thick and fast: Maritimo on Thursday, Norwich on Sunday, Man Utd next Wednesday, Reading the following Saturday. Taggart was in attendance at Goodison ahead of that League Cup tie next week, but the side the Silver Fox puts out for that is unlikely to bear much resemblance to the one that took to the pitch (or indeed finished the match) on Merseyside. We're more likely to blood squad and youth players in both that tournament and the Europa League, so let's hope the experience proves invaluable.

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

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Friday, September 14, 2012

A sense of perspective

So, I was going to write something about the results of the Football Supporters' Federation's 2012 National Fans' Survey - about the headline stat that more than 90% of fans feel ticket prices are too high, about the fact that three-quarters of respondents would welcome a salary cap, about the frequently costly havoc that the short-notice rescheduling of games to suit broadcasters wreaks on supporters' best-laid plans, about the unsettling fact that nearly a fifth of respondents have witnessed racist and homophobic abuse in grounds in the last year.

But then along came Wednesday's news about Hillsborough - an unequivocal and damning if horribly overdue indictment of all involved except the much vilified Liverpool supporters, who were exonerated of all blame - to put it all into perspective. Those supporters were the victims of prejudice and ultimately of an extraordinary cover-up perpetrated by everyone from the emergency services to the press. 23 years on, there may still be problems within the beautiful game - most obviously, the FSF survey underlines that fans' loyalty is often taken for granted and milked for all it's worth - but it's safe to say that things have most definitely changed for the better. Going to watch football in the UK may often be a sterile experience, but at least it's not a downright dangerous one.

(PS Now that it's been established that events that day in April 1989 were preventable and that lives could have been saved, can people please stop calling it a "disaster"?)

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Quote of the day

"Respect is earned, Honesty is appreciated, Love is gained& Loyalty is returned."

A platitudinous pearl of wisdom from ... the Lone Ranger. You couldn't make it up, could you?



Shane steps up

Congratulations to Shane Ferguson - a young player who stands a significantly better chance of first-team action this season than the Lone Ranger - on making his competitive debut for Northern Ireland in midweek. Sadly, it turned out to be a frustrating night for his side, as they fell to a late Luxembourg equaliser, having had three goals disallowed and also struck the woodwork. Ferguson, who was withdrawn with 15 minutes remaining, might yet find himself pressed into service at left-back, with Davide Santon switching to right-back, given the absence of both Raylor and Danny Simpson - though the Silver Fox does appear to see him more as an attacking than a defensive option.

Dreamboat was also in action for his country on Tuesday, and was also substituted towards the end as France beat Belarus 3-1. Thankfully, there were no more injuries to report...

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Thursday, September 13, 2012

Talkin' 'bout a revolution

So, after the usual bout of frantic activity, the transfer window closed on 31st August. We may not have made waves ourselves this time around, but it's an interesting fact that we were a key player in the landmark test case that revolutionised the transfer system and helped to make it what it is today.

Before Jean-Marc Bosman there was George Eastham, a midfielder/forward on our books from 1956 until 1960 who went on to play for England and feature in the World Cup-winning squad. By 1959 Eastham was disgruntled with the club for a variety of reasons: the quality of the accommodation we were providing for him, the second job we'd fixed him up with (not something today's players are likely to complain about...) and our extreme reluctance to allow him to turn out for England U23s. As a result he refused to sign a new contract and asked for a transfer, only for the club to deny him a move - something they could do under the then-existent retain and transfer system by keeping hold of his registration.

Eastham finally got his move (to Arsenal) in late 1960, but felt sufficiently passionate about the injustice of having been denied freedom of movement to continue pursuing the case, backed by the support of the PFA. It eventually reached the High Court in 1963, when the ruling came the following year, it went against the club, finding us guilty of unfairly restricting trade and thereby handing unprecedented power to players to determine their own destinations and futures.

So, it's largely thanks to George Eastham's determination that those customary flurries of summer deals are possible at all. And next time you read about a pampered millionaire footballer complaining about being a slave, take it with more than a pinch of salt and politely suggest to the complainant that things would be much worse were it not for Eastham.

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Monday, September 10, 2012

Not-so-funny bone

Bad news from the Netherlands, where Tim Krul has sustained an elbow injury in training and is travelling back to Tyneside, missing his country's midweek World Cup qualifier away to Hungary. The weekend had started very promisingly for him, too, with a clean sheet in the Dutchmen's victory over Turkey.

That knock - and his potential absence from next Monday's league fixture at Goodison Park - compounds the fact that we're also likely to be without our skipper for a handful of games, Sideshow Bob having picked up an injury in training while away with Argentina. Raylor and Danny Simpson are already ruled out, but one consolation from a defensive perspective is that Perchinho should be fit again.

There was also a positive to take from Senegal's play-off fixture with the Ivory Coast. The latter may have won 4-2 (even without the help of Mr T), but Papiss Cisse scored for Senegal. Hopefully now that he's remembered where the goal is, he can push on and get back into the sort of explosive, prolific form that meant he made such a huge impact in the second half of last season.

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Friday, September 07, 2012

A Month Of Saturdays: August 2012

Halfway through the month that saw Black & White & Read All Over reach the ripe old age of eight (thanks, yes, we don't look a day over seven), my co-author Paul found himself engaged in the annual task of forecasting our fortunes for the forthcoming campaign. A tougher challenge than usual, he felt - not least because "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". As it transpired, anyone who was tempted into having a flutter would have been sorely disappointed.

Early in August, the Silver Fox was preaching patience, insisting that he wasn't concerned at the lack of new faces at the training ground and that he trusted the powers that be to net the targets he'd identified. Towards the end of the month, though, all thoughts (and hopes?) of new recruits seemed to have been dismissed; instead, the fact that the transfer window remained open even after the start of the season was viewed very much as a threat to the stability of the existing squad rather than as an ongoing opportunity to strengthen. That we reached 11pm on the 31st with all of our most important and influential players still on the payroll was indeed a triumph, and no mean feat. The Silver Fox intimated that, although bids hadn't been made public, we should be grateful to Jabba for refusing to entertain a handful of offers submitted. However, retention was ultimately only one of our two close-season objectives - the other, as Paul suggested, being astute acquisition.

While other clubs were engaged in frantic transactions, we largely sat back and watched the events (or madness, depending on your perspective) unfold. The Mackems were among the chief protagonists, shelling out £12m for Steven Fletcher but also mustering an eye-catching deal for Adam Johnson for which we had to confess some envy, as well as recruiting sometime Toon striker Louis Saha (other old boys on the move included Rocky, who left Liverpool for West Ham on loan, and Sebastien Bassong, who joined Norwich for an old pals' act with Chris Hughton). We did however have the satisfaction of knowing that our one major summer purchase chose St James' Park over the Dark Place. Vurnon Anita joined from Ajax after a short pursuit and took no time in endearing himself to the fans by announcing he'd scorned the Mackems' advances in favour of ours. While the arrival of a utility man on the fringes of the Dutch squad for a fee in the region of £7m represented good business, the fact that Anita claimed to have been promised a defensive midfield role did cast shadows over Mr T's long-term future - could we be gearing up to flogging off the Ivorian in January? It was doubtless with an eye to that long-term future that Curtis Good was recruited from Melbourne Heart, the young Aussie defender another player to file alongside Romain Amalfitano, Gael Bigirimana and Lubomir Satka as new boys (literally) to watch.

Back to the present, and our final three pre-season fixtures were unhelpful in giving little clear indication as to how our season might pan out. A goalless draw against Tim Krul's former side Den Haag in the Netherlands, which was marred by allegations of racist abuse from the terraces, was followed by a 5-1 tonking of the Monkey Hangers on their own turf, Sylvain Marveaux bagging himself a brace. Rather less promising, however, was the calamitous performance of our first-choice back five in Cardiff, where we shipped four goals and looked worryingly porous.

Thankfully, though, the dismal defeat in the Welsh capital didn't prove auspicious and memories of that defensive display were soon banished by the 2-1 opening-day victory over Spurs. A splendid finish from Demba Ba - who remains on Tyneside after the much publicised (by 'Appy 'Arry Redknapp) release clause in his contract expired - and a late HBA penalty ensured Andre Villas Boas' first competitive game in charge of the North Londoners ended in defeat. It wasn't all smiles, though, with the Silver Fox censured and later landed with an FA charge for manhandling referee's assistant Peter Kirkup.

Then came our first taste of European football for five years with a trip to Greece to face Atromitos. What for much of the first half was shaping up to be an uncomfortable evening was rescued by a trademark Raylor free-kick on the stroke of half-time, and we gratefully took the draw and away goal back to St James' for the return leg the following Thursday. It proved to be an altogether unhappier evening for Raylor, who suffered a serious knee ligament injury which threatens to keep him out for the rest of the season, but there was some consolation in the fact that his replacement Haris Vuckic capped a lively first-half display with the only goal, quick thinking from a throw-in followed by a deflected long-range shot. That was enough to squeeze us through into the group stage of the Europa League, where we were drawn to face Bordeaux, Club Brugge and Maritimo. The competition will give the Silver Fox a good opportunity to give game-time to some of our fringe players and allow the younger recruits to gain experience - certainly a better opportunity than the League Cup, given that we've been unfortunate enough to be handed a visit to Old Trafford...

Sandwiched in between the two Thursday fixtures was a Premier League trip to Chelsea, which proved a chastening reality check. Buoyed by a four-game unbeaten run at Stamford Bridge, and with the cherished memories of that sensational Papiss Cisse volley still firmly lodged at the front of the mind in glorious technicolour, we could perhaps have been excused for taking on our hosts with a degree of confidence. But since shamefully finishing beneath us last campaign, the Champions League winners have spent both big and clever and one of their newest assets, Eden Hazard, tore us to shreds together with rejuvenated £50m man Fernando Torres as we fell to a valiant but ultimately deserved 2-0 defeat. It's a measure of the gulf between the two clubs - a gulf we somehow bridged last year but which now looks increasingly unbridgeable - that £20m Brazilian Oscar never made it off the bench, while the Blues can also boast of having added Marko Marin, Cesar Azpilicueta and Victor Moses to their ranks. Our scant summer haul of Anita and some promising teenagers looks decidedly paltry in comparison, and - as was implicit in my two-part assessment of our Premier League opponents here and here - such comparisons are relevant; just as we were the beneficiaries of poor campaigns for Chelsea and Liverpool last term, how we fare this time around is at least partly dependent upon and determined by how our rivals perform.

In a month when we said a fond farewell to Sid Waddell and wished Kevin Sheedy all the best in his battle against bowel cancer, we also paid our respects to Freddie Fletcher, who - together with Sir John Hall - should be credited as one of the foremost architects of the modern Premier League-era club, overseeing our metamorphosis from second-tier relegation fodder to top-flight title challengers and instrumental in the recruitment of the likes of Wor Al. Long gone are the days of breaking the British transfer record, though. With Jabba and Llambiarse at the helm, we're an altogether different club - prudent or cautiously conservative, depending on your perspective. And mine rather depends on what happens over the next nine months.



Thursday, September 06, 2012


And there I was, just thinking it had been a while since one of our players was last in trouble with the long arm of the law for a motoring offence. Demba Ba, step forward and hang your head in shame. Having been caught speeding twice and compounding the problem by missing no fewer than three court hearings and ignoring police letters, our Senegalese striker has been fined and banned from driving for six months. He wasn't even in court for sentencing - if he had been, perhaps he could have claimed he had an urgent delivery of strawberry syrup to collect and pleaded for clemency?

In other striker news, Rocky won't be going anywhere fast either, having been ruled out for up to six weeks following Saturday's hamstring injury sustained against Fulham. Meanwhile, Little Saint Mick, whose knees don't allow him to go anywhere fast these days, has joined Stoke. ASBO wished him luck with the message "Get practicing your heading lad..."

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Foxy Fox is Einfach Klasse for German fan

The Silver Fox may not be the flavour of the month with the footballing authorities at the present moment, but he does at least have one ardent German fan who's more than happy to demonstrate her love via the medium of YouTube...



Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Watching brief

Confirmation from the FA that the Silver Fox will be banned from the touchline for the next two league matches and also fined £20,000 following his inappropriately hands-on confrontation with assistant referee Peter Kirkup during the opening-day victory over Spurs. He may have dismissively described the incident as "ridiculous" and "comical", but there's nothing much comical about our manager being confined to the stands at a time when the players look in real need of his pitchside input.

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Quote of the day

"We will invest to succeed. But we will not mortgage the future with risky spending."

Writing an open letter to Liverpool fans, the club's American owner John Henry appears to have suffered momentary amnesia. What was £35m for a lanky loose cannon with only really half a season of top-flight football under his belt if not an example of "risky spending"? And as for frittering away the same sum on Jordan Henderson and Stewart Downing...

In fairness to Henry, he does later show at least a degree of self-awareness, conceding that "the process of reversing the errors of previous regimes ... has been compounded by our own mistakes in a difficult first two years of ownership". Not that those mistakes are necessarily a thing of the past, either. Just three games into the new campaign and there's already talk of Brendan Rodgers being disgruntled at having been promised a new striker so allowing Rocky to leave for London, only for moves for Clint Dempsey and others not to materialise. Of course, it can't have helped Rodgers' mood that our former striker enjoyed a superb debut for Fat Sam's West Ham, back to his bullying best against Fulham's Brede Hangeland as the Hammers raced to a three-goal lead before succumbing to a hamstring injury.

Still, we would be lobbing a stone from our glasshouse if we were to mock Liverpool's shortage of forwards. Papiss Cisse's slow start is a worry, as is the fact that without Big Lad we weren't able to name a single striker on Sunday's bench. Maybe we might regret not bringing Rocky back to Tyneside as much as the Scousers come to rue letting him go.

Meanwhile, it might interest Liverpool (but probably not us...) that Little Saint Mick is still a free agent in search of a club, despite his confidence that someone would snap him up before Friday.

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Monday, September 03, 2012

Don't panic

To panic buy, or not to panic buy, that is the question.

With apologies to Shakespeare (and Douglas Adams for the headline), the close of the transfer window saw us steadfastly refuse to adjust our approach to player recruitment, and thankfully avoid a repeat of the Rocky scenario and keep all of our remaining first-team players (ironically unlike Liverpool who now look very light in terms of striking options in my opinion).

Raylor's long-term injury arguably leaves us a bit thin on the ground, and similar concerns exist that if Senegal make the African Cup of Nations we've not got much in reserve up front (unless we convince Big Lad we're playing 5under1and every week). There was a hope that we might bring in one or two more players as the deadline moved closer.

However, if we were pursuing any deals they didn't come to fruition, with Rocky having gone to West Ham the day before and Lille reaching the group stages of the Champions League presumably the final nail in any move for Mathieu Debuchy (on that note, I must confess a bit of Schadenfreude that Luuk de Jong's Borussia Mochengladbach side failed to get through to the group stages).

Looking at the squad critically, with Davide Santon, Danny Simpson, James Tavernier and Perchinho as well as options provided by Spidermag and Vurnon Anita, I think we're probably right not to panic-buy a full-back (albeit I think Debuchy would have represented an upgrade on Danny Simpson).

Up front is perhaps a bigger worry, with Big Lad the only proven deputy to our Senagalese pairing, and then Adam Campbell presumably fourth choice we're then left to consider playing Haris Vuckic, HBA, Little Big Lad, Obertan Kenobi or Sylvain Marveaux as emergency cover.

However, while many clubs seem to be judged on what they accompish only on deadline day, the reality is that this whole transfer window looks to have been a good one. We've picked up Anita, Gael Bigirimana, Romain Amalfitano and Curtis Good and (with perhaps the exception of Leon O'Best) none of the players who have moved on added a great deal to the squad.

The worry remains that if we have a bad run with injuries, the squad could start to look threadbare pretty quickly, but the same could be said of most of the squads around us (albeit not necessarily the ones who we're arguably competing with if we're targeting scraping in to the Champions League placings).

Hopefully, and with the current administration I have more faith that this is actually likely to happen, the planning now starts for the January transfer window, when we'll know whether Senegal or the Ivory Coast are in the final of the African Cup of Nations, and therefore which of Demba Ba and Papiss Cisse or Mr T we'll need to cover in the new year.



Master blaster saves the day

Newcastle Utd 1 - 1 Aston Villa

So this season's HBA Goal of the Month competition is up and running, then. Those who assumed the Frenchman's right leg was only for standing on were given food for thought as he fired a second-half rocket into the top corner of the Villa net to give us a share of the spoils.

As anticipated, we were back to full strength after the Atromitos match, except for the continued absence of Mr T (evidently his "injury" wasn't just a ploy to keep him out of the limelight during the pre-deadline day scrum for signings), with Vurnon Anita deputising. Former loanee Stephen Ireland was named in the Villa line-up, but there was no place for Shay Given, dropped to the bench where he was accompanied by Charles N'Somnia.

Ireland received a rough welcome, but most of the home crowd's venom was saved for former Mackem Darren Bent. In truth, he looked sharp and dangerous, troubling Tim Krul early in the first half before Villa took the lead. Ciaran Clark stayed up from a corner and snuck in between Saylor and Sideshow Bob to head Barry Bannan's cross past Krul from close range.

Villa's pace on the ball and their tenacity and work ethic off it seemed to unsettle us and we never really got into our stride in the first period. Papiss Cisse and Demba Ba gradually started causing headaches for Clark and partner Ron Vlaar, but they couldn't find a way past Given's replacement Brad Guzan, the American deflecting one Cisse shot behind with his shins before watching our number nine head harmlessly wide.

By that point we'd been forced into a change, Danny Simpson withdrawn injured with the versatile Anita switching positions to cover and 18-year-old Gael Bigirimana coming on for his Premier League debut. With Raylor already on the treatment table (a fact acknowledged by the squad's training tops bearing the legend "Ryan Taylor over the wall" on the back), the Silver Fox is likely to rueing the lack of deadline-day additions even more - especially given that the lengthy pursuit of natural right-back Mathieu Debuchy came to nought.

When the second half kicked off HBA seemed determined to singlehandedly drag us level. He failed with a header, a relatively easy stop for Guzan, but the visiting 'keeper was powerless when our French wizard drifted inside Brett Holman and hammered a rising drive that would still be travelling now were it not for the Gallowgate net. A stunning strike from our best player of the season so far - and little wonder Bent looked somewhat sorry for himself when smashed in the face by HBA soon after, much to the delight of the home crowd.

From that point forth we dominated in terms of possession and territory, pushing for a victory, but that left us somewhat exposed at the back. Bent and substitute Gabby Agbonlahor tried to exploit the gaps that opened up, leaving Sideshow Bob in particular looking less assured than normal. Bent was denied by a stupendous sliding block from Bigirimana, while Ireland also came close to cementing his position as one of the pantomime villains of the piece, volleying wide when he probably should have scored.

In the end, though, it was Villa who were perhaps most relieved with the draw (their first point of the campaign), as Dreamboat's curling free-kick deep into stoppage time had to be clawed away at full stretch by Guzan. Had that gone in, it would have been our 1000th Premier League goal - but it wasn't to be.

In many ways this was a poor result against a side we've recently had the easy beating of, especially at home, but I think we have to concede they were far better on the day than they'd been in their opening two fixtures and that we certainly weren't at our best. Cisse is increasingly in need of that first goal of the season and we need both Mr T back fit and our full-backs to stop getting crocked - but for the time being at least HBA can relied upon to pull rabbits out of hats

Other reports: BBC, Guardian (who've excelled themselves by commenting on Guzan's selection but then claiming Given was in goal by the time "Ben Afra" scored - the only surprise is that the report was filed by Kevin McCarra rather than TBW...)

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Sunday, September 02, 2012

Passports ready

Thursday night's victory against Atromitos ensured our place in the draw for the Europa League group stage, where we were drawn in Group D to face Bordeaux, Club Brugge and Maritimo. 

Having seen some of the other teams floating in the draw, I suspect the Silver Fox will be fairly happy that we're at least spared long-haul slogs to the eastern end of Europe.

Hopefully the club will continue to price the home tickets cheaply to attract families and give the next generation of fans an opportunity to get into St James' Park.



Thank Vuck for that

Newcastle Utd 1 - 0 Atromitos

A first senior strike from Haris Vuckic proved to be all that was necessary to overcome a spirited Atromitos side on Thursday night and book our place in the Europa League group stage.

With the Silver Fox electing to again shuffle the pack and hand the likes of Sylvain Marveaux, Gael Bigirimana (aka Bigi) and Obertan Kenobi starts, it was reassuring to see us start brightly and look to move the ball at pace to try and unsettle our opponents.

Unfortunately, disaster struck when Raylor rode a tackle before collapsing in agony clutching his leg, clearly unable to continue with what was subsequently confirmed as knee ligament damage which will rule him out for most if not all of the season. We shuffled the pack, Perchinho dropping back from midfield to left-back and Vuckic coming on to join Bigirimana in the centre of the pitch.

It was the young Slovenian who really grasped the opportunity of his early appearance from the bench, proving difficult for the visitors to pick up and when he collected a throw in on the right, he turned infield and fired a powerful left-foot shot, which flicked off the defender and nestled just inside the far post to give us a deserved lead.

What followed was a fluid attacking display in which both Marveaux and Obertan Kenobi looked to really stretch the Greek defence without ever quite managing to provide a gilt-edged chance for Demba Ba.

At the other end, despite the reshuffle, we looked steady right up until just before half-time, when Tim Krul fumbled a long-range shot and appeared to catch Chumbinho as the Brazilian latched onto the loose ball.  Thankfully, though, his theatrical fall gave the referee reason to believe it was a dive and not award the penalty or brandish a red card.

The second half saw us lose some of our early fluency, with the Greeks defending better against the threat posed by our wingers, without threatening too much themselves (one Elini Dimoutsos effort aside). That said, we couldn't get the second goal which would have put the game safe, and when Chumbinho again fell after minimal contact by Sideshow Bob there was an uncomfortable moment when the referee blew his whistle. Thankfully he chose to book Chumbinho for the dive rather than award what would have been a harsh penalty.

Otherwise we looked relatively steady without ever totally convincing, and if we're to make serious progress in the competition we'll need to find a greater fluency to our play than was evident in this match.

Other report: BBC

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