Friday, June 29, 2012

RIP Alan

It's with great sadness that I have to report the death of Wor Al - yes, Wor Al the chicken, adopted as the official Black & White & Read All Over mascot. She fell ill a month ago and neither injections nor two extensive courses of antibiotics were enough to cure her of the infection or enable her to regain her appetite. Dopey and soft as clarts she may have been, but she bravely fought the illness until the bitter end.

As I sit here wearing my metaphorical black armband, though, I'm reminded of the fact that her time as mascot coincided with the players' spring heroics which saw us secure fifth spot in the Premier League against all the odds - so at least she died sporting the black and white stripes with pride.



Thursday, June 28, 2012

Out with the old (boy), in with the old (boy)

Congratulations to Lee Clark, back in work at Birmingham following his sacking by Huddersfield in February. He's stepped into the shoes of ex-Toon boss Chris Hughton, who left to join Norwich, and has wasted no time installing his familiar backroom team of Terry Mac and Derek Fazackerley.

Clark inherits a difficult situation at St Andrews, with Blues having been placed under a transfer embargo by the Football League for failing to submit their accounts on time. Jordan Mutch has already been sold off to raise funds, Ben Foster looks to be on his way to West Midlands rivals West Brom, and Nathan Redmond, Jack Butland and Curtis Davies are all potentially bankable assets. Clark faces a tough task in trying to repeat Hughton's feat of a play-off berth - perhaps a season of consolidation both on and off the pitch is a more realistic target.

Update: It seems the news of Clark's appointment was broken in a rather unusual way...

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Tuesday, June 26, 2012

New kids on the block

Euro 2012 has given Lloyd and Lanterne Rouge of Football League blog The Two Unfortunates the opportunity to enjoy a well-deserved breather - but, with things pretty quiet on this front too, we seized the opportunity to ask Reading fan Lanterne Rouge what we can expect from the Royals and the two other clubs who last month waved the Championship goodbye to return to the top flight, West Ham and Southampton.

Alan Pardew must have taken a sharp intake of breath on three separate occasions in recent months, for the trio of clubs that are joining the EPL bun fight for the final year before the TV money goes stratospheric were all once stewarded by the Londoner.

Perhaps more than any other club, the public image West Ham United enjoy is at odds with the way they are portrayed in the press. To the Fourth Estate, they are those jovial bunch of cheeky Cockney caperers, the anvil on which World Cup victory was forged and a national treasure; to the rest of us, this is profoundly mystifying.

With the so-called Academy of Football’s grant long since rescinded by the Inner London Education Authority, the blunt-edged nature of the Hammers’ tactics was even more palpable in 2011-12 – unsurprisingly given the arrival at the helm of Mr Sam Allardyce. Indeed at one point the big man himself called into question the myth of the club’s reputation as a foundation school for the finer arts.

But West Ham did show remarkable nerve in seeing out a nervy run-in after Reading had come to Upton Park and sailed to a 4-2 victory at the end of March. In particular, a tough Blackpool side were defeated in the play-off final at Wembley and there is no question that the ex-Toon boss has fostered a resilience that was absent under previous managers Avram Grant, Gianfranco Zola and … er … Alan Pardew.

The visit of the Irons on 10th November will, therefore, be pregnant with the revenge impulse as both Pardew and Allardyce look to put one over former employers. Big Sam has never been one to avoid the transfer market, however, and it’s likely that his squad will sport a very different sheen from that which ended the season victorious.

Kevin Nolan will be most familiar of course – he again enjoyed a successful campaign slumming it in the Championship, but he’s two years older and seemingly two years angrier than the man who swept all before him as a Magpie in 2009-10. Ahead of Nolan, the Hammers possess a clutch of strikers seemingly recruited to secure promotion before worrying about anything else and given the limited impact Sam Baldock and Nicky Maynard had in Football League waters, it’s unlikely that they, nor those twin Freddies, Piquionne and Sears, will feature much from August.

But Carlton Cole, despite a mediocre season by his standards, should be relishing a return to a league where a dozen goals constitutes a good return while mid-season recruit Ricardo Vaz Tê has a chance to confirm the immense promise he showed at Bolton as a teenager – he could well be the East Londoners’ trump card while they try to do extra business.

The midfield is peppered with experienced but far from long-in-the-tooth players and the ever bubbly Mark Noble will continue to be vital, while Matty Taylor, Jack Collison and Gary O’Neil are joined by an astute acquisition in Mohamed Diamé – his robustness will help offset the reputation the claret and blue have for flimsiness and will allow Allardyce not to repeat the questionable experiment of deploying James Tomkins in the water-carrier role.

Tomkins will start in central defence but Abdoulaye Faye has moved on, necessitating the purchase of a new central defender. Jonas Olsson is the latest rumoured target although such is the Swede’s dependability that a bigger club than the Hammers may come calling. Nor do the club look particularly well served in the full back positions – a group of excellent youngsters including Daniel Potts (son of stalwart Steve) are unlikely to be blooded this early – while Robert Green has also moved on.

So it’s a ragbag squad perhaps a little too full of the personnel who were found wanting under the Grant regime. Expect wheeler-dealing aplenty down the Boleyn Ground this summer.

From this vantage point, Southampton look expertly placed to "do a Norwich" and therein may lie their chief problem – Premier League clubs (including Newcastle) will be much readier for the promoted trio this year, especially when their star player and top scorer, Rickie Lambert, so closely resembles last year’s journeyman success story Grant Holt.

Nigel Adkins has been shrewd, however. The whistle-through-the-teeth £7 million – yes, £7 million – disbursed for elegant Burnley hit man Jay Rodriguez signals a determination not to stand still and both Lambert and Billy Sharp will feel the breath of the younger man at the napes of their necks.

The Saints also possess a midfield creator who it’s highly likely WILL be more than good enough for the top echelon; most observers feel that Adam Lallana has what it takes to make his second divisional step up in the space of a year with ease. Ditto Jack Cork, a wonderfully poised screening midfielder from the Chelsea production line and a man who has waited patiently for his chance at the top table.

After that though, things get muddier -  Morgan Schneiderlin has the tenacity to do a job in the way Norwich’s less heralded worker bees did last season but the lumbering Brazilian Guly Do Prado and perpetual bench warmers Steve de Ridder and Richard Chaplow are unlikely to feature heavily. Rangers’ forgotten man Steven Davis may plug a gap as the vultures circle over the Gers’ carcass.

The Hampshire men’s most talented defender is left-back Danny Fox, but then again he often lacks concentration and is much more effective going forward. Jos Hooiveld and José Fonte have served the club well and although this is the club where Francis Benali and Claus Lundekvam appeared in the Premier League year after year, reinforcements will be sought, as they may be for Danny Butterfield and Kelvin Davis, a classic line goalkeeper.

So at first glance it’s perhaps a surprise that Saints have spent so much of the available cash on Rodriguez – much work still needs to be done.

Champions Reading clinched an unlikely title after critical victories over their key rivals in the run-in, but the whimper with which they went down in a final-day reverse at Birmingham perhaps underlines the surgery that needs to be done.

So dominant were the Royals on being promoted previously in 2006 that Steve Coppell stayed loyal to those who had achieved so spectacularly, keeping the wage bill to sensible limits and being rewarded handsomely with an eighth-place finish.

This time, however, the summer has been dominated by the protracted takeover of Russian-backed Thames Sport Investment, which, having recently been rubber stamped, has seen its first, sensational results in the mooted signing of Pavel Pogrebnyak, a free agent after leaving Stuttgart and the author of six goals in eight games on loan to Fulham last spring.

In many ways, the varied reports of the wages being afforded to the Muscovite could make or break Reading’s prospects - £35,000 a week would be more than the Berkshire club has ever paid a player but would be in tune with the going rate; £65,000, currently being denied, would be a grotesque over-estimation of the club’s natural size and potentially lead to all manner of problems in terms of dressing-room jealousies and even a Portsmouth-style situation a few years down the line.

In January, Jason Roberts kickstarted the Royals’ promotion push but misses the first two matches through suspension and isn’t getting any younger. Elsewhere, the squad is woefully sort of top-flight experience and although 'keepers Adam Federici and Alex McCarthy and midfield dynamo Jem Karacan will surprise a few, there are severe question marks over the rest of the XI’s ability to compete.

Reading have relied on an expansive formation making liberal use of wing play in recent years, a style that may perhaps come back into vogue following Euro 2012 and it may actually be young Welsh international Hal Robson-Kanu who makes a greater impact than club captain Jobi McAnuff and the speedy Jimmy Kébé as the nights draw in, but Pogrebnyak, if his signature is secured, will be far from the only newcomer to the Madejski.

At the moment, hungry up-and-coming players from the Championship would appear to be the chief items on the shopping list – Garath McCleary has already joined from Nottingham Forest while the Biscuitmen are being heavily linked with underrated Watford centre back Adrian Mariappa as well as a man Newcastle fans will know well, Sébastien Bassong.

Thanks to Lanterne Rouge for his thoughts.

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Homeward bound

The quarter-finals all now over, our interest in Euro 2012 has been extinguished. As many would have predicted, Spain proved too strong for France, cantering to a 2-0 victory. Dreamboat played the whole game and registered les Bleus' only effort on target, a free-kick that Iker Casillas saved. Afterwards, he reflected on a tournament that was a personal triumph but ultimately one which ended in frustration. Over the course of France's fixtures he emerged as their midfield lynchpin, underlining just what a steal he was for us at £4.5m last summer but also effectively advertising his abilities to the whole of Europe...

HBA, meanwhile, didn't get on to the pitch in Donetsk. Rumours abounded of a bust-up in the French camp in the wake of the defeat to Sweden - Man City's Samir Nasri was mentioned most frequently, but HBA's name cropped up a bit too, so perhaps our mercurial wizard has shot himself in his twinkle toes as far as his international career is concerned.

England, meanwhile, exited in entirely predictable fashion, a heroically awful 0-0 against Italy concluding with the customary shoot-out defeat. Scott Parker was culpable for allowing Andrea Pirlo the freedom of the pitch to pull strings, while James Milner was equally ineffective. Rocky did at least demonstrate an ability to get the ball down and bring others into play after he appeared as a substitute, but as an attacking force England were non-existent. Still, at least the exit means no one has to endure what would certainly be a humiliation at the hands of Germany.

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Best better off elsewhere?

With Demba Ba and then Papiss Cisse firing on all cylinders, he became something of a forgotten man, and now it seems as though Leon Best could be plying his trade elsewhere this coming campaign. Blackburn are apparently closing in on a £2.5m deal, but you'd presume that the option of staying in the top flight with either Norwich or former club Southampton would be a more attractive proposition than joining the chicken-in-a-basket-case Lancashire club in the Championship.

Steve Kean - remarkably assured he still has a job - has reportedly also set his sights on Dan Gosling. The midfielder's career on Tyneside has been severely blighted by chronic injury problems and we've never seen the best of the man we poached from under Everton's nose (or even much more than five minutes of him), so I wouldn't be surprised to see him leave - even if, like Best, he's arguably capable of performing respectably for a club in the lower echelons of the Premier League rather than having to step down a division.

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Skipper scuppered

So, one-man wrecking ball ASBO has been stripped of the QPR captaincy and fined six weeks' wages for his antics in the final-day defeat at Man City - on top of the 12-game ban already dished out by the FA. He may be contrite, but should count himself very fortunate that the Rs don't look like they're going to boot him out on his ear.

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Friday, June 22, 2012

Dreamboat a driving force for the French

OK, so if this site is your sole source of footballing news (and if it is, you're mental), then you might be forgiven for not knowing that there's a major international tournament on at the moment. With the quarter-finals already underway, we'd probably best take a quick look at how those with Toon affiliations have got on thus far...

Let's start, most obviously, with Dreamboat. A fine performance in the opening draw with England, in which he troubled Joe Hart from distance on more than a couple of occasions, was followed by an even better one in the victory over hosts Ukraine. After play was suspended for an hour due to a freak thunderstorm, France took the lead and Dreamboat doubled it with a clinical strike using his lesser spotted left foot before rattling the post. His evening was curtailed on 68 minutes by a knock which then kept him out of the final game against Sweden, the French defeat only serving to underline his increasing importance to the side. While we can rightly be smug at having snaffled him up on the cheap last summer, we can't ignore the fact that these performances will be putting him firmly in the shop window whether we like it or not.

HBA, by contrast, has had markedly less game time. He appeared as a sub against England, running into blind alleys and surrendering possession cheaply on a couple of occasions, and then failed to spark when handed a starting place against the Swedes, hauled off just before the hour mark.

Still, he's fared better than Tim Krul, who sat twiddling his thumbs on the sidelines while his misfiring colleagues in the Netherlands side slumped to a truly shocking hat-trick of defeats, thereby making a mockery of anyone who predicted they would win the trophy - such as yours truly. Hopefully some good may have come from it, though, if Krul has been able to sweet-talk Luuk de Jong into contemplating a move to Tyneside.

Old boys Shay Given and Damien Duff had an even more horrific experience as the Republic of Ireland were sent packing pointless, Given forced to pick the ball out of his net no fewer than nine times over the course of their three matches. For England, James Milner and Scott Parker both started all three group matches, while Rocky was selected for the Sweden fixture, scored with a trademark header and can feel slightly aggrieved at being the fall guy for Wayne Rooney's return.

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Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Friendly Fryers?

Could Zeki Fryers be about to follow in Danny Simpson's footsteps by becoming a Mancunian full-back who swapped Old Trafford for St James'? According to the Manchester Evening News, the young Red Devil is being pursued by ourselves as well as Spurs and (more improbably) Burnley. Might the thinking be to bring him in on the left with Davide Santon switching over to the right to replace contract rebel Simpson? Or are we just keen to recruit naturally left-footed back-up for Santon, with Ryan Taylor favouring his right and Shane Ferguson apparently viewed more as a winger these days? We'll see - but it's certainly true that the full-back positions are worthy of attention.

The comments thread at the bottom of the article paints a mixed picture - some Man Utd fans claim Fryers is a decent locally-born talent who shouldn't be allowed to leave, while others are critical of his apparent greed and impatience. If he does sign, then let's hope it's the former qualities that come to the fore.



Monday, June 18, 2012

London calling

Stiffen the sinews, sharpen the wits - we're in for a tough start to the forthcoming Premier League campaign. Hot on the heels of a visit from this season's fourth-placed side Spurs is a trip to Champions League winners Chelsea. We'll just have to hope that Papiss Cisse can defy the laws of physics again...

The fixture list has also thrown up a festive nightmare in the form of a Boxing Day jaunt to Old Trafford followed by the excursion to the Emirates three days later. The best solution may be to just ensure the whole lot passes in a drunken blur - nothing new there then, eh?

The reverse fixture against Arsenal will bring the curtain down on our campaign at St James' - fingers crossed we're vying with the Gunners for glory - while our games against the Great Unwashed are due to take place on 20th October and 13th April, though they (as with all the other dates) are liable to be changed at the whim of TV schedulers.



Monday, June 11, 2012

Quote of the day

"It was more Big Fat Gypsy Wedding than our usual clientele... Staff at the marquee had to remove candelabras from the tables in case of a fire risk. There were people staggering around drunk and some were sprawled out over the tables."

Turns out that Danny Guthrie's search for a new club has coincided with a fairly eventful wedding celebration.

Reports suggest that Guthrie's bride was also punched in the face during the evening's frivolities. So perhaps not a day that she'll recall as her happiest in years to come.

Can't image that a "Danny Guthrie's wedding" theme week will be making its way on to the training ground canteen menu any time soon, so probably not much chance for a lobster thermidore food-fight between any of the players who weren't invited, or were otherwise engaged at the Euros.

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Thursday, June 07, 2012

Carr not going anywhere

Great news coming from the club that we've once again gone against our policy of not retaining ageing stars, with confirmation that we've awarded Chief Scout Graham Carr with a new eight-year contract that will take him through to his 75th birthday.

Carr was widely praised for his sterling work in identifying the likes of Dreamboat and Mr T, and so the decision to award him a long-term contract to ward off potentially envious onlookers is something of a no-brainer.

In other news, congratulations to Chris Hughton who has replaced Paul Lambert in the vacant Norwich manager's office and will be joined by his favoured number two, Colin Calderwood. Hughton can doubtless expect a warm reception when he brings his Norwich side to St James' Park next season.

Another ex-manager (albeit only a caretaker one) on the move is Steve Clarke who, having left Liverpool, is now taking over at West Brom (a job for which Hughton himself was recently tipped).

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Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Oh Danny bye

A shame to see Danny Guthrie go, especially when the club would have preferred to retain him. It seems a mutually acceptable deal just couldn't be struck, so the former Bolton man has been released. A bit-part player for most of his Toon career, Guthrie nevertheless usually gave his all and certainly did himself justice when called upon during the last campaign, particularly when Mr T was away in Africa. Securing back-up (or competition) for the Ivory Coast enforcer and Dreamboat in the centre of our midfield is now even more imperative.

Also departing St James' Park are Alan Smith, Tamas Kadar, Ryan Donaldson and Peter Lovenkrands (the latter for the second time), plus a clutch of youngsters who never troubled the first-team squad.

Possible incomings include Coventry midfielder Gael Bigirimana. The 18-year-old - last season's Championship Apprentice of the Year - plays in the same position as Mr T and even has the same haircut. An astute signing, it would seem, but surely not lined up as a direct replacement should Mr T be poached by one of our rivals?

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Know Your Enemy

"I always thought John Bishop was the biggest comedian in the north west, but Dave Whelan seems to have taken that mantle over in the last couple of weeks."

Liverpool managing director Ian Ayre underlines that that charming old duffer Dave Whelan's been at it again - namely, sticking his nose into other clubs' business rather than minding his own. Good to know that he doesn't just shoot his mouth off about us, eh?



Quote of the day

"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

Wise words from the philosopher George Santayana - words which ASBO, if he's regurgitated them on Twitter as part of his bid to convince us he's thoughtful and erudite, hasn't exactly heeded. Arrested following a scrap following a night out in Liverpool? Now, where have we heard that one before?

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Friday, June 01, 2012

A Month Of Saturdays: May 2012

(Image courtesy of jayneandd)

An audacious effort, an extraordinary trajectory and an improbable end result. If you're looking for metaphors for our season, then you could certainly do worse than Papiss Cisse's second goal at Chelsea, when May was just two days old.

Our Senegalese goal machine had been talking pre-match about the distinction and honour (and associated pressure) of wearing the number nine shirt, and about wanting to "show everyone what I can do" - and he certainly didn't disappoint. His late physics-defying strike - which had the jaws of Wayne Rooney and Little Saint Mick clunking on the floor, and which went on to be named as goal of the season (tough luck on our very own HBA, in particular) - sealed a sweet victory at Stamford Bridge, our first in the league since 1986. Admittedly the Blues were distracted by the imminent prospect of an FA Cup final and, on the horizon, a Champions League final to boot, but that shouldn't detract from our achievement in recovering so splendidly from that 4-0 humbling at Wigan which had ended our winning sequence in the most brutally abrupt manner imaginable.

That result set up the following weekend's crunch fixture perfectly, when Man City were our visitors. All eyes were on St James' Park as we strove to underline our determination to secure Champions League qualification - but in the event, as well as we performed, we perhaps afforded Mancini's men a bit too much respect, and their quality (and Yaya Toure's in particular) ultimately shone through. The 2-0 scoreline edged City closer to a first title since 1968 while leaving our hopes hanging by the most slender of threads.

We travelled to Merseyside knowing that only a win over Everton would be enough, and in truth that never looked likely, an unusually shoddy and slapdash display punished ruthlessly by our in-form hosts. Our only consolation was a Tony Hibbert own goal, while Tim Cahill saw red for grabbing Dreamboat by the throat after the full-time whistle had blown. It's a measure of the success of our campaign that this was only the second time we'd lost back-to-back league fixtures. As it transpired, our result was immaterial given victories elsewhere for Arsenal and Spurs - though the latter had to look on in horror as Chelsea stunned Bayern Munich in the Champions League final, thereby denying their London rivals a seat at European football's top table.

By any standards a fifth-placed finish represents a remarkable achievement, one which the Silver Fox - deserved recipient of both the Premier League manager of the year and LMA manager of the year awards - has been quick to suggest will be impossible to repeat. As is customary round these parts, Paul cast his eye back and explored the various secrets of our success, while I analysed some key factors going forwards over the summer.

The season isn't yet over for some of our players - Tim Krul was selected for the Netherlands' Euro 2012 squad, while Dreamboat and HBA will be among the Frenchmen attempting to block England's progress in the tournament - but we're wisely refusing to rest on our laurels and instead already making plans and preparations for the forthcoming campaign. The first arrivals of the summer were French midfielder Romain Amalfitano and Slovakian defender Lubomir Satka, and we've been credited with interest in Mathieu Debuchy, Roberto Rosales and Mapou Yanga-Mwiba, amongst others.

On his way out, meanwhile, is out-of-contract Alan Smith. His destination may be unknown, but it's a fairly safe bet it won't be League 1 play-off winners Huddersfield, some of whose fans took to the Galpharm pitch to physically abuse him for his Leeds roots. Joining Smith on the summer scrapheap will be Little Saint Mick, who, after another four injury-plagued years at Old Trafford, will have to sex up that infamous brochure if he's to land another fat contract. No such worries for another permacrock, the Little Waster, who's somehow hoodwinked QPR into handing him another deal so he can sit in the stands keeping ASBO company. The latter's 12-match ban means he'll have plenty of time to continue waging his feud with Wor Al - don't go expecting the two to kiss and make up any time soon.

Still, I suppose stranger things have happened. Like Newcastle being hailed as a shining beacon, a business paragon to which other clubs and sporting organisations should aspire. Like us not only washing our dirty laundry in public but choosing to do so and actively inviting the media to watch - and it not being a bad thing. Like the long-forgotten Xisco Kid rising Lazarus-like to emerge from obscurity and fire his temporary employers to glory. Like an unfancied bunch of young players assembled at relatively low cost securing fifth spot, ahead of the sides which won the Champions League, FA Cup and League Cup. Well done, lads - for once, you've done us proud.