Thursday, February 28, 2013

Slide away

Last time I looked it wasn't April Fool's Day, so presumably the reports about there being plans afoot to install slides in the vicinity of St James' Park aren't just an elaborate hoax. Apparently NE1 have been working with the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents in developing the plans. You do wonder whether members of the Society have been present to witness the chaos and carnage that is the post-match crowd dispersal - quite how access to slides would improve this is unclear...

Still, at least we've hit the news for daft, frivolous reasons, with the Mackems unwittingly finding themselves at the centre of a political storm over James McClean's ill-advised vaguely pro-IRA tweets. That's one trick ASBO didn't pull.

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Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Saints preserve us

Newcastle Utd 4 - 2 Southampton

After our excellent victory against Metallist on Thursday, the challenge for our rejuvenated side was whether we could finally follow up a Europa League match with a home win. For the Silver Fox there was an additional incentive to push for a win, with his record against former employers this season decidedly poor.

To aid our quest, the Silver Fox made seven changes to Thursday's starting XI, with Rob Elliot taking over from the injured Tim Krul in goal, and Mathieu Debuchy and Goofy restored to the starting line-up alongside Saylor, Spidermag, Davide Santon and fit-again Mr T.

It was Elliot though who was first to feature, picking the ball from the net after only three minutes of his Premier League debut, as Morgan Schneiderlin was allowed to drift into the box and then turn on a loose ball to fire home with Saylor too far away after Mr T had failed to track his initial movement. Not the Frenchman we'd hoped would be first scorer on French Day.

Thankfully, though, despite conceding the early goal, we're now made of sterner stuff and sure enough we forced our way back into the game as we came to terms with the Saints' pressing game by utilising Dreamboat's vision and range of passing to find Moussa Sissoko and Goofy down the channels. With Debuchy marauding down the right to good effect, our first chance to draw level went to Goofy, whose slightly miscued shot fell to Papiss Cisse, only for the ball to just run away from his swinging foot and slice wide.

It was Goofy who featured again minutes later when he latched on to Dreamboat's diagonal pass, before driving at the full back and shooting low. The ball pinged back off 'keeper Artur Boruc's leg straight into the path of the onrushing Sissoko, who tucked home the loose ball from inside the six-yard box. With minutes left in the first half, Elliot fired a long free-kick forward, Spidermag did well to hold off his marker but missed the ball, and it fell to Cisse who swung a leg and smashed a powerful dipping volley over Boruc and into the net for a truly stunning goal.

With Sideshow Bob departing at half-time, nursing a back injury doubtless exacerbated by a first-half bicycle kick when attempting to clear his lines shortly before Cisse's strike, the Silver Fox brought on MYM. Our new centre-half was quickly into the action, conceding a free-kick for a high foot. From the resultant free-kick Rob Elliot did well to fling himself across and turn Rickie Lambert's shot round the post. Moments later, though, the Saints broke down our left, with Davide Santon upfield and Lallana's cross was smartly finished by Lambert to bring the visitors level.

With Lambert spurning a further chance, the game was very much in the balance. Thankfully, though, we were the next to land a telling blow, with Dreamboat's diagonal freekick met full on the volley by Debuchy and his first-time cross blocked by the hand of substitute Daniel Fox, leaving Chris Foy no option but to award a penalty. With Big Lad on the bench, the responsibility fell to Dreamboat and the part-time Journal editor made no mistake, sending Boruc the wrong way as he stroked the ball home to restore our advantage.

Fox's afternoon was to get worse, as his attempted clearance from a good Santon left-footed cross ricocheted straight off his defensive partner Jos Hooiveld and into the Gallowgate net.

The result saw us climb above both Southampton and 5under1and up to the heady heights of 14th on 30 points (six points clear of the drop).

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

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Sammy's a Smoggie (temporarily)

With our stars returning to form and fitness alongside our clutch of January imports, it's no surprise that Little Big Lad has been sent out on loan - something that would surely have happened sooner had we not suffered such a grievous injury crisis earlier in the season. The Smogs' gain - he certainly has the potential to make a big impact in the Championship run-in - is also ours, as he should return a better player for some regular first-team football at a good, competitive standard. You could argue that he's had his chance to shine for us but has flattered to deceive, so this is an important opportunity for him.

Meanwhile, three of our other loanees were reunited north of the border on Saturday. Conor Newton and Paul Dummett lined up for St Mirren, and Mehdi Abeid for their hosts St Johnstone. Abeid was withdrawn just after an hour, but not before his corner had set up Rowan Vine for the only goal of the game.

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Monday, February 25, 2013

No fairytale

While his parent club may have enjoyed their Sunday afternoon (Paul's match report to follow), the same cannot be said of Curtis Good, whose League Cup final dream turned out to be a bit of a nightmare. Despite impressive vocal backing from 32,000 supporters at Wembley, Bradford were ruthlessly destroyed 5-0 by a Swansea side who showed no concern for sentiment. Our man, playing at left-back, was withdrawn at the interval with the score at 2-0.

The Bantams' season is far from over, though, with the play-offs still a possibility. Squeezing in depends on how quickly they can put yesterday's thrashing and all of the media kerfuffle behind them. After the caviar of Wembley, it's back to the bread and low-fat margarine of League Two on Wednesday, when Dagenham & Redbridge are the visitors.

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Saturday, February 23, 2013

Tim K-ruled out with injury

Thursday's tremendous victory over Metalist Kharkiv came at a cost, with Tim Krul taking a knock towards the end and arriving back on Tyneside on crutches and with his ankle in a cast. The Dutchman is expected to be out of action for up to five weeks - a serious blow, especially given his exceptional second-half display in Ukraine.

With Steve Harper also struggling for fitness, that means Rob Elliot is set to take his Premier League bow against Southampton. After shaky beginnings in a friendly and a League Cup tie, Elliot has looked more assured and with a full-strength defence ahead of him should be afforded decent protection. Here's hoping he seizes his chance - and any shots and crosses that the Saints rain in on him - with both hands.

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Ce sont les nouvelles

Most footballers can hardly string a sentence together, let alone guest-edit a newspaper - so credit to Dreamboat, who's done just that for today's edition of Le Journal. His editorship coincides with French Day, as tomorrow has been officially designated by the club. Capitalising on the fans' enthusiastic embracing and endorsement of all things Gallic might seem a bit cynical if there's money to be made from it. However, I'd rather applaud the move as evidence that the hierarchy is willing to be responsive to supporters and also determined to keep up the recent good work in making international players feel at home on Tyneside.

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Friday, February 22, 2013

Sweet sixteen

Metalist Kharkiv 0 - 1 Newcastle Utd

Freezing temperatures, the threat of racist abuse from the terraces, an opposition side brimful with cultured Brazilians and Argentinians who'd already shown glimpses of their considerable talent on Tyneside: on paper, our trip to the Ukraine to face Metalist Kharkiv did not look like being a comfortable experience. And yet, against the odds, that's exactly what it was - for over an hour, at least, until Big Lad scored the only goal of the game and our hosts belatedly came to life, though they weren't lively enough to prevent our passage into the last sixteen.

Despite Sunday's vital Premier League clash with Southampton looming large, the Silver Fox served notice of a genuine desire to stay in the competition by fielding another strong side. Davide Santon was left behind for a well-earned rest, while Spidermag, Saylor and Obertan Kenobi dropped to the bench. Drugged milk had got Mr T onto the flight, but once on foreign soil he succumbed to a bug. His place was taken by Vurnon Anita, with Big Lad, Sylvain Marveaux, football ace Danny Simpson and Massadio Haidara (the latter for his debut) also named in the starting line-up.

Our players could have been forgiven for standing around scratching their heads in the early stages, so surprising was the lack of enthusiasm from the home side. We'd expected to see very little of the ball and to be pressurised relentlessly on the rare occasions when we did win it, but Metalist looked strangely lethargic. If their dullness in attack was borne out of anxiety about conceding a crucial away goal, then they didn't exactly defend particularly stoutly either.

Though Big Lad and Papiss Cisse were struggling to function as a front pairing, Moussa Sissoko carried on his recent role of driving us forwards, given licence to gallivant all over the pitch. One effort dribbled wide of the post via a deflection and another was scuffed straight at Olexandr Goryainov after a run in from the right. Our best first-half opportunity, two minutes before the interval, fell to Cisse who burst onto a lay-off but couldn't beat the Metalist 'keeper. After last Thursday's two disallowed goals, it was shaping up to be another one of those games for our misfiring Senegalese marksman.

Meanwhile, the only real threat to our goal came in the form of a header from Cristaldo that bounced narrowly wide. Though we won our fair share of free-kicks, Dreamboat perhaps guilty of not making the most of them with sub-par delivery, we also conceded far too many, Sideshow Bob and Anita in particularly guilty of repeatedly giving fussy Belgian referee Serge Gumienny an excuse to blow up. However, he didn't whistle on either of the two occasions when a visibly riled MYM accused opponents of throwing elbows.

If we were concerned that the break would disrupt our rhythm and we'd rue not capitalising on our first-half superiority, then we needn't have worried. Little changed in the second period, with those in black and white continuing to dictate the tempo and look most dangerous in advanced areas. Marveaux squandered a glorious chance, lashing high and wide when Big Lad and Cisse were unmarked in the centre for a two-yard tap-in.

When the all-important goal came, though, it was courtesy of a howler by defender Papa Gueye, whose misplaced backpass was seized upon by Sissoko. The Frenchman was running away from goal but Goryainov, racing back into position, panicked and took away his legs. That left Big Lad with the spot-kick, and our all-time second top scorer in European competitions sent the 'keeper the wrong way.

That, perhaps inevitably, was the stick that finally poked the hornet's nest and before long - after a quick breakaway from Sissoko that could have led to Anita doubling our advantage - we found ourselves up against a side transformed. As is so often the case, the decision to protect the lead by withdrawing Cisse and Anita and replacing them with Perchinho and Spidermag threatened to backfire, inviting further pressure.

While Big Lad will go down as the nominal matchwinner, that accolade should really go to Tim Krul, who, having been a bystander for the first hour, was suddenly the busiest man in the stadium. He made a fine stop from substitute Willian, then two even better ones in quick succession from Cristaldo, and finally capping it off with a brilliant smother onto the upright when a near-post flick from a corner looked destined for the back of our net. Perchinho deserves enormous credit, too, for a brave block when penalty box pinball could have ended in an equaliser.

At the end we were clinging on - but then the aggregate victory was merited on the strength of our first-leg performance, at least, and in any case it's worth remembering that Metalist actually needed two goals to win (so even 1-1 would have been enough).

Next up on 7th March are Anzhi Makhachkala, who will once again be tough opponents. Given our league form, just making it this far is no mean feat, though, especially as Liverpool, Napoli, Ajax, Dynamo Kiev and holders Atletico Madrid are among those to have fallen at this hurdle.

Our more immediate concern now, though, is ensuring a win over the Saints on Sunday. Rather than draining the players, hopefully our Ukrainian exertions will have buoyed the mood and underlined that, on our day, we are actually a decent side.

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

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Thursday, February 21, 2013

Final fantasies for Brad and Curtis

Congratulations to Brad Inman, who - unlike any of our first team - will get the opportunity to strut his stuff in a club competition at Wembley this season. His Crewe side made it through to the final of the Johnstone's Paint Trophy last night at managerless Coventry's expense - though they came close to throwing it all away in spectacular fashion, conceding twice in injury time (including a calamitous own goal) and ending up clinging on for a 3-2 aggregate victory. Their opponents at Wembley will be League 2 outfit Southend, who overcame Leyton Orient in the other semi-final.

Our other Aussie youngster was already lined up to make an appearance on the Wembley turf, of course, with Curtis Good's Bradford taking on Swansea in the League Cup Final on Sunday. Best of luck, lad.

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Taking the Mickey

That's League 2 leaders Gillingham, who've taken forgotten man Michael Richardson on loan. The 20-year-old midfielder has recently recovered from an ankle injury, but that doesn't explain why he's been out of sight for quite so long. Great things were expected of the youngster when he was talked up by the Silver Fox and broke into the first-team squad nearly two years ago, but little progress has been made since and it now looks more likely that the move will put him in the shop window than enable him to force his way back into our long-term plans.

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Rant rewarded

Congratulations to JFK for getting to top spot. I suspect he's always been convinced he's the best - just a shame, then, that the achievement for which he's been recognised is most prolific use of expletives in a press conference...



Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Quote of the day

"It was one of the best evenings I’ve ever had. Dad would have been gobsmacked. Steve Harper and Shola Ameobi shared some stories about Dad with Jim Rosenthal and they were hilarious really. They brought the house down. They’re two funny chaps and it was good to hear them."

Mark Robson reflects on Monday evening's charity tribute night in aid of the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation and the Alan Shearer Foundation, held at the Sage on what would have been Sir Bobby's 80th birthday. In amongst the musical and comic entertainment, it seems our Geordie duo's anecdotes found favour with the audience. Perhaps we should refer to them as the Chuckle Brothers from now on?

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Friday, February 15, 2013

Decisions, decisions

Newcastle Utd 0 - 0 Metalist Kharkiv

A goalless first leg, then - but certainly not for want of trying on our part. It was a game which encapsulated in a nutshell the reasons why Papiss Cisse has been so frustrated and frustrating this season: two perfectly legitimate goals disallowed for offside but also a clutch of costly misses on a night when we really should have capitalised on our superiority.

The BBC's report refers to Metalist 'keeper Olexandr Goryainov as being "the only Ukrainian-born player in the Metalist line-up" though neglects to mention that there were the same number of English-born players in ours (just Saylor). With Goofy and Mathieu Debuchy ineligible, the Silver Fox brought in Obertan Kenobi and MYM, the latter for his full debut at right-back, and while Mr T won't be doing much driving off the pitch in the near future, he was at least handed the opportunity to drive us forward on it, in place of Perchinho.

If we were hoping that Metalist would be out of sorts and out of shape due to their league's lengthy winter break, then we were sorely mistaken, as they stroked the ball around neatly with Marlos their trickiest customer up against a somewhat bewildered Davide Santon. For our part, we looked a bit shaky at the back, wary of their threat, but didn't help matters with too much loose midfield passing in our own half. Nevertheless, the best chances fell our way.

Obertan Kenobi, who was making the odd decent foray on the flanks, had our first really decent shot, trickling a shot agonisingly wide after cutting in from the left. Moussa Sissoko, once again an all-action colossus in attacking midfield, burst into the edge of the six-yard area only for Goryainov to smother. The Frenchman it was who broke through to set up Cisse to roll the ball into the net only for the linesman to flag for a non-existent offside. Neither could our Senegalese striker register when played in by a wonderful first-time pass from the generally deep-lying Dreamboat, firing straight at Goryainov with a defender breathing furiously down his neck.

Mr T showed no appetite for staying out of trouble following his arrest, picking up a yellow card for a typically clear-cut and cynical foul, while Dreamboat too showed his aggressive side and found himself in Norwegian referee Tom Hagen's book before half-time.

The second half generally followed the pattern of the first: neat and tidy football from the visitors but more cut and thrust from us. We had narrow escapes when first a fortuitous ricocheted header and then a shot flew wide of Tim Krul's post, but once again slowly began to exert our dominance. Obertan Kenobi, as usual useful only in flashes, was replaced by Sylvain Marveaux, who instantly gave us more dynamism and creativity in midfield alongside Sissoko and Dreamboat. His introduction meant that Spidermag pushed wider, helping Santon deal with Marlos but also giving us added width. The Argentinian found himself in space on the left corner of the area at one point, but rolled his shot across the face of goal and wide of the far post, while Marveaux was unlucky to overrun the ball slightly when darting into the box.

Still, our number nine wasn't faring any better. When MYM's persistence won him the ball in an advanced position on the right, Cisse deftly flicked the cross in off Goryainov's far post. Deadlock broken - or so he and we thought. Not so - another linesman's flag. If he was offside, it was by a matter of centimetres - certainly not the usual ten yards...

Further firepower was called for, which meant the introduction of Big Lad for Mr T. The substitute made a reasonable impression, nodding down a couple of high punts into the box and delivering one pull-back from the byline, but the ball just wouldn't fall to those in black and white.

The 90 minutes up, there was time for one last golden chance - though only after we'd survived a penalty shout, Metalist substitute Willian justifiably booked for a ludicrous dive. A cross came in from the left and Cisse stole in front of his statuesque marker at the far post, but his diving header from point-blank range was predictably blocked by Goryainov.

Would we have won the game with Demba Ba in the side? Let's not torture ourselves by contemplating it. Objectively speaking, a 0-0 draw at home in the first leg of a European tie has been increasingly regarded as a good result in recent years. But if you take into account the key factors - our disallowed goals and squandered opportunities, the fact that our opponents looked sufficiently dangerous to cause us problems on their own turf, our dismal away record this season, our Premier League predicament and the proximity of the return leg to our crunch clash with Southampton - then the prospects for our progress into the next round don't seem quite so good.

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

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Thursday, February 14, 2013

Trouble with a capital Mr T

It's been a while since we were last able to report on a Newcastle player in trouble with the law for car-related bad behaviour - so credit to Mr T for righting that particular wrong. No sooner has our man returned from the African Cup of Nations than he's been arrested on suspicion of fraud in connection with motoring offences and his motor impounded. And there I was, imagining that if he was to find himself in hot water for anything car-related it would be for trying to turn an old banger into an armour-plated tank in a barn before busting out and mowing down some baddies...

The news comes just a couple of days after Mr T told the Ronny Gill that no one's first-team place is safe. Coming from him, that sounds like an ominous threat - I wonder if a team-mate panicked and decided to grass him up to the police to save themselves?



Quote of the day

"I have always wanted to play in England. It is the league that suits me the best. When I was a kid, I was very impressed by Arsenal with all their Frenchmen: Robert Pires, Sylvain Wiltord, Thierry Henry and Patrick Vieira. I was 10 or 11 years old. That team made me dream. They won everything. I loved Thierry Henry and above all Patrick Vieira as we played in the same position. He radiated such power. He could cross the whole pitch with the ball at his feet. In midfield, he was the boss."

So it seems as though we have something to be grateful to Arsene Wenger for after all - namely, for instigating the Premier League's first French invasion and assembling the side that inspired Moussa Sissoko to want to move across the Channel.



Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Stability and signings

So, what to make of Llambiarse's recent pronouncements in the Ronny Gill (helpfully collected together here by .com)? Let's examine some of the most interesting (and contentious) comments...

"The club has never had stability. It needs it. This is too big a club not to have stability. Do we want to find ourselves in a situation when we have a manager for 15 to 20 years? Absolutely. If the manager works, we work. You cannot get any better than that. ... We started off with Graham [Carr] and he is a major factor for us. We went through the managers and the coaches, giving them long-term deals, and fundamentally that's what we want to do. ... In reality, we do not work like other football clubs. If other clubs bring in a new manager then there are lots of staff changes. When Alan came here, all of the backroom staff were told their jobs were safe. We mean that. It brings a different atmosphere to a club. People then think 'hang on, they want stability here.' Alan, JC, Stoney, Peter Beardsley - they are all part and parcel of planning for the years to come. We do not work any other way. We do not make knee-jerk decisions - we react but we do not knee-jerk."

So, stability's clearly the watchword, then - something preached by many football club chairmen and owners but actually practised by far fewer. In fairness to Llambiarse and Jabba, they do seem to be paying more than just lip service to it - unlike, say, the Al-Hasawis at Nottingham Forest who have been talking about long-term strategies and five-year plans but parting company with managers more often than ASBO gets himself into a physical or virtual scrap.

However, it's overstating the case somewhat to say we're somehow unique - the lengthy reigns of those in the hotseats at Old Trafford, the Emirates and Goodison Park would suggest as much. And to claim not to make knee-jerk decisions is to focus firmly on the present while glossing over the mistakes of the past (such as employing the Poison Dwarf and JFK).

"We weren't prepared for Europe so soon. It's a very difficult competition for us. Even now we have to concentrate on the Premier League. In reality, this year we aren't as ready for it as we'd like to be. ... Next year we will have more depth and we will have a better foundation. Then we can go for everything, then it's different. Once this squad gels, this squad is capable of achieving great things in a very difficult league. If we have this squad and we can add the depth to it, we can give a run to anybody. I really think that, but do I think we're really ready to be in Europe? Talking as somebody who runs this part of the business, we just haven't got enough depth yet."

Of course the league is our bread and butter, but whose fault is it that we were ill equipped to cope with the rigours of European football? Last season's fifth-placed finish might have been a wholly unexpected surprise, but we nevertheless had all summer to strengthen - and failed to do so.

Again, in Llambiarse's defence, he did also go on to concede that a mistake was made - that mistake being "so fundamentally tight on the model": "We just did not give ourselves enough slack." However, he also sought to deflect criticism by referring to the "horrendous injury list" and the fact that we clung on to our star players in the face of "interest and pressure from agents and clubs" - both valid points, admittedly, but neither should be allowed to detract from the club hierarchy's failure to recruit.

"Looking at our working model, I had planned for two of [the January] signings to arrive in the summer. We missed out on two others by the way. The other two would have been on top of the five we brought in. ... We just had to bring things forward. Normally we would not do that. I spoke to Graham Carr and he said in football you will not see this again. He felt what was happening with our squad was unprecedented as far as injuries were concerned."

This squares with the Silver Fox's comments about us having "accelerated" deals for certain players in January - though interestingly the reason Llambiarse gave for doing so was the acute injury crisis rather than simply our league predicament.

"[The new signings] did not just crop up in November, we identified them a long time ago. If you look at Sissoko, Graham's first report was from 2010. Graham knew about him from when he was 18 - we follow players for years."

Evidence of extensive scouting and due diligence? Very much to be welcomed at a club famed for its short-sightedness. I like the image of Carr secreting himself in bushes and peering at the cream of young European talent through his binoculars, or hailing cabs and saying: "Suivez cette voiture-la, s'il vous plait!"

"At the end of the day [France] is a market which excites us. We have to explore other markets, though, which we do. ... We keep an eye on the UK market too. British players are very expensive, which is a factor for us."

Fair enough - it's not that we wouldn't like a predominantly British squad, it's just that Europe (and France in particular) seems to offer far better value at the moment. Given the strictures of that self-imposed financial model, we haven't got quite the purchasing power of yore so need to make the most of our connections and contacts.

"We put a lot of work into [the Loic £emy] deal. It is like everything else, we do not really want to break our policies. If you do not want to come here and play then it is is your choice. He made the decision, so there you go. What can I say? We put our work in, we lost it and we moved on. We did it before with [Modibo] Maiga. ... Let's not forget Loic is a very good player. Unfortunately he is now injured, but he has had a season of injuries. Sometimes you have to take that risk because you might not get value in a player."

Spot on - it's £emy's loss, and if he'd rather trouser all that cash while QPR slide towards the Premier League trapdoor, that's his lookout. I'm not sure what that last sentence means, though - sometimes you have to take the risk NOT to sign someone with a track record of injuries? Ultimately that's not the reason why the transfer to Tyneside didn't happen. Nice use of the word "unfortunately", mind - I assume (and sincerely hope) this was uttered with a smirk...

Speaking of taking a risk on players with injury records...

"I wish [Demba Ba] well. You have to understand if you go back to the basics of the deal, we took a chance on Demba and Demba took a chance on us. ... People criticise us for the clause, but it was part of the gamble for Demba as well. ... Maybe he wanted to prove himself, but for us I have no regrets on the Demba deal or Demba leaving. We have to move forward. With Demba we had him for 18 months and he scored 29 league goals. He went out of the club his way, and we have replaced him."

Again, this neatly summarises my take on the situation. The initial deal suited both parties (we didn't want to be lumbered with a permacrock on a long-term, high-salary deal) and, while we were entitled to try to renegotiate terms when things worked out well, Ba was within his rights to assess his options and it was no real surprise when we couldn't compete with Chelsea's allure. We should be grateful for those 29 goals and move on.

That said, whether we're moving on with a replacement in position is another matter. Goofy may have got his first goal in black and white (well, maroon) on Saturday, but Llambiarse is counting his chickens long before they've hatched if he's suggesting that the Frenchman is Ba's heir. In truth, given that Goofy's playing out wide, the onus is on Papiss Cisse, now operating in his favoured role through the centre, to up his game considerably and step into his compatriot's sizeable shooting boots.

"The Europa League needs fewer games - that is really the way I see it. The competition needs to be shaved down and reshaped. The incentives need to be different. The Champions League is worth around £44.3m if you win it, but the Europa League is £8m if you win it."

Fair comment I suppose (though the discrepancy will always exist, given the prestige surrounding the premier club competition) - but it would perhaps be nice to have a bit more recognition for the non-financial benefits of European football such as the experience gained by the players, using it as a carrot to entice potential new signings and the simple, good old-fashioned excitement of there being a trophy up for grabs. If Llambiarse was determined to dwell on the monetary value of participation in the Europa League, then he could at least have mentioned the additional gate receipts.

And finally, some comments on QPR following on from the discussion of the failed £emy deal:

"I would not want to criticise the passion QPR owner Tony Fernandes has, he is very communicative and has a flair and understanding of what the fans want and what he wants for the good of the club. ... They played down Chris Samba, but if we were in a similar position? ... If Mike and I were in that position we may sit back and say: 'Do we need two players to push us away from relegation?' We might have taken the gamble too, but not irresponsibly. Tony is not being irresponsible. He is giving himself and his club a chance. If he did not do anything then he would be criticised too."

Aw, c'mon - give 'im both barrels. Quite how signing a player for £12m on £120,000 a week when you're bottom of the table and play in a stadium with a capacity of around 18,000 isn't irresponsible I'm not sure - and neither am I certain how a prophet of stability and financial prudence like Llambiarse can apparently condone it. That said, do I detect a subtle dig at Fernandes in the comment about him being "very communicative"? Better that Jabba stays quiet, using Llambiarse as his mouthpiece only occasionally, than he blabbers on incessantly on Twitter like Fernandes...

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Monday, February 11, 2013

Beaten by Bale brace

Spurs 2 - 1 Newcastle Utd

Two goals by Gareth Bale were enough to put the brakes on our recent league resurgence at White Hart Lane on Saturday.

With the Silver Fox sticking with the same starting XI for the third game in a row, there was no place for the newly returned Mr T, who had to content himself with a place on the strongest bench we've probably had all season, sitting alongside Steve Harper, Vurnon Anita, Big Lad, Obertan Kenobi, MYM and Sylvain Marveaux.

On the pitch, with the hosts running decidedly short of strikers, their principal threat was presented by Gareth Bale, and it was the Welsh wonder who gave Spurs an early lead, firing home a dipping free kick within ten minutes of kick-off. While Sideshow Bob should perhaps have done better in not conceding the foul which led to the free-kick in the first place, if we're looking to apportion blame anywhere then Perchinho's decision to remain rooted to the ground as part of the defensive wall as the ball travelled within a whisker of his head was a curious one. If the team mantra was not to jump, and thereby prevent the ball going underneath them, why did Spidermag (immediately to Perchinho's right) jump?

At the other end, we finally managed to get ourselves into the game, with Papiss Cisse heading wide after a fine diagonal cross from Sideshow Bob. However, it was our new French connection which, after the heroics against Chelski, again proved our route back into the game. This time it was Sissoko's turn to play provider, with his pull back finding Goofy who hammered the ball home via Michael Dawson's shoulder.

As both sides continued to joust for the game it was Spurs full-back Kyle Walker who was next to make his mark, albeit this time on Goofy's leg after a nasty-looking challenge which saw our man depart on a stretcher sucking on oxygen. Thankfully, post-match reports confirm no broken bones, and with a fortnight until he can next be called into action there's plenty of time for Goofy to recover.

Ultimately, though, it was Bale again who was to land the decisive blow, as he raced onto a through-ball and capitalised on a moment of hesitation between Saylor and Sideshow Bob (quite which language Saylor used to communicate with his captain is anyone's guess). Bale took the ball away from our defenders before firing low past Tim Krul (who perhaps could have done better).

If the Dutchman was perhaps slightly culpable for Bale's second, he redeemed himself with a string of further saves to deny the Welshman his hat-trick and, with frustration starting to seep into our performance, it was something of a relief that Dreamboat only saw yellow after an ugly tackle on Moussa Dembele. Our only real sniff of an equaliser came when the ball broke kindly for substitute Big Lad, but his prod was smothered by Hugo Lloris.

Wigan, Reading and QPR may all have lost but, with Southampton picking up points at home to Man City, the defeat saw us drop back one place to 16th. However, we more than matched Spurs for the majority of this game and only lost out to one of the players of the season producing two moments of real class. A few more performances like this and we'll be safe sooner rather than later.

Other reports: BBC, Guardian 

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A Month Of Saturdays: January 2013

(Image courtesy of notfrancois)

After the nightmarish second half of 2012, the new year couldn't have got off to a much better start. Our first game of 2013 was just two minutes old when a looping header from Papiss Cisse gave us the lead against Everton. The identity of the goalscorer was encouraging, too, with the club calendar's Mr January absent, on the verge of a move to Chelsea. But the visiting Toffees weren't prepared to go home without testing our new year's resolution, and, as at Goodison Park, Leighton Baines and Victor Anichebe duly did the damage. In his post-match interview the Silver Fox claimed "If we can get a bit more quality back in the team and maybe one or two in, which is probably important now, we'll be OK" - Paul then assessing where we needed to strengthen (pretty much everywhere).

Finally concluding a deal to reunite one of the Everton game's interested spectators - French international right-back Mathieu Debuchy - with his former Lille team-mate and chum Dreamboat was a good start to that strengthening programme. But, as with Cisse's goal, things then got significantly worse without a sign of getting any better.

First there was another appalling, abject defeat to Championship outfit Brighton - our fourth in four FA Cup meetings with the Seagulls. The scoreline was 2-0, but it was more than twice as bad as last season - this time the white flag of surrender meekly waved well before Big Lad had been sent off. The only useful purpose our televised humiliation served was to underline once again our lack of strength in depth and hence the urgent need for reinforcements. The kids certainly weren't alright, the Silver Fox later issuing a stark warning that for some of them the days of life in black and white may be numbered.

And then we were rocked by the revelation that Sideshow Bob was unsettled and wanted to leave for unspecified personal reasons. If we were to turn the corner, then surely we couldn't do so without our skipper - not least because it would mean relying even more heavily on Mike Williamson, who had been looking like a broken man for weeks.

In the circumstances, then, a draw away to a side enduring an equally awful run of form was a small mercy. On hand to welcome Dreamboat back into the team after injury was Debuchy, who marked his debut with somewhat fortuitous clean sheet against Chris Hughton's Norwich - a platform on which to build.

The visit of fellow strugglers Reading the following weekend represented a golden opportunity to pull clear of the relegation zone. In his match preview, Royals fan Lanterne Rouge of The Two Unfortunates ventured: "I think the plan will be to defend in depth and hope the Toon Army gets on the home team’s backs – a stolen 1-0 win will be the aim". He may have got the scoreline wrong but otherwise his prediction proved alarmingly accurate, a deadly double from second-half supersub Adam Le Fondre overturning the advantage handed us by Dreamboat as the home fans gave full vent to their frustration and anger. The Lone Ranger subsequently saddled up his high horse and blasted the boo boys on Twitter - a move that would have been misguided even if he hadn't then found himself promptly arrested and bailed on suspicion of rape...

The defeat was - at last - the boot up the behind the club hierarchy needed and precipitated an extraordinary splurge that indicated our entente with France is far more than cordiale. In the space of four days, we said "Bienvenue" to Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa, Yoan Gouffran, Massadio Haidara and Moussa Sissoko. The weekend off afforded to us by that FA Cup exit to Brighton allowed the highly rated quartet time to familiarise themselves with both their new team-mates and their surroundings.

The newly buoyant mood was enhanced further by the welcome announcement that, after much wrangling (and the publication of a troubling letter), Sideshow Bob had committed his future to the club, at least until the summer. Whether this was solely because of the small fortune it would have cost the Argentinian or San Lorenzo to extricate him from his contract was unclear, but the most important thing was that he was staying put.

So our trip to Villa Park couldn't have come at a much better time - especially as our hosts had suffered embarrassing exits from both domestic cup competitions while we'd been recharging batteries and recruiting half of France. In the first half it showed, as we stormed to a 2-0 lead with swaggering self-confidence. Villa were made of much sterner stuff in the second period, though, and we were clinging on grimly at the death, the three points just about as precious as any you could care to name.

The transformation of the team, at least in that first half, was instant and remarkable - testimony to the value of making astute use of the transfer window. Not that everyone was quite so delighted. Arsene Wenger, for instance, was critical of the way we had (perfectly legitimately) exploited the system - you suspect that he might not have been quite so vocal in his opposition had he been allowed some January pocket money of his own... The Silver Fox expressed some reservations about the transfer policy too, though, regarding it as unsustainable and short-termist and as an indicator of the disappointing deficiencies of our academy.

Nevertheless, there remains hope that some of our youngsters might yet make the grade, with two more - Mehdi Abeid and Conor Newton - joining the ranks of those out on loan. One January departure was, thankfully, of a permanent nature, with £5.7m flop and serial loanee the Xisco Kid finally slung out with the rubbish six months early. Just a shame, then, that the Lone Ranger didn't suffer a similar fate and continues to blight our squad.

Inevitably, there were a few players we missed out on: Florian Thauvin and William Vainqueur, mercenary money-grabbers Loic £emy (who signed for 'Appy 'Arry's QPR) and Peter Odemwingie (who, er, didn't). We even had players claiming they'd signed for a joke - take a bow Jimmy Kebe.

Overall, though, Paul was justified in arguing that we'd had a successful month in the transfer market, and that the fresh blood would help to reinvigorate the team for the vital run-in. Suddenly survival looked more easily achievable - but if it is achieved, we'll be left pondering what might have been had Jabba and Llambiarse not displayed such a complacent, laissez-faire attitude in the summer.



Friday, February 08, 2013

Out in the cold, and out cold

Here's a question for you. You've just lost your place in the Newcastle first team to an established French international, your contract's up in the summer, your girlfriend is away on holiday in Marbella - what do you do? If you're Danny Simpson, the decision seems to be easy: follow ASBO's example by getting plastered in a city in the north-west and then kicking off in and around a takeaway in the early hours of the morning.

It seems our man came off worst in the encounter - hauled out of a taxi, punched in the face, lying unconscious on the pavement and bleeding from the mouth, and then whisked off to hospital by ambulance to be checked over. There won't be any charges brought, though.

According to one witness, "he was hammered and was mouthing off. Danny was making sure everyone knew who he was". Wonder which line he went with: "second-choice right-back for Newcastle" or "Tulisa's boyfriend"?

I do like the way the Sun seem to be incapable of referring to a footballer without labelling them a "football ace". Simpson is many things - and at times he's been a half-decent player for us - but certainly not that...

Incidentally, just in case you thought ASBO might have mellowed during his time on the south coast of France, he went and proved otherwise by collecting his first red card (for two bookings) for Marseille. The club's coach Elie Baup seems to have had no doubt it would happen sooner or later: "We waited a long time and wondered when Barton would be sent off for the first time, and that was done tonight."

He then put himself back in the spotlight by labelling Neymar a "showpony" on Twitter, but the Brazilian had a neat retort: "I don't even know who he is. But those who have mouths say what they want."

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France flop but Brad bangs 'em in

Wednesday was a disappointing night for our French internationals, as the Germans beat them for the first time since 1987. The home side took the lead in Paris, too, our man of the moment Moussa Sissoko setting up Mathieu Valbuena with a header after Karim Benzema's free-kick had struck the bar. But two second-half goals condemned the French to defeat, and while Dreamboat played the whole game, Sissoko was withdrawn and club colleagues Mathieu Debuchy and MYM sat kicking their heels on the bench all evening. Proof, perhaps, that Sissoko isn't superhuman after all.

Meanwhile, closer to home, loanee Bradden Inman continued to impress for Crewe, scoring two fine goals as the Railwaymen romped to a 3-0 first-leg lead over Coventry in the Johnstone's Paint Trophy on Tuesday night, watched by a staggering 31,000 people. The prize is a big day out at Wembley against either Leyton Orient or Southend, the latter holding a 1-0 advantage from their first-leg encounter. What an experience that would be for the lad.

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Tuesday, February 05, 2013

No magic Rem-edy for 'Appy 'Arry

"£8m QPR striker Loic Remy could be out for two months". Groin knack, apparently. What a terrible shame.

Still, at least he won't have to scrap for time on the treatment table with the Little Waster, now plying his trade (no doubt only very occasionally) on Smogside.

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Monday, February 04, 2013

Sisso-KO blow for Chelsea

Newcastle Utd 3 - 2 Chelsea

Well, we haven't had many afternoons like that this season - though in truth few teams do.

There seems to be something about the first weekend in February that brings out the best in us. Two years ago we staged that remarkable comeback against Arsenal. On Saturday, we again improbably clawed our back from a deficit, though this time went on to win, and against the European champions too. At the heart of it all was Moussa Sissoko, making the sort of home debut that dreams are made of. And not even Demba Ba's return to St James' Park could spoil the occasion.

In light of Tuesday's vital 2-1 triumph at fellow strugglers Aston Villa, the Silver Fox justifiably selected the same starting XI, though two further members of our French contingent - Sylvain Marveaux and Obertan Kenobi - were available on the bench. For his part, Rafa Benitez named Ba as Chelsea's lone striker.

In truth, it proved to be a good time to be taking on the west Londoners, who still looked to be suffering a hangover from chucking away a lead by allowing Reading supersub Adam Le Fondre to plunder a couple of late goals (we know how that feels...). We soon got about them, with Papiss Cisse our biggest threat. Twice he was foiled by good low saves from Petr Cech; on the first occasion, he was being rapidly closed down by defenders, but on the second - free, central and about 12 yards out - he really should have found the net.

It was a sufficiently dramatic game to be able to lay claim to not one but several critical turning points, and the first arrived just after the half-hour. Ba streaked away towards goal with Sideshow Bob in hot pursuit, and when his initial shot was parried by Tim Krul, he reacted quickest to follow up with a header which bounced just wide of the post. In doing so he received a boot in the face from his former captain - a bloodied nose quite literally - and spent some time on the sidelines being patched up.

Predictably, Benitez moaned afterwards that the challenge constituted dangerous play in a goalscoring situation and so should have resulted in both a penalty and a red card. While the latter wouldn't have been justified - Sideshow Bob's eyes were clearly firmly on the ball - we were fortunate that Howard Webb didn't point to the spot. Still, it all evens out - remember David Luiz getting away with that cynical scything foul on a black-and-white-shirted Ba in the corresponding fixture last season, which the visitors went on to win 3-0? Indeed, shortly before this incident Ramires could have received more than just a caution for an ugly tackle.

Ba's injury unsettled both the player - he gingerly ducked under a high ball soon after returning to the fray -  and his new team, and we were able to capitalise. Dreamboat floated a delicious pass out to Davide Santon on the left, who wasted little time in whipping in a cross which was flick-headed in by Spidermag, of all people. A tremendous leap and finish from a player who has been out of sorts for much of this season (though not alone in that) but who showed endeavour and application throughout. As we celebrated, a miserable Ba was withdrawn, with Fernando Torres on in his place, and we went into the half-time interval with a deserved lead.

However, such is the quality of Chelsea's individual players that we knew the second half would be a sterner test - and sure enough, by the hour mark we were shellshocked to find ourselves behind. First Frank Lampard benefited from a lax Dreamboat challenge and walloped in a stunning long-ranger, and then the Blues' player of the season Juan Mata curled into the top corner from Torres' lay-off. Krul didn't stand a chance with either, and - with hindsight, safe in the knowledge that we still went on to get the win - you have to concede they were breathtaking finishes.

It could have got worse had Cisse not been punished more severely for doing what most of us would like to do and grabbing Ashley Cole by the throat in the aftermath of Mata's goal. Thankfully, though, he avoided banishment to the sidelines to join his Senegalese team-mate, and, unlike when Reading seized the lead in January, the big crowd - our second largest of the season - rightly kept the faith, roaring the side on rather than sinking into despondency.

The players responded in kind - and one player in particular. Cisse did well to lay the ball into Goofy's path and the striker sprinted away towards the box. When his left-footed shot was parried by Cech, Sissoko was on hand to bury the rebound. Just as those in blue seemed to be tiring, the former Toulouse midfielder found extra reserves of energy. For his next tricks, he galloped onto a punted clearance, leaving Cole floundering and firing in a shot that Cech tipped behind for a corner, and then popped up on the left, turning Gary Cahill inside out before poking a shot straight at the Czech stopper.

Sissoko wasn't to be denied that dream home debut, though, and when Santon pulled the ball back to the edge of the area in the last minute, he rifled in a crisp low shot to send players, bench and stands into raptures.

The Silver Fox granted him the standing ovation he deserved, withdrawing him for MYM a minute into stoppage time. The victory was only assured by another instance of Saylor putting everything on the line for the cause, though, this time blocking Lampard's shot with his unmentionables. Chelsea's laughable appeals for handball fell on deaf ears - and soon afterwards ears all around were deafened by the reaction to Webb's final whistle.

So, back-to-back league wins for the first time since last April to celebrate and a new hero to worship. One of the things that impressed me most was that, although Sissoko's arrival has (unexpectedly) meant Dreamboat dropping into a deeper role, the latter was no less excellent - it's not as though accommodating one necessarily means sacrificing the effectiveness of the other, as was the case with Ba and Cisse.

Results elsewhere were generally kind, too. Wigan got a late goal to ensure the draw with Southampton that suited us, while 'Appy 'Arry's QPR missed a penalty against Norwich to record their second 0-0 at home in a week and Everton's Marouane Fellaini did us a big favour by frustrating Villa, who had led 3-1 at Goodison Park. It was unfortunate that Reading continued their good form, but even that 2-1 victory gave a modicum of satisfaction as it came against the Mackems.

Spurs away next, then, just over a year since they thrashed us 5-0. Returning to the north east with anything to show for the trip will be tough, particularly with Gareth Bale in such electrifying form in his new central attacking role (Perchinho will need to be on his game) - but with the January acquisitions have come renewed enthusiasm, belief and confidence. Suddenly it's not such a bad thing being a Newcastle fan again.

A Chelsea fan's perspective: We Ain't Got No History

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

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Friday, February 01, 2013

La fenetre est fermee

C'est fini.

That is to say, the transfer window has finished - closed until the summer, by which time we'll know whether QPR's decision to splurge a vast fortune on players was a gamble worth taking.

Closer to home, when reflecting on the transfer window it's difficult not to feel pretty pleased with the job done by Graham Carr, Jabba, Llambiarse and the Silver Fox.

As I suggested at the start of the month, in addition to Dreamboat's bff Mathieu Debuchy who joined us when Christmas trees were still to be taken down, we needed to add a striker and centre-half as a minimum.

Once the inevitable happened and Demba Ba went to Chelski, the need for a striker increased and we turned our attentions to Loic £emy, only to be jilted by the player in favour of Droopy's big bags of cash.

Our nose bloodied in the transfer scuffle, we nonetheless came out fighting and in one miraculous week effectively signed a player a day, all from France, all representing seemingly decent value in the market and all, apparently, committed to getting us out of the relegation scrap we'd managed to land ourselves in.

First we added MYM, the strong centre-half we'd been craving - although, after our experiences with £emy, there were a few nervous people on Tyneside watching the skies for his plane to arrive, after snow reportedly pushed the transfer back a day and with Arsenal reportedly hovering in the wings.

Then, with the ink still drying on MYM's contract, we replaced Demba Ba with Goofy, the player effectively eschewing Bordeaux for Brown Ale.

The next day saw confirmation of Massadio Haidara coming in to challenge Davide Santon for left-back and then the cherry on the icing of a very large gateau was the arrival of Moussa Sissoko. Like Goofy, Sissoko would have been out of contract in the summer, but prudently we opted to spend a little money to ensure he joined us now, in our hour of need.

With Swiss teenager Kevin Mbabu joining us at the end of the month we have, at the very least, increased the pool of available talent from which the Silver Fox can draw as he attempts to pilot us to safety.

On the departure front, the loss of Ba was the most significant, as our leading striker took his goals to Stamford Bridge. The only other permanent departure this month saw the Xisco Kid, that most extravagant of the Poison Dwarf's follies, finally leave for pastures undoubtedly less well-paid. Otherwise, a number of reserves were packed off to gain more first-team experience.

In an ideal world, we'd have added a further striker to the squad, as we're reliant on Goofy hitting the ground running to share the burden with Papiss Cisse and Big Lad, so from that point of view we could have done slightly better.

However, the addition of three full French internationals and two highly promising youngsters is a staggeringly good recruitment drive. Coupled with our retention of Sideshow Bob, the squad looks significantly stronger now than it did 31 days ago and should hopefully prove itself more than capable of hauling us to safety and giving the Europa League a good go.

Credit for this month has to go to Graham Carr for once again identifying a clutch of promising players available at sensible prices and also to Jabba and Llambiarse for managing to get the deals (£emy aside) across the line.

The baton now passes to the Silver Fox to quickly bed the players into the side and get them playing well.



A bright future and a dismal past

So it wasn't quite the deathly quiet transfer deadline day we'd been expecting. There was another arrival, for a start: Servette's Kevin Mbabu. Surely some mistake, though - the dreadlocked defender is Swiss, not French... Also unlike our other transfer window signings, the 17-year-old is very much one for the future - albeit a player who, according to the Journal at least, we've nicked ahead of Arsenal and the two Manchester clubs.

Meanwhile, the Xisco Kid is no longer a drain on our resources, his contract having been terminated by mutual consent. No sooner had he been released than he'd signed up with Spanish second tier side Cordoba. And thus ends his unhappy history on Tyneside, one which started promisingly enough with a debut goal. But that came in a dreadful home defeat to Hull and turned out to be the only time he hit the net for us in eleven measly appearances over four and a half years. £5.7m per goal - even 'Appy 'Arry's eyes would water at that sort of statistic.

Also continuing to ply their trade away from St James' Park, though only temporarily, are Curtis Good and Bradden Inman, whose loans at Bradford and Crewe have been extended until the end of the season. Mehdi Abeid is our latest loanee, farmed out to St Johnstone in the SPL and with plenty to prove, you'd imagine, following the Silver Fox's recent comments about the failure of our young players to suggest they're able to make the grade. (Incidentally, whatever happened to the Silver Fox's opinion that the SPL is too weak for our players to learn much there? He'd already sent Paul Dummett and Conor Newton to St Mirren even before Abeid's move.)

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Borstal Boys on the move while Mackems sign double agent

So, what went on of interest elsewhere?

Well, there was the Little Waster cropping up on Smogside. Tony Mowbray claims he's "looked really good in training, nice and sharp" - yes Tony, but you just wait until your next fixture and see how long he can go without picking up some kind of knack.

The Little Waster's previous club QPR were predictably frantic, adding (amongst others) another ex-Toon forgotten man, Jermaine Jenas, to their hastily assembled and grossly overpaid squad. JJ has an avowed dislike of fishbowls - I wonder how he'll fare together with the other big fish (and their egos) in that particular small pond if results don't pick up quickly...

Meanwhile, down at the Dark Place, the Mackems released Louis Saha, with chief executive Margaret Byrne "thank[ing] him for his contribution". If I didn't know wit was beyond that lot, I'd think this was a sarcastic comment about a player who failed to start a game during his six months there.

Intriguingly, his sort-of-replacement - at a sizeable cost of £5.5m - is Swansea striker Danny Graham. The born-and-bred Geordie received a warm welcome - well, a chorus of boos - when the Swans visited the Stadium of Shite on Tuesday, largely on account of some nicely disparaging comments he made to a Toon fanzine some time ago. C'mon now Agent Graham, do your duty. Here's hoping this turns out like Lee Clark all over again...

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