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.
Labels: a month of saturdays