Saturday, March 30, 2013

Ah, hello there relegation danger zone, didn't expect to see you again so soon

Well, it's safe to say we've had better afternoons - and that's not even taking into account our 4-0 thumping at the Etihad, in which it took us 78 minutes to register a shot on target (Paul's report can be found here).

The surprise victory for Southampton over Chelsea, coupled with a Rocky-inspired West Ham win against West Brom, plunged us to 15th, but the news was even worse from (where else?) the DW Stadium. Arouna Kone's late strike was enough for a nervy Wigan to beat a Norwich side who had dominated much of the game, and leave us with a precarious three-point advantage over 18th-placed Villa, who take on Liverpool tomorrow.

At least we could rely on the Mackems to mess up, slumping to another defeat, this time at home to a lacklustre performance from champions elect Man Utd. Even better, the only goal of the game came from Agent Bramble. Well done, Titus - your iced bun's in the post.

Still, the Mackems' plight shouldn't detract from our own. We had hoped to be clear of relegation danger by the time the Benfica tie came around - and indeed that looked to be the case with the win over Stoke. But now the Europa league fixtures come in amongst two home games that will be vital to our Premier League survival, against Fulham and then the Mackems. We need to win both, simple as that - and Europe once again looks increasingly like an unwelcome distraction.



Fergie helps shatter Crystal Palace

It was a very Good Friday indeed for Shane Ferguson, who made a vital contribution to Birmingham's resounding 4-0 win at Crystal Palace - all the more surprising given that the home side were unbeaten on their own turf for 18 league games. His corner was unintentionally converted by Palace defender Damien Delaney for the visitors' second goal, and he then curled in an icing-on-the-cake free kick to complete the scoring.

Of the Blues' current and ex-Toon contingent, the Northern Irishman was the only one to start, replaced late on by Darren Ambrose while Stephen Caldwell and Peter Lovenkrands kicked their heels on the bench - the same fate suffered by Palace's Peter Ramage, who you suspect may find himself back in the first team following that defensive display...

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Quote of the day

"For the record, I'm not anti-royal far from it. 'Anti' doesn't quiet [sic] sum up how one feels for those inbred, land grabbing, tyrannous puppets."

ASBO takes an unusual tack in his quest to appear in the Queen's New Years Honours list.

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Friday, March 29, 2013

The French Enlightenment

According to Perchinho, our French foreign legion will be given a crash course in what playing Sunderland means ahead of derby day. Ultimately the lesson is pretty simple: no matter what you do, make sure you win.

I'd expect Dreamboat would be a chief educator alongside the Silver Fox, who will no doubt be delighted to know that the Mackems' main goal threat, Steven Fletcher, is out for the rest of the season after crocking himself on international duty as Scotland lost (again). It's a bit of a shame, though, that Lee Clattermole is also ruled out - we could have done with that moronic red card magnet getting himself in bother with the officials and making our task that bit easier.



Thursday, March 28, 2013

Les Bleus get the blues

Tuesday night saw the home nations turn in a pretty dismal collection of results - and it was no better for France, who went down 1-0 at home to Spain, surrendering their lead at the top of their World Cup 2014 qualifying group to the reigning world and European champions.

Moussa Sissoko made another appearance from the substitute's bench, his arrival greeted by a chorus of boos - though those were directed at the player he was replacing, misfiring Real Madrid striker Karim Benzema.

Meanwhile, having sat out Friday's disappointing draw with Finland, Dreamboat played the first 70 minutes. The result isn't likely to have done much for the mood of a player who has confessed to suffering from depression following Euro 2012. That (and fatigue) would explain our stand-in skipper's sluggish start to the season, when there did seem to be some kind of lingering malaise that some were attributing to our failure to reunite him with pal Mathieu Debuchy. Thanks are apparently due to Jonny Wilkinson and Rafa Nadal for helping him dispel the black clouds, and here's hoping he can stay fit and firing on all cylinders for our run-in.

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Black and white - and in the black

Two slightly different takes on the club's figures for the financial year ending June 2012 from the BBC and the Guardian. The former led with the fact that our operating profit fell by nearly £6m to £7.5m - but TBW, to her credit, instead rightly focused on the positive, noting that the fact we've turned in a tidy profit at all in these straitened economic circumstances is the real story. Both reports also noted that we've elbowed our way back among the world's top 20 revenue-generating clubs.

Other interesting observations were that our ticket revenue has actually dipped slightly despite healthier attendances due to the commendable decision to freeze season ticket prices, and that our wage bill has rocketed by 20%, now standing at 68.7% of turnover. While that's not ideal (Llambiarse has spoken of the desire to nudge it back down to about 64%), it's nevertheless a far cry from the unsustainable days of 80%+ and much better than many if not most other Premier League clubs. It's not for nothing that we're confident of being in good shape to comply with the Financial Fair Play regulations.



Sent to Coventry

So, while Massadio Haidara won't be appearing on the pitch in a Premier League fixture this weekend, neither will Mark Halsey. Just a shame the same can't be said with any certainty about Callum McManaman, eh?

Halsey's punishment for missing the assault is an assignment in League One, refereeing Coventry at the Ricoh Arena (in theory, at least - the venue might yet change due to the Sky Blues' ongoing woes). Just what they need, on top of a fixture against league leaders Doncaster...

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Quote of the day

"I can only wonder what more I would have achieved had my body been able to withstand the demands that I was making of it."

You and me both, Little Saint Mick. Of course, it might have helped if you didn't insist on making those demands in serving your country at the expense of the club that was lining your pockets.

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Saturday, March 23, 2013

DW: disorderly wankers

So, at the end of a week dominated by a violent assault in Wigan, it's emerged that other mindless acts of violence and disorder took place that same day - before the match at the DW even kicked off (in both senses of the term). On this occasion, the perpetrators weren't Wigan players but Newcastle "supporters" (I use the word advisedly), who poured off coaches and disrupted a home fixture for local non-league outfit Wigan Cosmos which was taking place near to the ground. The club has since apologised for the incident, condemning those responsible and offering to reimburse the Cosmos for the damage.

Well done, you minority of morons. It's difficult if not impossible to continue occupying the moral high ground if you're being undermined by those on your own side.

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FA rules not OK

For what it's worth, and if you really want to dwell on it any longer, here's the BBC's Gordon Farquhar to clarify why Callum McManaman escaped retrospective punishment for his assault on Massadio Haidara. It doesn't necessarily add anything, but does at least beg the question of what exactly does constitute "exceptional circumstances" and underline the fact that, as in the words of Llambiarse, the FA disciplinary process is indeed "not fit for purpose".

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In your dreams

Fantasy football meets real life - which begs the question: how exactly did Xisco get away with it for so long?



Thursday, March 21, 2013

Knee not knacked

According to reports, Massadio Haidara's knee has thankfully survived Sunday's assault relatively unscathed, with no ligament or bone damage, and only severe bruising.  Although the Mirror do claim that his knee cap did effectively pop out and then back in as a result of the collision.

The upshot of which is that the player could be back playing in a matter of days/weeks.

The quotes reported in the Guardian come from their translation of an interview Haidara gave to Le Parisien, which can be read in French here

Whilst my French is decidedly rusty, from what I can see he's understandably keen not to rush back and will inevitably be wary when he gets back on a pitch, but should be alright in the long run, which is excellent news.



Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Aub and Ab on the radar

Right, let's try and ignore (if not actually forget about) the McManaman furore for a bit and instead focus on what might happen in the summer. Yesterday's papers contained details of a couple of possible transfer targets - needless to say, both are based in France...

We've been linked with St Etienne's Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang for a while, but, with the Gabon international continue to score with abandon in Ligue 1, it's now being reported that the bigger fish have woken up and started taking an interest. Whether we qualify as a "big club" in relation to Chelsea, Arsenal and moneybags PSG is questionable.

Meanwhile, a new link (to me, at least) is to Toulouse's Tunisian international Aymen Abdennour, though the story there is much the same, with Barcelona apparently already sniffing around. If we are indeed interested, then it suggests plans are already afoot for coping with life without Sideshow Bob. MYM and Saylor have generally been an excellent partnership since our skipper picked up his injury against Stoke, but with only the increasingly hapless Mike Williamson in reserve we would certainly need additional cover in that position.



Don't look back? In anger

Yesterday afternoon simmering discontent became boiling fury as the FA announced that, contrary to expectations, Wigan's Callum McManaman would not be charged or banned for Sunday's potentially career-ending challenge on Massadio Haidara. As ludicrous as the decision sounds, it's been justified on the grounds that to do otherwise would be in contravention of the FA's own rules, which guard against "re-refereeing" matches after the final whistle: "Where one of the officials has seen a coming together of players, no retrospective action should be taken, regardless of whether he or she witnessed the full or particular nature of the challenge."

In this instance, "it has been confirmed that at least one of the match officials saw the coming together" (the linesman, as Mark Halsey had his view obstructed, regardless of whatever nonsense Dave Whelan and Roberto Martinez have been spouting), but it's the rest of the sentence is the most striking: "... though not the full extent of the challenge." If they had seen the "full extent" - as those watching at home did instantly - then they couldn't have failed to send the winger off. Players are punished retrospectively all the time, and just because the linesman happens to have seen the incident and unfathomably failed to flag doesn't diminish or detract from the seriousness of the offence. It's appalling that the Wigan player has essentially escaped a lengthy and thoroughly deserved ban purely on a technicality of the FA's own fabrication.

Understandably the club hierarchy are incandescent about this latest (non-)development. A ban may not have righted the original wrong, but it would at least have gone some way to dissipating the sense of injustice. Llambiarse was immediately on the warpath, declaring the FA's disciplinary process "not fit for purpose" and demanding urgent reforms. A completely appropriate and justified response, and yet one which you just know will turn out to be whistling in the wind - the chances of those fat, blazered buffoons putting in place sensible policy changes any time soon are zilch. I vote we set John Carver on them.

Llambiarse was rightly critical too of the fact that we learned of the decision second-hand, via the media rather than the FA themselves, and also took the opportunity to attack Delusional Dave Whelan for his preposterous claims that it was "a fair challenge".

Mirror journalist and friend of JFK Simon Bird has suggested that, depending on the severity of Haidara's injury (on which there's been no fresh update), we may look into the possibility of legal action. There is a precedent for it - indeed, we know that only too well, having had to settle out of court following a very nasty challenge from Kevin Nolan on Everton's Victor Anichebe. That said, Bird did also confidently predict that McManaman would be hit with a three-game ban, so it might be worth taking the claim with a smidgen of salt.

Anyway, now that the FA have officially sanctioned violent assault and grievous bodily harm, the Mackems would be well advised to watch their kneecaps ahead of next month's meeting at St James' Park. Perhaps we should keep Mr T chained up in a darkened room and fed on nothing but Stella until then...

Let's leave the final word to Little Big Lad, writing on Facebook: "I so hope Wigan go down."

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Tuesday, March 19, 2013

England calling

Congratulations to Saylor who has, finally, been called up by Roy Hodgson to the current England squad. Having seen centre-halves drop like flies (or, in the case of Rio Ferdinand, complain for ages that he’s not being picked and then decline to turn up when he eventually is), Roy was left with little choice but to turn to our former England U21 captain.

Saylor’s prospects of making his senior debut for his country look reasonable, when you consider that the options in front of him are similarly inexperienced and in the majority of cases are short of game time this season. Hopefully he’ll enjoy the confidence boost and return reinvigorated (and still fit) for the games which lie ahead.

As one Newcastle player’s England career looks to begin, one of our old boys is calling time on his, with Little Saint Mick finally deciding to put himself out to stud at the end of the season. 

Of course, there are those who might suggest Owen stopped playing football a long time ago… 

Unable to force his way back into the England fold once Shteeve McLaren went Dutch, our one-time striker never managed to live up to the heights predicted when he emerged as a youngster who was widely expected to beat Bobby Charlton’s England scoring record.

As the list of goals/games in the BBC article illustrates, Owen's career never fulfilled the potential he showed at Liverpool, thanks in no small part to his appalling attitude when on Tyneside when he repeatedly put country before club to the detriment of all parties. 30 goals in 79 games over four years is frankly nothing but a pitiful return for a £17 million signing earning a ridiculous amount of money per week.

The fact that in a montage of career highlights, the Guardian completely glosses over the four years he was a paid employee of our club speaks volumes for the contribution made by our record signing.

Proud though he undoubtedly is at being called up by his country, I somehow don't think Saylor will make the same career choices.

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Quote of the day

"I think the ball was in between them, they've both gone for it fairly and the follow through is where the collision is."

So says Dave Whelan, Wigan chairman and Jabba-hater.

If he's gone for it fairly, that makes it OK that he fairly went through his knee with all his studs showing, does it Dave?

You'd think a man whose own playing career was curtailed by a bad challenge would perhaps feel some empathy for Massadio Haidara, but no, Whelan goes on to say:

"When I broke my leg in the cup final it was exactly the same type of tackle,...We both went for the ball. It brought back memories. It ruined my career. I am not going to criticise Norman Deeley."

That's spelled D-E-E-L-E-Y, whom he has completely forgiven, but whom he is nonetheless happy to mention in an article talking about a tackle which took place at the weekend, not fifty years ago.

The reality is, it was a terrible tackle. 

It isn't a question of whether or not the referee or linesman should have seen it and sent the player off; the simple fact is that the player should not have made the tackle in the first place. That he either didn't appreciate what he was doing was dangerous, or he knew full well and did it anyway, is the point. Football is a contact sport and sometimes accidents happen, but to go through someone's knee with your studs up shows a staggering disregard for your fellow professional's well-being. Whether that was through stupidity or malice only Callum McManaman will know, but apologists like Whelan should frankly learn to keep their mouths shut.

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Monday, March 18, 2013

Pain and no gain

Wigan 2 - 1 Newcastle Utd

The answer's no.

The question, in case you're wondering, is whether my seething resentment at the manner of yesterday's defeat to Wigan would fade given a bit of time.

Lapses and misjudgements by the officials cost us at least a point, and possibly even three, the incidents sufficiently controversial - and Callum McManaman's unpunished assault on Massadio Haidara sufficiently horrific - to elevate the match highlights to first place on Match Of The Day 2. It's worth noting, though, that beneath all the cries of injustice lies a sub-par performance against the side with the worst home record in the top four divisions.

As expected, Dreamboat was sidelined, replaced by Spidermag (who also inherited the captain's armband), but the Silver Fox was at least able to call upon Goofy and Mathieu Debuchy again. That said, the latter lasted only 13 minutes, during which he arguably looked our most potent forward threat, before tweaking his hamstring.

The same Latics XI that had comprehensively destroyed Everton in the FA Cup last week had picked up where they left off at Goodison Park, and it wasn't long before they had the lead. Debuchy's replacement Massadio Haidara was outpaced on the flank by Callum McManaman and when Davide Santon, switched to right-back in the reshuffle, fluffed his attempted clearance, Jean Beausejour had a simple chance which he tucked beyond Rob Elliot and Saylor on the line.

Could things get worse? Why yes they could. Haidara had only been on the pitch ten minutes when McManaman launched into a horrendous studs-up "tackle" that could have snapped the substitute's leg clean in half. In fairness to referee Mark Halsey, he had a Newcastle player running across his line of sight, but the linesman had no such excuse. A free kick was awarded, but only for the Wigan winger's subsequent deliberate handball. Neither offence was punished with a card of any colour, and while he'll face retrospective punishment in the form of a ban, that's of no consolation whatsoever to us or Haidara's knee.

And how we could have done with the deserved man advantage. The home side were neat and inventive in their passing, Shaun Maloney forcing Elliot into a sprawling save and only a desperate Spidermag lunge foiling James McCarthy after he'd burst through a non-existent central defence.

Saylor had headed powerfully straight at 'keeper Joel Robles from a Sylvain Marveaux corner prior to Debuchy's departure, but our only other opportunity came at the end of the first half when Papiss Cisse lashed wastefully over from close range when Haidara's replacement Perchinho was better placed. The fact that our highlight of the half was arguably a tidy bit of skill in midfield from Perchinho said it all.

By the time the half-time whistle came, the visiting bench had seen replays of the McManaman challenge and had had 25 minutes to stew over it. An apoplectic John Carver vented his fury at the culprit as he walked off the pitch, precipitating an almighty fracas involving coaching staff, stewards and police, Carver being restrained by Perchinho. Both he and his Latics counterpart Graham Barrow were sentenced to watching the second half from the stands.

The raw emotion, the sense of injustice and the fact that we were attacking the end populated by the magnificently vociferous away supporters spurred us into making a much improved start to the second period, applying pressure until Moussa Sissoko curled the ball wide of the far post. Marveaux began to exert a greater influence but we still looked vulnerable to Wigan's quick, fluid football, though, not least because Mr T was so busy concentrating on surrendering possession in dangerous areas that he forgot to pick up his customary booking. McManaman's continued presence on the pitch threatened to become an even sorer point, but MYM managed a vital block and he was withdrawn soon afterwards.

The full-back injuries had forced the Silver Fox's hand, so he had to use his one remaining substitution wisely - and he did. Big Lad was introduced together with a new system which saw us switch to three at the back, Santon pushing into midfield, and the change reaped almost immediate dividends. Loose play from the Latics allowed Cisse to flick a clever pass inside the full-back for the Italian, who steadied himself before finding the far corner for his long-awaited first Toon goal and thereby making amends for that earlier cock-up.

From that point there only really looked like being one winner, and Cisse came close to grabbing the decisive goal. Big Lad advanced onto a long ball before hitting a low early cross that our #9 toe-poked goalwards. Only Robles' foot kept it out, but typically the officials missed that and awarded a goal kick.

And then, of course, for the sucker punch. MYM's attempted clearance from a dangerous right-wing cross could have gone anywhere, but flew behind. The relief was short-lived, though, as an incredible melee from the ensuing corner ended with Arouna Kone lashing into the roof of the net from a yard out. After our late, late winners in the last two matches, we should have been well aware of the need to play right to the final whistle - but it certainly didn't help when the officials again failed to spot a blatant infringement, this time a handball flick-on by Maynor Figueroa to set up the scrum from which Kone scored.

The Silver Fox somehow maintained his dignity in his post-match comments, but you suspect (hope, perhaps) that Carver took out his frustrations on the away dressing room. The result ate into the cushion between us and the relegation zone, narrowing it to six points - not what we wanted when our next fixture is away to a Man City side who'll be desperate not to allow their cross-city rivals' coronation as champions to become a mathematical certainty. As for the Latics, the DW Stadium is arguably our unhappiest hunting ground in the Premier League and so from our perspective - and despite all the plaudits they're due for their attractive football and Roberto Martinez's managerial alchemy - the sooner they're relegated the better.

A Wigan fan's perspective: Jesus Was A Wiganer

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

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Best Buddies

While our first team was busy getting cheated out of a point (if not all three) at the DW Stadium, other Toon employees past and present were enjoying an equally eventful Sunday afternoon.

St Mirren's capture of the Scottish League Cup, their first silverware for more than 25 years, at the expense of Hearts owed a great deal to players borrowed from another side in black and white stripes south of the border. Left-back Paul Dummett supplied the assist for the Buddies' second goal, which swung the match in their favour for the first time, before fellow loanee Conor Newton rifled in what turned out to be the winner. A cup triumph in front of more than 44,000 people probably beats turning out for the Reserves each week.

There was less delight for the Silver Fox's predecessor Chris Hughton as his Norwich side travelled to the Dark Place. They were in the lead when goalkeeper Mark Bunn was harshly red-carded for handling outside the area, before old boy Sebastien Bassong was penalised for handling inside, despite Steven Fletcher being offside in the build-up. Craig Gardner scored the resulting penalty but the misfiring Mackems rarely looked likely to get a win and Hughton will be happy enough with a point in the circumstances.

Meanwhile, Saturday saw Jermaine Jenas grab his second goal in successive games on loan at QPR. The first helped defeat the Mackems at Loftus Road last week, and the latest gave 'Appy 'Arry's multi-million-pound mob the lead at Villa Park, but they couldn't hang on and remain deep in trouble.

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Saturday, March 16, 2013

Shane helps put Smogs to the sword

This afternoon's fixture between Middlesbrough and Birmingham pitted loanees Little Big Lad and Shane Ferguson against each other - and it was the latter who came out on top as the Blues continued their recent revival and prolonged the Smogs' slump. Little Big Lad had been withdrawn and was watching from the bench by the time Fergie swung in a cross from the left that Nikola Zigic knocked home for the only goal of the game. That was pretty much the Northern Irishman's last contribution, with Lee Clark choosing to replace him with fellow Toon old boy Stephen Caldwell for the remaining few minutes. Needless to say, the Little Waster didn't feature for the Smogs - injured or just tired, no doubt...

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Benfica - but no Ben Arfa

Yesterday's Europa League draw saw us paired with Benfica for the quarter-finals, with the first leg away from home - a somewhat more manageable and appealing trip than the last two. The Portuguese side reached this stage by disposing of our group stage opponents Bordeaux, winning both home and away. While we needn't fear anyone now, it was probably a relief not to be pitched up against either of the two English clubs - but Benfica are on an extremely good run of form and will be very tough adversaries all the same.

It's also looking very much as though we'll need to try getting through without the aid of HBA, whose season may be over. According to the Silver Fox, the Frenchman needs an operation on a hamstring injury. It's not as though we haven't had to cope with his absence before, given that he's made only two fleeting appearances - against Fulham and Anzhi - since November, and in the last two matches at least Sylvain Marveaux has supplied some of his left-footed guile and invention. Nevertheless, the Silver Fox is right in saying he "gives us that X-factor" and a prolonged spell on the sidelines is hardly very welcome when Dreamboat may be ruled out for a while too.

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Sunday stretch

Amazingly, it's been claimed that, in amongst allegedly committing various misdemeanours, the Lone Ranger is actually finding the time to play a bit of football. If it's true and he really is turning out for a Sunday League side on Tyneside, then you have to fear for his shins - there will be plenty of Toon-supporting opponents out there who are sufficiently aggrieved by his repeatedly taking the piss out of the club to seize any opportunity to maim him...

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Friday, March 15, 2013

The late even later show

Newcastle Utd 1 - 0 Anzhi Makhachkala

So Papiss Cisse seems to be making a very pleasant habit of scoring last-gasp winners in home games. The decisive strike against Stoke on Sunday may have come in the 90th minute, but last night he left it even later. A tense, finely balanced match was drifting into stoppage time at the end of stoppage time when he headed home the only goal of the game and indeed the tie to squeeze us through into the quarter-finals of the Europa League.

Goofy and Mathieu Debuchy resumed their watching brief, while the Silver Fox also chose to drop Spidermag to the bench. That meant starts for Vurnon Anita, Sylvain Marveaux and Massadio Haidara, the latter's inclusion resulting in Davide Santon switching flanks to the right.

Our Russian visitors began the match on the front foot, as though determined to give a much better account of themselves than they did on "home" turf a week earlier. Just three minutes had elapsed when captain Samuel Eto'o had his first clear sight of goal, dragging his shot across the face and behind. The supposed defensive shield in midfield of Anita and Mr T wasn't working, both players repeatedly bypassed or skinned by quick running and slick, incisive interchanges of passing from the men in yellow.

As a consequence, our back line was regularly put under pressure, but thankfully MYM was composure personified, making mopping up look easy, while Saylor was in the mood to launch himself into heroic blocks at every opportunity. Given his exclusion from the latest England squad, you wonder whether anyone will post a video of the game to Roy Hodgson - hopefully not, as we all know what usually tends to happen when Newcastle Utd players appear on international duty for England...

Our chances of success appeared to rest on Dreamboat's shoulders, who set about pulling the strings and pinging passes from a deep-lying midfield role, and who also had only only attempt on target in the first half, a shot which took a slight deflection but was very well saved at full stretch by Vladimir Gabulov. So it was a significant blow when he hobbled off with what looked like a recurrence of his groin problem. Spidermag was his replacement and suddenly we looked creatively bereft, our only other real efforts at goal coming from Marveaux (a fierce shot wide of the near post following some tricky footwork) and Saylor (a header that flew high and wide).

Not only that, but Dreamboat's departure also seemed to unsettle the defence, the previously assured MYM uncharacteristically passing the ball straight to an opposing forward and gifting them a good chance in much the same way that a dawdling Mr T had done earlier. While it was goalless at the interval, there was the feeling that Anzhi had been afforded too many sniffs of goal, and the suspicion that we'd been fortunate not to get punished.

In the dressing room the Silver Fox will have impressed upon the players the need to up their game, and up it they did. Inside the first ten minutes of the second period Moussa Sissoko had two chances to grab the lead but demonstrated that, despite his height, heading isn't exactly his forte, but the best opportunity fell to Saylor, who shot straight at the 'keeper from six yards out, albeit under pressure.

So we were already in the ascendancy when Mehdi Carcela-Gonzalez received a second yellow card (which should arguably have been a straight red) for a foul on Haidara. That should have been our cue to push on for victory, but the chances actually dried up somewhat, the closest we came being a left-footed drive from Mr T which whizzed just over the angle. It should also be acknowledged that Anita was lucky not to follow the Moroccan down the tunnel, only picking up a yellow for an almost identical nasty over-the-ball ankle-snapper.

With Big Lad named on the bench but still struggling for fitness, the Silver Fox withdrew Anita and turned to the diminutive Adam Campbell to provide added attacking threat, but it was Rob Elliot who was the busier 'keeper. First he had to repel Eto'o's drive from a seemingly impossible angle, and then he could only flap at thin air when, in the 88th minute, Mbark Boussoufa's free-kick rebounded off the bar. The ball brushed his arm on the way back down, but mercifully the touch took it away from goal rather than over the line.

With extra time looming, the stage was set for Cisse to go to work. Both frustrated and frustrating for most of the evening, the Senegalese came alive when Marveaux whipped one last cross into the box, directing a header past the helpless Gabulov and celebrating by committing an act of violence on the hoardings reminiscent of a certain bald Georgian loon. Given that Temuri Ketsbaia's winner, in a mundane league game against Crystal Palace, has entered Toon folklore, then you'd imagine that Cisse's certainly will too - especially if we continue our unlikely progression in this competition.

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

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Thursday, March 14, 2013

Best behaviour

It's not often that the misconduct of our fans draws more attention than that of our players, but, judging by the stern ticking-off and warning from head of security Steve Storey, the club are clearly getting a bit jumpy ahead of tonight's second-leg tie against Anzhi.

"We've never fallen foul where UEFA are concerned before this season. Our fans have rightly been recognised as exemplary and they have proven that it doesn't take items such as flares, which are banned, to make an incredible atmosphere.

Sadly, a small element has acted in a manner in previous rounds - and particularly in the last Europa League game here against Metalist - which has threatened to damage that reputation. Not only have they endangered safety, they've also made coming to the match very uncomfortable for law-abiding fans directly around them and spoilt it for the majority.

We're working hard to combat all types of antisocial behaviour in and around St. James' Park. It's simply not welcome and make no mistake; there will be bans for offenders and further action taken by the police."

So, best behaviour demanded - and with good reason, given that UEFA have already taken sanctions against Fenerbahce and Lazio on the same grounds.

Meanwhile, there have also been pre-match warnings for the Silver Fox - courtesy of Brendan Rodgers, whose Liverpool side came up against the Russians in the group stage. The Reds lost in Moscow but triumphed on home turf. Here's hoping we can put to good use all the knowledge gleaned from Rodgers and our own scouting reports and analysis.

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Arrested development

On the subject of misbehaviour, it's nice to see that having his contract cancelled has been the wake-up call the Lone Ranger needed to see the error of his ways and sort himself out. Let us be thankful for the fact that he's no longer our problem and this latest arrest no longer reflects badly on the club.

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Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Papiss poke slays Stoke

Newcastle Utd 2 – 1 Stoke City 

Three more points, secured in the dying moments by the boot of Papiss Cisse, were a satisfying end to an otherwise frustrating performance on Sunday as we increased the distance between ourselves and the relegation zone.

This win, which moves us on to 33 points, now means that the Silver Fox can afford to focus 100% on the Europa League, confident that we’ve got enough in the tank to pick up points over the remaining nine league games to retain our Premier League status.

Going into the match, we rotated the team from that which performed to great credit in Moscow, bringing in Cisse, Goofy, Spidermag, Mr T, Davide Santon and Mathieu Debuchy.  Completely absent from the matchday squad were HBA and Big Lad, presumably feeling the effects of the plastic pitch.

Unsurprisingly for a team who have been dismal away for much of this season, Stoke came to frustrate and get men behind the ball, leaving little space for our creative players to flourish. Our best chance of the first half fell to Goofy, only for him to lift the ball over the bar from seven yards out. At the other end, Santon was slightly fortunate to escape a tangle of legs with Ryan Shotton without censure (although claims for a penalty from Stoke boss Tony Pulis were fanciful given the contact was outside the penalty area).

In the second half, we continued to struggle to break down the away team, while Saylor and MYM looked to be doing a fine job of mastering the Stoke forward line.

Unfortunately, while otherwise enjoying a fine game, Mr T, having lost the ball upfield, took it upon himself to run half the length of the pitch to try and recover possession, only to completely upend Jonathan Walters in our box to give the visitors a penalty. Walters himself took the kick, and despite some recent poor form from the spot, sent Rob Elliot the wrong way to give Stoke an undeserved lead.

Back came Newcastle, with Moussa Sissoko’s storming run only stopped by a foul right on the edge of the Stoke area. Though Dreamboat’s attempt to move the ball slightly further back was prevented by referee Andre Marriner, our captain for the day nevertheless lifted the ball over the Stoke wall and into the Gallowgate net, via the crossbar.

With time running out, the Silver Fox opted to throw on young Adam Campbell for his Premier League debut, and one of his first touches was a pass to fellow substitute Sylvain Marveaux, whose pinpoint pass bisected the Stoke defence and found Cisse onside. He let the ball drop before calmly prodding it home to give us a very valuable victory.

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

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Friday, March 08, 2013

Anzhi, Anzhi, you can't say we never tried*

Anzhi Makhachkala 0 - 0 Newcastle Utd

All hail Perchinho and MYM. A tremendous defensive performance from our central defenders in particular saw us claim a second clean sheet in Eastern Europe in quick succession, though we couldn't quite nick the away goal that would have given us a significant advantage going into next week's second leg.

Not that a positive result seemed too likely when the teamsheet was announced. With skipper Sideshow Bob joining Tim Krul in the treatment room (possibly until May), Goofy and Mathieu Debuchy ineligible, Spidermag and virus-stricken Papiss Cisse left on Tyneside, and Davide Santon, Saylor and Mr T rested on the bench, the side had a distinctly unfamiliar look to it. Rob Elliot continued to deputise for the Dutchman between the sticks, with Danny Simpson and Massadio Haidara reprising their roles from the trip to Metalist Kharkiv in the full-back positions, either side of that central defensive pairing. Anchoring the midfield were Vurnon Anita and captain for the day Dreamboat, with Moussa Sissoko, Sylvain Marveaux, Obertan Kenobi and the returning HBA ahead of them.

The Silver Fox claimed he'd selected a "technical side" - which I suppose he had, if by that he meant one without a recognised striker (Big Lad, matchwinner in the last round, was kept in reserve owing to medical advice that the plastic pitch wouldn't be good for him). Still, I suppose it's worked for Barcelona at times this season, though you could argue the calibre of the personnel doesn't bear comparison...

The opening period saw some speculation as to whether it was Sissoko or birthday boy HBA who was nominally leading the line - it wasn't clear, though that shapelessness in the forward third was hardly matched at the back, where we set out to defend with discipline and resolve. There was some relief when, on a bobbly pitch, £35m Brazilian striker Willian picked up an injury following a well-timed intervention by MYM, but his departure actually threatened to prove the catalyst that would get the lethargic home side going.

Samuel Eto'o, whom we faced all those years ago playing for Real Mallorca in this competition, profited from the introduction of Mr T's international colleague Lacina Traore, as it meant he could drop a little deeper and find more space. On one such occasion he fired in the only meaningful effort of the half, hammering a shot that Elliot palmed upwards and, thankfully, over the bar and onto the roof of the net.

There was precious little else to report from the first period, other than the satisfaction of seeing our illustrious hosts put in a straightjacket by the Silver Fox's tactics and the performances of his players. Only Obertan Kenobi seemed not to have got the memo, consistently gifting the ball to those in yellow and then not bothering to try winning it back.

Even after the interval we maintained a vice-like grip on our opponents, the lanky Traore shackled superbly by Perchinho, who was busy outshining the two genuinely Brazilian central defenders in Anzhi's ranks. When Eto'o did get an opportunity to send a shot skidding towards goal, Elliot did brilliantly to push it behind for a corner, from which Oleg Shatov volleyed harmlessly wide.

Brazilian midfielder Jucilei had been a dominant force in the first half, but as his influence faded we started to look more threatening in forward areas. The best chance by some distance fell to HBA after some neat interplay, but his attempt to chip 'keeper Vladimir Gabulov, rather than drill the ball low and hard, was ill-judged and a sign of the inevitable rustiness that saw him replaced by Big Lad shortly afterwards.

Later there was a surging run and dipping shot from Anita, and Marveaux had an effort deflected behind for a corner, but we never quite showed sufficient courage to really push for that all-important away goal. Sissoko's energy was admirable but, like HBA, Marveaux and Obertan Kenobi (who did at least belatedly wake up), he often ran into defenders and was dispossessed, while we also suffered from poor decision-making with the final ball. Thankfully, though, Anzhi couldn't muster much either - only a dribbler from Eto'o that was never going to trouble Elliot.

So, zero goals to go with the sub-zero temperatures - the first time this European campaign that Anzhi have been denied three points at "home" or indeed prevented from scoring. Just a shame that only 70 Toon fans were present to witness it - one of whom, at least, had the additional joy of receiving Perchinho's shirt post-match as a thank you for standing around in the cold outside the team hotel in the hope of getting a glimpse of his heroes.

However, while we should be proud of the performance, it's worth remembering that many viewed our 0-0 first-leg home draw against Metalist as a positive result for us, as it denied our visitors an away goal. Anzhi may be a bit miffed at not continuing their winning streak, but will travel to Tyneside knowing that if they can score, they'll put us in a very difficult position.

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

* With apologies to the Rolling Stones...

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Wednesday, March 06, 2013

A Month Of Saturdays: February 2013

It never ceases to amaze me how quickly things can turn around for this unfathomably loveable, inestimably infuriating club of ours. Results-wise, January was as dark as night both literally and metaphorically, and yet that flurry of acquisitions from across the channel and the vital victory over Villa sent us coasting into February on a high. Chelsea and their sitting duck manager Rafa Benitez had the misfortune of rolling into Toon just as the French revolution was gathering pace, and blue-blooded Premier League royals were duly sacrificed to the delight of the baying hordes in the stands.

It could have been very different, of course, had referee Howard Webb awarded a penalty and perhaps even a red card for Sideshow Bob's innocent though ill-advised high foot. He didn't, though, and said boot's forceful collision with Demba Ba's mug brought the returning former idol's afternoon to a premature end. A shame that some saw fit to boo him - interviewed later in the month, Llambiarse was justified in his refusal to criticise the striker and his gratitude for the goals he contributed during his time on Tyneside.

Back to that pulsating match, though, and Spidermag gave us a half-time lead with a rare-as-hens'-teeth header. Even when 2-1 down to the reigning European champions early in the second period to two stupendous strikes from Frank Lampard and Juan Mata, we never panicked or hung our heads, instead buoyed by renewed self-belief and a home crowd as noisy and boisterous as any in recent memory.

Goofy certainly played his part in the comeback, breaking free and having a shot saved for the equaliser, but our undisputed hero was Moussa Sissoko, a man mountain and a vigorous driving force between midfield and attack, who ran opponents ragged with his incredible energy and grabbed the goals that secured the win. Sometimes you don't know what you're missing until it's gone - and sometimes you realise you didn't know what you were missing until it's in place. Hopefully Sissoko will be channelling the spirit of Patrick Vieira in black and white for some years to come.

Not that he's completely infallible, mind. Four days later he couldn't prevent a France side also containing club colleague Dreamboat from slipping to a friendly defeat to Germany, and neither could he help us to a hat-trick of Premier League wins at Spurs the following weekend. On that occasion our man of the moment was outshone by the one in the home team, two moments of lax defending handing Gareth Bale the opportunity to do that irritating heart celebration.

Bale's goals sandwiched a first Newcastle strike for Goofy, albeit with the aid of a deflection. 2-1 was a significant improvement from last year's 5-0, and we acquitted ourselves reasonably well, particularly in recovering from the initial deficit, but once Spurs had regained the lead, Tim Krul was called upon several times to keep the scoreline respectable and prevent Bale from having an automatic claim to the match ball.

During Llambiarse's interview with the Ronny Gill - which touched on everything from stability and responsible investment to an admission of being ill prepared for the rigours of European competition and the autumn injury crisis, having to accelerate summer signings and the club's rampant Gallophilia - he ventured to suggest that we'd already replaced Ba. A little premature, given that Goofy's still got a lot to prove - and in any case our main striker is Papiss Cisse, who continued to frustrate in front of goal despite being handed the central striking role.

The goalless first leg of our Europa League tie against Metalist was a case in point. With Goofy ineligible, the burden fell squarely onto Cisse's shoulders but he couldn't provide the winner our dominance deserved - though two very dubious offside flags certainly did him no favours. Preventing our visitors from snatching an away goal was pleasing, but they were tidy enough to suggest that they'd cause us serious problems on their own turf.

Or so we feared. As it turned out, an uncharacteristically controlled and composed performance in the Ukraine - during which we were watertight in defence and dynamic in attack - saw us through. The fact that it was a penalty - awarded following errors forced by Sissoko's persistence and scored, unerringly, by spot-kick specialist Big Lad - that did the trick shouldn't detract from the dominant display beforehand and the resolute rearguard action which followed. Massadio Haidara made his debut in trying circumstances, while Krul was exceptional.

Sadly, though, the Dutchman also picked up an injury that meant a Premier League debut for Rob Elliot against Southampton - one which didn't get off to the best of starts when Morgan Schneiderlin scored for the Saints just three minutes in. In what was a crucial clash against another side upon whom the threat of relegation is casting its shadow, we recovered to lead at the break through Sissoko's tap-in and Cisse's long-range spectacular (why, we wondered, could he do it from 30 yards but not three?).

Rickie Lambert equalised early in the second half but the Silver Fox wasn't to be denied finally getting one over on a former club. It was a substitution which swung it in our favour, but one made by Mauricio Pochettino. Danny Fox didn't have the best of times after coming off the bench, first literally handing us a penalty that Dreamboat tucked away on French Day and then whacking an attempted clearance off team-mate Jos Hooiveld and into the back of the Saints net. The win took us six points clear of the relegation zone - and, pleasingly, meant we finished the month restored to our rightful place above the Mackems.

February promised to be a big month for Curtis Good but turned sour, the Bradford loanee hauled off at half-time in the League Cup final as the Bantams were battered 5-0 by Swansea. Hopefully fellow loanee Brad Inman will have better luck when his Crewe side contest the Johnstone's Paint Trophy final later this season. Their passage to Wembley was hastened in significant part by the Aussie midfielder's brace at Coventry in the first leg of the semi-final at Coventry. Meanwhile, Little Big Lad was sent to Middlesbrough (tough luck, son) and Michael Richardson to League 2 leaders Gillingham, and no fewer than three Newcastle employees met in the game between St Johnstone and St Mirren, Mehdi Abeid claiming bragging rights over Conor Newton and Paul Dummett.

So much for players responding to their exclusion from the first team constructively. Our lot are hardly strangers to suffering a beating in Manchester, though not usually of the very physical sort dished out to drunk, gobby "football ace" Danny Simpson outside a takeaway in the early hours. Perhaps inevitably, the displaced right-back wasn't the only member of the squad to get themselves in trouble during February, with Mr T arrested on the vague charge of motoring fraud. If Northumbria Police are going to push for a custodial sentence, I wonder if they'll have taken into account the fact that he's already escaped from a maximum security stockade...

That Newcastle players seem to have a nose for naughtiness is nothing new, though February did see a few of the current squad reveal more commendable hidden talents. Steve Harper and Big Lad, for instance, were acclaimed as comic geniuses for their performances at a tribute evening in memory of Sir Bobby Robson, while Dreamboat guest-edited Le Journal, though this actually only really amounted to the wraparound front and back pages.

Nevertheless, the episode indicated that the Frenchman has a rather better relationship with local journalists than JFK, who - no doubt in a mental institution somewhere - can finally celebrate getting the recognition he deserves from his finest hour in charge at St James' Park. I wonder if it was a fellow in-patient who came up with the idea of having slides outside the ground?



Sammy off to a stormer

Well, look who's been watching HBA in training: Little Big Lad, who scored on his Smoggie debut on Saturday with a bit of twinkletoes magic and then a firm left-footed curler. The goal - as well as his general trickery and overall performance - had "Are you watching, Silver Fox?" written all over it. His current manager Tony Mowbray was understandably delighted, but he did also warn the loanee that he needs to work harder.

The Smogs' clash with Cardiff also reunited two noted members of our Noughties squad: the Little Waster, who gave the home side the lead by poking in from a yard for his first league goal in six years (and somehow avoiding breaking his toe in the process), and the No-Necked Text Pest, whose whipped corner was headed into the net by Aron Gunnarsson as the Championship leaders threatened a comeback they couldn't quite pull off.

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Quote of the day

"When everything's going well and you're scoring goals, you're the king of the town. You can drive at 340km/h, go to nightclubs, and no-one says anything. But as soon as things start going less well, tongues start to wag."

If his playboy braggadocio is anything to go by, we're even better off without Loic £emy than I thought.

Incidentally, he revealed in the same interview that he never actually wanted to leave Marseille in January, but found himself forced out against his will. Of course, there were then two choices: Newcastle or London, nightclubs and a sackload of cash...

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Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Late Liberty lament

Swansea 1 - 0 Newcastle Utd

A scrappy goal by Swans substitute Luke Moore was enough to condemn us to defeat in South Wales on Saturday, as our progress towards mid-table safety hit a buffer.

With Sideshow Bob ruled out with the back injury picked up last week, MYM was handed his first Premier League start for the club in an otherwise unchanged line-up.

For our players, it was a case of “Here’s what you could have won” as the teams ran past Swansea’s latest addition to their trophy cabinet before the match, with Dreamboat taking on the mantle of captain (probably in a foretaste of next season if Sideshow Bob does depart over the summer).

Despite hoping to catch the home side resting on their trophy-laden laurels, it was Newcastle who seemed a little slow out of the traps, allowing the home team too much time and space for much of the first half – with Saylor at times seemingly a modern reincarnation of Horatius single-handedly holding back the attacking forces, and on one such occasion hacking the ball clear from the goal line.

At half-time, though, we regrouped and began to press Swansea’s play, forcing them into mistakes, and with our greater physicality we took control of the midfield and with it the game.

The force now with us, Papiss Cisse fired over when well placed, Dreamboat saw a fierce dipping shot smash off the bar and Moussa Sissoko saw Michel Vorm tip his long range drive wide. As the game wore on, it looked a case of when, rather than if, we would get a winner, as the home side desperately hung on.

Gallingly, though, the breakthrough came against the run of play, with MYM and Davide Santon both challenging for a header and the ball breaking loose in our box. Saylor flung himself in front of it but the ball fell to Luke Moore, who stabbed it goalwards, possibly off the boot of the challenging Dreamboat, and it bobbled its way past Rob Elliot to give Swansea a somewhat undeserved winner.

The Silver Fox flung on Big Lad and Sylvain Marveaux at the death, but to no avail, and results elsewhere saw us drop a couple of places down the table.

Attention now turns to Anzhi on Thursday night, when we’ll need to be at our battling best if we’re to continue to harbour hopes of further progress in the Europa League.

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

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Friday, March 01, 2013

Fergie's got the Blues

Another loan departure, and this time it's Shane Ferguson off to try his luck in the Championship with struggling, cash-strapped Birmingham, where he'll be lining up with no fewer than four ex-Toon players (Darren Ambrose, Steve Caldwell, Peter Lovenkrands and captain Stephen Carr).

The move also reunites the Northern Irishman with Lee Clark, one of his first coaches upon arriving at St James' Park. The Blues manager has apparently been pursuing Fergie for a while now, and is hoping he'll hit the ground running: "I think he will be a big favourite with the supporters."

For his part, the winger is already talking about the possibility of the loan deal extending beyond this initial month. First things first, Fergie - get yourself in the team and then you can try to impress.

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Quote of the day

"Newcastle United can confirm that Nile Ranger has today left the Club by mutual consent."

A nicely brusque club statement announcing that the Lone Ranger now really is just that.

I could dwell on all of his various misadventures during his time with the club but, frankly, can't be bothered wasting any more time and effort on him other than to say the two words I've been waiting to say for a couple of years now: good riddance.