Thursday, May 30, 2013

Cashing in

So it seems we're not the only club to come under fire for checking our ethics at the door and leaping blindly into bed with a payday loan company. Following the news that Bolton's new sponsor is QuickQuid, a local MP and several fans have been swift in their condemnation, arguing that the move tarnishes the club's reputation while legitimising an industry described as exploitative. All of which should sound very familiar to regular readers of this site - and we haven't changed our perspective or softened our stance since then.

Incidentally, .com have reported that we're lining up a pre-season friendly against Blackpool and that it's surely no coincidence that we'll both have the Wonga logo emblazoned on the front of our shirts next season...

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Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Jumpin' Jak backed

No sooner had Paul ventured to suggest that the promise shown by Jak Alnwick might remove any need to bring in a replacement for the departed Steve Harper than Andy Woodman has expressed exactly that view.

The comments from the club's goalkeeping coach make for interesting reading: “I think you can always look at your squad in any department and want to strengthen, but there comes a point when you’ve got to look at what you’ve got and promote within. You’ve got to have belief in these young kids, that’s the point of producing them". On the one hand, yes, this sort of promotion and structure is essential for long-term sustainability - but on the other, the kids have to be good enough in the first place. Time will tell if Alnwick falls into that category, given that many other youngsters have promised much but ultimately failed to live up to expectations in recent years.

Also, is it just me or do Woodman's words appear to prepare the ground for (and justify) a summer marked by minimal investment and few acquisitions?

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Quote of the day

"We don't want to have the same experience as Newcastle for example. He told the board and the chairman that [Swansea] need a very good squad this year."

Bayram Tutumulu on his client Michael Laudrup, set to remain as manager of the Europa League-bound Swans. Good to know that we've become a cautionary tale, isn't it?

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Titus turned loose

The new season may still be more than two months away, but one thing's already for certain: sadly we can no longer count on Agent Bramble to continue wreaking havoc down the road, now that he's taken his oversized posterior and waddled off into the sunset. If Sideshow Bob leaves, we'll definitely be in the market for a central defender. Nope, doesn't bear thinking about...

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Friday, May 24, 2013

View from the Home End: Where do we go from here?

With the club yesterday confirming their commitment to stability and a collective rolling-up of sleeves to ensure our return to a top ten finish next season, the question for all is what to do over the summer. 

As Ben has already highlighted, last year we opted to stick with what we had, with the sole addition of Vurnon Anita. Evidently that policy, combined with our increased workload, failed to pay dividends. However, without the burden of European football, and following a large influx of players in January, are we likely to add a significant number of employees to the payroll? 

From a playing point of view, Steve Harper and Danny Simpson are off to pastures new. With Rob Elliot firmly established as Tim Krul’s understudy and with Jak Alnwick waiting in the wings, I suspect that we’ll be unlikely to add a like-for-like replacement for Harper. 

Similarly, with Mathieu Debuchy established as our first-choice right-back (and in the expectation that he’ll start to settle down) there is a vacancy for reserve right-back. That hole is one which Perchinho, Vurnon Anita, Davide Santon and James Tavernier are all capable of filling and on that basis I doubt we’ll be in the market for a right-back. 

Assuming Santon stays put, we have left-back cover in the form of Massadio Haidara and Spidermag if necessary (and Shane Ferguson too, although more about him later). 

At centre-half, the big question to resolve is the future of Sideshow Bob. Purely on a playing front, our alarming dip in form when he injured his back last season shows his importance to the team, with Saylor and MYM yet to convince as a pairing. If he is to return to Argentina (and I expect that’s a theme which will run throughout the summer), then we'll need a replacement and one which might require us to go outside our normal recruitment strategy and instead add an experienced head with a reduced resale value. 

On the back-up list, Perchinho is again available to fill in, as is Mike Williamson, although given the latter’s drop down the pecking order I would expect him to be moved on over the summer, probably to one of the newly promoted Premier League teams or a side with ambitions to get promotion from the Championship. If Williamson is to leave, then a further understudy at centre-half would be nice. 

In midfield, the question remains over whether we’ll be able to keep hold of our star players (even if at times last year they didn’t sparkle nearly often enough), and without wishing to be too pessimistic I’ll be very pleasantly surprised if both Dreamboat and HBA remain with us on 1st September.

With Master T and Sylvain Marveaux both, at times, doing much to advance their causes last year our midfield reserves don’t look too bad, although the Silver Fox still needs to find an effective way of deploying them and at times we’ve looked devoid of inspiration. To that end, a new creative player/winger would certainly be a good move to replace the hopefully soon-departing Obertan Kenobi. Equally, time may have run out for Shane Ferguson to show his long-term future lies with the club, and given his erratic performances last year Sammy Ameobi may find he’s also cleared his locker for pastures new before the summer is over. 

Up front, the most important job is undoubtedly to sit Papiss Cisse down and explain the merits of being onside (albeit he was wrongly penalised on a number of occasions last season). Similarly, with Big Lad’s contract entering its last year, and with doubts that it’ll be further extended, he may find he’s on his way. That would leave Goofy and Adam Campbell as back-up for Cisse and as such a new striker (to effectively replace the void left by Demba Ba) is a necessity. If Big Lad does go, then two new strikers wouldn’t go amiss. 

So to summarise, as a minimum I think we need a centre-half, a winger and a striker, although further replacements may be needed if and when players are sold. 

One of the reasons we did so well in 2011-2 was the amount of time the Silver Fox spent drilling the back four. Clearly, the demands of Europe meant that training time was lost last year, and indeed placed a greater burden on his time. As such, I wouldn’t be surprised to see us look to bolster our backroom staff to help share the burden and bring some fresh ideas.

It could be a very busy summer on Tyneside this year. If it's as quiet as last year, then it would suggest lessons haven't been heeded and next year's prognosis could be very grim indeed.



Thursday, May 23, 2013

View From The Home End: end of season reflections

Every year on Black & White & Read All Over, prior to the big kick-off, we assess our rivals before then assessing Newcastle's prospects and predicting how we'll fare. And every year we discover we're almost spot on about our opponents over the forthcoming campaign - but, for whatever reason, are almost always hopelessly wide of the mark when it comes to our own standing.

Back in August, off the back of a tremendous season which had concluded in a wholly unexpected fifth-place finish, Paul had us to end up in seventh this time around. While I might have erred slightly more on the side of caution, perhaps influenced by the Silver Fox's pre-season attempts to not so much dampen as pour cold water on any excited optimism, I'd still have thought that finishing outside the top half would be unthinkable. And yet, as is so often the way with Newcastle, the unthinkable duly became reality and we ended up limping home in 16th. If there's any consolation, it's that our league performance has utterly confounded the pundits on both occasions too.

If 2011/2 was a case of where did everything go right, then 2012/3 was most definitely the exact opposite, a perfect storm that came perilously close to leaving the good ship Newcastle Utd once again marooned in the Championship. Time to pick over the bones of a campaign we're only too glad to see the back of.

Just what the doctor didn't order

Cast your mind back to August. Raylor and Haris Vuckic both started the season in reasonable form, scoring in the away and home legs respectively of the Europa League qualifying tie against Greek outfit Atromitos that secured our passage into the group stage. By early October, though, both had been ruled out through injury for the whole campaign (Raylor since breaking down again during his rehabilitation and facing another year out) and the pattern had been set for the season.

No one was spared a place on the casualty list, which at times must have been almost as long as the list of available players from which the Silver Fox could choose. No sooner would one much-missed first-team regular return to action than two others would pick up knocks or strains. The club's medical team must have been working as furiously as Taggart's jaw masticating gum in the 95th minute with the score at 0-1. It wouldn't come as much of a surprise to learn that we'd been cursed by an old crone in a Mackem shirt.

Form is indeed temporary

Time and again over the course of the campaign we found ourselves clinging to the faint hope that the return to fitness of one player or another would be the essential catalyst we needed to raise our game, accelerate away from trouble and start roughly resembling the side that swept away so much before it last season. It never happened. The desperately poor form of the team collectively was matched by the desperately poor form of our key men individually, only thrown into relief by the consistently high levels to which everyone performed last time around.

HBA, who had dazzled defences on a regular basis as we cruised to fifth place, all too often failed to supply the creative spark we needed from him - an extraordinary early thunderbolt to salvage a point at home to Villa aside. Papiss Cisse, a revelation in the second half of the previous season, may have improved as the campaign wore on, notching last-minute winners at home to West Brom, Stoke and Fulham that gained us the precious points that ultimately preserved our Premier League status - but he was also a continual source of frustration with his failure to score unless presented with numerous opportunities, his inability to comprehend the offside rule (even if he had five legitimate goals ruled out by an incorrect flag) and his temper tantrum at being substituted against QPR.

Most alarming, though, was the form of the two midfielders on which last season's success was founded. Dreamboat had his moments - scoring at Anfield for the second year in a row, for instance, and supplying some delightful assists for Demba Ba - but his overall contribution to games was poor and he frequently cut a dejected, sullen figure, hardly earmarking himself for captaincy in the future. Whether just fatigued or actually depressed (as he claimed) by the experience of Euro 2012, we can only hope that the hangover has fully cleared by the time we kick off again.

Worse still, though, was Mr T. Formerly an athletic and usefully aggressive enforcer protecting the back four for whom a £20m price tag seemed realistic, he suddenly looked like he'd been forcefed drugged milk, shambling around giving away possession cheaply and collecting yellow cards like they were going out of fashion. When the calamity magnet wasn't costing us maximum points by getting himself sent off at the Dark Place, he was falling foul of the boys in blue on a charge of motoring fraud. I never thought I'd say it, but it was almost a relief to be rid of him for the duration of the African Cup of Nations.

So, with our backbone so out of sorts, did the fringe players step up? The answer was a resounding no. Obertan Kenobi offered a couple of Europa League cameos, Perchinho and Mike Williamson reverted to form as Championship-standard try-hards, Little Big Lad flattered to deceive before getting packed off to Smogside on loan, and Dan Gosling and Romain Amalfitano were nowhere to be seen.

Only a small handful of players could actually be considered to have impressed - Rob Elliot, perhaps, deputising for Tim Krul ahead of the now departed Steve Harper; Sideshow Bob, when clear of injury and with his wantaway wobble behind him; Sylvain Marveaux, who offered a reasonable approximation of HBA's craft and creativity in his compatriot's absence.

Thursdays, bloody Thursdays

The consensus (among neutrals, at least) seems to be that our European involvement was largely to blame for our misfortunes, but I remain unconvinced. After all, Thursday nights gave us regular respite from the travails of the league and the opportunity to blood fringe players, as well as the additional confidence that an impressive run of clean sheets brings. That said, while few of our injuries could be traced directly to Europa League games, there seems little doubt that the extra fixtures did stretch and fatigue an already thin squad.

To buy or not to buy, that was the question

Speaking in August about the lack of summer signings, the Silver Fox claimed that patience was a virtue and that he wasn't interested in panic buys: "I'm relaxed as these guys did a great job last year and I'd have no problem picking from the group we have now". As it turned out, of course, he was deprived of that luxury by the injury curse, and made to look even more complacent by failing to account for key individuals' loss of form and the fact that all of our rivals and indeed those in mid-table took the opportunity to strengthen significantly. Fixated on the mantra "What we have, we hold", Ba in particular, we neglected acquisitions, adding only Vurnon Anita to the first-team squad.

By December the club hierarchy were openly admitting the error of their ways, and by the end of January had taken decisive action to right wrongs. No fewer than five players were brought in from across the channel, and when the team was duly inspired into recording back-to-back victories against Villa and Chelsea there was feverish, excited talk of a French Revolution.

That impetus didn't last, though, and I think it's fair to say that all five Frenchmen still have something to prove. Moussa Sissoko was the toast of Tyneside and hailed as an absolute bargain when his surging, tireless runs propelled us to the victory over Chelsea, but he faded thereafter, becoming increasingly jaded and peripheral. Mathieu Debuchy has thus far done little to suggest he's the marked improvement on the departing Danny Simpson that we were led to believe, and has an impetuous streak that earned him a stupid red card against Liverpool. MYM has looked wonderfully assured at times but is always liable to make a costly mistake - remind you of anyone else from our recent past? Massadio Haidara made a decent enough impression on his initial European outings, earned sympathy following the assault by Callum McManaman in that now infamous defeat at Wigan and then turned in a horrendous display against Liverpool that saw him omitted for the final few matches. Of the five, it's the unheralded Goofy who's had the greatest impact, scoring a vital goal at the Hawthorns and an even more vital winner at Loftus Road that ensured we escaped the drop.

Even still, he could hardly hope to fill the sizeable boots of the player unwisely selected to be Mr January in our 2013 club calendar, who was sold to Chelsea when the year was still just a few days old. Realistically, we were powerless to prevent Ba's departure for Stamford Bridge, but it did almost prove fatally costly, which it needn't have done had we used the rest of the month to source and buy a suitable replacement.

Managing to make a meal of things

As our flirtation with relegation wore on, threatening to become a full-blown affair, many fans' fingers started to point accusatorily in one direction. We've been very restrained on this site in not unduly criticising the man in the hot seat, for the simple reason that, as I've been arguing, the factors behind our failings have been legion. Just as the Silver Fox didn't deserve all the credit for our success last season, neither should he be held solely accountable for what's gone wrong this term.

That said, the Silver Fox certainly doesn't look quite so crafty now as he did twelve months ago, or even in September, when Jabba handed him and his staff eight-year deals. Perhaps he's not the magical man-manager we thought he was after all, able to wring the very best out of his players - indeed, at times he didn't seem to know how to make use of what limited resources he did have at his disposal, shoving square pegs into round holes and hoping it might work out. Add to that his apparent abandonment of aesthetically pleasing football, his bemusing persistence with underperforming players (Spidermag and Mr T in particular) and some increasingly puzzling substitutions, and it's little wonder that many fans are calling for the head of a man who kicked off the campaign by shoving an assistant referee and who ended it by banning a newspaper from the club. We're not joining that chorus just yet, but would say that he has a lot of work to do to rebuild public trust.

Home and away

Of all the statistics you could bring into play, one of the most revealing is that we won only two games away from home all season - the first coming at the tail end of January at fellow strugglers Villa, and the second in our final trip on the road against already relegated QPR. But for exceedingly narrow escapes at Everton and Reading in September - when we profited from two disallowed goals and Ba's hand of God respectively - our away record would make for even worse reading.

All that wouldn't have mattered so much had our home form been decent - but sadly it wasn't.
There were lacklustre defeats to West Ham and Swansea on consecutive Saturdays in November, and in January a helping hand offered to Reading, prior to their visit to St James' Park the only other team in the division not to have won on their travels. Even when we looked to have put things right with four consecutive victories on home turf, we then contrived to lose 3-0 to the Mackems (the impact of which was, thankfully, mitigated personally by a new arrival) and, even more appallingly, 6-0 to Liverpool. Factor in Sunday's 1-0 defeat to Arsenal and we lost our last three home games by scoring none and conceding ten...

* * * * *

Of course, it wouldn't have been Newcastle Utd if the season hadn't been regularly punctuated with tales of tragedy, misfortune, idiocy and farce. 2012/3 had the lot: exits from both the FA Cup and the League Cup at the very first hurdle; former players Kevin Nolan and Damien Duff both proving architects of our downfall; withering, belittling scorn courtesy of a knight of the realm; news of an ethically questionable shirt sponsorship deal; the latest installments in the ongoing adventures of the Lone Ranger - a guilty verdict, a ticking-off for training tardiness, release (at last), another arrest; fans behaving equally as badly before the ill-fated Wigan clash and after the derby disaster; an I'm A Celebrity ... Get Me Out Of Here! theme day and a One Direction visit down at the training ground; club-branded onesies and fancy dress...

There were a few highs, admittedly: the consecutive wins over Villa and Chelsea that, together with the influx of fresh faces, suggested that a corner had been turned; those dramatic late victories against Stoke and Fulham secured by Cisse; the later stages of our European campaign, particularly the home win over Anzhi Makhachkala and the gargantuan second-half effort against Benfica in the quarter-final.

But those highs were far outweighed by the lows: losing at home to Reading; soul-crushing defeats at Old Trafford and the Emirates four days apart over the festive period, all the more galling for the fact that we genuinely played well; Wigan away; the cataclysmic home losses to 5under1and and Liverpool. Even the victory over QPR that ensured our safety was a joyless affair, the final whistle greeted with a sense of exhausted relief rather than a fist punch in the air.

So how to assess the last two campaigns together, then? Have they both been freakish, just in very different ways? Are we actually a solid mid-table team in very good disguise? Perhaps next season will give us some kind of clue. There's clearly much to be done before then, though - but I'll leave it to Paul to outline a vision of what might (or needs to) happen over the summer.

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Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Thank goodness that's over

Newcastle Utd 0 – 1 Arsenal 

With recent results rendering us safe, from our point of view the only thing remaining to be decided on Sunday was our eventual resting place amongst the also-rans (albeit with a hefty bonus on the line for the non-playing staff). For our guests, however, their place at the top table of Champions League football was under threat from Gareth Bale and co and as such the prospects of our rousing ourselves sufficiently to win the match always looked doubtful.

With Spurs playing 5under1and, it was safe to assume that they’d get the points needed, which meant Arsenal had to go for the win, so it was no surprise to see Arsene Wenger gambling on the fitness of Mikel Arteta in his midfield.

For us, with Rob Elliot suspended and Tim Krul injured, it was an opportunity for captain-for-the-day Steve Harper to play his final game in front of a full house, as the curtain drew on twenty years of loyal service.

Having shipped nine goals at home without reply in our previous two home games, it was pleasantly surprising to see us start well and look to not only get on the front foot, but also looking solid at the back (no doubt thanks to the continuing reassuring presence of Sideshow Bob in the ranks). Our first decent chance came as MYM burst forward down the left, leaving countryman Bacary Sagna languishing in his wake, as he crossed for Papiss Cisse. Unfortunately Cisse’s shot sailed high over the bar, but it at least signalled our intention to attack.

At the other end, Harper was largely kicking his heels until the 37th minute when the entire ground (including the Arsenal keeper) rose in applause to salute our departing keeper and leaving him wiping a tear from his eye. Harps himself had further reason to be misty-eyed moments later when he stopped an offside shot with his bollocks.

Our only other chance of note in the first half came as HBA cut inside his marker only to send his shot over the bar.

Goalless at half-time, we were unchanged for the second half. Arsenal, having lost Arteta to injury before the break, continued to press for their much-needed goal and when Dreamboat was adjudged to have fouled Theo Walcott, the one-time Southampton youngster’s free-kick was headed on by Per Mertersacker before dropping to his defensive partner Lorent Koscielny, who lost Sideshow Bob and was able to volley the ball into the net, via Harper’s face.

With our attempts to get back on terms proving toothless, the Silver Fox emptied the bench, throwing on Vurnon Anita for Dreamboat, Sylvain Marveaux for Goofy and lastly Adam Campbell for MYM, but to no avail. The best chance of another goal fell to Walcott, who broke through on goal only to see his shot ricochet off the post.

At the end, Arsenal celebrated as if they’d won the league, while we embarked on a lap of the pitch, led by Harper and his kids, as others such as Danny Simpson also bade farewell. How many more of those also circling the pitch were waving goodbye remains to be seen.

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

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Saturday, May 18, 2013

We are the champions!

Always nice to see us top of the league. In this case, the league in question is the Premier League Travel Table, which sees Newcastle rightly lauded for promoting the use of public transport as a means of getting to St James' Park.

Interestingly, and despite access to the same transport network, 5under1and finish in mid-table, while anyone who has made the slog to the Madejski Stadium will understand why Reading are bottom of the pile and are joined in the relegation zone by QPR and Manure. (Presumably the costs of commuting from Kent to Old Trafford every week to see the champions counted against them.)

The full report can be found here.

Friday, May 17, 2013

To ban or not to ban, that is the question

When it was reported - primarily in the Torygraph, by their North-East football correspondent and former Journal hack Luke Edwards - that the Newcastle dressing room was split asunder, with relations between a French clique and other players having broken down, the story had the ring of truth about it. After all, that all was not well was readily suggested by the on-pitch evidence. But was it actually just a convenient narrative for the media to spin out, believable but with little or no basis in reality?

The club's response to the story was firm - first a refutation of the reports, delivered by Papiss Cisse and Mr T, and then a letter threatening the Torygraph with legal action and a St James' Park ban for its journalists, including Edwards.

The strength of this response doesn't necessarily indicate that the rumours were false, of course; what it does show is that the club acknowledged the gravity of the situation and that something needed to be done to refute the allegations immediately and unequivocally. Toiling away as we were towards the foot of the table, with confidence shot and relegation a distinct possibility, such a story could only inflict further damage if it was allowed to fester. It seemed like we were being kicked while we were down. Even in his interview after the QPR game, when he should have been expressing relief (if not delight), the Silver Fox couldn't resist taking a swipe at journalists who he claimed would be "crying into their beer" at the club's survival.

All of which makes this blog post on the subject by Channel 4 news anchor and self-professed Newcastle fan Alex Thomson an interesting read. He overstates the point - self-consciously, you'd hope - in comparing clubs that ban or gag journalists to despotic and authoritarian political regimes, and talks about such clubs doing so "with impunity". What he doesn't acknowledge is that it currently cuts both ways - hacks often act with apparent impunity too. If the club genuinely felt that Edwards was trotting out scurrilous rumour with no basis in fact, would they not be justified in taking decisive action, particularly given the sensitivity of the context and the timing of the story's publication? Would it really be petulant, childish behaviour to react as they did in those circumstances? I'd venture not.

But - and it's a big but - it's worth making clear that to take this view would be to cast doubt on the integrity of a journalist who has been in and around the club for years and who has insisted everything was properly sourced. While the story may have been damaging to the club, particularly given its predicament at the time, Edwards can't be accused of professional irresponsibility as a result, if it was indeed true. On the contrary, it's his job to report on goings-on, even if the club would prefer that those goings-on were kept in-house rather than splashed all over the back pages.

So where does that leave me? In the somewhat uncomfortable position of wanting to side with the club's stance in the hope (rather than the cast-iron knowledge) that the reports were nonsense, while at the same time fearing that there may have been some truth to them - in which case I can agree with Thomson that the ban is at best petty and at worst cynical.

The Mirror's Simon Bird has suggested that the Silver Fox's attacks on the local media have been motivated primarily by a desire to deflect negative attention away from the players and himself - probably the case whether the rumours of dressing room splits are true or not - and has accused him of ingratitude, for forgetting the way in which his achievements last season were lauded. Bird, of course, knows a thing or two about falling foul of a Newcastle manager's ire himself, having turned up to a press conference and had one call him a "cunt"...

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Thursday, May 16, 2013

Quote of the day

"SportsDirect News wishes to express its sincere apologies to Wayne Rooney and Triple S Sports & Entertainment Group for publishing the article 'Newcastle in shock Rooney bid', which was formulated and published without authority, merit and is untrue."

A swift and unequivocal apology from SportsDirect News for yesterday's story, which had Toon fans wondering whether it was either 1st April or 2004 all over again. In reality, it was neither. One can only speculate as to whether the "journalist" involved has this morning been handed his P45 or a sizeable bonus for driving a huge amount of additional traffic to the site...

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Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Bring out the bunting, Wigan are down

Satisfying as it would have been to have seen the Mackems and their mentalist of a manager relegated, particularly in light of events on 14th April, it was never likely once Wigan lost at home to Swansea last week, and the newly crowned FA Cup winners' slide through the trapdoor was confirmed by last night's pummelling at Arsenal.

While the media will no doubt eulogise their silky football and plucky determination, you won't find anyone in Newcastle prepared to shed a tear - not after that succession of miserable away defeats early in their Premier League tenure, Delusional Dave Whelan's frequent pronouncements about our club and, of course, this season's extremely controversial defeat and Callum McManaman's unpunished assault on Massadio Haidara. Last night was all the sweeter for the fact that McManaman, man of the match in the FA Cup final, was stretchered off injured.

Enjoy life in the Championship (and in all likelihood without Roberto Martinez), Dave. We'll take Arouna Kone and Shaun Maloney off your hands, if you're offering.

The result also means that Arsenal's bid for Champions League qualification remains in their own hands ahead of their now televised trip to St James' Park on Sunday - they're one point ahead of Spurs and have a significantly better goal difference so only need to match their north London rivals' result. That said, given Spurs are at home to the Mackems we could still find the Gunners in the mood for a Liverpool-esque demolition job.

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A score and no more

Thanks to .com for alerting us to the Football Supporters' Federation's Twenty's Plenty campaign, which calls for a cap of £20 on tickets for away fans. It's a campaign we're more than pleased to support. After all, fans - and particularly those prepared to travel the length and breadth of the country in support of their team - are the lifeblood of football. Their loyalty should be acknowledged and respected rather than cynically exploited.

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Super-surgeon on the case

So Raylor has become the latest in a long list of Newcastle players to be sent to the US for treatment by regular career-saver Richard Steadman. By now he should be considered an integral member of the club's medical team...



Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Quote of the day

"I know people will have picked up on my comments about not caring about the result against Arsenal, which were, of course, a joke. It is definitely not the case that I would be happy for us to lose 4-0 against Arsenal on Sunday. I simply want our players and fans to be able to enjoy the game without looking over their shoulders. Even though we are now safe, we will be putting in the same effort that we would for any other Premier League game. Our last two results at St James' Park - against Sunderland and Liverpool - have been nowhere near good enough, and Sunday gives us the chance to put that right. We want to end the season on a positive, to finish in as high a position as possible and to give the fans something to cheer about on the final day of what has been a frustrating season."

Oh yes, "of course" they were a "joke", Silver Fox...

In fairness, after a draining and stressful season and drunk on the sheer relief of Sunday's vital victory over QPR, I think he can be excused his off-the-cuff remark without having to resort to dishonest excuses. All the same, in the cold light of day I'm sure it certainly didn't look very funny or clever to his employer, just as it didn't to St James' Park season ticket holders. Or, for that matter, Spurs fans who are still hoping we can do them a big favour in the race for the final Champions League spot.

Realistically, though, I suspect a tonking is indeed on the cards - we've picked up more injuries, look completely spent and are up against a superior side who will be hungry for points.



Monday, May 13, 2013

Aaaaaand relax

QPR 1 - 2 Newcastle Utd

Swansea and Chelsea had written the script for us and while we may have tried our hardest to do what comes naturally and fluff our lines, conceding an early penalty and later getting a man sent off, ultimately we couldn't fail to beat QPR, picking up the three points required to guarantee we wouldn't be joining the hapless Hoops in the Championship next season.

The most instrumental and influential players in our successful bid for survival haven't been those in black and white stripes: first the excellently named Dwight Tiendalli, then "Super" Frankie Lampard, and finally Jose Bosingwa , a man who yesterday couldn't have turned in a more clownish performance if he'd been wearing massive shoes and a squirty flower.

With Saylor missing (presumably injured), Mike Williamson was somewhat surprisingly picked as his deputy, the Silver Fox overlooking Perchinho. Our only other change was also in defence, where the suspension-free Mathieu Debuchy can consider himself exceedingly fortunate to waltz back in despite his schoolboy-like and ill-disciplined display against Liverpool and understudy Danny Simpson's solid performance in achieving the clean sheet at West Ham.

For his part, 'Appy 'Arry looked set to inflict serious pain on us once again by not only selecting a dreaded old boy in the shape of Jermaine Jenas but also Loic £emy, and typically it was the mercenary striker who drew first blood. Debuchy tugged Junior Hoilett's shirt and then made a slightly clumsy challenge on the lively QPR forward, but neither offence took place in the area - so when referee Lee Probert prodded his digit in the direction of the penalty spot we could scarcely believe our misfortune. £emy sent Rob Elliot the wrong way and our backs were immediately against the wall.

Thankfully, though, Portuguese full back Bosingwa - a hate figure at Loftus Road - soon intervened to even things up. He had actually made himself a nuisance earlier, denying Dreamboat a goal with a block, but then remembered his designated role as QPR's self-destruct button and attempted to swap shirts with HBA in the home side's penalty area. 'Arry may have moaned that it was a soft decision, but it was as blatant a foul as you'll see. HBA himself took the spot-kick, lashing home via the underside of the crossbar in a fashion that briefly had hearts in mouths.

Both sides then had presentable opportunities to forge ahead, Hoilett foiled by Elliot and Cisse by the linesman's flag - not for the first time this season, though on this occasion the officials were right to rule out his excellent header from Debuchy's right-wing cross.

Given the extraordinarily brittle nature of the two defences on display, it was only a matter of time before a calamitous cock-up took place, and mercifully it was to our benefit rather than our detriment. Rob Green rolled the ball out to Bosingwa, who rolled it back with less pace to his 'keeper. The latter's hurried and deflected clearance, under pressure from Spidermag, fell perfectly for Goofy to knock into the unguarded net from distance.

Bosingwa, like Stephane Mbia, was put out of his misery at half-time, much to our disappointment - but we remained in command after the interval, even when Mr T had to be replaced by Perchinho (a dubious choice when the Silver Fox once again had Vurnon Anita at his disposal). Spidermag had a header cleared off the line following more calamitous home defending and one-time Toon target Hoilett continued to carry a threat, but chances were at a premium and we were strolling towards victory when, with less than ten minutes remaining, potential disaster struck.

Elliot had already picked up a needless booking for booting the ball away after Probert's whistle had blown and was then left trudging off the pitch when adjudged to have handled outside his box. A furious Silver Fox disputed whether the incident took place outside or inside the area - as far as I could tell, his feet definitely strayed out but it didn't look as though the whole of the ball was carried over the line.

That meant a surprise appearance for Steve Harper, at the expense of HBA, and an extremely nervy finale in which Bobby Zamora and Andros Townsend both had efforts that had us momentarily terrified but then sighing with relief. We made it through to what was just our second away victory of the campaign, though, and with it Premier League safety. With 5under1and held to a 1-1 draw at home to Southampton, we're suddenly rooting for Wigan to capitalise on the momentum of their against-the-odds FA Cup triumph and beat both Arsenal and Villa this coming week, and for Spurs to continue their pursuit of Champions League football and deliver the Mackems a knockout blow at White Hart Lane on Sunday.

No doubt the recriminations and post-mortem inquest into how a top-five side can only escape relegation on the penultimate weekend of the following season will begin in earnest soon. For now, though, let's just take a deep breath and savour the fact that we won't be having to dig out the maps to find our way to Doncaster and Bournemouth next year, at least.

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

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Wednesday, May 08, 2013

SAF off

Taggart has finally called time on his managerial tenure at Manure today, signalling his intention to depart for a life of pointing at his watch and chewing gum while his wife potters her way around Morrisons filling the trolley with Tennants Super.

Much as I have loathed his whining, his petty spats with the press and his constant haranguing of officials, equally I've now reached a stage where behind all the dislikes there remains a grudging respect. He's achieved a lot, and for that he has been deservedly lauded.

I still can't forgive him for causing Keegan to crack as our quest to win the title in the 90s imploded though.

Of course, having signalled his intention to go in a couple of weeks, any successor presumably will need to account for him still sitting at his desk at the end of June...



Diolch Dwight!

Dwight Tiendalli - a name to join the likes of David Kelly, Liam O'Brien, Craig Bellamy and others whose goals have, at one time or another, come to signify something more than just another goal in our cause.

The fact that Tiendalli's goal came for a Swansea side safely ensconced in mid-table against a Wigan side in form and scrapping for their Premier League survival made last night's Swans win all the more surprising and no less welcome for that fact.

So, Dwight, thank you!

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Little by little

West Ham Utd 0 - 0 Newcastle Utd

It's funny. At lunchtime on Saturday, if you'd offered me this result, I'd probably have taken it. A point away from home against a team who have only lost once on their own turf all season would, in the scheme of our relegation struggles, appear a point gained.

At five o'clock, results elsewhere (notably Wigan's win) meant that our solitary point left us looking at the table willing the results of 5under1and's game against Stoke and Wigan's game against Swansea to go our way, but fearing that by the time we kick off our next game we could be in the bottom three.

Now, writing this report with the benefit of knowing the outcome of those two subsequent games, it again looks like a point won, with Swansea's heroics doing a great deal to calm the nerves.

Looking back on Saturday, we once again performed like a side possessed in the first half. With Sideshow Bob back in the side we looked organised and composed at the back and, while chances were limited for both sides, we definitely looked the more likely scorers, with the principal talking point revolving around whether or not Papiss Cisse's dink past the keeper had crossed the line before it was hooked away by the covering defender. In the instant he got to look at it, our least favourite assistant referee concluded that he didn't see it cross the line (hardly surprising when you recall he didn't see all of that tackle on Massimo Haidara a few weeks ago). With multiple TV replays to pore over, it looked from at least one angle that it had crossed the line, but until goal line technology is introduced next year, we're left with the decision of the officials and they weren't sufficiently convinced.

Unfortunately, having been much the better side in the first half, we started to struggle badly in the second as our defence came under increasing pressure from old boys Rocky and Kevin Nolan. Having been a spectator in the first half, Rob Elliot now found himself much the busier keeper, producing one outstanding double save to thwart Nolan, whilst Rocky threw himself about and was just about neutralised fairly by Sideshow Bob and Danny Simpson (although on another day both could have conceded penalties for their physical efforts to impede West Ham's principal goal threat).

At the other end, Dreamboat saw a shot curl wide and Goofy almost profited from a Jussi Jaaskelainen rush of blood, only to see his effort drop wide; however, we were definitely the side under pressure.

Big Lad replaced HBA and Dan Gosling replaced Goofy, but neither was able to do much to pose a significant threat to Jaaskelainen's goal and in the end a point looked a decent result.

As highlighted earlier, when news of other results filtered through, the picture looked significantly bleaker, but with games still to play it could yet prove to be a crucial point on the road to survival.

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

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Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Staying up?

Conor Newton and Paul Dummett may have won admirers north of the border during their successful loan spell with St Mirren, but their performances evidently haven't gone unnoticed at St James' Park either, with the club deciding to offer the duo new deals.

They could yet decide to join the Buddies permanently, possibly for no fee, but Newton at least seems keen not to turn his back on his hometown club, even while remaining realistic about his chances of making the grade: "I would like to test myself down south at some point in my career, but I've only been playing first-team football for the past four months, so I'm not naive enough to think I'm just going to walk into the side at Newcastle. So the next few months are crucial for my development. But I would love to make it at Newcastle and get a chance to play in those black and white stripes. It's what every lad from the city dreams of. Right now, though, I will just bide my time."

Perhaps the best solution for all parties would be for the pair to sign the new contracts but be allowed another season on loan in Scotland (in the SPL, St Mirren having narrowly avoided relegation this season) - whether that will happen, though, we'll just have to wait and see.

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Freebie focus

So Douglas is out of contract at FC Twente and available on a free this summer, then. The 25-year-old Brazilian-born centre-back, now in possession of a Dutch passport, is reportedly a target for Liverpool, but if we manage to stay up (and it's a big if) then surely we'll be keen to further our interest, particularly if (as expected) the unsettled Sideshow Bob returns to his native Argentina. International defenders of a good age who don't command a fee will be few and far between, though, so I'd expect there to be plenty of other suitors.



Monday, May 06, 2013

A Month Of Saturdays: April 2013

This time last year we were scoffing at T S Eliot's suggestion that "April is the cruellest month". Twelve months later, we've sobered up and, surveying the wreckage of a Europa League campaign and a headlong plunge towards relegation domestically, have to concede that he may well have had a point after all. Just about the only person connected with the club who might beg to differ was Brad Inman, part of the Crewe side victorious in the Johnstone's Paint Trophy final...

The quarter-final draw for the Europa League pitted us against a side with one of the most formidable domestic records on the continent, but we refused to be overawed by Benfica. Though eventually going down 3-1 on Portuguese soil to the better team, we had nevertheless stunned our hosts by taking the lead, and it could have been so different had two Papiss Cisse efforts found the net rather than the woodwork and had Davide Santon and Saylor not committed heinous errors which were duly punished.

That left us requiring a 2-0 victory at St James' Park a week later - and we came agonisingly close to pulling it off. After a cagey opening period, we came out all guns blazing in the second half, grabbed a goal through Cisse and pushed vigorously for the second. Like villainous megalomaniacs always do with James Bond, we had our opponents right where we wanted them, only to allow them to wriggle free at the last minute and deal us the fatal blow - in this instance, an equaliser from Salvio. It wasn't to be, then, but there was no shame in our two-legged defeat and the efforts of the players certainly couldn't be faulted.

The two Europa League ties sandwiched a league fixture against Fulham which seemed destined to end in a disappointing goalless stalemate, only for Cisse to reprise his role as stoppage-time superstar, scoring a home winner well beyond the 90th minute for the third time in a month. Cisse bounded into the crowd, the Silver Fox threw himself into the arms of nearby supporters and the team leapt up the Premier League table into 13th.

We went into the derby three days after that Europa League exit, and while there were concerns about fatigue, I suggested that we'd "go into the game safe in the knowledge that we've just given a far better side than Di Canio's rabble a serious fright". We had, but Di Canio's rabble proceeded to give a weary, disjointed and gutless Newcastle side much more than just a serious fright. The second of the three goals the Mackems scored without reply came from the boot of boyhood Toon fan Adam Johnson - clearly a double agent - and was celebrated with a touchline kneeslide from the Italian loon, footage of which is likely to haunt us as much as that of Ronnie Radford's goal.

Before the game Newcastle fans had been warned not to perform Nazi salutes towards Di Canio, but as it turned out it was their behaviour afterwards that brought the club the most unwanted media attention, a small mindless minority choosing to take their frustrations out violently on their own city and - in one case - a police horse. They'll all end up in the dock, with any luck, but one Toon supporter found himself as a member of a jury charged with determining the innocence or guilt of a Mackem - and sensibly confessed to his prejudices.

As for the players, a positive reaction was essential and, in the first half at the Hawthorns at least, we got it. Goofy gave us the lead and we were well on top until half-time - at which point the Baggies were shaken out of their late-season mid-table torpor by ex-Toon man Steve Clarke, changed things around and spent the second period pressuring our fragile defence which, mercifully, only cracked once.

Liverpool were next up, and I made the grave mistake of suggesting that we could "take comfort from Suarez's absence" following his ban for biting Branislav Ivanovic: "They may not be a one-man team, but they're not far off it. It's up to us to capitalise and save our Premier League skins." Words that didn't so much come back to bite me in the arse as came back and swallowed me whole. The 6-0 humiliation was our worst defeat on home turf for 87 years, and the display the worst I could recall since Black & White & Read All Over began. The players were hopeless and gutless, the tactics clueless. It was an utter embarrassment. Two home games on from that Fulham jubilation, had the Silver Fox thrown himself into the crowd he'd have been torn to pieces.

Our St James' Park thrashing by the Reds recalled a similar pummelling in the 2008/9 season, not so much raising the spectre of relegation as helping to make it flesh and bone. Indeed, deja vu was persistent throughout April - whether it was the news that Raylor may be out for another year with a recurrence of his cruciate knee ligament injury or that the lone Lone Ranger had been found guilty of assault. Nothing went right - not even going against every fibre in our bodies and willing a Mackem win over Villa on the grounds that it would be beneficial to our chances of staying up. A 6-1 battering later and it was evident that we're not the only side in the North-East who simply cannot be relied upon.

All of which meant it was grimly fitting that One Direction should have chosen last month to visit our training ground - after all, we only seem to be going in one direction too, and it isn't up.

As desperate as it got, though, I personally retained a sense of perspective throughout. Becoming a father for the first time will do that to you. Bill Shankly was wrong about football being more important than life and death, you know - though I appreciate that might be less of a consolation to you, dear reader, than it is to me come 19th May.



Saturday, May 04, 2013

The noose tightens

Ordinarily a clean sheet away immediately following a 6-0 drubbing at home would be very welcome - but not today. Paul's match report to follow, but suffice to say that that's the fifth legitimate goal that Papiss Cisse has seen ruled out this season. The news elsewhere wasn't good, with Paul Lambert victorious on his old stomping ground of Carrow Road and Wigan's Callum McManaman hell-bent on relegating us single-handedly, having maimed Massadio Haidara, scored a vital goal at home to Spurs last weekend and then the winner at West Brom today that leaves the Latics just three points behind us with a game in hand.

Thursday, May 02, 2013

Newcastle United?

"Every player is together. We are totally focussed on Saturday's game at West Ham and the two games after that. We have a strong bond and we want the best for our Club, our manager and our wonderful fans. We are not happy about recent results. Nobody is happy when they lose, but this has only made us stronger as a group and we will come through this together. There is no divide in the team."

I don't know about you, but this Papiss Cisse quote reads as though either delivered at gunpoint or pre-penned by the club to be parroted to the press. Certainly, I'm far from convinced and in any case actions speak louder than words - so let's wait for the evidence of Saturday afternoon.



Facing up to the financial fallout

If the Independent are to be believed, we've failed to learn the lessons of 2009 and omitted to include relegation clauses in all the contracts of the clutch of players we signed in the January transfer window. If true, this would make a mockery of our recent (and deserved, it has to be said) status as a well-run and prudent club, and leave those of us who have been laughing at the prospect of QPR becoming a financial basket-case in the Championship with a lot of egg on our faces. Here's hoping we don't get to find out, eh?