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.




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