Thursday, June 06, 2013

A Month Of Saturdays: May 2013

Fresh from a 6-0 home hiding by Liverpool and with rumours of dressing-room division rife, we went into the final month of the season seemingly in a headlong plummet towards relegation. It was clear that urgent action was needed if we were to avoid a repeat of the 2008/9 campaign.

The first step was to silence those rumours of discontent within the camp (discontent which allegedly had a Francophone clique pitched against the rest - so much for improving Anglo-French relations..). So it was that both Mr T and Papiss Cisse were wheeled out before the media to flatly deny the claims. Not that one of the prime sources of the story was present to hear the denial - the Torygraph's Luke Edwards having been banned by an evidently furious Silver Fox. A justifiable and legitimate course of action in the face of irresponsible and inaccurate journalism or the behaviour of an increasingly desperate man feeling the heat and a club infuriated at having its dirty laundry hung out for public viewing at the worst possible moment? We couldn't be sure.

The quotes served up by Mr T and Cisse may have felt scripted, but it was on the pitch that the players needed to do their real talking. In that respect, then, and in the context of the Liverpool catastrophe, a battling goalless draw at West Ham was significantly more convincing. It was no coincidence that the much-needed shut-out was achieved with captain Sideshow Bob back in the side, leaving old boys Fat Sam and former housemates Rocky and Kevin Nolan frustrated. And yet it could have been better had Cisse not been unjustly denied another yet another goal, and those elusive two additional points looked like being costly when results elsewhere went against us. Mercifully, however, our luck was about to change.

You'd probably have got put in a straitjacket if, back in August, you'd claimed that arguably the two most important goals of our season would be scored by Swansea's Dwight Tiendalli and Chelsea's Frank Lampard. But that's exactly what happened, with first Tiendalli condemning Wigan to a dismal midweek defeat and then Lampard scoring twice the following Saturday to overturn a deficit against Aston Villa and break Bobby Tambling's club record in the process.

The upshot of those results was that a win at already relegated QPR would be enough to secure our Premier League status. Fail, and we didn't deserve to stay up. Typically we did it the hard way, conceding a penalty that the Hoops' money-grabbing striker Loic £emy duly fired home, before digging deep (and profiting from some awful defending) to come from behind and then having to cling on after Rob Elliot was sent to get the bathtaps running early. As it turned out, Steve Harper was the calming influence we needed, and we saw out the remainder of the match to cling to the precious three points.

Elliot's dismissal handed Harper the unexpected opportunity of one final 90 minutes for the club he had served (albeit sporadically) for twenty years - if the scriptwriters of Mr T and Cisse's rift denials were paying attention, they'd have been nodding along in appreciation. In an ill-advisedly candid interview after the QPR win, a relieved Silver Fox announced that he didn't care if we got walloped by Arsenal, a statement he soon attempted to retract or at least claim as being, "of course, a joke". As it turned out, not only were we not walloped, but we actually played with a commendably high tempo and plenty of gusto in a spirited first half. It was only in the second period that the Gunners' class told - not to mention the fact that our players' minds were half on their holidays while our visitors were fixated on grabbing the final Champions League spot ahead of their bitter rivals. Laurent Koscielny's goal was the difference, and we never looked like mounting a recovery as the season petered out.

That was the cue for the post-mortem to begin, an examination of the many reasons for our dismal showing: injuries, loss of form, transfer dealings, tactics etc. Ultimately, though, I suppose the critical thing is that we ended up above the dotted line (and the Mackems) whereas three other sides - QPR, Reading and Wigan - didn't. The latter are our bete noire so it was with considerable glee that we waved them off to the Championship. There was equally a sizeable measure of Schadenfreude in seeing 'Appy 'Arry - the man who did so much to publicise Demba Ba's release clause - fail to save QPR and in speculating about the fact that their finances might now be on the verge of going into meltdown. When we were still sweating on survival ourselves, reports suggested that we too might be staring a similar fate in the face - thankfully, we never got to find out if the rumours of our idiocy were true.

The task now is to put in the essential groundwork to ensure that we don't find ourselves in the same predicament again next season. Mark Hughes famously declared as much of QPR last May and has been made to look very foolish indeed. Paul outlined what's required, proposing some additions on the coaching side of things as well as identifying holes in the first-team squad that need to be filled. A new central defender seems to be one of our priorities even if Sideshow Bob does stay, and Douglas would fit the bill (though Agent Bramble, recently allowed to flee the Dark Place, wouldn't). Potential new recruits certainly won't have any excuse for not being able to locate St James' Park, voted the league's most easily accessible ground...

There were some hints, though, that in looking to the future we're also aiming to promote from within rather than just simply buy from without. Having made considerable impact on loan at St Mirren, best Buddies Conor Newton and Paul Dummett were both rewarded with the offer of new deals, and goalkeeping coach Andy Woodman was effusive in his praise of Jak Alnwick, set to be understudy to Tim Krul and Rob Elliot now that Harper's disappeared into the sunset.

While most players jetted off for scarcely deserved stints on sun loungers, Raylor made the trip to Colorado to Richard Steadman's treatment table in the hope that the magician can cure him of his recurrent injury problems and save his career. I presume that by now there must be daily flights direct from Newcastle Airport to Steadman's surgery.

The fact that silly season was well and truly upon us was confirmed by the appearance on the Sports Direct site of a report that we'd held discussions with Shrek's agent and were preparing a bid (not for the first time). The story was swiftly retracted as complete fabrication and an apology issued, but it was significantly more plausible than a side contriving to finish sixteenth the year after finishing fifth. As usual with Newcastle Utd, though, truth is stranger than fiction.




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