Monday, December 30, 2013

Olivier twist seals close encounter

Newcastle Utd 0 - 1 Arsenal

A Frenchman on target at St James' Park - nothing new there. It was just unfortunate that said Frenchman wasn't wearing black and white, Olivier Giroud the matchwinner on a day when Arsenal returned to the top of the Premier League but we matched them every step of the way.

We had the psychological fillip of going into the final match of 2013 off the back of having scored eight goals in two games (albeit against woeful opposition) and in the knowledge we were up against a side that has been faltering of late and was missing key men Mesut Ozil and Aaron Ramsey. The victories over Chelsea, Spurs and Man Utd mean we shouldn't fear anyone, even if Arsenal did promise to pose slightly different problems - primarily, getting hold of the ball...

His suspension served, Mr T was always likely to come straight back into the team. HBA was arguably our man of the match against Stoke, his darting runs on goal setting the tone for our attempts to go for the jugular in the second half, but found himself omitted to accommodate the returning midfielder. An unfortunate case of last in, first out - but, in truth, a sensible move on the Silver Fox's part as it would give the centre backs additional protection from the Gunners' dynamic midfield.

That midfield broadly controlled the first half, though Mr T and Mini V were usefully combative and chances for those in red and white were largely restricted to shots from distance from the likes of Santi Cazorla that barely troubled Tim Krul. Not that we were creating much more, our brightest moment coming when an overlapping Mathieu Debuchy was inches away from controlling a raking long-range pass from his mucker Dreamboat. Given all the praise Everton's full-backs have been getting of late for their contributions offensively, Debuchy deserves similar plaudits - but perhaps it's best we keep quiet about that and hope he continues to be able to advance unnoticed as our secret weapon.

Debuchy it was who came closest to breaking the deadlock just before the interval. Moussa Sissoko's searing drive was tipped over by Wojciech Szczesny but from the resulting corner the Polish 'keeper could only watch as Debuchy's far-post header looped onto the face of the bar and away via Jack Wilshere's brow.

The second period was just over 15 minutes old when the Silver Fox elected to replace Goofy with HBA. The former was no doubt as disappointed as we were that his impressive record of scoring in consecutive home matches had come to an end, but it was nevertheless a positive move from the manager - albeit one that was immediately followed by us falling behind. Mr T's soft foul gave Theo Walcott the opportunity to loft a free-kick into the area which Giroud glanced beyond Krul. Initially Mike Williamson looked to be at fault (something that might have harmed his chances of a trip to Brazil), but in truth he was left high and dry by his skipper, Sideshow Bob switching off at the vital moment.

Debuchy was then called upon to perform heroics to keep us in the game, athletically heading onto the bar and clear after Walcott's shot had been saved by Krul. It wasn't going to be our day, though, as was made apparent when Szczesny's sloppy clearance whacked off Loic Remy's mug but bounced wide, leaving the striker nursing a headache without the consolation of a goal.

Big Lad's introduction at the expense of Mini V was a clear signal of intent, but the decision to replace Sissoko with Massadio Haidara was more puzzling, seeing Davide Santon moved to the right side of midfield. Surely Debuchy would have been better in that role, with Santon switching full-back positions, or alternatively we could have thrown on a natural midfielder or forward in the form of Little Big Lad or Papiss Cisse?

As we applied late pressure to the Gunners' goal, Mathieu Flamini's challenge on his compatriot and namesake Debuchy could and perhaps should have seen us awarded a fourth penalty in three matches. Big Lad caused some consternation to Per Mertesacker and company, and HBA committed defenders with his pace and trickery but shot harmlessly wide on two occasions when passes were a better option.

On Match Of The Day 2, Wor Al charitably praised the Gunners for winning ugly - essentially a euphemism for playing badly but emerging undeservedly victorious. We may have once again failed to beat a side fast becoming one of our bogey teams, but this was a far cry from the 7-3 battering suffered at the Emirates exactly a year earlier and we shouldn't be disconsolate as there was plenty to give encouragement for the rest of the season - not least Arsene Wenger's post-match declaration that he won't be renewing his attempts to lure Dreamboat to the Emirates in the transfer window.

Arsenal fans' perspectives: A Cultured Left Foot, Arseblog, East Lower, Goodplaya, Gunnerblog

Other reports: BBC, Guardian (in which TBW does her best to start an HBA-to-Arsenal rumour)

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Campbell's souper for St Mirren

On 2nd January Adam Campbell will be the latest Newcastle player to hook up with St Mirren - a loan move first mooted way back in September, after the striker had returned from a frustrating and abortive spell at Carlisle. In buddying up with the Buddies, Campbell will be following in the footsteps of Paul Dummett and Conor Newton - the latter having headed back to St Mirren Park this season after a stint there last year.

It wasn't that long ago that Campbell found himself on the fringes of the first-team squad, but that was partly because, with Loic Remy only a loanee, he's one of only three out-and-out strikers we own (alongside Papiss Cisse and Big Lad). Even if he does manage to make his mark north of the border, I suspect we'd be keener to sign a striker than to throw him into the fray.

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Friday, December 27, 2013

Boxing Day bonanza

Newcastle Utd 5-1 Stoke City

5-1 victories can rarely be described as fortuitous, but this one - superb entertainment for a Boxing Day afternoon - certainly can. Had referee Martin Atkinson not sent off both Glenn Whelan and Marc Wilson late in the first half, at which point the visitors were deservedly in front, we could never have dreamt of winning, let alone by a four-goal margin.

Not that the dismissals themselves were fortuitous, mind, regardless of whatever Mark Hughes might maintain - far from Atkinson acting as Santa in our favour, he was given no choice about twice brandishing his red card. And we should also be afforded some credit for ruthlessly capitalising on our two-man advantage - what Hughes won't admit is that his side's defeat could and should have been even heavier.

The Silver Fox's pre-match dilemma was who to select in place of the suspended Mr T. Big Lad would have helped us to counter Stoke's aerial power and strength (still very much a feature of their game, despite Hughes' attempts to remodel them), but instead HBA got the nod, following his electrifying goalscoring cameo at Selhurst Park. That suggested, refreshingly, that we were determined to cause our opponents problems rather than worry about the problems they could cause us.

However, for the first 39 minutes, the Silver Fox's recent Midas touch with regard to tactics appeared to have deserted him. HBA, our most dangerous player, saw too little of the ball wide on the right; Davide Santon was off the pace; Loic Remy looked like a man suffering under the shadow of a goal drought and a court case; and Moussa Sissoko, deployed in a more central role, was utterly hopeless both in possession and in the tackle. While we did have a smattering of efforts on goal - a curler from HBA, a dribbler from Goofy - we weren't attacking with sufficient pace and purpose to trouble Stoke.

Meanwhile, the Potters' Steven Nzonzi was largely controlling midfield and Charlie Adam was revelling in his role behind Peter Crouch, twice accepting the invitation to blast left-footed at goal. There had been plenty of groaning and moaning in the stands before Mathieu Debuchy showed right-footed left winger Oussama Assaidi inside for the umpteenth time, and he promptly planted a curled shot beyond Tim Krul into the far corner.

Thankfully, things weren't bleak for long, as Stoke's ill-discipline got the better of them. Whelan was booked for booting the ball away and six minutes later earned himself an early bath with an unnecessary and stupid challenge from behind on Dreamboat. Whelan's petulance was obviously catching, with Hughes kicking a spare ball onto the pitch, throwing his coat into the air in disgust and getting sent to the stands (and subsequently charged with improper conduct) for his trouble - all much to the delight of the home faithful.

Before Hughes had even assumed his new position, his team were reduced to nine. Mini V - who earlier had raised chuckles for taking on Crouch in an aerial battle - threaded a pass through to Remy who was tugged back by Wilson for the inevitable red card and penalty. Remy himself dusted himself down for the spot-kick, but Thomas Sorensen already had form for saving penalties at St James' and easily saved the striker's poor effort. A crazy five minutes came to a happy conclusion, though, Remy making amends by receiving HBA's pass and firing a deflected shot into the Leazes goal, those in red and white protesting about an alleged handball from Mike Williamson in the build-up.

No team talk was required and the Silver Fox made his intentions plain by replacing Mini V with Big Lad at the break. It took all of three minutes for us to complete the turnaround, Goofy making the most of lame clearances by placing a shot into the bottom left corner to register for the fifth successive home match.

Stoke understandably concentrated on fighting battles in the centre of the pitch, which meant that we continually had two-on-one situations when Dreamboat drilled the ball out to the right or left. HBA came into his own, attacking the space, terrifying defenders and hitting the woodwork twice (first the post and then the bar) in the space of four minutes.

Those close shaves came either side of the goal that sealed the victory, Santon's cross flicked on by Sissoko and nodded in by Remy. That was the last of the Italian's major contributions, with Massadio Haidara introduced on the hour mark. Some fans felt this was a bizarrely negative move, but as it turned out the French youngster found himself in acres of space and deployed predominantly as a left winger. Had his crossing been better, Big Lad might have added his name to the score sheet, which was lengthened further when Dreamboat stroked in a peach of a finish.

4-1 up against nine men: an ideal time to bring Papiss Cisse into the fray, with Goofy leaving to a standing ovation. A penalty-area foul on HBA presented an interesting situation: who would take it? The victim of the challenge, who scored from the spot at Palace? Remy, on a hat-trick but already guilty of missing from 12 yards earlier in the match? The cool-headed and in-form Dreamboat? Big Lad, who can boast of having never missed a penalty? In the end, and to the delight of the crowd, the responsibility went to Cisse, who dispatched the ball with aplomb for his first league goal since April. The roar was deafening.

In the remaining ten minutes we should have been awarded another two penalties, one for a shove on Dreamboat and another for a lunge on Haidara, but Atkinson seemingly took pity on the beleaguered visitors, turning a blind eye to the laws of the game and denying us the opportunity to boost our improving goal difference further.

The final whistle brought confirmation of our biggest win of the season (superceding Saturday's victory at Selhurst Park) and, courtesy of the Mackems' unlikely triumph at Goodison Park, of the fact that the gap to fifth place had closed to one point. We'd be foolish to think the result makes us any more likely to beat Arsenal, given the circumstances in which it was achieved, but we nevertheless go into Sunday's meeting with the league leaders in fine spirits.

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

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Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Mid-season's greetings

Happy Christmas to all. Here's hoping we get what we really, really want: a Boxing Day win over Stoke in the short term, a season much more like 2011/12 than 2012/13 in the long term, and more misery and relegation for the Mackems. And is Jabba leaving the club too much to ask?



Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Thanks for the blanks?

Amidst all the delight at that rarest of beasts - a thoroughly professional perfomance from a Newcastle side - and the general contentment with the way things are currently going, one slightly concerning issue has been overlooked: Loic Remy is experiencing something of a goal drought.

His last strike came at home to Norwich on 23rd November, after which I was moved to comment that we needed to become less reliant on him in case he leaves us in January. That much we've done - picking up three wins and a draw in the subsequent five matches without his name appearing on the scoresheet once. Now, at the risk of sounding like a glass-half-empty moaner, I'm a bit concerned about the goals drying up. A five-game barren spell wouldn't be too remarkable by many players' standards (Papiss Cisse's, for instance...), but for someone who was registering with clockwork regularity a month ago it does pose questions.

That said, perhaps this is all fretting over nothing. After all, the team is still performing well, and Remy within it. As Tim noted in his report on Saturday's win, his lurking presence was instrumental in Danny Gabbidon conceding the second goal and his workrate continues to be impeccable. Indeed, maybe we should even (quietly) celebrate the fact that he's not scoring - after all, by keeping himself out of the headlines he might be improving our chances of signing him permanently next month...

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Taking the Michael?

Proof positive of Mike Williamson's rehabilitation and transformation from outcast and liability to central defensive rock: he's now honoured and immortalised in song. There's also a campaign urging Woy Hodgson to take him to Brazil as part of England's World Cup squad - far-fetched perhaps, but John Terry and Rio Ferdinand are now out of the picture and stranger things have happened...

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Monday, December 23, 2013

Brazilian strips leave the Palace exposed

Crystal Palace 0-3 Newcastle Utd 

Drunk on Christmas spirit (metaphorically, you understand), friend of the blog Tim generously agreed to contribute a match report. And here it is.

Selhurst Park holds some happy playing memories for the Silver Fox and the same can be said for yet another group of Newcastle players who registered a fifth consecutive win - albeit spread over 20 years - away to Palace. The last home win in this fixture was a Vince Hilaire-inspired rout against Arthur Cox’s promotion-winning side of 1983/4.

The Eagles were expected to be more competitive than earlier in the season under Ian Holloway - a win over 5under1and aside. The temporary stewardship of Keith Millen and subsequently the (now not quite so) unpopular permanent choice of Tony Pulis had reorganised and rejuvenated the players, recently resulting in back-to-back home wins and a round of applause (for the supporters) from Jose Mourinho in a narrow defeat at Stamford Bridge last time out. That improvement in form, combined with a sodden pitch, driving rain, and not being certain whether it would be a great or indifferent Newcastle performance (most likely a half of each) meant this was difficult to call, with the bookies having Newcastle as slight favourites.

With Dreamboat available after suspension, the Silver Fox opted for the same 4-5-1 formation (and Brazil strip) that broke the Old Trafford hoodoo - Big Lad returning to bench-warming duties with Little Big Lad, HBA and Papiss Cisse.

Pre-match “entertainment” was provided by some girls desperately trying to hang on to their pom-poms and their dignity - and an eagle (I’m reliably informed called Kayla) swooping the length of the pitch from one crossbar to the other.

After a forgettable first 10 minutes - other than a couple of woeful long balls from Mr T - Newcastle finally wrestled the ball from the elements. With the whole side more than matching their hosts for industry (full-backs Davide Santon and Mathieu Debuchy particularly eager to get forward), prompted impeccably by Mini V with Dreamboat revelling in a floating role, Newcastle seized the initiative.

After a break appeared to have broken down, Mini V picked up Dean Moxey’s half-clearance and fed Moussa Sissoko out right who, after an exchange with Debuchy, cut inside a defender and picked out Dreamboat in space having shoved pulled away from his marker, and whose firmly placed shot from 12 yards wouldn’t have troubled Julian Speroni in goal had it not been for a fortuitous deflection.

That was followed by the first real threats on the away goal, as Marouane Chamakh finally had an opportunity to demonstrate his (until recently) well-concealed ability, sparking an attack that Santon should have cleared, instead presenting the ball to Cameron Jerome, whose shot on the turn was well saved by Tim Krul’s legs. Krul came for, flapped at and missed the resulting corner kick, which dropped onto the unsuspecting knee of (the New) Mike Williamson who was as pleased as the rest of us to see Mini V in place to clear off the line.

Rather than sitting on a single goal, Newcastle continued to work hard to retain and regain possession - exemplified by the unselfish efforts of Loic Remy up front. The on-loan striker was soon rewarded for his earlier exertions as Danny Gabbidon thrust out a leg to clear a Debuchy cross - not realising Remy had given up on it - only to see it diverted beyond Speroni into the far corner.

Pulis replaced both Moxey and Barry Bannan at the break, with both left-sided players having trouble stifling Sissoko and Debuchy and offering little in return at the other end. Newcastle were clearly under instruction to hold firm for the first ten minutes of the half, expecting Palace to push for an early goal, but the main threat came from our own sloppiness - Santon instigating a hairy passage of play after a misjudged header which eventually came to nothing.

A decent spell of possession helped calm defensive anxieties and Newcastle started to commit more players forward again. Speroni’s outstretched left hand thwarted the late swerve on a speculative Dreamboat free-kick. Palace’s best chance of getting back into the game fell to Jerome midway through the half. Mile Jedinak headed Jason Puncheon’s free-kick back across the goal which dropped to Jerome, unmarked as Mr T had slipped, only for the striker to volley over.

Dreamboat tried his luck from long range again after cutting in from the left, before the game became increasingly scrappy, with Newcastle happy to hold on to possession. The introduction of Big Lad and HBA rejuvenated the visitors, the latter immediately causing havoc with a mazy, stumbling run laying off to Goofy on the edge of the box who beat Speroni but not the post.

Mini V then fed Big Lad whose control on the turn took him past Damien Delaney and into the box, only to be tripped by Jonathan Parr from the side. Speroni got both hands on HBA's badly placed though firmly struck spot-kick but the ball flew into the top corner for 3-0.

A rare comfortable win, let alone an away one and no new injury concerns, keeps us well placed to contend with the demands of the rest of the Christmas programme, continuing with Stoke at home on Boxing Day. The only downside was Mr T’s fifth yellow card and one game suspension, but that was bound to happen sooner or later and at least he’ll be available for the visit of Arsenal.

I was going to finish with a disparaging remark about the hosts - something along the lines of Pulis needing to add someone who knows where the goal is come January, as they currently only have Kayla in that department - in response to the recently converted Palace fan in the pub before kick-off who said I'd "come a long way to get beat" (I hadn't, on either count), but this blog is usually above that and I don't want to lower standards more than I already have. And besides, Glenn Murray is nearly fit again. 

Thanks again to Tim for his eyewitness account.

Other reports: BBC, Observer

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Saturday, December 21, 2013

(You gotta) fight for your right (to play)

That's the message from the Silver Fox to those currently on the fringes of the first team. He was prompted to come over all Beastie Boys by media mischief-making from Saylor's agent Willie McKay (yes, him again), who went public on his client's dissatisfaction at being left kicking his heels on the bench. McKay had suggested that Saylor was eyeing up a loan move, and indeed 'Appy 'Arry was then promptly credited with an interest in inflating QPR's already ludicrous Championship wage bill even further, but the Silver Fox was quick to quash that possibility.

In doing so, he also named MYM, HBA and Papiss Cisse, which implies that they too may have expressed disgruntlement at their current predicament, albeit privately rather than in public. It's hardly surprising, and as the cliche goes, having his players fit and champing at the bit to be involved is a nice problem for the Silver Fox to have. That said, it's still a problem, and one he needs to manage carefully. Those currently in possession of the shirts, perhaps against the odds (Big Lad and Mike Williamson in particular), have repaid the manager's faith and fully merit their selection - but if we're to safeguard against the inevitability of injuries and loss of form in the second half of the season. it's vital that we don't weaken our squad in January by letting those on the fringes leave. (Obertan Kenobi being the obvious exception...)

As for Saylor, our advice would be for him to gag McKay, knuckle down and learn the error of his ways. Admittedly he's been injured for much of the season, but his absence from the first team is also attributable to that stupid red card earned in our very first game of the season - a game which was already proving a very tough challenge with eleven men, let alone ten. Since that Monday in August, he hadn't pulled on a black and white shirt for competitive action until yesterday, when named (together with Spidermag) as one of the overage players in the U21 squad that beat Norwich in front of 125 spectators - a fact he will hopefully reflect on next time he thinks about doing something rash.

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Friday, December 20, 2013

Citizen insane?

My write-up of Monday evening's FSF Awards night referred to Olivier Bernard as "ex-Toon left-back" and "a passionate anti-racism campaigner". To that list you can add "owner and chairman of a Northern League Division One club". Yes, really - he's just bought Durham City.

Cue grand visions of making the Citizens "one of the best feeder clubs in the north east" and of helping to develop future England players. It's a laudable aim that can genuinely be labelled a "project", and we wish him all the best - but also fear he might find it harder to realise his ambitions than he thinks.

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Saints and sinners

The Silver Fox may have dismissed Saturday's touchline altercation as "pretty pathetic" and "a bit of panto season", but the FA have taken a somewhat dimmer view. While the club as a whole won't face any punishment, goalkeeping coach Andy Woodman, sent to the stands by referee Mike Jones, is up on a charge of improper conduct.

As Paul mentioned in his match report, the fact our bench were incensed by Morgan Schneiderlin's foul on Massadio Haidara was understandable, though that's not a sufficient excuse for the powers that be. Of course, had the powers that be taken appropriate action against Wigan's Callum McManaman last season, then the whole situation may not have arisen in the first place.

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Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Saints share spoils

Newcastle Utd 1 - 1 Southampton

The Silver Fox recently marked three years in charge at St James' Park and this game saw him presented with a reunion of sorts, facing his old team including several of his old players. At the end, it was honours even, with one goal apiece and one member of each side's coaching staff in the stands.

With Dreamboat serving a one-match ban following his fifth yellow card of the season, Mr T was partnered by Vurnon Anita in central midfield, with Moussa Sissoko and Goofy down the flanks, supporting Loic Remy and Big Lad up front.

It was Newcastle who started the brighter, getting at the visitors, who struggled to impose their game and finding Mr T and Mini V on form. With Dreamboat missing, it was another Frenchman who sparked the game into life when Goofy latched onto Jos Hooiveld's miss before using quick feet to keep the ball from the flailing arms of visiting 'keeper Paulo Gazzaniga before tucking the ball into the Gallowgate net.

With Remy missing a good opportunity to add a second, when his shot was cleared off the line by Luke Chambers, we couldn't compound our advantage and went in with only a slender lead at the break.

While the Silver Fox opted to stick with the same team in the second half, his opposite number made a double substitution which saw current flavour of the month Adam Lallana brought off the bench.

As a consequence of his introduction, the visitors started to force their way back into the game. First, Steven Davis smashed the ball against the left-hand post, before a neat break saw the Saints spring the offside trap and Jay Rodriguez was left with a simple finish past Tim Krul.

Back came Newcastle who created a great chance for Remy, only to see our loan star fire wide when through on goal and despite the introduction of HBA we were unable to create any further chances of note.

With minutes to go, an accidental collision between Sissoko's hand and referee Mike Jones' face left the whistle-blower on the deck, thankfully with no repercussions for our powerful Frenchman. However, the delay in play allowed enough time for Morgan Schneiderlin to catch substitute Massadio Haidara with a heavy foul. Given Haidara's injury history, it was perhaps no surprise that the Newcastle bench were up in arms and there was a disagreement between the two benches which saw both teams' goalkeeping coaches sent to the stands.

Frustratingly for us, that was the last moment of note in the game, with no winner forthcoming. However, on the balance of the game a point was a fair result for both teams which sees us well placed as Christmas approaches.

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

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Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Two Unfortunates twice unfortunate

It was a case of close but no cigar at the Football Supporters' Federation Awards last night, as the blog for which I occasionally moonlight, The Two Unfortunates, missed out on the trophies in the two categories for which it was nominated - Independent Website of the Year and Blogger of the Year. No shame in that - though there was in the fact that I queued up to get the signature of Player of the Year Luis Suarez but didn't bother to ask ex-Toon left-back Olivier Bernard for his. As the other half of Black & White & Read All Over has pointed out, I chose to shun a passionate anti-racism campaigner and yet shook hands with someone previously banned for using a racist term. I'm blaming the complimentary wine.

From a Newcastle perspective, interest was provided in the form of the opening remarks from the FSF's Toon-supporting chief executive Kevin Miles. Aside from the predictable comments about it being nice to be at the Emirates Stadium and not cursing another mauling, and about an unfamiliarity with trophies, he concluded by proposing JFK as a readymade replacement for AVB to Spurs...

Meanwhile, the Fanzine of the Year category saw True Faith up against Mackem rag A Love Supreme, but neither was victorious, the award instead going to the non-club-affiliated (and rather childishly named) Stand Against Modern Football.

The Two Unfortunates contingent were sharing our table with the duo behind the Man City podcast Bluemoon (harshly pitched against the likes of the Guardian's Football Weekly, which won) and a couple of staff who work on fan liaison at Arsenal and who were the recipients of the Away Day of the Year award. Those of a cynical nature might have been forgiven for raising an eyebrow and wondering how ticket prices for travelling fans at the Emirates squared with the FSF's own Twenty's Plenty campaign... We would have had another award-winner on our table, had Sky commentator Martin Tyler elected to sit in his designated place rather than elsewhere in the room.

While Tyler might not have been keen to rub shoulders with nerdy internet oiks like us (even ones who'd made an attempt to scrub up for the occasion), other mainstream media award-winners were quick to praise. The Torygraph's Henry Winter (Writer of the Year) and the team behind Football Weekly seized the opportunity to hail the efforts of semi-professionals and amateurs doing what they do as a labour of love. Magnanimous or patronising? In Winter's case, perhaps the latter - his comments came across as somewhat glib.

And finally a mention of the food, and in particular a main course of steak and ale pie, mash and peas that was at once a knowing nod to traditional matchday grub and a significantly superior version of it. If the pies you get at grounds were even half as good as that one, I'd be very happy indeed.

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Friday, December 13, 2013

Sofa, so good

So Wor Al has declared he's unlikely to venture back into the murky waters of management, preferring to remain on the pundit's couch. It seems that dipping his toe in for that ill-fated eight-game spell at the end of our relegation season has put him off for life. It certainly didn't go well - just one victory and a stand-up row in the dressing room with ASBO following his red card in the heavy defeat at Anfield - but in fairness he effectively clambered aboard a ship that was already sinking rapidly through no fault of his own.

Wor Al was in the frame for jobs at Blackburn and Leeds in recent years, but given that those clubs' boards then appointed Henning Berg and Colin Wanker respectively, it's not hard to see why he might feel somewhat snubbed. Perhaps announcing he's not considering management positions is a bit like when a player who hasn't been picked by England for five years decides to announce his international retirement...

I've often wondered whether Wor Al - brilliant player, captain and professional though he was - would be cut out for management. I'd be a bit concerned about the size of his ego (justifiably large, I should add), though that was clearly no impediment to the likes of Taggart or Jose Mourinho.

Of course, his declaration that he's got no plans to ditch being a Match of the Day pundit is likely to be greeted with groans by all those who see his comments as dull and sterile. At the risk of being accused of bias, I'll reiterate without shame my view that, while not the best (no Gary Neville - never thought I'd say that...), he's certainly not the worst either. I'd have thought having to sit next to that witless buffoon Robbie Savage would be enough to drive anyone into a different career...

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Tuesday, December 10, 2013

A Month Of Saturdays: November 2013

Let's be honest: not even Michael Chopra would have bet on last month turning out well for us. We staggered into November off the back of an early League Cup exit and, much worse, a second successive defeat to the Mackems, with nothing to look forward to other than heavy beatings at the hands of Chelsea and Spurs. And yet we came out the other side with four wins out of four, accolades for our manager and goalkeeper, and a real and renewed sense of belief that this season could be more 2011/2 than 2012/3.

With the benefit of hindsight, though, there were signs in that cup defeat by Man City that our fortunes might be about to change. We more than matched the Premier League's biggest spenders for 90 minutes, only succumbing to their superior quality in extra time. Failing to take our chances against top-quality opposition was not a mistake we were about to repeat when Chelsea rocked up three days later. Level at the break, we pushed on in the second period, goals from Goofy and Remy securing the first and arguably most impressive of our November victories, not least because it came against in-form title hopefuls. (Plus there was the added satisfaction of normal service resuming on Wearside, with the Mackems tumbling to defeat in farcical circumstances.)

Even with that result under our belts, though, many no doubt felt that claiming maximum points at White Hart Lane would be beyond us. And it would have been, were it not for the repeated and sensational interventions of Tim Krul. The whole side worked manfully to frustrate Andre Villas-Boas' men, but it was our Dutch goalkeeper who did most to protect the fragile early lead given to us by Remy, earning himself that Premier League Player of the Month award in the process.

Our gathering momentum might have been stalled by the international break, but even that ended up working in our favour. Our French contingent returned to Tyneside buoyed by triumphing in their World Cup qualification play-off against Ukraine - no mean feat given the first-leg deficit they had to overturn. And they weren't the only members of our squad looking forward to Brazil next summer. Mr T's Ivory Coast also qualified (albeit at the expense of Papiss Cisse's Senegal), as did Nigeria. Big Lad may not have had a hand in securing the Super Eagles' passport to the World Cup personally, but he nevertheless featured prominently in their friendly draw against Italy, setting up their first and scoring their second.

Any fears that the fortnight's holiday from club football would prove damaging were dispelled within two minutes of kick-off against Norwich, Remy scoring for the third successive game - and, most remarkably, from a corner. Goofy added a second, and with Big Lad apparently under the impression he was playing against the Mackems, we should have cruised to victory over Chris Hughton's side but conceded a goal ten minutes from time, resulting in an uncomfortable and nerve-wracking finish and a palpable sense of relief at the final whistle.

Another banana skin was successfully avoided on the final day of November, West Brom dispatched by the same 2-1 scoreline. The match was memorable chiefly for a marvellous winner and goal-of-the-month contender from Moussa Sissoko, smashed into Boaz Myhill's top corner from distance, but the fact that we once again scored from a flag kick, Goofy on target again, also merits a mention.

While the negative tactics of the second half against the Canaries were questionable, and the Spurs victory owed more to Krul's instinct and inspiration than to managerial nous, the Silver Fox was nevertheless overall a deserving recipient of the Manager of the Month award. The Premier League weren't the only ones queueing up to give him a pat on the back - Mike Williamson did too, understandably delighted to find himself back in the first-team frame.

The victories over Chelsea and Spurs caused the Guardian to sit up and take note, highlighting statistical evidence suggesting we've abandoned last season's hoof 'n' hope in favour of a more cultured and sharper passing game. That such a change has taken place with Big Lad replacing Cisse as the focal point of our attack is all the more remarkable. My own analysis, meanwhile, credited the sequence of wins to a return to form (and fitness) for our key men, and to a shift in formation to a more conventional 4-4-2.

So, what are we aiming for? What were our initial targets for the season, and should we now be revising them? Some took the Silver Fox's pronouncements about the benefits of not playing midweek European ties as evidence that the club hierarchy regard European qualification as undesirable. If so, then Jabba and chums are even more idiotic than I'd thought - we should always be aiming as high as possible, moving to strengthen and reinforce the squad if and when necessary. It's the only way we'll retain players like Dreamboat, who appears determined to enjoy European football elsewhere if not with us.

Already on the move in November were James Tavernier and Haris Vuckic, both sent out on loan to Rotherham. If JFK pitches up at a Millers match, here's hoping someone points out to him the players we already own...

That buffoon's continued employment was one reason why it wasn't a perfect month. Another was the extension of Jabba's assault on anyone who dares to question his actions or authority, with NUST suffering a similar fate to the local press, finding themselves barred from the recently resurrected fans' forum. Contrast that with the amicable and mature way Port Vale resolved their dispute with local paper the Sentinel. Sadly, there seemed to be little chance of common sense breaking out on Tyneside - as ever.

Mind you, that went for some of our players too. Saylor's ill-advised attempt at "banter" on Twitter was deemed offensive by some, and resulted in a slap on the wrist and a reminder that tweets are public. If Jabba really wants to make improvements to the way the club is portrayed, he could start by insisting JFK and our players undertake more extensive media training.

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Monday, December 09, 2013

The boyos are back in Toon

Yesterday the identity of our opponents in the Third Round of this season's FA Cup was revealed - and thankfully it wasn't Brighton. Instead we'll face Cardiff at St James' Park. The red-shirted Bluebirds made a promising start to life in the Premier League but have gone off the boil somewhat of late, and having won comfortably on their patch in the league already, we should certainly fancy our chances of progressing. A certain No-Necked Text Pest may have something to say about that, mind...

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Sunday, December 08, 2013

41 years of hurt never stopped us dreaming

Man Utd 0 - 1 Newcastle

Proof that good things come to those who wait. Perhaps it would be nice not to have to wait quite so long next time, though, lads...

I'd always thought that to secure that elusive win at Old Trafford we'd need to play out of our skins and have a hefty helping of luck, and even then would be pushed all the way by the home side - but the reality was easier and much more comfortable than I'd imagined. All that was really required was discipline, endeavour and a game plan as perfectly executed as it was astutely conceived - and, admittedly, the worst Man Utd side in living memory.

Mindful of Man Utd's much publicised weakness in midfield, and perhaps also of the space Swansea's attacking midfielders had found in front of our defence on Wednesday, the Silver Fox opted to switch formation, Vurnon Anita coming into the side at the expense of the unfortunate Big Lad. That meant greater protection for our central defence, a more advanced role for Dreamboat and significant responsibility on Loic Remy to lead the line solo.

It didn't take long for the tactics to take effect, Mr T biting into every challenge with a relish reminiscent of his first two seasons at the club. Outnumbered and stifled, Man Utd's central midfield partnership of Phil Jones and Tom Cleverley were made to look even more ordinary than normal. Jones had the home side's only shot of note in the first period, comfortably saved by November's Premier League Player of the Month Tim Krul, while Javier Hernandez tried to con referee Andre Marriner into awarding a spot kick against Sideshow Bob with a melodramatic penalty-box tumble.

Remaining disciplined and organised without the ball was critical, but with it we were neat and purposeful, retaining possession well with some crisp passing. We could even have gone in at the break with the lead. Remy's clever pass caught Patrice Evra dozily dreaming of his half-time cup of Bovril, but Mathieu Debuchy couldn't beat David De Gea, who also saved a header shortly afterwards.

Predictably our hosts ratcheted up their efforts after the interval, though attempts on goal from Hernandez and Belgian teenager Adnan Januzaj - their one bright spot, in the absence of Shrek - failed to cause Krul much trouble, our 'keeper looking to put Wednesday's disappointing personal performance behind him.

After 57 minutes the Silver Fox made what struck me as a risky and potentially costly substitution, withdrawing the hard-grafting Goofy and throwing on the fit-again HBA. I felt the change would compromise our ability to stick to the game plan, but credit to the manager for having the courage and conviction to adopt a more offensive approach - and four minutes later we were ahead.

Evra was probably still bemoaning an incident at the other end, where his header hit the post and was handled on the line by Anita (intentionally or not, the Dutchman's forearm prevented a goal so we were lucky to escape punishment), when Sissoko got in behind him. Dreamboat was perfectly positioned for the pull-back and slotted it past De Gea with the aid of a slight deflection off Nemanja Vidic. Cue the away end erupting in delight. We couldn't pull it off - could we?

The Man Utd of old might have fallen behind on home soil but would always come roaring back, battering their opposition into submission. How times change, thankfully - Moyes' class of 2013 offered nothing more than poor efforts from Januzaj and substitute Wilfried Zaha. Robin van Persie saw a header correctly disallowed for offside, but was otherwise utterly anonymous (and indeed clearly not fully fit). A lack of imagination, self-belief and quality at Old Trafford is usually our thing, but yesterday it was the home side suffering. Far from cowering under the fear factor, we continued to play neat, attractive football right up until the final whistle, HBA proving useful in frustrating and teasing their players and winding down the clock.

While it seems wrong to single out individuals, it's true that to win at Man Utd you need serious backbone, and the spine of our side was superb: Krul between the posts, Sideshow Bob and Mike Williamson colossi ably and tirelessly shielded by Mr T and Anita, and Remy always giving our players an option, holding play up well and preoccupying their defence singlehandedly at times.

If there was one fly in the ointment of our fourth away win of the campaign, it was the booking picked up by the goalscorer, which means he misses the visit of Southampton next Saturday. That marks the start of a promising run of games which, on paper, are very winnable - the others being Palace away and Stoke at home. On the evidence of this display, there's no reason we can't put together another sequence of wins before league leaders Arsenal roll into Toon on the 29th for what promises to be our sternest test yet. It'll almost certainly be tougher than this relative stroll in the park...

A Man Utd fan's perspective: Red Rants

Other reports: BBC, Observer

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Friday, December 06, 2013

Fright night

It seems our Wednesday evening ordeal wasn't ended by the final whistle at the Liberty Stadium, with high winds making the flight back to Tyneside, and the landing in particular, somewhat hairy. While the Silver Fox  refuted claims that some players had been screaming (a claim nevertheless repeated in the Daily Heil), he did his best to embarrass his assistant: "John Carver had a little bit of a wobble, he wasn't so brave and looked a bit white when we got off." It remains to be seen whether that was due to the flight or to the prospect of a trip to Old Trafford off the back of a beating from the previously poor-at-home Swans...

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Thursday, December 05, 2013

Swan dive

Swansea 3 - 0 Newcastle Utd

Well, the run had to come to an end at some point. It's just that most of us were expecting that to be at Old Trafford on Saturday, rather than at the Liberty Stadium in midweek, where our hosts Swansea had won just one Premier League game in eleven attempts.

That stat, and the form we were in, meant we went into the game in confident mood, given added encouragement by the absence through injury of Swans front men Michu and Wilfried Bony. That said, we had forward issues of our own, with neither Papiss Cisse nor HBA fit enough to resume their positions on the bench. The starting line-up, though, was unsurprisingly unchanged.

I recently reported on the claim that we've changed our style of play, and I'd maintain that we have, generally speaking - but it wasn't really evident last night. Swansea started off as prettiness personified, all neat and crisp short passing. By contrast, we were starved of possession and aimed to be swift and direct when we did win the ball. In truth, the Silver Fox was right in taking that approach - we were never going to out-football our opponents, and reverting to the more robust style of yore caused their defence plenty of problems.

Not that we were on top in the first half. While Swansea's 4-5-1 formation meant that Sideshow Bob and Mike Williamson were relatively underemployed, it was also the reason why their trio of attacking midfielders Alejandro Pozuelo, Jonjo Shelvey and Pablo Hernandez kept finding pockets of space deep in our half. Mr T struggled manfully to contain them, largely left to it by Dreamboat, who contributed disappointingly little either creatively or defensively.

For all the easy-on-the-eye tiki-taka, though, Swansea failed to create any clear-cut opportunities for the first 45 minutes, whereas we could easily have taken the lead through Loic Remy. His header from Mathieu Debuchy's cross was goal-bound but somehow pawed away by Michel Vorm. Remy looked sharp and went close again soon afterwards, turning smartly on the edge of the area but pulling his shot wide.

Our chances of victory should have taken a further boost when the Swans' lone striker Alvaro Vasquez went off with a groin problem, as it left our hosts without a recognised striker. Michael Laudrup opted to introduce Nathan Dyer rather than former Toon man Wayne Routledge, but there was a depressing predictability about the fact that Dyer then gave the home side the lead in first-half stoppage time. Pozuelo's cross was teasing, but Tim Krul should have done much better than to flap it down for the unmarked Dyer to volley in.

Shelvey, a key influence in the first period with his expansive distribution, went close early in the second half, but we were now the better side and the game arguably turned on an incident in the Swansea area. Neat footwork from Remy created the opportunity for an effort that was blocked by Ben Davies' arm. Yes, it was ball to arm rather than vice versa - but surely that's irrelevant when the shot was destined for the back of the net.

Referee Howard Webb was once again unmoved when Goofy claimed to have been shoved in the back in the box (not such a blatant penalty this time) - and it cost us dearly when Swansea immediately broke upfield. Krul foiled Shelvey as he was bearing down on goal but Debuchy, who had bust a gut to get back and try to challenge the midfielder, was horribly unfortunate to see the ball rebound off him and into the net.

That was the cue for our players to wave the metaphorical white flag, the Silver Fox joining in by replacing the moderately effective Big Lad with Obertan Kenobi. Our only hope of getting back into the match had been to continue the direct assault that had nearly worked on several previous occasions - and yet here we were idiotically hauling off the most integral member of that system and throwing on a featherweight winger. Needless to say, the substitute proceeded to play atrociously.

Webb then compounded his previous error over the handball by failing to dismiss Shelvey for a headbutt of sorts on Debuchy (contact was minimal, but there was definite movement of the head) - and, of course, it was then Shelvey who curled in the third from distance, Krul once again at fault.

While Swansea probably deserved the win, 3-0 certainly flattered them, and despite their 66% possession compared to our 34%, we can feel justifiably aggrieved at having not taken anything from a game that was ripe to be won.

No time to dwell on the defeat, though - next stop, Old Trafford. Having lost at home to Everton, you'd suspect Man Utd will be even more pumped up for our visit than usual. Suddenly November seems a bit of a distant memory...

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

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Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Lucky Jim

Last week I suggested that James Tavernier and Haris Vuckic needed to seize the opportunity of their loan move to Rotherham with both hands. While Vuckic was restricted in his attempts to do so against Gillingham by the fact that he was only given seven minutes as a sub, Tavernier certainly did just that, scoring the fourth and final goal in a comprehensive victory and thereby making himself slightly more prominent in the January shop window display.

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600 up for Shay

Congratulations to Shay Given on making his 600th club appearance at the weekend - just a shame it was for Middlesbrough. Not only did he mark that milestone on his debut, he also kept a clean sheet as the Smogs beat Bolton 1-0, new boss Aitor Karanka's first win. Not that he had an awful lot to do - even when the visitors were awarded a late penalty, Jermaine Beckford sent the spot-kick sailing over the crossbar.

Of those 600 appearances, 462 came in Newcastle colours - and the 17 appearances for the Mackems prior to signing for us make Given only the sixth player ever to play for all three sides. Personally I'm delighted to see a player who hasn't had the best of luck since leaving Tyneside back in action.

Meanwhile, one player who won't be following in Given's footsteps is ASBO, who has taken to Twitter to rubbish suggestions he might leave QPR for the Mackems in January: "Me to 5under1and? Somehow I just don’t think so." "I value the time I spent at NUFC. I value the relationship I have with the toon army to this day. I could never play for the Mackems." "It wouldn’t be right. Not sure were the rumour came from. But as usually its nonsense."

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Monday, December 02, 2013

November reign

Newcastle Utd 2 - 1 West Brom

Reflecting in midweek on our trio of wins, I was acutely aware that celebrating our triumphs might be tempting fate, particularly ahead of another eminently winnable home game. So it was relieving and gratifying that against West Brom on Saturday the team seemingly set out to prove me right in every respect.

Not only did our form players perform well, but the formation worked a treat (with Big Lad turning in another man-of-the-match-winning display), and Goofy continued his goalscoring contribution. Even more pleasingly, my comments specifying possible improvements appeared to have been noted; for once, we weren't reliant on a Loic Remy goal, the winner instead coming from the boot of Moussa Sissoko, the one first-team regular I'd identified as needing to up his game.

The availability of Mathieu Debuchy after suspension tempted the Silver Fox into tinkering with a winning side, MYM the unfortunate man to drop to the bench, but otherwise we were unchanged against a Baggies team that haven't won often this season but have nevertheless regularly proven hard to beat.

We started a little nervously, Tim Krul pushing behind a Chris Brunt free kick that was sailing well wide of the post, and Dreamboat snatching at a shot from a similar position to the one from which he scored the opener against Liverpool. Our first real chance, though, came largely courtesy of Sissoko, whose show of upper-body strength against Liam Ridgewell on the right wing allowed Debuchy to whip in a dangerous cross. Remy's goal-bound header deflected off his marker's shoulder and behind for a corner.

Remarkably, given our record from flag kicks before last weekend, it was from a corner that we took the lead. Dreamboat did little more than loft the ball into the six yard box, but when Boaz Myhill fluffed his punch, Goofy took advantage to glance a header past the man on the line.

A goal up at the break, and some fans thought we could have had a man advantage too. Following a smart turn on the edge of the area, Remy's arm was tugged back by Jonas Olsson. In truth, other defenders were converging on our striker, so a red card would have been unmerited - but for referee Phil Dowd's failure to either award us the free kick or alternatively book the Frenchman for what was admittedly a somewhat theatrical collapse to the turf was mystifying.

The lively Remy swiftly set about trying to extend our lead early in the second period, Myhill smothering at his feet following a neat turn and pass from Big Lad, but instead it was the previously shot-shy visitors who registered next. From a right-wing cross, Shane Long's flicked header took out two defenders, leaving Baggies skipper Brunt free to wallop home from an angle.

Having been pegged back level after dominating the match, and by a side that two months earlier had beaten Man Utd 2-1 at Old Trafford, those of us in the stands had reason to become jittery. The players kept their cool, though - no one more so than Sissoko, who, from Remy's cushioned header, allowed the ball to run across him before smashing a screamer into the top right-hand corner of Myhill's net.

It was a goal worthy of winning any game, though should have been supplemented by Dreamboat, who blasted straight at Myhill after the 'keeper's throw had landed a defender in difficulty. Gloss could also have come from the penalty spot, after a reasonable handball shout against Billy Jones, but we did end up being thankful that substitute Victor Anichebe couldn't quite pop up to haunt us again, the former Everton man's late header failing to find the net.

Having clearly tucked into the egg nog too early and with relish, Baggies manager Steve Clarke claimed afterwards that "Anyone who is fair-minded about the game would say that we should have got something from it" - so I guess you can mark us down as not being fair-minded, then.

Meanwhile, the Silver Fox's post-match comments were notable for two reasons. First, a not-at-all veiled message to a pair of players who've apparently recently expressed interest in leaving: "Everybody is fit and available, so your Yohan Cabayes and Colos can look around that dressing room and see quality, and quality not even involved - Steven Taylor didn't even make the bench." Second, a reiteration of the claim that not being in Europe is beneficial: "We have got a strength in depth that we didn't have even when we finished fifth two years ago, but certainly the fact that we are not playing Europa League and we are getting that extra work on the training ground is definitely showing."

If European qualification really is seen as a curse, then we might want to think about applying the brakes - this fourth successive victory elevated us to the heady heights of fifth place, with yesterday's results only nudging us down one position. Above both Man Utd and Spurs, and two points off second - it would have seemed unthinkable after that defeat at the Dark Place.

Two tough away assignments now lie in wait - Swansea on Wednesday and Man Utd on Saturday - but we currently have sufficient confidence and form, as well as sufficient ability, to be able to return home with decent results.

Other reports: BBC, Observer

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