Friday, February 07, 2014

A Month Of Saturdays: January 2014

In a month that saw an unlikely alliance between Newcastle and the Mackems burst Northumbria Police's "bubble" match proposal for the derby, it was perhaps fitting that our own bubble should burst. While the last two months of 2013 brought a host of memorable three-point hauls (Chelsea, Spurs and Man Utd in particular), we won just once in January - a largely slick, clinical and professional victory over relegation-threatened West Ham that owed everything to the performance of Dreamboat. Unfortunately for us, his display wasn't just a delicious slap around the chops for Fat Sam - it also served as a convincing audition for the onlooking PSG and the match ended up being his swansong in black and white.

The two clubs then engaged in the customary transfer tango. PSG made a cheekily low initial bid, our polite refusal tacitly invited an improved offer, the Ligue 1 leaders promptly returned with one that met our valuation, and by the time we next kicked off, our influential midfield talisman was in Paris nearing the completion of a £20m move. In an instant Paul's hopes of "a quiet month in which we keep hold of our best players" went out of the (transfer) window.

According to Dreamboat's new coach Laurent Blanc, the prospect of Champions League football was what lured him back to his homeland, but whatever the reasons behind the move, it was depressingly inevitable - as was our failure to replace him before the window slammed shut. Despite his agent and father being adamant that a deal would go through in January, winger Remy Cabella remained with Montpellier, and we had to suffer the scathing mockery of his coach Rolland Courbis. Our approach for Clement Grenier, meanwhile, met with perhaps the most comprehensive rejection imaginable - his club Lyon turned their noses up at the fee, while the player's agent Frederic Guerra effectively produced a bullet-point list of reasons why his client was also opposed to the move. Perhaps someone should point out we could look further afield than France...

With Dreamboat in Paris ahead of sealing the deal, we played out an ultimately frustrating 0-0 draw at Carrow Road in which he could well have made all the difference in transforming one point into three. The frustration was only compounded by the red card received by Loic Remy, the only player in the squad to have scored more goals than Dreamboat, and the fact that an appeal against the dismissal and subsequent three-game ban was rejected while Norwich had Bradley Johnson's red card overturned for the same incident.

That meant the month was bookended by away matches which prior to kick-off looked like appetising prospects but in which we managed to register more sendings-off than goals. The new year had got off to an inauspicious start at the Hawthorns, where we were holding our own until Mathieu Debuchy's reckless lunge was rewarded with an early bath. West Brom were then able to heap on the pressure and we eventually succumbed to a late Saido Berahino penalty.

Worse was to follow in the form of yet another early FA Cup exit, Cardiff this time the beneficiaries of our alarming recent inability to make any significant progress in knockout competitions. We huffed and puffed to a barely deserved 1-0 lead, only for new Bluebirds boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer to introduce Craig Noone and Fraizer Campbell, both of whom promptly scored. Sod's law that the former super sub's first subs would turn out to be super, and that our own would have no reply.
No team that has just suffered three successive defeats, including two to struggling sides, would be thrilled to have to face Man City next, but to our credit we picked ourselves up and gave most people's champions elect a sterner examination than they might have been expecting. Admittedly we were behind early on, but only conceded the killer second in stoppage time, while pressing for the equaliser our play deserved. We would have had one, too, had Mr T's stunning left-footer not been ruled out for a ridiculous offside decision from referee Mike Jones, prompting fury from the fans, bafflement from the pundits and touchline banter between the Silver Fox and his opposite number Manuel Pellegrini that might have made JFK blush (almost).

The sequence of losses was brought to an end by the visit to West Ham, which saw us score three times, but generally we found goals hard to come by in January, drawing blanks in three of our five games. That made the long-rumoured arrival of Luuk de Jong - and on the terms we wanted (a loan rather than a permanent deal) - very welcome, even if some cynical fans might have questioned the wisdom of signing a second out-of-form striker from the Bundesliga. Here's hoping he understands the offside rule better than Papiss Cisse, at least.

The Dutchman was the only new face, and in addition to Dreamboat we waved goodbye to someone once labelled as one of the best players in the Premier League by Lionel Messi (in fairness, he's only little and probably can't handle his drink). Spidermag may only have hooked up with former manager Chris Hughton's Norwich on loan, but the Tyneside chapter of his career does look to be over. By contrast, Curtis Good will be hoping he can secure himself a future at St James' Park by impressing at Dundee Utd in much the same way as other young Toon loanees are doing at St Mirren and Rotherham. As Millers fan Michael Stevens reported, James Tavernier in particular is delighting crowds down at the New York Stadium, and having a buccaneering full-back waiting in the wings might help to convince Debuchy not to lose his head quite so often.

That was a rare positive, though, in a month that ended with our squad smaller than it had been at the start, JFK living up to his billiing by .com as director of fuck all, Dreamboat turning out for PSG against Bordeaux, Remy suspended, goals hard to come by and no cup run to look forward to. Still, at least we had the fillip of an overdue victory over the Mackems to look forward to at the start of February...

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