Thursday, March 06, 2014

A Month Of Saturdays: February 2014

If January got off to an inauspicious start with an opening-day defeat at the Hawthorns, then February was infinitely worse.

Newcastle supporters woke up on the morning of 1st February with a groggy head, the result of a transfer window hangover. Not only were we still reeling from the sale of Dreamboat, we were also coming to the realisation that, a few half-hearted bids having failed, our apparent solution to the problem of how to fill the gaping hole in our midfield was Dan Gosling, recently returned from an unspectacular spell at a Blackpool side in freefall in the Championship.

In days gone by, a visit from the Mackems would have been just what the doctor ordered in these circumstances, to raise our spirits - not now, though, as we somehow slumped to a second consecutive 3-0 home defeat to the Great Unwashed. That first humilation, encapsulated forever in the image of Paulo Di Canio's touchline kneeslide, could arguably be written off as a complete freak, so this recurrence was even more deeply upsetting - as was the fact that boyhood Toon supporters Adam Johnson and Jack Colback scored two of the three goals. Luuk de Jong made what was, by his own admission, a disappointing debut and the only vague positive was that this time around trouble was minimal and police horses remained unscathed.

I concluded my match report by looking for crumbs of comfort going forwards: "Last time we were beaten by the Mackems, it was the catalyst for a superb November during which we recorded notable victories over Chelsea and Spurs. Next up for us are the return fixtures against both, so here's hoping this defeat has the same effect." No such luck, as it turned out. The trip to Stamford Bridge saw an improved performance, but we were still no match for a club with the top of the table in their sights and, in Eden Hazard, a world-class player in exceptional form. Worse was to follow a few days later, as we were battered 4-0 by a side for whom St James' Park has in recent years been a very unhappy hunting ground - this, though, was like shooting fish in a barrel.

So, three straight league defeats, with no goals scored and ten conceded - far from ideal. Little wonder that we, like his chum Mathieu Debuchy, spent the enforced break due to our early FA Cup exit pining for Dreamboat, though in truth we were also pining for a defence worthy of the name and the return from suspension of our one serious goal threat, Loic Remy.

When our on-loan French forward did pull on a black and white shirt again, against Aston Villa, he was a free man in the eyes of the law as well as the FA, the rape charge against him having been dropped. Nevertheless, he still took to the pitch shouldering a considerable burden - that of ending our embarrassing goal drought. Thankfully he was up to the task, our best player on the day who, having hit the post two minutes before full time, kept his cool to grab the winner with the whistle practically between referee Martin Atkinson's lips. Perhaps he's taking over the role of last-gasp saviour from Papiss Cisse - who, rumour had it, was interesting clubs in Russia and Turkey.

Despite an improved display that at least demonstrated tenacity and determination if not abundant quality, the victory was only papering over the cracks. That's what made Little Saint Mick's Torygraph article, published prior to the Villa win, so infuriating. The talk of "crisis" was coming from the media rather than the supporters, but that didn't stop him from having another pop at the people who helped pay his exorbitant wages while he lay on the treatment table for months at a time thinking of England. His view that, because we were comfortably in the top half of the table, there couldn't be anything to complain about was myopic in the extreme.

Many grievances of the sort Little Saint Mick tried to explain away or ignored entirely were aired at the Fans Forum meeting - the club's perceived lack of ambition, the sale of Dreamboat and bungled attempt to secure a replacement, the ban on NCJ Media, the value of the Sports Direct branding plastered all over the stadium - but the answers given were rarely convincing or satisfactory. Certainly not enough to dissuade those supporters already contemplating a boycott of the club shop, matchday facilities or indeed everything to do with the club - though the announcement of the annual accounts was accompanied by a veiled warning that such actions would harm the club rather than the owner.

The Fans Forum did bring news of a couple of positive developments, though, in the shape of Gael Bigirimana's appointment as Equality Ambassador and the club's formal commitment to the Football v Homophobia campaign. At least we appear to be taking corporate social responsibility seriously - though of course the positive PR can't do any harm.

Another candle in February's gloom was James Tavernier's shortlisting for League One Player of the Month for January. He may have missed out on the accolade, but it was nevertheless testimony to the fact that he and hopefully we are reaping the rewards of his loan spell at Rotherham - a spell that was extended until the end of the season. Haris Vuckic will be there to keep him company, while defender Curtis Good signed up for a stint with Dundee Utd. When the trio return to Tyneside in the summer and resume playing for the Reserves, it will be under a different manager, Willie Donachie having resigned following reports of a post-match bust-up with defender Remie Streete.

But of course the Scot wasn't the highest-profile departure from St James' Park in February. The news that JFK was no longer a leech on the club's payroll was greeted not so much with dancing in the streets as with relief and renewed anger that the appointment was made in the first place. A second pathetic transfer window in a row precipitated the parting of the ways - a classic case of every cloud having a silver lining. Initially it was reported that JFK had resigned, but the implication that he might have the decency to fall on his sword didn't ring true and sure enough the Silver Fox, whom JFK had frustrated and infuriated, soon let slip that the board had given him the boot. At the Fans Forum event club representatives confirmed that the director of football role will remain vacant until the summer, when it'll be re-evaluated and then either filled or scrapped. JFK, meanwhile, finds himself where he belongs - on the football scrapheap, alongside people less deserving of such a predicament, such as Terry McDermott and Derek Fazackerley.

Sadly, sacking JFK didn't signal the fact that common sense was finally pervading the decision-making process at St James' Park. Whichever bright spark it was who came up with the idea of the #AskTayls hashtag on Twitter must have been horrified when, inevitably, it was hijacked and abused, often to comic effect. One wag enquired of Saylor: "If you were a footballer, what would your preferred position be?" The mauling by Spurs had a few more Twitter users questioning his abilities in rather less tongue-in-cheek and rather more forthright fashion, prompting him to turn tail and quit the social network.

By contrast, Little Big Lad stayed to face the music, offering a one-word apology: "Sorry". At least someone at the club was prepared to say it - and, as February just went to prove, at Newcastle Utd it needs saying on a regular basis.

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