Friday, May 23, 2014

They think it's all over... it is now

This blog has been a wonderful rollercoaster ride for me. It's allowed me a creative outlet to express my opinions about my club, the club that I care about, that is and remains a part of my life.

Through all of the highs and lows, only a very few things have remained constant. 

One is my wife, whose patience has allowed me to spend more spare time than is probably healthy attached to a keyboard.

The other is Ben, who has been the driving force for this blog and who has carried it when I've been tied up with work (something which has increasingly monopolised my time of late). 

Without their support I wouldn't have been able to do this, and had so much fun along the way.  Championship trophy and Intertoto Cup aside, it would have been nice to have had a major trophy success to blog about, but hopefully in the future, under a regime that actually supports the notion of trying to win something, we'll all be able to cheer some success.

So thank you to both of them, and thank you all for reading, and haway the lads!


* * * * *

I can only echo Paul's sentiments, also thanking my own partner Jenni for her understanding. Over the years the site has not only been a medium for creatively channelling both delight and disgust at goings-on at St James' Park, but also a means by which we've made connections with other supporters (of both Newcastle and other clubs). Thanks to all those who've contributed to posts, and who have invited us to contribute to their sites in turn.

While we've maintained the site for the pure love of it, it wouldn't be fair to deny that we've also enjoyed the opportunities it's brought us - and the occasional gratifying plaudits from both readers and the mainstream press.

If it's not too presumptuous to say, don't bemoan the site's closure - with both The Mag and True Faith going digital only this summer and joining the ever-reliable .com, there's plenty of excellent independent coverage of the club online. (Of course, you should really have been reading all three already...)

We're not retiring completely - we'll be keeping our Twitter going for those occasions when we just can't help ourselves from commenting, and I'll continue to crop up from time to time with contributions on The Two Unfortunates.

But as far as this blog's concerned, that's all folks. It's been a blast.

Thanks for reading.


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You couldn't make it up

It's fair to say that the last ten years have been eventful. Within a week of this site coming into being, the club had bid more than £20m for an 18-year-old Wayne Rooney - a move that, with hindsight, was actually less ludicrously improbable than it initially seemed - and sacked bona fide club legend Sir Bobby Robson just four games into the new season.

Since then, we've reported on everything from extraordinary managerial appointments (Graeme Souness, King Kev, Wor Al), the retirement of the greatest striker in the club's history, and the return of a goalkeeping legend, to our implication in a possible transfer scandal, a sponsorship deal with an ethically dubious payday loans company, the whims of an owner who has attempted to change to the official name of the stadium and ban the local press, and the deadline day sale of our very rough diamond of a star striker to Liverpool for a staggering £35m (to replace a £50m Chelsea-bound Spaniard who we apparently came close to signing back in 2006).

To wrap up our look back over the last decade, we've selected ten of the most ridiculous things we've found ourselves writing about.

Text pest (April 2005)

There are times when team-mates fall out. Bowyer and Dyer we've touched on already, Saylor and Rocky we'll gloss over, but even after players have moved on some of them still find it in their hearts to taunt former colleagues. Step forward Craig Bellamy and the incident which gave him the second half of his nickname as the No-Necked Text Pest.

To be honest, if you are going to send a snarky message to a team-mate after they've lost in a cup semi-final, Wor Al (the man who famously flattened Keith Gillespie after he became a bit gobby on a pre-season trip to Dublin) wouldn't be my choice of recipient, but then, Bellamy never was the brightest. (Paul)

The longest in the shower (October 2005)

There are times when you get a glimpse behind the veil of secrecy that surrounds the club. Sometimes for good, sometimes bad, and sometimes you just learn things that you don't really need to know.

Turns out that as well as having the attention span of a gnat, Titus is quite a big lad. Mind you, that was coming from someone whose own trouser contents were themselves the subject of much public interest only the following month. (Paul)

Charm offensive (September 2008)

In truth, we could probably have filled this whole list with anecdotes about the deluded, oafish wrecking ball that is JFK - a man Jabba appointed to a position of authority at St James' Park not once but twice. There were his absurd and preposterous boasts, his mangling of some players' surnames and his attempts to sign others we already owned.

But when it comes to choosing one particular "highlight" of his time on Tyneside, it would have to be that infamous press conference, which he began by calling the Mirror's north-east correspondent Simon Bird a "cunt" and proceeding to give a performance of astonishingly foul-mouthed belligerence. If Jabba had ever thought to install a swearbox at the ground, JFK might have ended up paying his own wages. (Ben)

Big Lad thinking he'd been burgled (January 2009)

As he heads for the door, bringing down the curtain on almost two decades at the club, it's only right that we salute Big Lad, a loyal club man and slayer of Mackems (if not half as many sides as I think he should have put to the sword over the years, given his undoubted natural gifts).

However, it's not his many goals against the Unwashed or his excellent penalty record to which I wish to pay tribute, but rather his slovenly ways which are such that he once called the police to report a burglary, only to find everything was still in his messy home. (Paul)

Congratulations! You are the highest bidder (June 2009)

We're not a football club renowned for having much in the way of dignity, so it perhaps shouldn't have come as so much of a surprise to learn that Jabba had resorted to soliciting email offers for the club via the official site. Strangely he decided the club was worth more than the Curly Wurly offered by a Mackem, but as we warned him at the time, "don't go getting excited when your inbox fills up with emails from Nigerian gentlemen expressing an interest in depositing large sums of money in your bank account".

What was next? A listing on eBay? A card in a newsagent's window? Jabba standing in Eldon Square, wearing nothing but a sandwich board? (Ben)

"Ride me, ride me!" (November 2010)

No one would deny that a 5-1 thrashing of the Mackems merited a post-match celebration, but Rocky and Kevin Nolan took it just that bit too far, landing themselves squarely in the middle of a sex and drugs scandal.

It wasn't the first time Toon players had disgraced themselves on a night out (recall, for instance, the official letter of complaint from the Ritz following a pre-Christmas party in 2004), but the fact that Nolan was our skipper and Rocky was the ward and houseguest whose nose he was supposedly keeping out of trouble made it all the more ridiculous. Still, given the incident occurred after a derby match at St James', at least no police horses were harmed, I suppose. (Ben)

Teething pains (July 2011)

The summer of 2011 saw the players undertake a pre-season tour of the US. Or, rather, most of them. Whichever bright spark chose the destination had failed to account for the fact that our two career criminals ASBO and the Lone Ranger would be barred from entering the country on the grounds of their past misdemeanours.

Even more farcically, though, our new marquee signing Dreamboat was unable to go either, his visa application held up due to a dispute over an unpaid dental bill. (Ben)

Gategate (June 2013)

An administration that can happily countenance changing the stadium name, attempt to besmirch the good name of King Kev and disrespect Wor Al clearly has precious little time for fripperies like history. Even when they try to pay lip service to tradition, they get it horribly wrong.

Take, for example, the supposedly "iconic" decades-old gates salvaged from Sir John Hall's back garden and, to much trumpeting from the club, restored to their rightful place outside the ground - gates which were actually in position for just nine years from 1990. Jabba may have had a grievance with the local press over them allegedly peddling lies, but he should remember that they've also been complicit and helpful in unquestioningly spreading this sort of guff on the club's behalf.

Meanwhile, it was left to supporters to raise sufficient funds to pay for a plaque in tribute to former player and manager Joe Harvey. (Ben)

Nutjob (March 2014)

If you had to put money on which of our managers over the past decade might, when temporarily overcome by the red mist, have headbutted an opposing player, the bookie's favourite would surely be Souness. Yet the worst he mustered was redecorating the away dressing room at Wigan with sandwiches.

The perpetrator was actually the man with whom Souness had a verbal spat in December 2005. The Silver Fox took exception to Hull's former Mackem midfielder David Meyler and lost the plot, earning himself a £60,000 fine and the longest FA ban ever handed to a manager. No dignity, no credibility - he was now a liability. Not that Jabba appeared to recognise that fact, announcing that the Silver Fox would remain in the job into the new season. (Ben)

Crash and burn (various)

If you're a past or present manager or player for the club, a word of advice: never, ever set foot anywhere near a car. Only bad things can come of it. Not all of these incidents occurred during the ten years of the blog's existence, and not all were written about on the blog - but nevertheless it makes for an instructive if alarming list...

Crashes: Titus Bramble, Andy Griffin, Kieron Dyer, Nobby Solano, Ossie Ardiles, Loic Remy

Speeding: Damien Duff, Peter Lovenkrands, HBA, Demba Ba, Davide Santon, Obafemi Martins, Michael Chopra, Craig Bellamy, Lee Bowyer, Jermaine Jenas, Big Lad (don't scoff at the idea of him doing anything too quickly)

Drink driving: Nobby Solano, the Lone Ranger, Matty PattisonDidi Hamann, Clarence Acuna (who happened to be dressed as Captain Hook at the time)

Motoring fraud: the Zog, Mr T

Car set on fire: Rocky

Tinted windows too dark: Shay Given

No doubt there are many more. Naturally ASBO has a motoring offence to his name, breaking a pedestrian's leg in Liverpool city centre (though this was in May 2005, before signing for Newcastle). One name missing from the above list is that of Papiss Cisse - whose first job, as a 15-year-old, was as an ambulance driver. (Ben)

(Thanks to Tim for some of the research.)

* * * * *

And that's not to mention: Little Saint Mick ogling Anna Friel in a less than saintly fashion at the premiere of Goal!; Wor Al being criticised by a popular grammarian; Mr T consulting "his favourite witch doctor" in a bid to recover from injury; Sideshow Bob getting pally with the Pontiff in the same month that Papiss Cisse sought to befriend fans by inviting them round to his for a barbecue and a game of pool; Bez recalling how one of Tino Asprilla's dodgy mates once sold him a £200 ring that turned out to be solid gold and worth £1200...

To be honest, if we keep trawling the archives this post could be enormous. So let's leave it there, shall we?



Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Best buys and fantastic flops

Over the past decade legions of players have come and gone - some making a significant impression and carving out a lasting place for themselves in our hearts, others whose departures were cause for street parties. Here we salute ten of our best signings during that period, and shake our fist at five of the worst.

Ten of the best

Tim Krul

Poor Steve Harper. No sooner had the perennial benchwarmer seen Shay Given finally crack and move to Man City, than the place between the sticks that he'd waited so long and so patiently for was under threat from some upstart young kid from the Netherlands.

Of the decision to award the 17-year-old Tim Krul a three-year contract in July 2005, I commented that it "suggests he's a fine prospect - though, of course, astute judgement isn't always something you associate with Souness and Shepherd". But even a stopped clock tells the right time twice a day, and sure enough a stunning debut against Palermo in the Europa League vindicated the club's faith.

It was to be a few years before he established himself as our first-choice 'keeper, but he's now a vital component of the team, as important on some occasions as our strikers - just recall his sensational performance in last season's visit to White Hart Lane. If only all our youthful recruits and Academy graduates went on to be such an unmitigated success... (Ben)

Nobby Solano (aka Everyone's Favourite Peruvian Trumpet-Playing Love Rat)

I love Nobby. I loved him the first time he played for us - all those magnificent curling balls with the outside of his right foot. His energy, his enthusiasm, his creative guile. I was absolutely gutted when Sir Bobby allowed him to go to Villa.

So when Grim Sourness brought him back on deadline day in 2005, notionally to provide a steady supply to Little Saint Mick, it was no surprise that he once again became a fixture in the side. As his career began to wane, he also turned himself into a reliable right-back.

I love Nobby for his trumpet playing, for his warm smile, for that fact that as a national hero. Am I jealous that the other half of this blog even got to shake his hand? Yes, I bloody well am. (Paul)

Antoine Sibierski

When Antoine Sibierski crept through the door in 2006, it's fair to say we were underwhelmed, unable to comprehend how and where the Frenchman would fit into our side. He looked like the footballing equivalent of an encounter in a nightclub at five minutes to 2am, with Glenn Roeder desperately grabbing the only person available after everyone else had made off with superficially more appealing options.

However, what we found was a player who stepped up to the plate in impressive fashion, scoring regularly as we enjoyed a Europa Cup run and endearing himself to us all with his hard running and commitment.  When he left a year later, he did so with little fanfare, but with our full respect. (Paul)

Fabriccio Coloccini (aka Sideshow Bob)

When Sideshow Bob made his competitive debut for us, as Kevin Keegan oversaw a creditable draw at Old Trafford (which what was probably the high point of the disastrous 2008/09 season), I described him as looking "strong and composed".

In fact, as the season wore on, our Argentinian centre-half struggled. He looked out of his depth and was part of a defence which struggled for consistency. Earmarked for departure by Shearer, it was something of a surprise that he was still with us when our season in the Championship began, but along with Jose Enrique, both players blossomed that season, their superior class and composure allowing them to grow and settle in English football, which meant that when we stormed back in to the Premier League both were able to soar.  While Enrique flew the coop, Sideshow Bob remains, and despite some off-field difficulties, he has remained loyal to the club (way more than many of his peers would have done in the circumstances).

While he may not be quite as good as Jonathan Woodgate (and that's a pub argument that can fill a evening in itself), his fitness record and longevity see him rightly hailed as one of the finest defenders to ever play centre-half for us. (Paul)

Cheik Tiote (aka Mr T)

Not only was Mr T a significant upgrade on Alan Smith, he was exactly half the price. The Ivorian signed from FC Twente for the bargain fee of £3.5m in August 2010 and, together with Sideshow Bob, ensured our newly promoted side had some serious backbone and never flirted with the prospect of returning back to the Championship.

His lust for a crunching tackle has regularly earned him a special place in referees' notebooks - he notched up an incredible 25 bookings in 50 league games over his first two seasons at the club, and received red cards against the Mackems and (more costly) Stevenage - but, when correctly channelled, that aggression has been instrumental in breaking up opposition attacks and driving us forwards.

His fierce commitment to the cause has endeared him to the Toon faithful, even if his habit of pirouetting in possession on the edge of his own area regularly has our hearts in our mouths. In 2012/13, he didn't enjoy the best of campaigns, but then who of our players did? Anyone who can both seal the most extraordinary comeback in Premier League history and help the disabled to walk for the first time is clearly capable of being a miracle worker. (Ben)

James Perch (aka Perchinho)

There was a time when we regularly bemoaned Perchinho's name appearing on a Newcastle team sheet.  Bookings in the first five consecutive Premier League games he played (a league record) only gave weight to the belief that he was out of his depth.

But he kept plugging away, working hard in training and as a result became a player we could all appreciate. Perchinho knew he wasn't the most creative player on the park, but equally he knew his role was a key one within the team. Whether at right-back, centre-back or in midfield, he always gave the best performance he could manage, and in that sense he was an easy player to relate to. He's the journeyman player who worked hard and made his way to the top - not through outrageous flair, but sheer bloodymindedness and hard graft. He's you, or me, if only we'd been spotted when we were younger. As such, when he left, it was with our best wishes and thanks for a job done as well as we could have done, in his position. (Paul)

Hatem Ben Arfa (aka HBA)

First there was David Ginola, then Laurent Robert, and then, in August 2010 (initially on loan), HBA. All Gallic geniuses who could be frustratingly inconsistent, temperamental, lazy and sulky but who were blessed with sublime skill and outrageous ability. And HBA arguably has the most sublime skill and most outrageous ability of the lot.

A wonderful winner at Goodison Park on his first start for the club promised much, but then Nigel de Jong intervened and it wasn't until the following season, a permanent deal having been struck in January 2011, that we were able to see him in action again. His form over the second half of that campaign was nothing short of electrifying, and he scored two of the most sensational goals I've ever had the pleasure to witness, first against Blackburn in an FA Cup tie and later against Bolton in a routine home league win.

HBA has never quite reached those levels again since then, but he remains an exceptionally talented footballer. Unfairly scapegoated and sidelined by a manager who, like many before him, has found his psychological fragility difficult to engage with, HBA looks set to leave St James' Park this summer - the place will be much the poorer without him. (Ben)

Yohan Cabaye (aka Dreamboat)

You don't know what you've got until it's gone, they say. And they're certainly right when it comes to Dreamboat, whose absence was keenly felt from the moment he left to join PSG in January.

Rewind two and a half years. The internationally capped captain of the recently crowned French double winners available for under £4.5m - surely it was too good to be true? Not so, as was subsequently proven by a campaign in which he was instrumental in us so very nearly claiming a Champions League spot. The following season was more of a struggle in terms of form and fitness, but by the time of his departure he had once again reasserted himself as the man who made us tick, a complete midfielder who could do pretty much everything - score a goal, pick a pass, win a tackle - all the while looking rogueishly handsome.

Two goals and a man-of-the-match-winning performance at Upton Park was a fine way to sign off, though the winner at Old Trafford and another superb display at Selhurst Park are also still fresh in the memory as we continue to rue his loss and the damage it inflicted on our season. (Ben)

Demba Ba

Deadline day in August 2011, and Paul voiced the frustration and anger felt by ourselves and thousands of fans that, seven months after flogging Rocky to Liverpool, we still hadn't secured a replacement. As it turned out, we had, a couple of months earlier.

Demba Ba may have arrived (on HBA's recommendation) to little fanfare and for no fee, but he soon set about proving his value. Not only did he plunder a total of 29 goals in 54 appearances for the club, including hat-tricks against Blackburn and Stoke, the latter having rejected him on medical grounds; he also proved accommodating when Papiss Cisse's arrival in January 2012 necessitated a change of formation.

As with Dreamboat, Ba's departure (in January 2013, to Chelsea, after 'Appy 'Arry had made public the existence of a release clause in his contract) wrecked our campaign, but I don't think we could seriously begrudge him a move to a side with realistic trophy ambitions. The only people who could be legitimately aggrieved at his decision were those local shopkeepers who'd bought tons of strawberry syrup to sell to fans wanting to emulate their hero, and whoever thought it would be wise to use him as the face of January in the official 2013 club calendar... (Ben)

Loic Remy

A French-born striker who impressed with a London club but who couldn't quite single-handedly save them from relegation? For Demba Ba, read Loic Remy. We've had some duff loan forwards over the last decade - Shefki Kuqi, Giuseppe Rossi (now a mainstay of the Italian national squad) and most recently Luuk de Jong - but Remy certainly doesn't fall into that category.

After snubbing us in January 2013 in preference for a higher salary at Loftus Road, we argued that he had some work to do to win the fans' forgiveness upon signing the following August  - but he did so in some style, scoring 14 times, including five in a four-game spell in September/October and a further three in three in November. Our second-half-of-the-season slump (and chronic inability to score) coincided not only with Dreamboat's departure but with Remy's struggles with injury and suspension. How our season might have turned out without him doesn't bear thinking about.

Any player who arrives at St James' Park with a rape charge hanging over him (subsequently dropped) and who is involved in a motoring incident within a couple of months of being on Tyneside would seem tailor-made for us, but sadly it looks as though the man named as NUST's Player of the Year will be plying his trade elsewhere next season. (Ben)

Five of the worst

Jean-Alain Boumsong

Believe it or not, Jean-Alain Boumsong made a reasonable enough start to his Newcastle career upon arrival in January 2005. Indeed, he was arguably the only player to emerge from the wreckage of our heavy FA Cup semi-final defeat that year with any credit; his slip may have gifted Man Utd a lead from which they never looked back, but at times he was like King Canute in the face of a red-shirted tide.

2005/6 was a very different story, though, and before long he was making Titus Bramble look like Mr Reliable and prompting comparisons to Marcelino, arguably the most humiliating thing that can happen to any Newcastle player, despite inexplicably continuing to feature in the French squad.

What made matters worse was that Souness had shelled out £8m for a player who had cost Rangers nothing just six months earlier, and when - to our disbelief - Italian giants Juventus swooped for him, it represented a £4.7m loss over the course of just a year and a half. We weren't the only ones to smell something fishy about the original deal - Lord Stevens did too... (Ben)

Michael Owen (aka Little Saint Mick)

I was seriously deliberating whether Little Saint Mick should feature in the "ten of the best" list. After all, at the time (August 2005), bringing England's top striker back to the country from Real Madrid when he should have been at the peak of his abilities looked like a major coup, even for a record fee - and it wasn't just Fat Fred, Souness or Newcastle fans who felt that way. Indeed there were promising signs early in that first season: a 3-0 win at West Brom that suggested he could replicate his old England partnership with Wor Al; a pre-Christmas hat-trick at Upton Park.

But then, at White Hart Lane, came the injury that was to rule him out for the rest of the domestic season, a 28-minute cameo against Birmingham in the penultimate game aside. Much worse was to follow, though. Desperate to play in that summer's World Cup in Germany, he later admitted he was willing to put country before club and take a gamble on his fitness that backfired in spectacular fashion when he sustained anterior cruciate knee ligament damage against Sweden.

We were left to "pick up the pieces", as Fat Fred put it, and Owen was never quite the same again. He managed just 79 appearances over the course of four seasons (albeit scoring 30 goals in the process), drawing a huge salary all the while, before slinking off to the Man Utd bench in 2009 after our relegation and the expiry of his contract. What really rankles is the way he's not only failed to comprehend the root of the fans' disgruntlement but has sought to belittle, mock and patronise us at every opportunity - most recently this February. Things couldn't have turned much more sour. (Ben)

Albert Luque

Like Little Saint Mick, Albert Luque was one of a raft of signings in the summer of 2005, checking in four days before the former Real Madrid man and Nobby Solano but after Scott Parker and Emre had already got their feet under the table. Like our other acquisition from la Liga, he arrived at a good age, with a considerable reputation and for a hefty premium. And like Little Saint Mick, he too turned out to be an absolute unmitigated disaster.

The reasons for the failure of another signing scrutinised by Lord Stevens are less immediately apparent. Perhaps it was homesickness and an inability to settle in the region; perhaps it was an uncertainty over his best position (wide on the left, behind the strikers, or up front?); most likely, it was an apparent refusal to show any kind of effort or application.

After spurning numerous chances for redemption, he finally ambled off to Ajax in August 2007, leaving only fleeting positive memories: the winner in the Palermo game in which Tim Krul made his debut; the final goal in Wor Al's final match, against the Mackems; and opening the scoring in the great man's testimonial a month later. No one on Tyneside would be prepared to give Luque a testimonial of any kind. (Ben)

Sol Campbell

What's that lumbering over the hill? It's Sol Campbell (or a pale shadow of his former self) looking for one last pay day. In hindsight, we have only ourselves to blame. In our desperation to add an experienced defender to the squad ahead of our return to the top flight, we were seduced by the availability of a one-time England centre-back whom we'd pursued on several occasions previously. For the player's part, the motivation behind finally agreeing to move to Tyneside was both money and, it seems, the influence of his new Geordie bride.

The alarm bells should have been sounded by the fact that he had walked out on fellow Magpies Notts County after just one game, and his commitment to our cause was equally questionable from the very beginning, when he turned up for pre-season training looking like he'd eaten the entire contents of Greggs.

Thankfully Chris Hughton had only signed him on a one-year deal and for no transfer fee - but the £35,000 a week he trousered for doing next to nothing still smarts. We've had other flops who've cost us more, and over a longer period of time, but probably no others who've prompted a fundamental shift in transfer policy. (Ben)

Nile Ranger (aka the Lone Ranger)

The thing that still pisses me off about the Lone Ranger is that he has all this talent, and yet he wasted his time at Newcastle, and continues to waste it after his departure, by being a dick.

Whether it was getting dropped due to his lack of punctuality, writing his name in £20 notes or being prosecuted for a selection of deeply unpleasant misdemeanours, his was the cautionary tale you show to your kids and say: "Whatever he does, do the opposite..."

Since leaving Newcastle he's gone on to fulfil the depressing trajectory which we foresaw. Dropping down the leagues, continuing to come into contact with the law, getting his name tattooed on his own face - it's a sad and sorry saga, which looks like only ever having one end. (Paul)

* * * * *

Update: In compiling the "five of the worst" above, we appear to have forgotten about both striker the Xisco Kid, who cost us £5.7m per goal (or, in other words, £5.7m), and Ignacio Gonzalez, the midfielder brought in on loan at the same time, whose signing proved to be the straw that broke King Kev's back and was (it transpired) an attempt to curry favour with South American agents. But who could blame us for wanting to do that?

For the record, other players we considered featuring included Celestine Babayaro, Alan Smith, David Rozenhal, Joey Barton, Cacapa, Dan Gosling, Shefki Kuqi, Romain Amalfitano and Luuk de Jong.

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Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Matches of the day, and the stuff of nightmares

Sheer, unadulterated joy and unfathomable despair: we're on nodding terms with the former, and know the latter so well we've got the Samaritans on speed dial. We kick off our look back over the last decade by fondly recalling ten of our best games - and dredging up the banished memories of five of our worst.

Ten of the best

Spurs (h), 13th March 2005
As alluded to yesterday, it's the hope that drives us as football fans and this game, which saw us overcome a spirited Spurs team thanks to a Fat Pat goal in front of me (and a few thousand others in the Leazes End), gave us hope. The victory saw us secure our first trip to an FA Cup semi-final in Cardiff, to a stadium that I love, and that I wanted to see and hear packed with Newcastle fans. It gave us hope that maybe, just maybe, we might see some success come our way. (Paul)

Mackems (a), 17th April 2006
"[I]f it is to be Shearer's last game, our biggest derby victory for fifty years isn't a bad way to bow out." The last words of our match report proved to be accurate (his testimonial aside) and, as a fitting tribute to our all-time top scorer, a glorious victory over the Great Unwashed was a beautiful way for the curtain to fall on his career. The fact that Michael Chopra, the Zog and even Albert Luque also got on the scoresheet illustrates how awful the home team were that day, which, if anything, actually made it that little bit sweeter. (Paul)

Stoke (h), 16th January 2008
A run-of-the-mill FA Cup third round replay that pitched a struggling Newcastle side against then Championship promotion-chasers Stoke, coming after a dull 0-0 draw at the Britannia, hardly promised much. But then the news broke that, incredibly, club legend King Kev was back for a second spell as manager, and, much as his initial appointment in February 1992 had banished the relegation blues and propelled us to a 3-0 win over Bristol City, the excitement and euphoria in the stands inspired the players picked by caretaker boss Nigel Pearson to sweep the Potters aside. Better times were surely just around the corner... (Ben)

Spurs (a), 30th March 2008
Initially, things didn't go to plan for King Kev. It wasn't until 22nd March and his tenth game in charge (following thumpings at the hands of Arsenal (twice), Man Utd, Liverpool and Villa) that he finally oversaw a victory. That win against Fulham lit the spark that set us on our way to safety, though, and the following weekend we recorded a hugely impressive 4-1 victory against another bunch of white-shirted Londoners. Nicky Butt and Geremi were unlikely goalscorers as we recovered from falling behind in fine style. Like Butt, Obafemi Martins also scored at White Hart Lane for the second consecutive season, though his icing-on-the-cake strike was somewhat less spectacular than the previous year's effort. (Ben)

Nottingham Forest (h), 29th March 2010
At the City Ground the previous October, in a game played out in a poisonous atmosphere, we lost 1-0, ceding top spot in the Championship to West Brom and having to suffer the Forest fans' taunts about our fall from grace. So revenge was sweet, Jose Enrique's first and only goal for the club (and indeed his first senior goal for anyone) sealing a hard-earned victory that all but ensured automatic promotion at the first attempt and consigned the visitors to the play-offs. (Ben)

Mackems (h), 31st October 2010
Given our lack of trophies, you have to take your highlights where you can get them and beating Mackems (rather than horses) is a definite high in any season. However, while beating them in any manner is satisfying, sticking five past them was a sweet moment that lives long in the memory and for Kevin Nolan in particular guarantees he'll never need to buy a drink on Tyneside as long as he lives. (Paul)

Arsenal (h), 5th February 2011
We've been involved in some memorable games with Arsenal in the Premier League era - the 3-1 win at Highbury in December 2001 that ended the four-year London hoodoo, the 7-3 howking suffered at the Emirates almost exactly eleven years later - but this one tops the lot. We'd lost 4-0 at home to the Gunners in the League Cup in October, and this time were trailing by the same scoreline with just 26 minutes on the clock. But, aided and abetted by referee Phil Dowd, a red card for Abou Diaby, an electrifying cameo from the Lone Ranger (yes, he was a footballer once, honest) and what is still the only goal Mr T has ever scored in a Newcastle shirt, we made Premier League history in recovering from a four-goal deficit to claim a point - and in the end it could so nearly have been all three. (Ben)

Man Utd (h), 4th January 2012
The Red Devils have regularly routed us in the Premier League - the 6-0 and 5-1 humpings in 2008, barely a month apart, are a particularly painful memory - so it's only right that we should revel in the rare pleasure of a comprehensive victory of our own. Demba Ba, who had revealed his addiction to strawberry syrup in a pre-match interview, set us on our way with a wonderful volley, before a sumptuous Dreamboat free-kick and a comical Phil Jones own goal secured us the three points and the game a place in the memory bank. (Ben)

Chelsea (a), 2nd May 2012
Our illustrious hosts may have had one eye on the Champions League final, which they went on to win, but take nothing away from a tremendous team display from those in black and white. Papiss Cisse was in the midst of an exceptional scoring streak that now seems like an age ago and had already hit a fine goal in the first half, when, wide on the left in stoppage time, he looped an extraordinary outside-of-the-foot shot over Petr Cech and in off the far post. Our goal of the season hands down, were it not for HBA (of whom more tomorrow). (Ben)

Man Utd (a), 7th December 2013
No matter that it came against the worst Man Utd side in decades. No matter that the Red Devils lost at home on six other occasions in the Premier League last season, including to the Mackems. At last, after 41 years of waiting, we recorded a victory at Old Trafford, and a relatively comfortable one at that. The only goal of the game came from the right boot of Dreamboat, who put himself firmly in the shop window - but despite their chronic deficiencies in midfield, when January came around Man Utd weren't interested and he left for PSG instead. (Ben)

Five of the worst

Aston Villa (h), 2nd April 2005
In all my days as a Newcastle fan, I can honestly say that this marked a particular nadir. It wasn't that we lost to a mediocre Villa side that was the issue, or even Saylor's appalling dive as though taken out by a sniper in the stands when he'd committed a deliberate handball. No. It was the disagreement between Bowyer and Dyer which went from a mild exchange of views to a full-blown punch-up. On the pitch. In front of thousands of fans in the stands and millions of people watching on TV. To describe it as a desperate day was an understatement. Not only were the players banned (ruling them out of the FA Cup semi-final two weeks later) and Bowyer subsequently found guilty of threatening behaviour and fined, it also meant that the wheels had spectacularly come off our season just as we had the prospect of games in the latter stages of two cup competitions four days apart. Needless to say, we lost to both Sporting Lisbon and Man Utd by the same 4-1 scoreline. (Paul)

Fulham (h), 16th May 2009
As dark days go, the whole 2008/09 season was littered with them. King Kev, JFK, Chris Hughton and Wor Al all presided over miserable performances. This was the 37th game of one of the most miserable seasons in my memory. Even though relegation wasn't confirmed until a week later (and a point in this game, or that one or any of the other 36 for that matter, would have sent the perma-tanned bastard's Hull team down instead), this was nonetheless an abject display in which we contrived to shoot ourselves in the foot thanks to a red card for Sebastian Bassong and a failure to register a goal. (Paul)

Stevenage (a), 8th January 2011
A list of this nature simply wouldn't be complete without a humiliating cup exit at the hands of supposed inferiors. Surveying the past decade, there are a few candidates for inclusion, but this one stands out like a particularly sore thumb. For League 2 outfit Stevenage, it was revenge for the perceived injustices of the clubs' infamous meetings in 1998, when we belittled and patronised them on our way to defeat to Arsenal in the final. Remarkable to think that that stupendous comeback against the Gunners came less than a month later than this excruciating embarrassment. (Ben)

Liverpool (h), 27th April 2013
Those of us present at the 5-1 St James' Park thrashing in December 2008 - a result that finally broke Shay Given's spirit, despite the three separate standing ovations we gave him, and clearly signposted our relegation the following May - probably didn't imagine we could possibly turn in an even worse display at home to Liverpool. Yet less than four and a half years later we contrived to get smacked for six without reply, Mathieu Debuchy getting himself sent off just to escape a sorry mess that once again appeared to foreshadow relegation. God knows what the scoreline would have been if Luis Suarez had been playing. I wonder if Stevie G went back to Liverpool and celebrated in time-honoured fashion, by beating up a DJ for not playing a Phil Collins song on request. (Ben)

Mackems (h), 1st February 2014
Proof that lightning can and indeed does strike twice. And lightning of the very worst kind, too - a painfully comprehensive 3-0 home defeat to the Mackems. The previous season's match was marked by Paulo di Canio's kneeslide along the touchline, and a police horse getting biffed in the aftermath, but February's loss was arguably more traumatising as it meant we could no longer attempt to write off the first game as a freakish anomaly. When the next derby comes around, we'll go into it knowing we've lost the last three - is it any wonder we'd have been particularly keen to see the Mackems relegated? (Ben)

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Monday, May 19, 2014

The final whistle

Way back in the mists of time - well, August 2004, to be precise - two Toon-supporting university friends decided to join forces and Black & White & Read All Over, a blog "dedicated to the discussion of the splendidly self-destructive and calamitous circus that is Newcastle United", was born. Now, nearly ten years on, the time has sadly come to put the site to sleep.

It's not a decision we've taken lightly, and one for which there are several reasons: both Paul and I are living in exile from the north-east and aren't able to get to as many games as we'd like; one of us has a particularly demanding job; we both now have young families. All of these have meant that we've been finding it increasingly difficult to give the 110% (in footballers' parlance) that the site deserves, and, determined that it shouldn't simply fade away or tail off, we wanted to bring it to a definitive conclusion. And now, at the end of a long and typically turbulent season and with the summer stretching out in front, seemed like the perfect moment.

We aren't alone in taking the end of this season as a curtain call, of course; both The Mag and True Faith have also called time on the production of their hard-copy magazines, moving to online-only publications.

While not a reason for either of us to bring down the curtain on this blog, supporting a club whose sum total of ambition is to finish mid-table with no desire for cup success has also caused a degree of disillusionment and detachment from the club which we've supported for a combined total in excess of 70 years. For many fans, the decision to take a step away from the club is a very real prospect.

The internet is awash with football blog equivalents of the Marie Celeste, once vibrant but long since abandoned and left to float around unattended. While it's unrealistic to expect football blogs to break news, it is important that they react to it relatively swiftly if they're not to appear irrelevant or out of touch, and maintain a consistently decent standard - challenges that have defeated many a talented blogger over the years, but ones that we've doggedly sought to meet (generally with success, we feel). Allow us a self-congratulatory pat on the back for longevity and sheer bloodymindedness, if nothing else.

But, ahead of blowing the final whistle for good on Friday, we won't be transparently attempting to milk your applause by doing a lap of honour or indulging in an open-top bus parade along the highways and byways of the internet. No - instead, incorrigible nostalgics that we are, we'll be looking back over the last decade in the history of Newcastle Utd as refracted through the prism of the blog, reflecting on the highs and lows, the sublime and the ridiculous. Those ten years have seen relegation, promotion, European football, an FA Cup semi-final, no real silverware, changes of ownership and stadium name, and JFK being appointed not once but twice. In short, it's been eventful.

We kick off our reminiscences tomorrow with a look back at ten of our best results of the last decade - and five of the worst...

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Saturday, May 17, 2014

Championship chasers

Congratulations to James Tavernier and Haris Vuckic, who are all set to strut their stuff at Wembley with Rotherham in the League 1 play-off final next Sunday. The Millers booked their appearance with a 4-2 aggregate win over Preston, Tavernier setting up the final goal of Thursday night's 3-1 second-leg victory. Vuckic only saw the last three minutes of normal time, so will be hoping to be more involved in the final.

Meanwhile, it's been confirmed that, as had been mooted though subject to a medical, Dan Gosling will join Bournemouth when his contract expires in July. When he arrived, we had high hopes, but four years on and only a handful of distinctly underwhelming appearances later, his departure is no great loss to anyone except the medical staff.

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Friday, May 16, 2014

View From The Home End: there may be trouble ahead...

As Ben has already summarised, the last season was very much one which promised so much, but which was pretty much over as soon as Cardiff triumphed in the FA Cup.

So what needs to be done to see us improve on tenth place in the league and two underwhelming cup runs?

Well, as the minutes to the latest Fans Forum show, the board are not about to change the manager (and given that he finished the season tenth and in profit, it's hardly surprising that Jabba would want to stick with the Silver Fox).

However, what we must do over the coming few months is strengthen the squad. Having failed to fill the hole vacated by Dreamboat in January, we need to add some creativity into our central midfield. Similarly, unless bridges can be built quickly it looks unlikely that HBA will still be around next season. With Big Lad and Loic Remy also seemingly having played their last games for the club, our attacking options next year appear to be Papiss Cisse (currently injured), Goofy and Adam Armstrong. I can't see any sense or prospect of us turning Luuk de Jong's loan into a permanent move, and other than Little Big Lad, I'm struggling to think of anyone else who carries anything approaching an attacking threat in the squad.

With that in mind, one would hope that we've had the sense to plan for this moment and are lining up at least two new strikers and additional attacking flair in midfield and down the wing. Having failed to land Bafetimbi Gomis last season, we'll inevitably be linked with the player again this summer. Similarly, our pursuit of Remy Cabella in January will most likely be repeated in the press.

At the back, there are suggestions that Saylor might also be on his way out, meaning that, unless Remi Streete steps up, we'll need to bolster our defence. Equally, with Dreamboat having gone, a good World Cup might see Debuchy following his bezzie out the door, leaving us short of a right back.

If Tim Krul doesn't make the final cut for the Dutch World Cup squad, I'd expect he'll be on the phone to his agent trying to find a club with ambitions of Champions League football, meaning we'll be in need of a new 'keeper too.

The problem we've got is that, with no sign of any ambition from the club hierarchy, any player with ambitions to progress (Dreamboat being the most obvious example, but you might just as simply point at Remy as a player who has realised he could be playing at a higher level) is inevitably only going to see us (and use us) as a stepping stone to higher things.

Which means we're probably in for a fairly depressing few months in which our few bright sparks depart, having been tempted to join teams who, you know, want to win stuff, to be replaced by players who see us as a stepping stone to clubs with ambition. Arguably that was what Dreamboat did, and at least we had the pleasure of watching him for three years, but it still sticks in the throat that we now see ourselves as nothing more than a glorified upcycling business for footballers, buying cheap and selling for a profit; which all sounds horribly familiar. The zero hours contracts must presumably be just around the corner...

Until there is a marked change in hierarchy and club policy, I'm afraid that is all the future holds. It's not pretty, and it's not a pleasant thing to put down in words. 

Of course, this being Newcastle something crazy is probably just round the corner.

I hope so, because otherwise the future is pretty bloody depressing.

Ho'way the lads!

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Wednesday, May 14, 2014

View From The Home End: end-of-season reflections

Primary objective of a top half finish secured; six places higher than last season, and above the Mackems; never in any danger of relegation; tremendous victories (complete with clean sheets) at home to Chelsea and at White Hart Lane and (at long, long last) Old Trafford; a November in which we couldn't stop winning; the Boxing Day hoodoo banished with a five-goal romp against Stoke; a win in our final home game of the campaign for the first time in years.

Forgive us if we aren't cracking out the champagne, though. And here's why. After that thrashing of the Potters, we were sitting pretty in sixth, one point behind fifth-placed Everton. And then came a pathetic haul of 16 points from a possible 60; trouncings at the hands of Man Utd, Southampton, Everton, Spurs, Chelsea, Arsenal and (worst of all) the Mackems; six consecutive defeats spanning March and April; and an FA Cup exit at the very first hurdle.

So much for a game of two halves; this was a season of two halves. The first, sadly, feels like a distant memory, obliterated by the nightmare of the second. So, inevitably I'm afraid, what follows is less a review and more an inquest into what went wrong with a season that had shown such rich promise but that descended into frustration, anger and mutiny.

So, where to start? Obvious, really...

* * * * *

Dreamboat sails off into the sunset

It's not often that the success (or otherwise) of a whole season can be largely attributed to a single individual or a single event, but that was, I think, the case this campaign.

After a disappointing 2012/13, during which he suffered a physical and psychological hangover from France's abject failure at Euro 2012, Dreamboat cruised back into top form, contributing valuable goals from midfield (including that Old Trafford winner) as well as oozing class and creativity that stood him head and shoulders above his team-mates.

So it was inevitable, really, that after a man-of-the-match performance at Upton Park in January, he would be flogged off to the highest bidder - indeed the only bidder, moneybags PSG, who had little trouble tempting him back to his home country with the promise of fine wines and stinky cheeses, not to mention Champions League football. We may have felt powerless to prevent him from leaving, given the stature of his suitors, the size of the bid and the secret deal he struck with our hierarchy in the summer, but the sale of a player who proved remarkably good value at just £4.3m left me fearful that "for the rest of the season we'll be left ruefully watching the space Dreamboat used to fill".

And so it proved - our midfield was embarrassingly prosaic, stodgy and unimaginative without his quick mind and bright invention. It was certainly no coincidence whatsoever that our form nosedived sharply as soon as he had gone.

Window pains

Of course, Dreamboat's loss could and indeed should have been mitigated by the arrival of a replacement. Not only did we have PSG's cash to reinvest, but it was also revealed that we had had six months' forewarning that his departure was very much on the cards. And yet we were left flailing around in a desperate and undignified fashion over the last 48 hours before the January transfer window shut, with a move for Lyon's Clement Grenier comprehensively rebuffed. A rumoured deal for Montpellier's Remy Cabella also failed to materialise, his coach mockingly branding us "not a big club", and the loan signing of Luuk de Jong from Borussia Monchengladbach was the only addition to the squad.

Incredibly (or perhaps not, to seasoned observers and followers of Newcastle), we appeared not to have learned from the invaluable lesson of the summer of 2012, when we mustered just one acquisition, and for the second successive transfer window Jabba ended up keeping the belt encircling his enormous girth tight and his wallet firmly shut - to the considerable detriment of our fortunes over the second half of the season.

Ambition not part of the mission

Even if we accept that the sale of Dreamboat was something that couldn't reasonably be prevented, Jabba's reluctance to part with any money in January was certainly symptomatic of a club crippled by a lack of ambition. As a successful businessman, he must surely know that the problem with cost-cutting is that it very often proves to be costly, so one can only assume that the decision not to invest was taken in the knowledge that we would still be able to survive comfortably. If that meant we would miss out on Europe (as became evident very soon after Dreamboat's departure), then so be it - there was evidently as little appetite for qualifying for the Europa League as there was for continued participation in the FA Cup, the latter clearly a distraction we could ill afford when we had, er, nothing else to play for...

What's football worth without dreams, hopes and aspirations (even unrealistic or fanciful ones)? Not a whole lot.

Jog on, JFK

Whatever else you say about Jabba, you have to admire his guile and gumption. If you have no intention of spending any money, then who better to entrust with the responsibility of transfer negotiations than a bumbling, buffoonish blowhard so incompetent that he expresses an interest in a player his club already owns? Even over the course of two transfer windows there was about as much chance of an amoeba completing a cryptic crossword as there was of JFK actually managing to make a permanent signing, let alone a bad one.

And when the flak came in early February, as Jabba must have known it would, JFK made a convenient scapegoat who could be dispensed with, his function served, leaving the owner to save face as well as cash and JFK to do what he does best - namely, swear and spout preposterous bullshit - at someone else's expense.

The Silver Fox loses his cunning

While JFK may have been unwittingly doing Jabba's bidding, the Silver Fox's exasperation with his failure to get transfers "over the line" (probably because he had absolutely no idea what or where the line was) became increasingly apparent. "If I was in charge, solely, of transfers", the manager growled, "things might be different but I'm not". Few (myself included) would deny that he once again found himself doing his job with one hand tied behind his back, but that isn't enough to absolve him from blame for our second-half slump.

He certainly tried to absolve himself on enough occasions, pointing the finger instead at everyone from HBA (our most creative player in the absence of Dreamboat) and match officials to supporters and the local media. However, no one else can shoulder the responsibility for some decidedly questionable tactics and substitutions, or for an inability to motivate highly paid players into doing their job with even a modicum of professional pride, or for becoming the first Newcastle manager to lose six consecutive Premier League matches, or for the moment of insanity that saw him headbutt Hull's David Meyler and earn an unprecedented seven-match touchline ban and £60,000 fine.

This time last year, I noted that some fans were calling for the Silver Fox's head, adding, "We're not joining that chorus just yet, but would say that he has a lot of work to do to rebuild public trust." Over the course of the last season, he's done the precise opposite and is now a liability whom Jabba should (but probably won't) cut loose.

Nil point

And so to the players. By the time Arsenal visited St James' Park on 29th December, we had lost just once at home all season. The fact that the Gunners headed off down back down the A1 with all three points that day didn't seem hugely significant at the time - they were the league leaders, after all - but in retrospect the outcome signalled the beginnings of our decline, and a horrific sequence of results on our own turf in particular.

Of those heavy defeats to Chelsea, Arsenal, Southampton, Spurs, Man Utd, Everton and the Mackems, the latter four came at home, and all seven were by three or four goals without reply. "Without reply" is telling - in the run of 20 league games that began with the visit of Arsenal and ended with Sunday's trip to Liverpool, we scored in just seven of them.

While Dreamboat's departure was a critical factor in our slump, Loic Remy's absence - due to a combination of injury and a three-match suspension incurred by a red card at Norwich - was also keenly felt. The QPR loanee's 14 goals were crucial in ensuring we somehow managed to keep our heads above water and squeeze into the top half of the table. It was telling that Dreamboat still ended the season as our joint second top scorer with Goofy, who registered in four consecutive home games in the autumn but, like everyone else, lost form in the spring.

As for the rest, Papiss Cisse carried on where he left off last season, not even a shadow of the player who scored for fun on his arrival from the Bundesliga, and contributed just two league goals, one of which was a penalty. Big Lad was no better - we may have identified him as a key component of that November run, but he didn't actually weigh in with any league goals until the last two home games of the campaign, against Swansea and Cardiff, before talking himself into a red card at Anfield in what is likely to have been his final appearance for the club. Luuk de Jong, meanwhile, was utterly useless, offering only a couple of assists.

That put the pressure on the midfield to deliver, and - Dreamboat aside - they didn't. Moussa Sissoko and HBA mustered only three each, while our only other league scorers were Mini V, Mathieu Debuchy, Paul Dummett and Saylor, all of whom donated a solitary strike to our paltry collection.

In truth, even our most handsome victory of the season, the tonking of Stoke, was hardly the delicious feast of goalscoring that it might have seemed. All five goals came after the visitors' ill-discipline reduced them to nine men - prior to the dismissals, we had shown no signs whatsoever of being able to penetrate their defence.

Half-season holiday

Even worse than our woes in front of goal, though, was the lack of effort shown by the players in the second half of the season. Losing heavily to the likes of Man Utd, Arsenal and Chelsea is nothing novel, but the manner of many of the defeats - in which we barely even bothered to turn up and make the vaguest semblance of a game of it - was alarming. It was as though they'd all bought into Jabba's policy of abandoning all ambition in favour of lazy complacency.

As an evidently furious Wor Al noted in the wake of Man Utd's 4-0 win at St James', they appeared to "have simply given up": "Fans can forgive a defeat, but they cannot forgive a team that simply does not try and this one is on its holidays". A holiday was deserved - a long one, in a gulag.

Noisy neighbours

Our lack of effort and fighting spirit was only thrown into sharper relief by the way the Mackems clawed their way back from the brink of relegation, somehow managing to make up a seven-point deficit with six games to play courtesy of a run of results that included a draw at the Etihad and victories at both Stamford Bridge and Old Trafford. Faced with similar adversity, you suspect that we would have been dead and buried.

While we may have finished above the Mackems, they nevertheless comprehensively retained local bragging rights by first beating us down at the Dark Place and then improbably repeating last season's trick of thumping us on our own patch. Throw in an appearance at Wembley in the League Cup final, which they valiantly lost to eventual Premier League champions Man City, and it's plausible to argue that a side that spent much of the season reeling from the damage wreaked by Paolo Di Canio and battling against relegation actually enjoyed a better campaign than we did.

Newcastle Disunited

All of the above - the sale of Dreamboat and subsequent failure to replace him or sign any other players permanently, the patent lack of ambition, the employment of JFK, the Silver Fox's drivel and antics, the appalling goal-free and effort-free performances served up at St James' in particular, and embarrassment in the derbies - conspired to drive an even greater wedge between the club and its long-suffering supporters.

The 2013/14 season saw valuable lines of communication severed - whether through the exclusion of NUST from the Fans Forum for a minor indiscretion (if that) or a petty ban on the Ronny Gill, the Journal and the Sunday Sun which confirmed Jabba as a totalitarian dictator swift to crush any impertinent criticism of his regime.

However, it also saw the emergence of fissures among the fanbase, as supporters debated and disagreed over what should be done. Pre-match protest marches, coordinated walkouts, boycotting matches altogether - each course of action had fierce advocates and opponents.

At root, though, there was some consensus - things have to change.

* * * * *

This time last year I pondered, "Are we actually a solid mid-table team in very good disguise?" As it's turned out, the reverse has been true - a solid mid-table finish has disguised a plethora of problems. Pointing to the fact that we ended up tenth is not so much papering over the cracks as trying to paper over the Grand Canyon.

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Gosling to fly the nest?

So Dan Gosling, out of contract in July, may be off to Bournemouth? That figures - the life of a lazy seaside convalescent whose best years are receding into the distance will suit him well.

Meanwhile, Paul Dummett's red card against Liverpool has been rightly rescinded - for what little it matters.

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Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Unlucky Jim

Poor Perchinho. He's been doing his very best to ensure a memorable and successful season for Wigan, but without much joy. First he scored the winning goal against Man City that took the Latics to the semi-finals of the FA Cup, where they were beaten by favourites Arsenal. And then last night he broke the deadlock in the second leg of their play-off semi-final against QPR, giving his team a vital away goal, only for two strikes from Charlie Austin to deny them a second bite at Wembley success this season.

QPR's victory means they now face Derby in a head-to-head battle for promotion to the Premier League. It promises to be an entertaining encounter, one which I'm personally hoping the Rams win - QPR have been living way beyond their means for some time now, and we don't really want to have to meet ASBO or 'Appy 'Arry again.

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Quote of the day

"Newcastle are looking to recruit a host of English-based players this summer after making a flurry of French signings for the 2013/14 campaign."

I'm not sure quite what the Daily Star's Gary Jones has been drinking, but it must be enough to have him seeing double or even treble if he thinks Loic Remy and Luuk de Jong constitute "a flurry of French signings".

The quote appears in an article suggesting that the Silver Fox has targeted Aston Villa duo Andreas Weimann and Fabian Delph. Both are young but with Premier League experience and have performed reasonably well in a struggling side this year, Delph in particular - but with Villa looking to rebuild themselves this summer, they will no doubt be reluctant to part with them unless at a premium. That said, perhaps we can exploit the uncertainty now surrounding the club's ownership...

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Monday, May 12, 2014

... And that's an Anfield wrap

Liverpool 2 - 1 Newcastle Utd

At last - a campaign that became positively purgatorial is finally over. Not with a win, naturally, but with a game that handily reminded us of the story of our season - the first half bright and full of promise, the second sharply descending into catastrophe and farce. All the media focus may have been on our hosts' disappointment at losing out to Man City in the pursuit of the title, but like Liverpool we manoeuvred ourselves into a great position before blowing it all in spectacular fashion.

Injury to Loic Remy meant he signed off in black and white (probably for good) with that second goal against Cardiff last Saturday, and the Silver Fox, presumably fearful of a goal-greedy side like the Reds running up a cricket score, opted to replace him with Saylor and revert to a back five. The other change also came in defence, where Massadio Haidara took Paul Dummett's place. Lubo Satka, meanwhile, was a notable inclusion among the subs.

Clad in the new dull grey away kit, the visitors made a surprisingly lively start, partly aided by the fact that Liverpool appeared resigned to finishing second even before Man City took the lead over West Ham. Big Lad should have done better with an unmarked header, though we were then grateful for referee Phil Dowd's fussiness, as he disallowed the quickly taken free-kick that Luis Suarez clipped over Tim Krul on the (debatable) grounds that the ball wasn't stationary.

Given his slump in form over the second half of the season, few would have bet on Goofy being the one striker on show who would then set about stealing the limelight - but that's exactly what he did in bursting onto a pass on the left and whipping in a cross with the outside of his right boot that the hapless Martin Skrtel sliced past former Mackem 'keeper Simon Mignolet for his fourth own goal of the season.

Goofy's afternoon could and indeed should have got even better soon afterwards, when an incisive through-ball from Big Lad picked out his run, only for Mignolet to block the ensuing shot. At the other end, Liverpool's much-feted front pairing were even more glaringly profligate, Daniel Sturridge in particular heading well wide when scoring looked easier.

Little changed in the first 15 minutes of the second half, until Brendan Rodgers boosted his side's attacking potency with Philippe Coutinho replacing the more defensively minded midfielder Joe Allen. That was Liverpool's cue to step up a gear, and sure enough they turned the game on its head in the space of two minutes courtesy of two carbon-copy Steven Gerrard free-kicks. The first picked out Daniel Agger, the central defender atoning for his partner's error from a tight angle (Krul may be disappointed), and the second was prodded home by Sturridge.

The game hadn't even restarted before things went from bad to worse, with Big Lad earning himself a yellow card and then another for dissent. If that proves to be the last action of his Newcastle career, as seems likely, then it's sadly apt - on too many occasions he's talked the talk but failed to walk the walk.

The Silver Fox threw caution to the wind in withdrawing Saylor for Luuk de Jong, but the Dutchman made little impact once again - certainly less than fellow replacement Paul Dummett did on Suarez's leg, with a lunge that was rash and ill-timed rather than malicious and so not really deserving of the red card offence Dowd deemed it.

A goal behind and down to nine men, our chances of securing a first Premier League win at Anfield since 1994 looked to have slipped away, and that proved to be the case, despite the efforts of substitute Little Big Lad to conjure something from nothing.

The requisite top ten finish had been assured before kick-off, regardless of the result, but Stoke's victory at West Brom meant that we limped over the line in tenth. The Silver Fox insisted we had been "terrific" and questioned Dowd's dubious decisions, while his opposite number took time out from reflecting on the death of Liverpool's title dreams to ponder how "the manager can be blamed when his club hasn't made a permanent signing for 18 months and sold its best player in Yohan Cabaye". The Silver Fox is certainly not blameless, but Rodgers did have a point - unlike us, who, after another ultimately disappointing season, travelled back up to the north-east needing to make some significant changes and improvements in the summer if we're not to face another relegation battle.

A Liverpool fan's perspective: The Liverpool Offside

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

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Sunday, May 11, 2014

A Month Of Saturdays: April 2014

As Newcastle fans we're well accustomed to being grateful for small mercies. Last month, that meant not having a fixture on April Fool's Day, in light of the disappointment, disaster, embarrassment and farce that had befallen us on the first days of the previous three months of the year.

All the same, off the back of thumpings by Everton and Southampton at the tail-end of March (the latter perhaps getting revenge on us on behalf of their fans, whom we'd ripped off back in December), we knew the calendar was only delaying the inevitable, and sure enough on the 5th we were battered again, 4-0 on our own turf. That the defeat was to the worst Man Utd side in living memory, one shorn of both Shrek and Robin van Persie, only added to our woes - as did the painful realisation that it was April and the Mackems had scored more league goals at St James' Park in 2014 than we had. NUST's concern that proposals to flog off land around the stadium might hamper any future expansion plans looked increasingly misguided - who in their right mind would want to go and witness this sort of drubbing every fortnight if they hadn't already forked out a small fortune for the privilege?

If we thought our woes might possibly be at an end, though, we were sorely mistaken. A trip to Stoke is never much fun in any context, including a footballing one, and at the Britannia we duly lost in comically ignominious circumstances to a mishit cross from a left-back who hadn't scored for six years and who at one time came close to becoming a Newcastle player.

At least hope was close at hand, though, in the form of a visit from a Swansea side scrapping among themselves as well as against malingering relegation fears. Desperate for a goal after notching blanks in four consecutive reverses, we finally got one courtesy of Big Lad. But first-half injuries to his fellow forwards Papiss Cisse and Luuk de Jong left the Silver Fox's adventurous three-pronged attack somewhat blunt and the Swans capitalised on our inability to add to our lead, Wilfried Bony rewarding the visitors' dominance with an equaliser just before the break before tucking away the winner from the spot at the death.

Afterwards, the Silver Fox claimed he could have "stopped that goal" had he been on the touchline rather than in the stands serving the final game of his ban. However, that presupposed that he could make a difference and that the players would be inclined to listen to anything he had to say - presuppositions that were made to look fanciful by the (HBA-less) team's next performance-in-inverted-commas away at Arsenal, a 3-0 defeat disguising a huge gulf in class and (more worryingly) application that gave the Silver Fox the unenviable distinction of becoming the first Toon manager to lose six consecutive Premier League games.

He wasn't alone in seemingly being unable to motivate the side, though; the pathetic lack of effort on display at the Emirates indicated that Wor Al's stinging criticism of the players' lack of effort after the Man Utd match hadn't been heeded either. It's quite incredible that people capable of inspiring a young disabled child to walk for the first time can't be inspired to do anything other than stroll around themselves. At the start of the month I'd pondered what we could learn from Everton and Southampton, managing to narrow it down to six things; by the end of the month the answer would have been a simple "Everything"...

Sadly the chances of anyone at the club learning from anything are about as slim as the chances of the Lone Ranger going a month without attracting the attention of the police. A case in point was Lee Charnley's statement on being promoted to managing director, which, in its reference to signing "one or two players per year", strongly suggested that the harsh lessons of the last two transfer windows will go unheeded. It doesn't take a genius (or Big Lad, for that matter) to understand that significant acquisitions are imperative.

No doubt that if Spidermag returns to St James' Park in the summer, he'll be hailed as being "like a new signing". A shame that during his loan spell at Norwich he did nothing for the job prospects of the man who gave him the escape route. Our commiserations once again, Chris. A manager sacked due to an unpalatable sequence of results, players underperforming, signings failing to live up to their billing, and tactical cluelessness - one wonders whether the Silver Fox had a nervous eye on what happened to his Toon predecessor down at Carrow Road...

While the futures of both the Silver Fox and Spidermag may be up in the air, Mehdi Abeid is set to return to the club with a Greek Cup winners' medal - and, if rumours are to be believed, Fraser Forster might do likewise with a clutch of Scottish titles and tales of memorable Champions League nights. Experiencing such nights at Newcastle any time soon would be about as likely as seeing a horse spectating at a football match - or, rather, less so.

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Dreams do come true for Dreamboat

While we survey the wreckage of our season and wonder what might have been, at least Dreamboat's departure wasn't in vain - he was in the PSG side that picked up the Ligue 1 title on Wednesday, despite losing their unbeaten home record to Rennes. The Champions League and a title defence beckon for him, as we contemplate the prospect of finishing below Stoke...

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