Wednesday, April 04, 2007

A Month Of Saturdays: March 2007

In the recent history of Newcastle Utd there can have been few months more thoroughly depressing than that which we’ve just had the misfortune to endure. It’s tempting to zero in immediately on its undoubted nadir – one to rival if not surpass the 1-0 home defeat by Sheffield Utd in November, and the 5-1 FA Cup replay massacre by Birmingham – but first let’s focus on the few positives we can glean.

Firstly, Emre was cleared of his FA racism charge, guilty of nothing more (according to his manager) than making "unpleasant" remarks to Everton’s Joseph Yobo.

Secondly, Michael Owen’s recovery from serious injury continues, and the pint-sized striker has targeted 22nd April and the home game against champions Chelsea as the point at which he begins to repay his considerable debt to us. Of course, fixing a date means something is bound to go calamitously wrong in the meantime…

And that, in the way of positives, is just about that. Honestly, it’s like picking bits of sweetcorn out of a turd.

Right, that nadir. Having raced thrillingly into a 4-1 half-time lead in the first leg of our UEFA Cup tie with AZ Alkmaar, we were then desperately unfortunate to see Steven Taylor penalised for a handball in the area. Moussa Dembele’s spot-kick was woeful, but neither Shay Given nor Titus Bramble could prevent Danny Koevermans from prodding home the rebound.

On such incidents as that – and Obafemi Martins’ fluffed opportunity to claim a hat-trick – did the tie turn. It would not have done, however, had the side with the 4-2 first leg advantage possessed even a modicum of professionalism. Sadly, professionalism is never something we could be accused of. Gross naivety, on the other hand, is our forte and once again we did ourselves proud.

Knowing that a win, a draw or even a one goal defeat in Holland would be enough to see us through, we duly contrived to forget all the pre-match talk of attack being the best form of defence, or, failing that, keeping it tight at the back. Instead we masochistically invited the dangerous Dutch to try their luck and duly found ourselves sliced apart in the manner of a particularly grisly horror film. The final score? 2-0 to our opponents – just the result they wanted, gift-wrapped and handed to them on a plate.

In the aftermath Roeder exclaimed: "That result against Alkmaar is Newcastle. Not just this season, not last season, it is the Newcastle which threw away a 12 point lead at the top of the Premiership, which you would have thought was impossible. That is Newcastle." Few of us could disagree.

That first half blitzing of Alkmaar turned out to be exceptional not simply within the context of the tie but of March as a whole. In 37 minutes we registered on the scoresheet four times - the only goals we were to score all month. All three Premiership fixtures saw us draw a blank: a 0-0 home draw with a mediocre Smoggy side, a pathetic 2-0 capitulation to relegation fodder Charlton and finally a 1-0 home reverse at the hands of the equally inept Man City. Not only have we repeatedly failed to score, but we have repeatedly failed to create clear chances too – and that, as any budding Robbie Earle could tell you, is bad news.

Roeder claimed in the wake of the Alkmaar tie that our losing mentality is "stitched into the badge", adding that "Somebody has to unstitch it and I want it to be me". On the evidence of that disaster, he looks increasingly unlikely to be the man for the job, his tactics, motivational skills and decision-making increasingly coming into question. Why, for instance, has arguably our best (certainly our most improved) player James Milner been reduced to a peripheral role in recent games, appearing only sporadically from the sidelines? Why was Stephen Carr preferred to Nobby Solano at right back against City? Why leave the in-form Antoine Sibierski on the bench and then set the team out to play as though he’s on the pitch, humping long balls up for Martins and Kieron Dyer? The bafflement and (in some cases) extreme displeasure among the fans has been unsurprising.

Presently, at the start of April, we sit in a deceptively healthy 11th place. Don’t be fooled – only a few weeks ago our conquerors on Saturday Man City were being talked of as potential relegation candidates, and now, two successive away wins later, they lurk one point behind us with a game in hand. Seven points separates us from Charlton, currently occupying the last of the relegation places.

But there is one remaining positive: namely, that there probably aren’t quite enough games left for everyone else to pick up points and for us to land ourselves in the brown stuff. Probably.


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