Wednesday, July 11, 2007

A Month Of Saturdays: June 2007

(Once again seriously belated - apologies...)

Rejoice! For Fat Fred is at last on his way out!

June saw billionaire Mike Ashley win over an initially grumpy Shepherd and the rest of the board, steadily increasing his shareholding in the club until a takeover was inevitable. The club's now set to be delisted from the stock exchange any day now.

While we've hardly heard a peep out of Ashley, Fat Fred's had plenty to say - as usual. His volte-face - from effectively laying down a come-and-have-a-go-if-you-think-you're-hard-enough challenge to the upstart impertinent enough to threaten his control of the club to lauding Ashley and his company as "excellent custodians of Newcastle United's heritage" - was nothing short of remarkable. Did Fred realise he was fighting a battle he was doomed to lose and so reached an agreement so as avoid losing face? Or was it simply the likelier prospect of a fat wadge of money that made him change his tune and pretend to have forgotten all that hot air about the importance of the club having a Geordie chairman?

Though the other four board members have resigned, Shepherd continues to cling to a position of importance apparently at Ashley's request, to help ensure the transition period is as smooth as possible, but I doubt it'll be long before we really do see the back of him.

So, how will he be remembered by the fans?

As an arrogant, crass, tactless, brainless oaf, I imagine. The times during his reign that he's been opened his trap to damaging or at least embarrassing effect are too numerous to recount. The occasion he and Douglas Hall laughed at the gullibility of fans paying £50 for replica shirts and labelled Alan Shearer "Mary Poppins" and all Geordie women "dogs" was only an extreme example. I could also cite his 2004 declaration of having "no sympathy" with lower league clubs in financial difficulties and, most recently, his ill-advised comments about Michael Owen to passing Scousers, not to mention those cringeworthy references to the "Geordie nation" with which his blatherings have habitually been littered.

Shepherd's defence, trotted out at every opportunity, is that he's always put his money where his massive mouth is, always backing the managers he's appointed to the hilt. Except it's never really been his money, though, has it? It's been ours. (That may be one significant difference in the Ashley era.) And in return for that financial support Shepherd has increasingly expected to be involved in footballing as well as strictly boardroom matters. Graeme Souness, though no doubt looking around for someone else to blame for his own manifest failings, suggested how domineering and undermining that involvement was in some thinly-veiled comments in an interview with the Daily Mail: "You get people who come into the game and they are in it for five or six years, sometimes less, and all of a sudden they are experts. I am talking about owners and chairmen. They decide who comes and goes from your club, they are laying the policy down on so many issues".

So, what can we expect from the new man in charge? According to his deputy Chris Mort, the exact opposite: "He doesn't want to be the larger-than-life character sitting in the front row of the directors' box". If the days of being mocked for the buffoonery and egotism of our chairman are gone, then it won't be a moment too soon.

That's not to say that the future looks totally rosy - no doubt the publication of Lord Stevens' report into Premiership transfer dealings not only implicated former boss Souness in connection with four separate "uncleared" transfers (Emre, Albert Luque, Jean-Alain Boumsong and Amady Faye) but also the new incumbent Fat Sam. Whether there will be further repercussions remains to be seen, but personally the feeling that there's no smoke without fire persists.

June saw Allardyce make his first signings as Toon manager, picking up Aussie lardbucket and occasional goal machine Mark Viduka up on a handy free transfer and snapping up friend of the Greater Manchester Constabulary Joey Barton for £5.8m but only after a protracted wrangle over unpaid wages was resolved. Perhaps most significantly, though, we secured the services of a proven international defender in the form of David Rozehnal. More of his ilk need to follow.

With the rumour mill working at full crank, we were linked with everyone from Barcelona's Ludovic Giuly to Liverpool's Craig Bellamy - the latter rumour enough to drive Alan Shearer to drink - while Tal Ben Haim and Dutch U21 striker Maceo Rigters were among the ones that got away. It's to our credit that, despite silly money changing hands (£16.5m for Darren Bent?!!) in a market in which prices have been inflated particularly by West Ham running around like headless chickens looking to sign anything that moves, we haven't been sucked into paying over the odds for anyone yet - that's not to say it won't happen, though...

Scott Parker was one player Magnus Eggertson did manage to entice to Upton Park, our captain slinking off to East London for £7m having apparently felt hounded out by the incomprehensible abuse dished out to him by some fans towards the end of last season. Irish winger Alan O'Brien also left, but Nobby Solano and Tim Krul signed new deals, while we're waiting on tenterhooks to find out whether the club will offer Steven Taylor the contract England's best performer in the month's European U21 Championships feels he deserves.

Inevitably, the futures of strike duo Michael Owen and Obafemi Martins were the subject of ongoing speculation, not least because of Thierry Henry's departure for Barcelona (though Fat Sam can hardly come out and gripe about release clauses given the circumstances in which he signed Barton). The pair enjoyed contrasting fortunes in June, Owen scoring on international duty almost a year after that fateful World Cup match against Sweden while back in Nigeria Martins encountered some disgruntled countrymen seemingly intent on popping a cap or two in his ass.

One wonders whether Fat Sam would prefer being shot at to having to kick off the season at his old stomping ground, with Sammy Lee and a whole host of players eager to prove a point...


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