Tuesday, January 08, 2008

A Month Of Saturdays: December 2007

Perhaps it was a childish excitement at the approach of Christmas and at last being allowed to raid their advent calendars for chocolate (or, in Mark Viduka’s case, mini sausage rolls), but there was a marked change in attitude amongst the Newcastle players at the beginning of December.

Fresh – or rather stale – from the comprehensive 3-0 defeat by Liverpool, a second successive drubbing on home turf, they suddenly seemed to perk up and turned in a performance actually worthy of the name against Blackburn. OK, so they still managed to squander a lead and leave Ewood Park empty-handed, but there was at least something in the display to cling to. I think they call it hope.

And when Arsenal arrived on Tyneside a few days later, hope sprang if not eternal then certainly afresh. Having fallen behind to Emmanuel Adebayor’s goal with just four minutes on the clock, they kept their heads up, persevered and, roared on by one of the most vociferous St James’s crowds of the season, levelled through Steven Taylor. "If we play with passion like that we won't go far wrong", said man-of-the-match Alan Smith afterwards, and pre-match talk of a dressing room revolt was all but forgotten.

Birmingham were next up, and again an early goal for the visitors failed to knock the self-belief out of the players as they rallied for Obafemi Martins’s penalty equaliser. The winner may have only come in second half stoppage time – Habib Beye’s near-post header inspiring a new chant in his honour based on the ‘Happy Days’ theme – but it was no less than we deserved for having remembered how to attack.

Another late, late winner the following week at Fulham – but, other than the sight of Sam Allardyce jogging camply across the pitch at the interval, that was just about the only thing to give the travelling fans anything to cheer. Most had been sent to sleep or to the verge of suicide by the time Joey Barton scored his first goal in a black and white shirt from the spot. Whither that passion you were talking about, Al?

There was at least more spark, invention and desire to press forwards against Derby, but that was scant consolation when we needed to be thankful to the returning Viduka to bail us out of trouble and snatch a point, the side set to accompany the Mackems through the relegation trapdoor having scored their second and third away goals of the season with the aid of some decidedly festive defending.

Worse was to come with the Boxing Day display at Wigan, which could be written off as a Christmas hangover if it wasn’t for the fact that the players seem adept at performing like a disgracefully dishevilled and disorganised pub team at any time of year you care to mention. Our only effort on goal, an ambitious overhead kick from Viduka, was headed off the line by one Titus Bramble, who was man of the match, naturally. The man dressed as Borat in the green thong for the half-time fancy dress competition quite literally showed more balls than all the Newcastle players put together.

A good time for a few underperforming individuals to rediscover their stomach for the fight – or so we thought, until it transpired that Barton had chosen to do so outside a McDonald’s in Liverpool city centre at 5.30am, having imbibed rather more than just Christmas spirit. This was trouble Viduka couldn’t bail him out of. Some footballers are named in the Queen’s New Year’s Honours list; for Barton, by contrast, New Year was to be spent at her pleasure.

Without him, we were ourselves victims of a crime at Stamford Bridge, a valiant effort completely at odds with what was witnessed at Wigan yielding absolutely nothing when the assistant referee’s failure to flag Salomon Kalou offside with four minutes remaining robbed us of a richly deserved point at a ground where we very rarely prosper. But inevitably the headlines continued to focus not on that injustice but on Barton’s latest brush with the criminal justice system.

The question simply has to be asked: having got shot of short-tempered, rabble-rousing, trouble-making, local-constabulary-bothering oiks like Craig Bellamy and Lee Bowyer, why did we choose to sign a man whose idea of friendly banter involves stubbing a cigar out in a youth team player’s eye and who was suspended by his previous club for attacking another team-mate in training? The answer, I suspect, is because Allardyce convinced the board he could tame Barton, reform his character off the pitch while getting the best out of him on it. With the lack of official comment from the club suggesting that sympathy for the Scouser’s cause is in very short supply, perhaps now Allardyce will have to recognise that he’s failed and hope that someone else is arrogant (or foolish) enough to think they can do the same and take him off our hands in the transfer window,.

But our increasingly beleaguered manager’s response to the pressure has not been to accept his mistakes but to insist ever more vocally on the correctness of his methods and decisions, despite all the evidence to the contrary. "I’m the man who knows what’s right for [the players] and I know it more than they do. That’s why I sit in this chair", he declared at the beginning of December. You may not for too much longer, Sam.


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