Thursday, February 07, 2008

A Month Of Saturdays: January 2008

Even for a club with a recent history as notoriously unstable off the pitch as ours, January was quite a month.

First, on the 9th, Sam Allardyce was shown the door. Rumours had sprung up as early as July that the new hierarchy of Mike Ashley and Chris Mort were less than impressed with the manager Fat Fred had saddled them with, and relations were hardly helped when Allardyce griped very publicly that the length of time the pair were taking to settle into their new roles had resulted in several high-priority transfer targets moving elsewhere. Clearly, a few bad results would be all it would take for Ashley’s trigger finger to get very itchy indeed – and four consecutive Premier League defeats, culminating in a 2-0 loss at home to Man City who hadn’t collected three points on their travels since the opening day of the season, was more than enough.

If, as was claimed, the decision was "mutual", then the word certainly has a very different meaning to the one I thought it had. Allardyce had responded to criticism by loudly, and boorishly proclaiming himself to be right (and, by implication, everyone else – including the players, who hadn’t rebelled against his tactics, nosirreee – to be wrong): "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". So how we were expected to believe he came to an amicable agreement with the owner and chairman and quietly cleared his desk is beyond me.

Even after having his fingers prised off the doorframe of the office and being sent down Barrack Road with Ashley’s footprint on his arse, he was alternating blaming everyone else but himself and whistling ‘My Way’ to anyone who’d listen. Yes, Sam, you DID do it your way – and not only didn’t it work, it bored everyone to tears. Certainly to more tears than your exit moved anyone.

If there was an element of surprise about the timing of Allardyce’s departure – in his last game, billed as "make-or-break", we had narrowly avoided defeat at Stoke in the FA Cup, after all – then that was as nothing compared to the identity of his replacement.

On the day of our replay against Stoke, the 16th, a week later – a week of the papers being awash with "will he? won’t he?" stories about ‘Appy ‘Arry Redknapp, and a few days after a 6-0 drubbing at the hands of a Man Utd side who set about us with all the relish of a hungry lion about a wounded gazelle – came the extraordinary news that Ashley had been up to Glasgow and managed to talk Kevin Keegan (that’s King Kev to you) into returning to Tyneside for a second spell in charge of the club he loves. It was so unexpected that his name wasn’t even seriously considered when we on Black & White & Read All Over were mulling over the merits and deficiencies of the prospective candidates for the vacancy.

One wag described the appointment as being like putting a manic depressive in charge of the Samaritans. Someone else suggested KK was swapping one Soccer Circus for another. Nearly everyone implied he was mad to volunteer to drink a big draught from the poisoned chalice. But, like us, they were all salivating at the prospect of genuine entertainment. Suddenly, the feelgood factor was back, signalled by beaming black-and-white faces and tooting car horns. Keegan’s mere dodgy-leather-jacketed presence in the stand was enough to inspire a team hitherto devoid of confidence and flair to a thumping 4-1 win over a side who just over a week earlier had been within inches of condemning them to another ignominious defeat, and that playing with 10 men, Emre having been sent off on the half-hour. Even Michael Owen got on the scoresheet.

By contrast Keegan’s first game in charge, at home to Bolton, came as a disappointment – 0-0, with plenty of endeavour but not a single shot on target, and the point only secured by Shay Given’s brilliant close-range save from Jlloyd Samuel in injury time. The 3-0 FA Cup loss to Arsenal, our booby prize for shouldering Stoke aside, was in many ways more palatable, not least because the team – reportedly sent out by Keegan with just one instruction: to out-pass their opponents – showed no fear and actually took the game to the illustrious home side, fashioning a number of opportunities and only admitting defeat in the final ten minutes.

Then came news of a development as unexpected as King Kev’s return – but certainly more of a shock than a pleasant surprise. It was understandable that Ashley felt the need to implement a new managerial structure, modelled on the European style, particularly to help us to compete with the likes of Arsenal and Spurs in terms of the recruitment of the brightest young talent around, but his decision to appoint Leeds manager and professional workie ticket Dennis Wise alongside Jeff Vetere and Tony Jiminez was as incomprehensible and baffling as the incoming trio’s job titles – Executive Director (Football), Technical Coordinator and Vice President (Player Recruitment) respectively. After all, Wise’s diminutive physical stature pretty much matches his stature in world football (something of a hindrance given his new position, you might think), and we don’t really need someone to swap notes with Joey Barton as to how best to assault a team-mate. How will the new system work? No one’s sure, not even Keegan, who confessed: "I just do not know enough about it".

Suckers for punishment, we returned to the Emirates three days after the FA Cup exit, and the Gunners duly repeated the trick, Emmanuel Adebayor again the chief architect but this time with far more ease. Resignation, automatically assumed inferiority – not qualities one readily associates with a Keegan side.

And amidst it all the transfer window opened and closed. Despite reports that Ashley would make £30m available to Keegan immediately, hastening a flurry of rumours, the expected (hoped-for) reinforcements never came. Spurs stepped in to scupper our attempt to resign Jonathan Woodgate, while Arsenal, not content with beating us twice in four days, won the race for 15-year-old Gillingham striker Luke Freeman, Arsene Wenger’s bag of sweets unsurprisingly proving more tempting than ours. Our only signing was 17-year-old left-back Ben Tozer from Swindon, who, judging by his gushing schoolboyish comments on being allowed to train alongside the likes of Alan Smith, is still some way off pushing for a first-team place, and that was a deal that was already in place at the tail end of last year. Indeed, we probably have a weaker squad now than when the window opened, David Rozehnal having spared us the sight of him being skinned time and again by joining Lazio on loan on deadline day.

All told, then, the initial euphoria of Keegan’s return has pretty much worn off. He must be realising what we already knew but were reluctant to admit: he’s come back to a very different club from the one he left. What he’d give now for the 7-1 and 3-0 wins that prompted him to quit in the first place.


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