Wednesday, March 05, 2008

A Month Of Saturdays: February 2008

How depressing that a draw snatched from the jaws of victory against the Smoggies was as good as it got for us in February - and that was on the 3rd...

We had dominated the match, and finally gone ahead through a towering header it was hard to believe had bulleted off Michael Owen's bonce, only to be cruelly deprived of all three points by Robert Huth's equaliser just minutes from time, Lee Dong-Gook active in an offside position. With us clinging on desperately for just the one point, referee Mike Dean belatedly (and mercifully) remembered the laws of the game and ruled out Jeremie Aliadiere's lashed shot into the roof of the net for offside. It was one of the only decisions he got right all afternoon, by far the most criminal error being to chalk off Owen's fourth minute shot for an entirely imaginary foul on Mark Schwarzer. They say you make your own luck - yes, sometimes, but at others the man in the middle makes it for you.

A week later, and Owen again gave us the lead, this time away to Villa - but it didn't last. Come the second half, we belatedly remembered we're clueless when it comes to hanging on to an advantage, especially on our travels, while our opponents belatedly remembered how they'd made it into the upper echelons of the league (namely, not gifting easy wins to teams like us on their own turf) and blew us away with a four goal blast to which we had no answer. Chief executioner was John Carew, a player who so often looks lumbering and clumsy, but up against our defence ... well, I think you can finish that sentence off yourself.

If we could self-destruct spectacularly against the West Midlanders, then it was a safer bet than putting all your money on a night out for Joey Barton ending up with a court appearance that we could self-destruct even more spectacularly at home to Man Utd - and this despite them having played two high-profile fixtures while we enjoyed a fortnight's holiday. Let's face it, they're not exactly a side who need much of an invitation to take you to the cleaners, and we managed to leave the door wide open and to gift-wrap the three points with a big bow on top rather than taking a tip from Tony Martin. Abdoulaye Faye can have done little to impress on his first appearance under the new manager having returned from the African Cup of Nations, but at least his consolation strike meant Keegan's nemesis wasn't celebrating a reversal of the famous 5-0 trouncing of October 1996. Probably because he was still too busy celebrating the 6-0 thrashing at Old Trafford in January.

The following day, still groggy from nightmarish visions of Rooney and Ronaldo running riot, we were confronted with the sight of Jonathan Woodgate heading his new side Spurs to a Carling Cup final victory over Chelsea. It's a cruel game, football.

I suppose the question that has to be asked is this: what difference, if any, has the new man in the dugout made? After all, it's hard to imagine the month's three results would have been much worse under Allardyce. Well, for one thing, unlike Fat Sam (and his predecessors, for that matter) Keegan seems to have known instinctively how to inspire and get the best out of Owen and Damien Duff. The transformations of both players in Keegan's charge have been pleasing if mystifying - in Duff's case because he's been so poor for so long and now suddenly looks to have the confidence and energy to actually take his man on, and in Owen's case because of their well-documented disagreements in the past. That said, it's not rocket science to appreciate that if you create more chances for Owen and play to his strengths, you'll get the best out of him.

But then that's also part of the problem. We've now got the more forward-thinking football we were hoping for, but chances are going begging too often and, with our defence looking no better and now more exposed, our openness is ripe for exploitation. Nigel Pearson left on the eve of the Villa game, allegedly for grumbling about the naivety of Keegan's tactics. We may be reliving the mid 90s, but all the goals are ending up in our net.

One man who's no doubt enjoying it all no end, of course, is Allardyce. Twice his opinions on his time on Tyneside hit the headlines in February, and the second time they were even more ludicrous than the first. Not content with reiterating that he should be absolved of any blame for the situation and his sacking was unmerited ("As a manager, you’re dependent on two sets of people - your owners and your players. Life is not in your hands"), he declared: "Newcastle probably wasn't big enough for me". With delusions of grandeur on that scale, expect him to be claiming to be Napoleon some time soon - perhaps at a club that is big enough for him, like Rochdale.

Deluded is one thing Keegan almost certainly isn't anymore. After a thoroughly miserable February he'll be all too aware of the problems he needs to tackle - and, increasingly, the challenge he faces to keep us in the division he returned us to in 1993.


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