Wednesday, April 09, 2008

A Month Of Saturdays: March 2008

Early in March, Michael Owen claimed: "I'm at a club where you feel like a spark will get us back on the crest of the wave and help us move up the league – that can give us a platform to build on". At the time – in the wake of defeats by Blackburn and Liverpool, both as devastating in their own individual ways as the Villa and Man Utd thrashings in February had been – our situation was utterly desperate. Little did we know that we would indeed be back on the crest of the wave before the month was out, and that the spark would come in the form of Owen himself.

Last month, clutching at straws in trying to answer my own question about what difference Kevin Keegan’s appointment had made, I pointed to the fact that Owen had suddenly started scoring again. When King Kev returned to St James’s, much was made of the fact that in his autobiography Owen had referred to his time playing under Keegan for England as a "dark phase" which left him "scarred".

But it was evident from the off that Keegan was determined to patch up any differences, most tellingly in his decision to hand the striker the captaincy. Though an experienced senior professional, Owen is hardly the most vocal of players, but what at first looked like a rather crass and tokenistic olive branch has come to seem a stroke of genius, with him leading from the front and by example in a fashion increasingly reminiscent of a certain sheet metal worker’s son from Gosforth.

March got off to an inauspicious start, Matt Derbyshire wrapping up a classic smash-and-grab win for Blackburn, but those optimistic far-sighted souls able to peer through the gloom could nevertheless point to the positive nature of our performance. And yes, Owen may have spurned a succession of chances, much to his own obvious annoyance – he made a point of apologising to his team-mates in the dressing room afterwards – but at least he and we could be thankful that those same team-mates were once again helping to provide him with regular opportunities. After all, Michelangelo may have been a great painter, but if you’d taken away his brushes and paints he wouldn’t have been able to come up with much...

Disappointingly, those who took the trouble to make the visit to Anfield witnessed a reversion to the dark days of January and February. Once our stubborn resistance had been broken by Jermaine Pennant’s freakish goal, with half-time tantalisingly close, we cracked and capitulated in familiar fashion – but then who among us can honestly say they expected us to wrest any points from the Champions’ League chasing Reds’ grasp?

No, the next fixture, away to relegation rivals Birmingham represented a much better opportunity to kickstart our climb out of trouble – and so it proved. After a lacklustre first half in which we’d fallen behind to a James McFadden goal, Keegan’s bold three man strikeforce belatedly clicked into gear and opportunist-par-excellence Owen it was on cue to stab a loose ball home from close range for a priceless equaliser.

That goal, allied to the dynamism of some of our attacking play thereafter and the point gleaned as a result, was just the "platform to build on" that Owen had spoken of – and build on it we certainly did, swatting aside Fulham with ease the following Saturday. Mark Viduka may have calmed any nerves with a neat early finish, but it was Owen whose second half header made the points safe and secured a 2-0 win, the first of King Kev’s second reign as manager.

It was worth reminding anyone subsequently giddy with anything more than just relief of the quality of the opposition – but when we then went out and thrashed the free-scoring League Cup winners Spurs in their own "manor" in our next fixture, and that after going a goal down, being giddy with delight was very much the order of the day. Owen scored for the third match in a row, and once again his was the decisive strike that put the game beyond the opposition. Created by Obafemi Martins’ persistence and skill on the flank and Viduka’s clever dummy in the area, it was testimony to the fluidity and coherence with which our front trio were combining, and had us surfing the crest of the wave into April.

So, what exactly WAS the masterstroke that turned our fortunes around? Well, Keegan went against the conventional wisdom that Owen always needs to be the most advanced forward; instead he employed him in a deeper role, sometimes wide rather than through the middle, where he’s harder to pick up than big-boned Mackem Andy Reid in a pair of lead boots, and trusting that his natural instinct to sniff out any scraps in and around the six yard box would still come to the fore, with the added advantage of his being able to arrive late and often unmarked.

In truth, of course, Keegan’s hand for the Birmingham game was partly forced by the injuries to Damien Duff and James Milner (quite where this revival leaves them is anyone’s guess, though it looks increasingly likely that the future of the benched and want-away Charles N’Zogbia lies away from Tyneside). What’s more, the three forwards system was only made possible by the return to fitness of Viduka, without whose physical presence to hold the ball up it simply wouldn’t work. Nevertheless, it took real courage to go with it for such a crucial game – especially with the gentlemen of the Fourth Estate sharpening their knives and willing him to live up to his reputation as tactically naïve bordering on suicidal.

Mention must be made of the contribution of the midfielders, who have had to shoulder an increased responsibility and workload as a consequence of the change of formation – Nicky Butt in particular has impressed, while ASBO has at last started to look like he realises he has to earn both his exorbitant salary and the respect and affections of the fans.

But the final word has to go to that man Owen. Injured for so long and written off so many times since his arrival in August 2005, he’s finally showing – and getting the opportunity to show – why he cost us £17m. If, as now seems likely, he’s fired us to Premier League safety, then that’ll be a substantial return on our investment. Who knows – we might even start talking about that new contract...


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