Monday, October 06, 2008

A Month Of Saturdays: September 2008

I only hope you appreciate how painful it's been to write what you are about to read.

In March last year, I began what was only the second of these round-up pieces by claiming that "in the recent history of Newcastle Utd there can have been few months more thoroughly depressing than that which we’ve just had the misfortune to endure". For a seasoned and careworn fan to make such a statement was sheer foolishness - an appallingly underhit backpass upon which fate would of course gleefully pounce, intent on teaching me the true meaning of the description "thoroughly depressing". Hint: it's rather worse than playing out a bore draw at home to the Smoggies and exiting the UEFA Cup to AZ Alkmaar.

At the start of September, we were idly speculating as to how many different potential punning headlines we could dream up using the name of our new £5.7m mystery man striker Xisco. Mike Ashley was in the news for the crime of downing an illicit pint at the Emirates Stadium. How he must have wished that pint anaesthatised him for the whole month, rather than just numbing the pain of that 3-0 defeat at the tail end of August.

By the end of September, King Kev was long gone (and Terry Mac with him), his replacement was an "interim manager" still serving a touchline ban from his last job in football four years previously, the club was up for sale and we'd lost five successive matches. As for Ashley, he was well aware he'd never again be able to sit in the stands in his Newcastle shirt among the fans, whether downing an illicit pint or otherwise, and had had to suffer the indignity of being ridiculed by Dave Whelan, a business rival who could declare in all seriousness that his manager Steve Bruce was "one of the best four managers in the world"...

So, did - as Whelan claimed - Ashley deserve all the flak he got? The simple answer has to be yes.

When Keegan was appointed, several commentators in the media saw it as a shrewd move on Ashley's part, as we did - but for far more cynical reasons. Their thinking was this: if Keegan succeeded, then Ashley would be hailed as the man who brought him back to the club; and if he failed, as was expected, Ashley could then point out he'd given us what we wanted, that perhaps we didn't know best after all and that the next appointment would be very much his own man.

But those commentators got it totally wrong - as did the owner. When, as the transfer window closed, Keegan reacted angrily to having the fruits of Dennis Wise and Tony Jiminez's European scouting missions imposed on him, Ashley must have realised that, by implementing the new structure and misleading the manager into thinking he'd have final say on any transfer dealings, he'd got himself into a terrible bind. There was precious little room for manoeuvre - it came down to a simple choice: either he had to show faith in Keegan, give weaselly Wise the boot and reform the system; or he had to remain resolute in his support for the scouting structure and personnel and thereby force a living legend ignominiously out of the door. Surely he must have realised that anything other than the former would make his position untenable - but much to our disgust, he opted for the latter.

As inevitable as the outraged response from the fans was Ashley’s subsequent decision to sell up and ship out. Unlike Fat Fred, Ashley was never so arrogant as to presume to know the views of the "Geordie nation" while maintaining a rigid distance (he may have been widely mocked for his habit of sitting in with the masses, but at least made the effort of appearing approachable) - and when those he sat amongst made their views on King Kev's departure crystal clear, he listened. Those "Cockney Mafia" banners were an indicator he'd never really been one of us. The defence of the system he gave in the public statement announcing the sale was actually quite thoughtful and persuasive - evidently, he'd taken a look at the state of the finances and realised that a radical restructuring was necessary for the long-term survival and success of the club. But that couldn't detract from the fact that the treatment of Keegan had been unforgivably shabby.

The rest of the month saw rumour pile up upon rumour, as shadowy consortia allegedly jostled for position in the race to buy the club - a race that it's a wonder anyone wants to win, frankly. The manager's position wasn't much coveted, though. Chris Hughton, thrust unwillingly into the limelight, was horribly out of his depth - but, even still, the appointment of Joe Kinnear as interim manager (after El Tel had turned us down) was a staggering decision. Perhaps it would be too uncharitable to suggest that it was Ashley's malicious way of inflicting further humiliation on the fans who were forcing him out, but at the time that's what it felt like.

Lest we forget, we did also play some football matches in September, though the extent of our involvement can be questioned...

Still shellshocked and in utter disarray over a week after Keegan's exit, we slumped to a 2-1 home defeat to Hull. Of course, in the wake of the Tigers' famous back-to-back victories in North London, this wasn't quite the embarrassing result it appeared at the time, even though they had been thrashed 5-0 on their own turf in their previous outing. More memorable than the result and Xisco's debut goal (he was dreadful otherwise) were the anti-Ashley protests and Danny Guthrie's horrendous leg-breaking tackle on Craig Fagan, for which he was very lucky to escape with just a red card and three match ban.

Next up was a trip to West Ham, whose new boss Gianfranco Zola - installed after Alan Curbishley had left in very similar circumstances to Keegan - was delighted at our capitulation to his side. We generously granted the Hammers a 3-0 lead before looking remotely interested in, and capable of, stringing two passes together.

The League Cup provided no respite four days later, either, with the only side considerate enough to break our fall at the bottom of the league table knocking us out on our own patch. Rarely can so many multi-million pound players served up such an awful match, but while holders Spurs were shockingly bad, they were still too good for us. Once Roman Pavyluchenko and Jamie O'Hara had been gifted goals by Keystone Cops defending from Fabricio Coloccini and Steven Taylor there was never going to be any way back.

Given that they had registered victories on Tyneside in each of the last two seasons, Blackburn would have been one of the last sides we'd have chosen to face next - and sure enough they condemned us to a third consecutive 2-1 home defeat. No matter how unjust Christopher Samba's offside opener may have been, the fact remains that Rovers' 2-0 half-time lead was thoroughly deserved. The second period offered a few precious crumbs of comfort, at least, in the form of an early Michael Owen penalty and a sustained if laboured and ultimately fruitless effort to force the equaliser.

So, what lies in store in October? A new owner, King Kev's fourth coming, an upturn in fortunes on the pitch? Or just more frustration, anger, misery and humiliation? Who knows? We, as ever, just have to keep on doing the near-impossible: hoping and believing that better times are just around the corner.


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