Tuesday, February 10, 2009

A Month Of Saturdays: January 2009

Cold, damp and miserable weather. Dark when you get up, dark before you leave work to go home. Little to look forward to other than an inch-thick credit card bill, the sole reminder of the joys and delights of the festive period already fast fading from memory. The tightening vice of the "current economic climate".

As if this January wasn't already depressing enough without the curse of also being a fan of Newcastle Utd...

At the risk of shoving readers of a naturally morose disposition over the edge into a pit of despair, let's look back and reflect on the events and incidents - large and small, tragic and tragicomic - that cumulatively conspired to get 2009 off to what was pretty damn close to the worst start imaginable...

1. After weeks if not years of speculation, Shay Given left for pastures new, signing for Arab Plaything FC on deadline day (for the purposes of this piece, I should add, January ran up until 2nd February). Quite understandably, the Irishman had become heartily sick of being expected to perform miracles week in week out with all around him seemingly conspiring to make his job even more impossible, his saintly patience finally shattered by the Liverpool rout. Not surprisingly, the three most sophisticated tactics JFK could muster - 1. share a coffee with him, 2. lay the flattery on thick and 3. repeatedly and publicly declare things like "he wants to do what is best for this club" - all failed to persuade him to reconsider.

The departure was telegraphed by Steve Harper being offered and consequently accepting a new deal. Omitted from the squad with a spurious injury for the fixture away to his soon-to-be employers Arab Plaything FC, Given's 462nd and final appearance turned out to be at Blackburn, the club he left to join us 12 years ago. There was to be no fairytale, though - our back four generously let him pick the ball out of the net three times for old times' sake. While we certainly can't begrudge him the move, nor a certain amount of bitterness about the broken promises and false dawns he had to put up with, wearing our black and white glasses it's hard to feel anything other than dismay at his going.

2. Rather less sorely missed, I suspect, will be Charles N'Zogbia, who also packed his bags and shipped out in January. He spent most of the month spouting off to various news organs about how many clubs were jockeying for his services. Lyon, Arsenal, Villa and Spurs all got a mention, N'Zogbia claiming: "As soon as a big club knocks on the door with a good offer, I don't think they'll prevent me leaving". In the event, the straw that broke the camel's back - the camel's back being made of soggy balsawood, it seemed - was JFK's clumsy mispronunciation of his name, N'Zogbia immediately labelling it as "insulting" and refusing to play under JFK again.

The thin-skinned Frenchman should have counted himself lucky he wasn't being managed by Sir Bobby Robson, a man who tripped over his own tongue daily. You'd also have thought that, being aware of some of the things JFK has said to and about officials this season, he'd have known when he really was being insulted... There followed a pathetic playground spat between the two. In the end, the "big club ... with a good offer" turned out to be Ol' Cauliflower Face's Wigan - which would be funny, if it weren't for the fact that they're a much safer bet to stay up than we are - and off he toddled. A bad egg banished, then - but the feeling persists that he's a talented player who we only briefly saw the best of.

3. As part of the deal that took N'Somnia to the JJB, The Wigan Player - who we can now safely refer to as Ryan Taylor - came the other way in what Brucey rightly perceived as a damage limitation exercise (surely he can't do us any more harm now he's wearing black and white?). Neither of our other captures exactly set pulses racing, either: Peter Lovenkrands, who was presumably a free agent for a very good reason, and Kevin Nolan, a one-time England hopeful who as Bolton captain had been suffering at the hands of the Trotters boo-boys for his sub-par performances. JFK was left red-faced when talk of agreed fees for loanees and confirmed moves for Albin Ebondo, Stephane Mbia and Stephen McManus came to nowt. He only dug himself a deeper hole when, trying to convince fans of the scale of his ambitions once the window had shut, he also mentioned failed efforts to sign Michael Johnson, Nedum Onuoha, Kieran Richardson and Sami Hyypia.

So, while erstwhile rivals Arab Plaything FC strengthened significantly and 'Arry Redknapp set out reassembling the Spurs squad of a year previously at great expense, we were largely left twiddling our thumbs, listening to JFK whine about how our spending power had been curtailed because the credit crunch had cost Mike Ashley billions of pounds. So much for "driv[ing] the club forward together" - we were up on bricks, with our prized asset stolen by Manc scallies for a meagre £7m.

4. Not only were we stuck with Ashley - who, lest we forget (not likely), chose to retain Dennis Wise rather than Kevin Keegan, no matter how honourable and considered his reasons - and vice versa; it also looked as though we'd be lumbered with JFK for the long haul, following the revelation that Ashley - no doubt well aware he was lucky to have found anyone at all willing to do the job - offered him a contract extension that he couldn't help himself describe as "very lucrative". Pen has yet to be put to paper, though, JFK like Little Saint Mick preferring to wait until the summer and see how things pan out. I don't see much point in keeping a hot-headed manager who seems to have a pathological dislike of being in the dugout(January saw him collect another FA charge and a fine to boot). Perhaps that's why he drafted in Colin Calderwood - a substitute shouter from the sidelines so he can take up permanent residence in the stands?

5.Last January our misery was banished by the return of a familiar face, but this time around the ghosts of Christmasses past came back to haunt us - it seemed our old boys wanted to do little else but kick us hard in the Niagaras when we were already down. The Little Runt scored not once but twice against us - the first coming for West Ham courtesy of a Scott Parker pass in the 2-2 draw at St James', and the second a debut strike for Arab Plaything FC which proved to be the winner. Even more galling still was the image of Fat Sam's odious visage beaming with joy at his new side's triumph over us a week later.

6. There wasn't even to be the succour or welcome distraction of a stirring run in the Cup. Given helped protract our Third Round tie with Hull, securing a goalless draw away, only for the Tigers to complete their second smash-and-grab raid on Tyneside of the season in the replay.

7. Our treatment room continued to be as full as our dressing room, the most serious casualties being ASBO and Little Saint Mick. Both were injured at the City of Manchester Stadium, leaving just five days to source replacements before the transfer window closed. And to think we could have got some money for Little Saint Mick - now we'll probably have to witness him struggle back to full fitness just in time for the end of the season, when he'll be off on a free. Still, it was good to know that in Owen's absence at least Shola Ameobi would be around - even if it was hard to believe that someone who couldn't tell if they'd been burgled might be an asset...

I suppose that after all this doom and gloom I should at least try and finish on a positive note. Well, here goes...

Somehow we never actually fell beneath the all-important line and into the relegation zone in January. And we also managed to sign up a player whose goalscoring feats bring new meaning to the word "prolific". Just a shame, then, that we'll have to wait ten years at least to find out whether Cameron Gascoigne can follow in his uncle's footsteps. Hopefully he won't be sidetracked by his uncle's other footsteps along the way.


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