Friday, March 06, 2009

A Month Of Saturdays: February 2009

When it comes to activities that are good for your health, supporting Newcastle Utd is right up there with unicycling along a tightrope stretched across the Grand Canyon while chainsmoking and doused in petrol. It's a miracle any of us manage to get life insurance.

Playing for Newcastle Utd is just as bad. Sign on the dotted line for us and you might as well own up to having a fetish for being diced by scalpel-wielding surgeons and poked in eye-wateringly sensitive places by burly physios with fingers smeared with lubricant. It's two (or more) years of your career that you'll never get back. (Coincidentally, Little Saint Mick went under the knife once again in February...)

So why should managing Newcastle Utd be any different? With hindsight, and particularly with the club in such dire straits, the job wasn't exactly ideal for someone with a dicky ticker, was it? Taken ill with abnormally high blood pressure on the eve of the West Brom game, JFK subsequently underwent a triple heart bypass operation. While we wish him well, of course, it did leave us in the farcical situation of having our interim manager out with long-term illness.

Not that he was exactly out of the frame, mind. Oh no. One of the many revelations that poured forth from chairman Derek Llambiarse in his series of interviews with Radio Newcastle (of which more later) was that the supposedly recuperating JFK was spending much of his convalescence on the blower to caretaker interim manager Chris Hughton. So, clearly paying as much attention to doctors' orders as he does to etiquette and decorum in press conferences, then. With the club's financial plight being what it is, I only hope he had Hughton's number among his Friends & Family.

Still, at least there was the tonic of knowing that the side he manages, generally from the stands, went through the whole month unbeaten. We only had three fixtures (thanks to that Cup replay defeat to Hull) but, y'know, you've got to take your positives where you can find them.

The first day of the new month was marked - well, soiled - by the visit of the Great Unwashed, who travelled up from the Dark Place on the magical carriage of no horse drawn (the Metro to you and I) looking to do the double over us for the first time since the invention of the wheel. It looked ominous when the Mackems, already shading things in terms of possession and chances, took the lead through Djibril Cisse, Fabricio Coloccini playing a new form of the offside rule that unfortunately hasn't yet been adopted by FIFA or UEFA.

Thankfully, though, that spurred us into action and in the end we were more than good value for our point, which came courtesy of a Shola Ameobi penalty after Steven Taylor had been fouled. (The 'Match Of The Day' team may have gleefully taken the opportunity to root around in the archives for the sniper shot footage from the 2005 Villa game, but this was a definite infringement.) Even then, though, we were grateful to Agent Chopra for squandering a chance that looked easier to score, his last act in red and white before being shipped off back to Cardiff on loan. The fact that the Great Unwashed now think they have bragging rights for taking four points from us is risible.

We were the side hunting a double at the Hawthorns a week later, and the fact that we managed to spear one was largely thanks to the home team's generosity. Damien Duff and Peter Lovenkrands were both gifted goals in the opening ten minutes and Steven Taylor a third as the first half drew to a close. Not wanting to seem to be all take and no give, we let the Baggies' on-loan striker Marc-Antoine Fortune help himself to a brace, but thankfully still had the hard-heartedness to deny them a share of the spoils. Radio Five's Pat Murphy summed it up best when he said the "least incompetent" side had triumphed.

Then came Everton, against whom Lovenkrands made up for that goal on his full debut with a horrible, horrible miss when clean through on Tim Howard. Shortly after that Kevin Nolan - who I could have sworn was brought in to help rather than hinder our bid to secure survival - took it upon himself to test the durability of Victor Anichebe's leg with both feet and was swiftly dispatched to the dressing room to run the taps and dispense the Matey. Leadership my arse - in a backs-against-the-wall defensive performance in the second half that earned us a point, that came from Sebastien Bassong.

So much for the impact made on the pitch (and on our opponents' shins) by our January signings - the dearly and not-so-dearly departed had plenty to say. Some would argue that, having got the move he craved, Shay Given had no need to drag the name of the club that had paid his wages for over ten years through the mud. Personally, though, I didn't begrudge him finally speaking out - when you've made 462 appearances and won the team nearly as many points, you've earned that right. Unlike Charles N'Somnia, who couldn't resist the opportunity to have a pop at JFK. Well, Charlie, all we can say is that while you hope your move to Wigan is a stepping stone to Arsenal, we hope you're enjoying playing on a rugby pitch in front of a half-empty stadium in a town that doesn't give a toss about football.

Rather more veiled were the comments of another recent departee, James Milner, who for some reason or other was keen to emphasise his joy at playing for Aston Villa, "a very stable club" where you can "just think about your football with no off-the-field distractions". Good job that Llambiarse claimed our long-term plan is to emulate Villa, then. Laudable enough, as (in a way) was the belated admission that the hierarchy had been "naive" in underestimating the outcry at King Kev's departure - but all undercut by his deluded conviction that we'd be "right up there" if our players were "all fit and up to it". And, he might as well have added, if pigs could fly.

As for the short-term strategy, it was announced that season ticket prices are to be slashed for next season. A sign of the credit-crunched times, to be sure, but perhaps also a recognition (at last) that the fans can't be taken for granted? Having deemed it safe to once again show his face in the stands, with a black and white scarf permanently wrapped round his neck as though to ward off the doubters, Mike Ashley clearly doesn't want to be sat on his tod.

Who knows quite what the future holds? Steve Harper - like Nicky Butt, celebrating (if that's the right word) a new contract - summed it up best: "If a Martian landed and I had to explain what this club was all about, I’d say ‘jump on the rollercoaster and enjoy the ride'". Talking of little green men, do you think the rumours of a disgruntled Dennis Wise leaving in the summer might be because he's envious of Hughton and Colin Calderwood, not having been asked to step into the breach himself?


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