Monday, May 11, 2009

A Month Of Saturdays: April 2009

If I'd got a quid for every email, text or comment I received on 1st April asking - whether in jest or in all seriousness - if Alan Shearer's appointment as caretaker manager of Newcastle Utd was an April Fools' joke, I'd have been able to afford to buy the club from Mike Ashley myself.

Unlike most people waking up to the news that morning, I knew it was true, having spotted the reports appearing on reputable websites (i.e. not just the Chronicle) late the previous evening. In many ways, it made perfect sense. With only a solitary point gleaned in March, JFK confined to his sick bed for the rest of the season and the players apparently clamouring for "someone of real authority to sort it out", it was always likely that Ashley would turn to Wor Al. The appointment could be seen as an attempt to make amends for the gross mishandling of King Kev's third spell at the club, and showed Ashley had at least come to appreciate what it meant to the football club, the fans and the city for a real hero to return. With inspiration and passion in desperately short supply, we now had someone who sweated them by the bucketload in his time as a player.

Shearer very soon found the going tough, though. Even navigating the press conference called to mark his arrival was tricky. Despite reiterating endlessly that he was here for eight games and eight games only, the assembled hacks refused to believe him and continued to plague him with the same question. For someone used to a comfortable seat on the Match Of The Day sofa and to a tough decision being whether to select a four or a five iron, the demands of the job - particularly the hours - seemed to come as something of a rude awakening too.

Shearer's first fixture in charge saw Chelsea visit St James' Park in no mood for fairytales. We muddled through to half-time but 11 minutes into the second period Fabricio Coloccini took an inopportune moment to pluck a prize specimen from the locker full of defensive bloopers that he seems to have been bequeathed by Messrs Bramble and Boumsong. It was 2-0 and all over shortly afterwards, and, as the Chelsea fans took mischevious pleasure from our plight, singing "You're getting sacked in the morning", it dawned on us that inspiration and passion wouldn't be enough if we couldn't cut out the stupid individual errors.

Our Easter weekend trip to Stoke thus assumed even greater importance, but preparations were disrupted by Oba's late withdrawal through injury. A displeased Shearer was forced to turn to Big Lad, who promptly set about proving himself utterly unworthy of the manager's faith, the nadir of his performance being the failure to prevent Abdoulaye Faye - yes, him again - scoring from a corner. Thankfully, though, his replacement Andy Carroll made sure the tale of the two local lads had a satisfactory (if not outright happy) ending, powering in a late headed equaliser that bore all the hallmarks of the man who had brought him on.

At the time, that goal felt like it might prove a turning point of similar importance to Michael Owen's equaliser at St Andrews last March, but those hopes were dashed a week later by the defeat at Spurs. OK, so misfortune dealt us a cruel hand not once but twice in the build-up to what turned out to be the game's only goal, but we were passive, tentative and nervous from the very start, easy pickings for a side who didn't have to shift gears even if they could have been bothered to. In recent seasons the White Hart Lane goals had seemed to have a magnetic attraction to balls leaving Oba's feet - but not on this occasion, as the substitute wasted chance upon chance, the worst a skyrocketed volley from close range with just a couple of minutes left on the clock.

Having gained limited cheer from the fact that we started to look a threat when Oba and Captain Pasty joined Little Saint Mick up front against Spurs, Shearer took a leaf out of King Kev's book for the home game with Portsmouth, starting with the trio who proved our salvation last season. But it didn't work: they spurned one clear-cut chance each, we drew another blank and, with the visitors alarmingly in the ascendancy in the last quarter of an hour, we were actually relieved for the whistle to blow on a goalless draw. Pretty much all that had been sustaining us in the build-up was the fond memory of Ned Kelly's critical goal against the same opposition 17 years earlier and the hope of lightning striking twice, but afterwards all I could hear were Shearer's words about the final three home games, of which Portsmouth was the first: "We'll be expected to win those and we have to".

In his first month in the hotseat, it seemed, Shearer did all that could have been expected of him: tried to fire players up, tried to instill some self-belief, implemented a rigorous new training regime, enforced a strict disciplinary code, experimented with different formations and tactics, freshened up the side and given everyone at least one chance to prove themselves and make an impression. But the players just didn't respond. It was hard, quite frankly, to see a difference.

One of the very few positive bits of news in April was the announcement that, in a move that we were expected to believe had nothing to do with Shearer's appointment, the Poisoned Dwarf had fucked off. Even that, though, was cause for sombre reflection rather than jubilation - after all, if Wise had gone earlier (or, better still, never been appointed), we'd probably still have King Kev at the helm and wouldn't be in this mess.

Next stop? Anfield.


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