Sunday, June 07, 2009

A Month Of Saturdays: May 2009

And so I'm duty-bound to relive the horror for a second time. Let's keep it short...

May: examination time for thousands of students up and down the country. And, this year, for Newcastle Utd too. Despite poor results all year, could we somehow raise our game to scrape through - or would we flunk the final four tests and suffer the consequences?

The first was the footballing equivalent of a five-year-old being confronted with a paper on quantum physics: we had to try to get something from a trip to Anfield, where Liverpool, still chasing the title (though by now more in hope than expectation), had been unbeaten all season. Pre-match optimism was in short supply, even from the manager - Little Saint Mick, whom Shearer had said was pretty much guaranteed a starting place in his teams, suffered the indignity of being left on the bench against his former employers (given how ineffectual he had been in previous games, it could hardly constitute being rested).

Predictably, like our fictional five-year-old, we had trouble even spelling our name right at the top of the paper. The Scousers cruised to a 3-0 win that would have been more comprehensive than December's 5-1 humiliation at home if Steven Gerrard had fancied another hat-trick and Xabi Alonso hadn't decided to idle away the time playing his own game of Crossbar Challenge.

The demoralising nature of the defeat was compounded by the dismissal of ASBO - someone with the mental age and maturity of a five-year-old, regardless of what his old mate Peter Kay says - for a typically crude lunge on Alonso on his first appearance for the first team in three months. Apparently unaware of what can happen when you get on Shearer's wrong side, ASBO went on to call him a "shit manager" in a heated exchange of pleasantries after the game. A better man than most of us, Shearer resisted the temptation to knock the little twat's block off (or at least if he didn't it never made it out of the dressing room - unusual for behind-the-scenes shenanigans at Newcastle), ASBO was formally suspended by the club and Shearer pleaded for professionalism.

Presumably this didn't involve falling behind within the first five minutes of a must-win game to a farcical own goal - but that's exactly what happened when the Smogs came to a St James' Park all aflutter with flags on an evening we all knew would go a long way to determining who went down and who stayed up.

Thankfully, though, the players seemed to appreciate the significance of the occasion, for once, and we fought back with Steven Taylor's headed equaliser. Captain Pasty rubbed salt into the visitors' wounds by turning in his best performance of the season (admittedly that's not saying much) but it was Shearer who got the pundits' plaudits, his introduction of Obafemi Martins and Peter Lovenkrands reaping vital reward as both scored to secure the win.

While the post-match relief was understandably huge, less justifiable were the vague feelings of triumphalism and the thoughts that we had quite possibly done enough to escape. We tried to retain a sense of proportion and perspective, but we had our heads back above water in 17th and at last there was hope - sadly, as the title of the match report suggested, it turned out to be hope of the most painful kind.

Because five days later came the sort of sucker punch that could floor an elephant: defeat to Fulham, coupled with an unexpected point for Hull at Bolton. It was another litany of misery: Diomansy Kamara's winning goal having a pungent whiff of offside, Captain Pasty's header disallowed for Kevin Nolan's alleged block on Mark Schwarzer (something that was learned from Liverpool's Daniel Agger and overlooked for Taylor's goal against the Smogs), Obafemi Martins hit the post, Sebastien Bassong sent off following catastrophic confusion with Steve Harper (his second red card of the season), a familiar failure to press and attack with purpose and conviction.

The afternoon could only have been worse had Hull got all three points at Bolton. For the fact that they didn't we had to give thanks to Jussi Jaaskelainen, whose astonishing performance between the posts suggested someone more desperate to ensure our survival than the vast majority of players actually on our payroll.

One week of the season to go, and, with his impeccable sense of timing, Fat Fred decided to launch another attack on Fat Mike. Quick question, Fred - remind us again who it was who claimed Ashley and friends would be "excellent custodians of Newcastle Utd's heritage"? Now, once and for all, FUCK OFF.

And so it had come to this: a final day showdown at Villa Park. Win or draw and we had to hope Hull had been unable to match our result at home to Man Utd. Lose and we would be relegated. It was as simple as that.

What transpired was our whole season condensed into the space of 90 minutes. It started promisingly in the bright sunshine, as we appeared to have grabbed the bull by the horns with all the confidence of seasoned toreadors and went on the offensive. But as soon as Villa took the lead courtesy of Damien Duff's own goal - another self-inflicted wound - everything changed. All sparks were extinguished and all edge dulled. David Edgar's dismissal only served to make May's statistics even more ridiculous - in the last four crucial matches of the season, we contrived to score two own goals and get three men sent off - and the rest of the players slouched sluggishly and uselessly through to the horrible conclusion like as though already resigned to their fate. At the final whistle Steven Taylor predictably shed a tear, but no one else seemed to care.

And that was that. The defeats for Hull and the Mackems were immaterial and, as had been ventured, the win over the Smogs was rendered utterly insignificant except in determining the order in which we were demoted.

The following day Derek Llambiarse fumbled around for what to say, but it was left to Fat Mike to issue a formal apology to the fans as we tried to come to terms with the fact that our 16-year stay in the top flight had come to an end. The rotten fruit of those reflections was our attempt to clarify what Shearer meant when he said "everything" had gone wrong, which could have been twice the length it was had I had the strength and patience.

By the end of the month we were plagued by uncertainties. Fat Mike put the club back on the market at a cut-price £100m, but would he be able to attract a buyer (and would that buyer come in the form of our pudgy piggy-eyed former chairman)? Would Alan Shearer receive the assurances he wanted to feel able to commit to the club in the long term, and even if he did would those assurances carry any weight were Fat Mike to sell out and walk away? Of the playing staff, who would stay and who would go? Who could possibly be foolish enough to take ASBO, Alan Smith et al off our hands (or, more specifically, our wage bill)?

There were two certainties, though. One was that, when it came to the crunch, we simply hadn't been good enough in May, just as we hadn't all season, and the other was that we would be kicking off in August in a division that not so long ago we thought we'd left behind for good.


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