Monday, September 07, 2009

A Month Of Saturdays: August 2009

The last Month Of Saturdays piece concluded with something of a rallying cry, though one which had more hope than conviction behind it: "Now, with less than a week to go before the start of our inaugural campaign in the Championship, we have to pull together and look forward to a future that seems uncertain and unpromising at best". What's incredible is that, despite all the odds, we not only pulled together in August but even ended the month at the summit of the table. It's been quite a few weeks...

We began the month with a pair of reminiscences from guest contributors Jonathan and Tim about the classic Derby County away game of 2002 and our fateful final day encounter with Villa respectively, by way of deliberately drawing a veil over our time in the top flight. Reflecting on our Championship opponents in a two-part preview (here and here) and casting our gaze forwards, we could find next to nothing to warm the spirit in assessing our own prospects for the forthcoming season.

Little wonder, really - for at least five reasons.

Firstly, the club was still firmly in Fat Mike's clutches, despite his and his various associates' efforts to hawk it around to anyone with a bit of loose change. Another prospective buyer had emerged, one Barry Moat - together with rumours of Wor Al's return as manager under the man who chaired his testimonial committee - but nothing concrete had materialised. As August wore on, deadline after deadline ticked by with no news, and Ashley was made to look more and more foolish.

Secondly, Chris Hughton remained in temporary managerial charge in the absence of a permanent appointment, trying to give the impression of being in control publicly but unable to hide his being treated like a kidnap victim - left in the dark with his hands tied behind his back - when it came to prospective player sales. "As far as I know, he is still at the club at the moment", he declared at one point of Steven Taylor, who had lambasted us as "a joke" on the eve of the new season. "Whether anything has happened that I don't know about is a different matter but I'm pretty sure he'll be playing on Wednesday". The month also brought fresh reports of David O'Leary's imminent arrival and a laughable claim from JFK that Fat Mike had offered him a two year contract (it must have been his nurses upping the medication after all).

Thirdly, the asset-stripping we'd anticipated all summer picked up in pace at just the time we'd hoped it wouldn't, with relatively unsung heroes Sebastien Bassong and Habib Beye both sold (to Spurs and Villa respectively) the day before we kicked off against West Brom. Over the course of the month they were followed by Damien Duff - who echoed James Milner and Little Saint Mick before him in passing not-so-subtle comment on us when pitching up at new club Fulham ("It's really exciting, from where I have come from, to come to a well-run football club and a team where everyone enjoys their job") - and Xisco, who was rather more blunt when joining Racing Santander on loan ("I even stopped playing in the last few days to force my exit. If they hadn’t accepted the loan at Santander, I would have regarded my situation at Newcastle as hopeless").

Fourthly, the recruitment drive - for bar staff in Shearer's, for "matchday cooks" but most importantly for players - wasn't exactly going swimmingly. When we kicked off against West Brom, the number of new faces at the club stood at a big fat zero. Full back Danny Simpson subsequently arrived on loan from Man Utd, but we still had to suffer the indignity of ex-England international Sol Campbell effectively turning down our advances in favour of the other Magpies, Notts County, two divisions below us.

And fifthly, our pre-season campaign - culminating in a mediocre 1-1 draw at Dundee Utd but memorable chiefly only for the scrap at Huddersfield and the shameful drubbing at Leyton Orient - suggested we'd struggle to uproot a handful of saplings with a JCB, let alone tear up any trees.

All of which meant that an opening day trip to the home of the side widely tipped to win the league wasn't exactly ideal. But, while we didn't beat West Brom, we didn't lose either - and, after all we'd had to put up with, that in itself felt like a victory. Damien Duff marked what turned out to be his last appearance for the club with a cool finish to round off a neat move, but the real hero was Tim Krul, pitched into the fray for the second half after Steve Harper had been injured by Big Lad lunging in a failed attempt to prevent the Baggies from opening the scoring. The young Dutchman, last seen in first team action against Palermo nearly three years ago, pulled off no fewer than four splendid saves to earn the man of the match award.

"Surely either [Nile Ranger] or Xisco should be preferred to Big Lad for Bigger Lad's partner?", I ventured in the West Brom match report. If Chris Hughton's team selection for the home fixture against Reading suggested he's not a reader, then Big Lad's performance hinted that he might just be. In registering the first hat-trick of his senior career - two well-taken headers from excellent whipped crosses, topped off with a penalty - he baked the humble pie, clamped my mouth open and shovelled it in.

Four days later and Big Lad was at it again, this time a solitary first-half strike proving just about enough to see off a Sheffield Wednesday side that ran us closer than Reading's kindergarten XI. Perhaps most remarkably, over 43,000 turned out to see it.

Just as we started to worry about the possibility of running out of punning "Sho" headlines, Big Lad obligingly had a shocker at Crystal Palace - but thankfully two of our midfielders, Kevin Nolan and Ryan Taylor, decided that the time was finally right for them to score their first Newcastle goals to ensure we left Selhurst Park with another three points. The Scouse duo were part of the supposedly supporting cast last season when our strikers were misfiring too - better that they step out of the shadows now than never, though, I suppose.

The visit of Lee Clark and Terry Mac's Huddersfield in the League Cup provided a brief dramatic interlude, a flashback to the mid-90s Keegan days when we routinely set out simply to outscore the opposition. The Yorkshiremen recovered from a goal down to go 3-1 up, but Big Lad's introduction from the bench proved the catalyst for a rousing recovery as we rallied to win 4-3 with a late Nolan tap-in and secure an away tie at Peterborough. Unlike our previous meeting, in pre-season, there was no fisticuffs either - probably because Beye had already moved on.

And so we came to the final day of the month, when, thanks to the stumblings of our early rivals, a Danny Guthrie thunderbolt (his second goal in two games) and a 1-0 win over Leicester sent us top. The Foxes had had the better of the opening period, but once we were ahead the outcome seemed inevitable - and that's not something we've felt in a positive sense for a very long time.

So where, you might well wonder, has it all gone right? (If, indeed, we can really ask and answer that question after just five league games.)

The cynic would point immediately to the quality of the opposition, and in particular to the quality of their finishing which, especially at Selhurst Park, has arguably contributed rather more to our keeping four consecutive clean sheets in the league than has stout defending. But it's too arrogant - or at least too early - to dismiss our rivals like this, and in any case on this occasion I'd prefer to give credit where I think it's due.

Put simply, despite the loss of our better performers (Obafemi Martins, Bassong, Beye) and the retention (whether through choice or otherwise) of other players I'd have happily waved off into the sunset (Alan Smith, Nolan, ASBO), there does now appear to be a semblance of team spirit and togetherness that was lacking in the Premier League. Resilience in adversity, you might say, but then that doesn't really wash as we've been grappling with adversity for some time now and it only just seems to have clicked. Those who were formerly arch underachievers are, if not fully-fledged overachievers, then achievers at very least, and at last we appear to be seeing a degree of effort to match the undoubted talent that the squad possesses. We may not be "a well-run football club" off the pitch just yet - far, far from it - but in August we did at least look like we were pulling together on it.


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