Monday, February 08, 2010

A Month Of Saturdays: January 2010

So, the January sales, then.

What usually happens: we move too slowly, flounder around as all the best deals are snapped up early by the determined and well organised, and then end up with panicky, overpriced, extravagant purchases which we don't need and (it turns out) don't fit anyway.

What, refreshingly, happened this year: we assessed our wardrobe, drew up a shopping list, and then spent a sensible amount of money on some astute if unshowy buys.

Shortly before the transfer window opened, Paul identified the deficiencies in our squad, and I'm delighted to report that - contrary to our expectations (which were well founded on the experience of previous seasons) - these deficiencies have all been addressed. Some have suggested that our purchases smack of a familiar short-termist attitude - I agree, but for once see this as a virtue. There's a pleasing pragmatism in our cherry-picking some of the best Championship talent because, while the new recruits might well not cut it in the Premier League, our priority is to get back there first. Horses for courses and all that. We've not lavished silly sums on players unproven at or unsuited to this level.

Less haste, more speed was the key. We didn't rush into anything, but were patient and moved decisively when the time came. The first signing didn't come until the 20th, Danny Simpson returning to the club on a permanent basis, but that marked the beginning of a very busy and fruitful few days. Next in was central defender Mike Williamson, who was no doubt relieved to escape the circus at Fratton Park. Having joined Pompey from Watford in the summer, Big Willi was never allowed to kick a ball for the first team as it would trigger payments. Two further defensive reinforcements arrived in the form of loanees Fitz Hall aka One Size from QPR and Dutch left back Patrick van Aanholt from Chelsea.

Describing our signings as "unshowy" is perhaps least fair on Wayne Routledge, who was bought to bring the same pace, skill and wizardry to the right wing that Spiderman has been providing on the left and whose arrival gave Paul a platform to flex his tabloid headline writing muscles. Last but not least, we took advantage of Leon Best's ambition and his club Coventry's willingness to sell to add another striker to the squad on deadline day.

Of course, there were quite a few who got away: Leeds' Jermaine Beckford slapped in a transfer request and then sheepishly withdrew it; Matt Kilgallon, also a free agent in the summer, turned down a £2m move claiming to be "fully committed" to Sheffield Utd only to jump ship at the first whiff of interest from the Mackems; Arsenal dealt us a double blow, choosing to loan Jack Wilshere to Bolton and also welcoming back Sol Campbell; Wigan won a fiercely contested battle for Palace's Victor Moses; the luckless Homer broke his foot while fellow former loanee Zurab Khizanishvili toddled off to Reading; Kris Boyd stayed with Rangers, as did James Perch with Forest, the latter's manager Billy Davies sniffily dismissing our bid as "derisory".

But still we had good cause to be genuinely satisfied with the deals that did go through and could with a fair degree of confidence declare ourselves to have been among the division's January winners - not least because we managed to get rid of one particular £58,000-a-week albatross around our neck. Geremi's move to Turkish side Ankaragucu was announced prematurely early in the month but finally confirmed on deadline day.

The infusion of fresh blood looked particularly timely given a sudden defensive injury crisis towards the end of the month and a number of performances which suggested some players were flagging. We comfortably controlled affairs at strugglers Plymouth in the FA Cup, Tamas Kadar looking particularly assured, but couldn't make the breakthrough and began the new decade just as we'd ended the last one - with a goalless draw.

The game against Reading having fallen victim to the elements, our next match once again pitched us against the Pilgrims in the replay. As grim as it was for our only reward for an 800-mile post-festive round trip to Home Park to be the sight of Nicky Butt striking the crossbar, spare a thought for the Plymouth fans who had to make the reverse journey on a week day only to witness Peter Lovenkrands hit a perfect hat-trick without reply...

Then came our summit meeting with West Brom at St James', a thrill-a-minute clash in which the Baggies' liquid football threatened to wash away our desperate defences. That we somewhat fortuitously managed to claim a point was thanks to a headed equaliser from Lovenkrands. The Dane's father passed away two days after his FA Cup hat-trick but he delayed his compassionate leave to make himself available for selection - and so the scriptwriters had the ending they wanted.

The draw came at a heavy price, though - the loss of Steven Taylor to a potentially season-ending injury - and less than a week later the Baggies put us to the sword on their own patch in the Fourth Round of the Cup, aided and abetted by some curious, generous and downright infuriating refereeing decisions.

With Forest and West Brom hot on our tails at the top of the league, a return to winning ways was imperative and the next visitors to St James' Crystal Palace - in administration, shorn of Moses and able to name only three substitutes - had the look of perfect fall guys. It didn't quite pan out that way, with the Eagles arguably enjoying the better of things and old boy Darren Ambrose hitting the post, but we were lucky to run out 2-0 winners courtesy of an own goal and a 94th minute finish from Nile Ranger.

We couldn't follow it up with another victory at the Walkers Stadium, ten-man Leicester holding us to a goalless draw which was noteable for little other than the extraordinary reception afforded by the away end to Foxes substitute Nobby Solano, the Peruvian having been reunited with Nigel Pearson after a spell training on Tyneside.

Off the pitch, despite our prudent transfer window activity and Jabba keeping a low profile, the NUST's Yes We Can campaign continued to attract support both verbal and financial. Newcastle City Council's leader and opposition leader both publicly endorsed the campaign's objectives while the Times claimed that more than £50m has now been pledged. That sum dwarfed the amount reportedly due to us under the terms of the freshly-renewed sponsorship deal with Northern Rock, the publicly owned bank's largesse towards us nevertheless arousing the displeasure of pundits and shareholders alike.

Of course, it wouldn't be Newcastle if the only source of controversy surrounding the club in January had nothing to do with the owner or players. And, sure enough, ASBO - never one to pull his punches, quite literally - took time out from his busy schedule of lounging about on the treatment table to inform listeners to Tony Adams' guest slot on Radio 4 (yes, really, you read that right) that, in his humble opinion, "most footballers are knobs". Takes one to know one, and all that. Actually, on reflection, our dealings in the transfer window weren't quite as satisfactory as they might have been...


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