Thursday, March 11, 2010

A Month Of Saturdays: February 2010

At the start of the season it was clear to everyone exactly what our mutual target had to be: promotion back to the Premier League at the first attempt. But if that was the large carrot, then - as became clear in February - there was a smaller yet still significant carrot dangling in front of some of the players: namely, the possibility of pulling on the famous number 9 jersey.

In handing new signing Leon Best the number 20 shirt, Chris Hughton revealed the number 9 would be kept vacant for the season, explaining: "It can be a heavy number to carry, a burden, and wearing it is an achievement which I want somebody to grow into". A rather crass and crude attempt at man-motivation, you might think - but the fact is that for too long our players have been complacent about wearing the shirt, seemingly unable to comprehend that (as the idiom has it) you've got to earn your stripes. This is of course true of all positions from back to front, but there remains a special symbolism surrounding the number 9, one which may perhaps be overplayed but which nevertheless can reduce grown men on Tyneside to dewy-eyed, sentimental reverie.

Non-natives have filled the position with aplomb and to immense popular acclaim - Malcolm McDonald most significantly, though Micky Quinn and Andy Cole are two names worth mentioning from more recent years - but nothing warms our collective cockles quite so much as a Geordie number 9 banging in the goals. Big Lad may have begun the season well, most noteably with a hat-trick against Reading, but has been injured for much of the campaign and in any case has been around far too long and made far too little impact in that time to be a realistic or worthy successor to the likes of Jackie Milburn and Wor Al.

February, though, saw another local boy staking a serious claim for the shirt, Bigger Lad plundering five goals to take his tally for the season to 11. That said, in a month when the memory of those tight and scrappy wins of the autumn was obliterated by some fluid, effervescent performances and hefty winning margins, Peter Lovenkrands seemed determined to press his regular strike partner all the way, hitting the net four times himself.

It all begin with the 5-1 Friday night thrashing of Cardiff - as unexpected as it was enjoyable, given that the promotion-chasing Bluebirds came into the game in good shape and had notched up a stunning 6-0 triumph at Ashton Gate when last on opposition turf. Bigger Lad helped himself to two and saw another shot hit the post and bundled in by the hapless Gabor Gyepes, before the Hungarian denied him his hat-trick with a last-ditch clearance. Lovenkrands too meant business, stepping off the bench to replace debutant Best and score twice himself.

A few days later, still caught up in the euphoria of the win, I bristled at our being belittled by new West Ham owner and noted pornographer David Sullivan. But my smug pronouncements that - contrary to Sullivan's insinuations - everything (well, nearly everything) was rosy in the St James' Park garden soon came back to chomp me hard in the arse. Derby it was who inflicted our fourth and heaviest league defeat of the season to confirm themselves as perhaps the most inexplicable of our bogey sides. Presumably feeling that those responsible for taking Cardiff apart all deserved another run-out together, Hughton had for once resisted the temptation to tinker with the starting XI - the outcome no doubt confirming that his general policy of rotating and freshening up the side before every game should prevail in future.

After the display at Pride Park it was imperative that we took something from a very difficult trip to Swansea. For much of the second half it looked as we'd miss out, David Cotterill's goal separating the two sides, but we were belatedly rewarded for our resilience (if not quality football - that was exhibited by the Swans alone) with an equaliser from the head of Bigger Lad piercing our opponents' formidable defence. Best supplied the excellent cross - his most significant contribution in a black and white shirt to date.

Back at home and back within our comfort zone, we looked a different prospect altogether, dishing out another pasting, this time for Coventry. The in-form Sky Blues had the temerity to take the lead, but a Wayne Routledge-inspired Utd proceeded to rout the shell-shocked visitors, Bigger Lad notching the all-important second goal to effect the turnaround.

Equally beneficial to our goal difference was the subsequent 3-0 win over Preston. The loss of Routledge to injury was a blow, and the performance wasn't so fluent and the victory not so comprehensive as the scoreline might suggest, but most telling was the vocal recognition at last afforded to Hughton from the stands - recognition that was soon publicly echoed by one prominent fan.

However, with no win on the road since early December, the question of why we were struggling to reproduce our home form on our travels had been growing increasingly pertinent. Thankfully, though, those concerns were largely laid to rest by a dominant display at Vicarage Road when we overcame hosts Watford as Patrick Van Aanholt's all-too-brief loan period came to an end. Fabricio Coloccini set the ball rolling with only his second goal for the club, before Bigger Lad added what proved to be the match-winner.

So, Bigger Lad's claim that "relegation has done well for me" was clearly borne out over the course of the month's six fixtures - but with establishing himself as the focal point of our attack has come an added pressure and responsibility. February also saw him charged with assault and consequently make a fleeting court appearance.

He wasn't alone in finding himself in trouble with PC Plod, former Magpies Gazza, Agent Chopra and Didi Hamann also falling foul of the law, and of course he remains innocent until proven guilty. But in a month when I said hello to one Toon legend and we bade farewell to another, Bigger Lad should appreciate that, while the promise is there, he's still got some way to go both on and off the pitch before he can hope to be mentioned in the same breath.


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