Sunday, January 09, 2011

A Month Of Saturdays: December 2010

December may be synonymous with a jovial fatty who has a taste for (mince) pies and booze handing out presents, but it must still have come as a shock to Chris Hughton to receive a gift-wrapped P45 from Jabba just as the festive season started to get into full swing. The timing was extraordinary - the catalyst for Hughton winning this season's Premier League sack race was a desperately poor defeat to West Brom, but his unceremonious ousting nevertheless came a week after a creditable draw with the champions, just under a month after a superb victory at sometime league leaders Arsenal and just over a month after that splendid demolition of 5under1and.

The sacking had the result of destabilising a club that had, finally, achieved a measure of stability - and that was largely courtesy of Hughton himself. Not only did Jabba's decision betray absurdly unrealistic expectations (who in their right mind wouldn't have expected us to be at least under vague threat of slipping back down to the Championship?), but it also showed a fundamental lack of gratitude for or even basic appreciation of the phenomenal job Hughton had done since taking charge amidst the wreckage of relegation. It speaks volumes that Jabba could hire the unpleasant, arrogant, walking PR disaster zone that was JFK and yet reward someone with uncommon reserves of decency and dignity with the sack. It may have been the result of a gagging order imposed by a cowardly Jabba, but even facing up to his dismissal Hughton was dignified when no one would have blamed him for lashing out.

What, everyone wondered, could possibly be going on in Jabba's head (if discussing his "thoughts" might not be giving him too much credit)? An excellent post by blogger Swiss Rambler underlined how much of his own money he's actually ploughed into the club, for which you might imagine he'd be lauded - and yet everything else he does seems perversely calculated to make himself as unpopular as possible among the supporters. The sacking was universally and indignantly condemned by everyone from former managers, coaching staff and players, journalists and the chairman of the League Managers' Association to, er, Robbie Savage. The Guardian's Barney Ronay slated the decision as "quite possibly the most stupid in recent footballing memory" (though may have reconsidered when, hilariously, the same fate befell Fat Sam a week later), while Jabba was the subject of readers' mockery for the Guardian Gallery. The players too publicly voiced their dissatisfaction, the threat of mutiny hanging heavy in the air when first Sol Campbell and then ASBO spoke out.

But Hughton's departure was irreversible and attention then started to turn to his successor. Who would be the "more experienced" big name to match the scale of Jabba's ambitions? Soon a leading candidate for the vacancy emerged: Alan Pardew, a man who neither fitted the bill nor came with glowing recommendations from fans of his former clubs Charlton and West Ham. To say we (including England cricketer and Toon fan Graeme Swann) were underwhelmed by the development would be an understatement, our frustration fuelled further by rumours of it being another old pal's act just like the ill-fated appointment of JFK. But, to our bemusement, Pardew's appointment was duly confirmed. Having replaced someone who'd been kept cruelly sweating over a contract extension before finally being given the boot, Pardew then had the gall to spend the press conference both congratulating himself on the length of the five-and-a-half-year deal he'd screwed out of Jabba and emphasising the importance of stability.

While the main focus of our anger was directed at puppet-master Jabba, our new manager acknowledged that he wouldn't be welcomed with open arms, either by those in the dressing room or those in the stands, and that he had serious bridges to build. Granted a reception that could be described as lukewarm at best for his first game in charge, at home to Liverpool, he witnessed Hughton's team turn in a superb performance in which a pair of Scousers - Kevin Nolan and ASBO - were instrumental, and very wisely made no attempt to take any credit.

Nevertheless, Pardew wasted little time in trying to make a difference thereafter, making new appointments to the coaching staff and managing to engineer a new mutually acceptable deal for Steven Taylor - a player who, just a couple of weeks earlier, I'd said looked a shoo-in to follow Hughton out of the door. When it was rumoured that Rocky topped several clubs' shopping lists, Pardew insisted unequivocally that the striker would be going nowhere - a message I suspect he'll be forced to repeat throughout January. Good to know that one of Dennis Wise's many noteable achievements on Tyneside won't be undone, eh?

Clubs were warned to keep their mitts off ASBO too, in a month when our loveable scamp confessed to not really being the "tear-jerky and emotional" type and proved it with some lewd gesticulation in the direction of Fernando Torres. Meanwhile Pardew also had a warning for Nile Ranger, urging the youngster to put his disciplinary problems behind him and knuckle down lest he fritter away his considerable potential. It wasn't long before Brian McNally was going all doe-eyed for the new arrival - though bizarrely the Mirror man seemed most impressed with Pardew's punctuality...

While the Big Freeze set in, resulting in the postponement of the trip to St Andrews, the mutiny gradually melted away. The players were kept busy delivering Christmas messages to fans and entertained themselves with a fancy-dress Christmas party that saw Cheik Tiote apparently taking his cue from Public Enemy's Flavor Flav and Rocky rocking a bright yellow Spongebob Squarepants sweater. Sadly they were still in the Christmas spirit on Boxing Day, gifting visitors Man City two goals inside the opening five minutes with unforgivable generosity. Rocky may have scored for the third consecutive home game as we rallied admirably, but the damage had already been done.

If that defeat (if not the manner) was understandable, then so was the 2-0 reverse at City's fellow title contenders Spurs two days later. Tiote was instrumental as we performed a highly effective containment job on the home side's vibrant attack for the best part of an hour, but ultimately their wingers both managed to wriggle free, first Aaron Lennon and then Gareth Bale scoring. The narrow back-to-back losses against significantly superior sides were telling, indicating both that we can take plenty of positives from the first half of the season and have a sound foundation on which to build, and also that reinforcements are definitely needed in January if we're to be sure of avoiding relegation. With the transfer window about to open, Paul assessed our requirements. Last season we took the opportunity to invest decisively and astutely - can we repeat the trick this time around?




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