Saturday, February 05, 2011

A Month Of Saturdays: January 2011

December's instalment of A Month Of Saturdays dwelt on a bombshell delivered when the month was only a few days old: the unceremonious ousting of Chris Hughton. (Hughton, incidentally, continued to maintain his dignified stance towards his treatment by Jabba into the new year, despite the fact that he should justifiably be more bitter than a pint of Sam Allardyce's home-brew.) By contrast, January's instalment inevitably centres on an equally dramatic sequence of events that took place in the final hours of the very last day of the month.

Back in November I began by noting how Rocky was again the focus of attention. He is once more this month, though - sadly - for the last time. Strange to think how little he featured in our thoughts for most of January, how peripheral he was to goings-on at St James' Park - an injury sustained at White Hart Lane in the final game of 2010 meant that he didn't kick a ball in anger all month and made only fleeting appearances in blog posts round these parts. Of course, all that changed on the 31st.

The other half of Black & White & Read All Over has already given his verdict on the deal that took Rocky from his hometown club to Liverpool (and on our January transfer window dealings in general). By and large I'm in agreement that, on balance, selling our number nine was the right move. Firstly, with just six months of serious top-flight experience behind him (albeit a remarkably successful six months), he's a player with significant potential rather than a proven Premier League performer. Secondly, despite numerous scrapes and lurid headlines, he remains a liability off the pitch, displaying no signs of recognising his responsibilities and growing up; indeed, January brought further rumours of foolish misbehaviour which suggest that incidences of accidental glassings and vehicular conflagrations are set to rise on Merseyside. Thirdly, and most significantly, the frankly incredible £35m fee - which was inflated by soon-to-be-Torresless Liverpool's desperation and the lateness of the hour and which made him the most expensive British player in history - was just too good to turn down.

However, if that makes me sound as though I would have been delighted to pack him off onto Jabba's helicopter personally, I also had (and continue to have) some serious concerns. It's another case of a local lad - someone who knows more than most what it means to wear the shirt - leaving the club. Alan Pardew, meanwhile, was left wiping egg from his face, having spent all month announcing to everyone from weaselly hacks to the checkout girl in his local Asda that "Andy's not for sale". Indeed, he admitted asking Jabba for assurances that Rocky would be retained as a condition of taking the job - so his apparent post-sale shellshock suggests the relationship between manager and owner may already be soured. (At least Pardew had the consolation of getting himself an assistant, someone who would be immediately at home in the St James' Park dugout, John Carver.)

More significantly, though, the decision was a calculated gamble on Jabba's part that Premier League survival will be achievable without our talisman, the player around whom our whole style has been structured and developed. What was most disconcerting (though, from past history, perhaps not entirely surprising) was our lack of any cogent contingency plan, evident in the frantic and bizarre eleventh-hour approaches for Charles N'Somnia and Jason Puncheon - neither of whom would have come close to filling Rocky's size nines. We may now have £35m burning a sizeable hole in our pocket (assuming the full fee is destined for the transfer kitty, that is), but with the transfer window shut that's of no use or consolation to us now.

Speculation throughout January saw us linked with the usual host of players great (David Beckham), small (Max Gradel) and brilliantly named (Tranquillo Barnetta), but at least there were two new arrivals to St James' Park to report. You could argue that Hatem Ben Arfa doesn't really count, his loan deal from Marseille having been made permanent (a snip at £5m), but given that he's been sidelined since October's meeting with Nigel de Jong, having him back fit will be like welcoming a new player to the team. While the Frenchman is looking to regain fitness, Stephen Ireland, a loan signing from Villa, is looking to rediscover the form that less than two years ago made him shine brightest even amongst Man City's myriad stars. Both promise to give us added attacking momentum in midfield - and, in the wake of Rocky's departure, the goalscoring responsibility is going to have to be shouldered by everyone.

At the same time, however, Wayne Routledge's move back to QPR has deprived us of pace on the right flank and a potential supply line for the strikers, as frustratingly inconsistent as he's been. Twitter fiend Routledge wasn't the only player to be farmed out on loan, with the Xisco Kid rejoining Deportivo La Coruna in a deadline-day deal and Ryan Donaldson, Tamas Kadar, Matthew Grieve, James Tavernier and Joan Simun Edmundsson all handed the opportunity to follow in the footsteps of Fraser Forster, Kazenga LuaLua and Ben Tozer and impress others.

The key question is whether, when our loanees return, they'll be doing so to a Premier League club. With Rocky gone, confidence in our ability to avoid relegation is wavering - but glass-half-full types could with some justification point to the fact that January's broadly positive results were achieved without his involvement. Despite the opposition, despite the venue, despite our past history of New Year hangovers, we managed to pull off a victory in our first game of 2011, and a comfortable one at that, Big Lad grabbing the goal that hopefully laid our Latics away jinx to rest and nudging his way towards a call-up for the country of his birth. Better was to come three days later - or should I say Best? If not actively maligned, our Irish striker wasn't exactly feted either - until he bagged a hat-trick as a hapless Hammers side were trounced 5-0.

Only we could follow up those two excellent displays with an embarrassingly spineless capitulation to our old FA Cup foes Stevenage in front of a gloating nation of armchair viewers. Expect to see Michael Bostick's daisy-cutter drive jostling with Ronnie Radford's thunderbolt in compilations of legendary giant-killings for years to come. In the short term, though, our concerns centred on the red card rightly dished out to substitute Cheik Tiote - when his appeal against the consequent three-match suspension was rejected, as I'd anticipated, we realised we'd be without our protective shield for the trip to the Dark Place.

In truth, though, we didn't really seem to miss him, either when his nominal replacement Alan Smith was on the Stadium of Shite pitch or after he'd left it through injury. We took the lead shortly after half-time, Kevin Nolan reprising his role as 5under1and's worst nightmare, and, with Darren Bent pleasingly out of sorts, we coped comfortably with what relatively little pressure the Mackems put us under. There was even a first opportunity to see the Lesser Spotted Dan Gosling in black and white. But we were cruelly denied a fully deserved victory by a tragicomic injury-time goal credited to Asamoah Gyan, who knew nothing about it.

However we occupied ourselves the following week, it certainly wasn't spent learning from our mistakes. And, as the saying goes, those who don't learn from their mistakes are destined to repeat them. A good all-round performance against Champions League hopefuls Spurs saw us leading deep into stoppage time courtesy of Sideshow Bob's splendidly un-centre-half-like finish - only for Aaron Lennon to leave us with a very nasty feeling of deja vu. So that's four points squandered - let's hope we don't come to rue them as much as the four points we dropped to injury-time equalisers at home to Stoke and Wigan in 2009/10.

So, some light relief needed - and thankfully you can always rely on the Mackems for that. There were plenty of things to chuckle at in January: Ol' Cauliflower Face being denied the opportunity to bait us with a riposte to the Halloween airing of 'Daydream Believer'; the derby day teenage pitch invader frogmarched to our training ground by his dad to apologise to Steve Harper; and Ol' Cauliflower Face claiming the addition of David Miliband to the club's board would bring them "street cred".

However, gloating about the departure of their talismanic lead striker for an exorbitant fee turned out to be tempting fate - as I feared. No prizes for guessing who's Mr February in our official club calendar. At least no one got Rocky's face tattooed on their leg in January. You didn't, did you?




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