Friday, September 07, 2012

A Month Of Saturdays: August 2012

Halfway through the month that saw Black & White & Read All Over reach the ripe old age of eight (thanks, yes, we don't look a day over seven), my co-author Paul found himself engaged in the annual task of forecasting our fortunes for the forthcoming campaign. A tougher challenge than usual, he felt - not least because "it's a fairly safe bet that we're likely to be in for a sudden surge in the transfer market which could see us bolstering our squad, or fending off destabilising last-minute approaches for players". As it transpired, anyone who was tempted into having a flutter would have been sorely disappointed.

Early in August, the Silver Fox was preaching patience, insisting that he wasn't concerned at the lack of new faces at the training ground and that he trusted the powers that be to net the targets he'd identified. Towards the end of the month, though, all thoughts (and hopes?) of new recruits seemed to have been dismissed; instead, the fact that the transfer window remained open even after the start of the season was viewed very much as a threat to the stability of the existing squad rather than as an ongoing opportunity to strengthen. That we reached 11pm on the 31st with all of our most important and influential players still on the payroll was indeed a triumph, and no mean feat. The Silver Fox intimated that, although bids hadn't been made public, we should be grateful to Jabba for refusing to entertain a handful of offers submitted. However, retention was ultimately only one of our two close-season objectives - the other, as Paul suggested, being astute acquisition.

While other clubs were engaged in frantic transactions, we largely sat back and watched the events (or madness, depending on your perspective) unfold. The Mackems were among the chief protagonists, shelling out £12m for Steven Fletcher but also mustering an eye-catching deal for Adam Johnson for which we had to confess some envy, as well as recruiting sometime Toon striker Louis Saha (other old boys on the move included Rocky, who left Liverpool for West Ham on loan, and Sebastien Bassong, who joined Norwich for an old pals' act with Chris Hughton). We did however have the satisfaction of knowing that our one major summer purchase chose St James' Park over the Dark Place. Vurnon Anita joined from Ajax after a short pursuit and took no time in endearing himself to the fans by announcing he'd scorned the Mackems' advances in favour of ours. While the arrival of a utility man on the fringes of the Dutch squad for a fee in the region of £7m represented good business, the fact that Anita claimed to have been promised a defensive midfield role did cast shadows over Mr T's long-term future - could we be gearing up to flogging off the Ivorian in January? It was doubtless with an eye to that long-term future that Curtis Good was recruited from Melbourne Heart, the young Aussie defender another player to file alongside Romain Amalfitano, Gael Bigirimana and Lubomir Satka as new boys (literally) to watch.

Back to the present, and our final three pre-season fixtures were unhelpful in giving little clear indication as to how our season might pan out. A goalless draw against Tim Krul's former side Den Haag in the Netherlands, which was marred by allegations of racist abuse from the terraces, was followed by a 5-1 tonking of the Monkey Hangers on their own turf, Sylvain Marveaux bagging himself a brace. Rather less promising, however, was the calamitous performance of our first-choice back five in Cardiff, where we shipped four goals and looked worryingly porous.

Thankfully, though, the dismal defeat in the Welsh capital didn't prove auspicious and memories of that defensive display were soon banished by the 2-1 opening-day victory over Spurs. A splendid finish from Demba Ba - who remains on Tyneside after the much publicised (by 'Appy 'Arry Redknapp) release clause in his contract expired - and a late HBA penalty ensured Andre Villas Boas' first competitive game in charge of the North Londoners ended in defeat. It wasn't all smiles, though, with the Silver Fox censured and later landed with an FA charge for manhandling referee's assistant Peter Kirkup.

Then came our first taste of European football for five years with a trip to Greece to face Atromitos. What for much of the first half was shaping up to be an uncomfortable evening was rescued by a trademark Raylor free-kick on the stroke of half-time, and we gratefully took the draw and away goal back to St James' for the return leg the following Thursday. It proved to be an altogether unhappier evening for Raylor, who suffered a serious knee ligament injury which threatens to keep him out for the rest of the season, but there was some consolation in the fact that his replacement Haris Vuckic capped a lively first-half display with the only goal, quick thinking from a throw-in followed by a deflected long-range shot. That was enough to squeeze us through into the group stage of the Europa League, where we were drawn to face Bordeaux, Club Brugge and Maritimo. The competition will give the Silver Fox a good opportunity to give game-time to some of our fringe players and allow the younger recruits to gain experience - certainly a better opportunity than the League Cup, given that we've been unfortunate enough to be handed a visit to Old Trafford...

Sandwiched in between the two Thursday fixtures was a Premier League trip to Chelsea, which proved a chastening reality check. Buoyed by a four-game unbeaten run at Stamford Bridge, and with the cherished memories of that sensational Papiss Cisse volley still firmly lodged at the front of the mind in glorious technicolour, we could perhaps have been excused for taking on our hosts with a degree of confidence. But since shamefully finishing beneath us last campaign, the Champions League winners have spent both big and clever and one of their newest assets, Eden Hazard, tore us to shreds together with rejuvenated £50m man Fernando Torres as we fell to a valiant but ultimately deserved 2-0 defeat. It's a measure of the gulf between the two clubs - a gulf we somehow bridged last year but which now looks increasingly unbridgeable - that £20m Brazilian Oscar never made it off the bench, while the Blues can also boast of having added Marko Marin, Cesar Azpilicueta and Victor Moses to their ranks. Our scant summer haul of Anita and some promising teenagers looks decidedly paltry in comparison, and - as was implicit in my two-part assessment of our Premier League opponents here and here - such comparisons are relevant; just as we were the beneficiaries of poor campaigns for Chelsea and Liverpool last term, how we fare this time around is at least partly dependent upon and determined by how our rivals perform.

In a month when we said a fond farewell to Sid Waddell and wished Kevin Sheedy all the best in his battle against bowel cancer, we also paid our respects to Freddie Fletcher, who - together with Sir John Hall - should be credited as one of the foremost architects of the modern Premier League-era club, overseeing our metamorphosis from second-tier relegation fodder to top-flight title challengers and instrumental in the recruitment of the likes of Wor Al. Long gone are the days of breaking the British transfer record, though. With Jabba and Llambiarse at the helm, we're an altogether different club - prudent or cautiously conservative, depending on your perspective. And mine rather depends on what happens over the next nine months.




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