Thursday, April 18, 2013

A Month Of Saturdays: March 2013

(Better late than never - appropriately enough, given the recurring theme of this month's edition. Hopefully this is sufficient excuse.)

Think football is a game of 90 minutes? Wrong. It's a game of 90 minutes plus stoppage time - and in one crazy week in March, events which took place in stoppage time proved critical in determining the outcome of three successive Newcastle matches.

We had begun the month with a disappointing 1-0 defeat at Swansea, belatedly rousing ourselves and taking charge only to pay the price for clumsy defending and succumb to a gruesomely scrappy Luke Moore goal. Thankfully, sinking-like-a-stone Stoke were next in Toon - though we had to come from behind, equalising through a delicious free kick from Dreamboat, who later admitted to having suffered depression in the wake of Euro 2012. The stage was then set for Papiss Cisse to secure a much-needed 2-1 win with an opportunist stoppage-time strike of the sort that a predatory Little Saint Mick might have scored once upon a time. He was an unused substitute on the Potters' bench that day and later announced his retirement, reflecting wistfully what might have been had he not picked up that succession of injuries while we instead reflected on his infuriating determination to put country before club.

One stoppage-time victory achieved, another was to follow a few days later in the Europa League. We had already secured a very creditable goalless draw in Moscow against Anzhi Mackhachkala, courtesy of some superb defending from MYM and Perchino and athletic goalkeeping from Rob Elliot - it could have been even better had surprise starter HBA not fluffed a great opportunity on the plastic pitch, the Frenchman then promptly ruled out for the season. Back on Tyneside, the second leg proved an engrossing encounter, the sides practically inseparable. The Russians were a man light but hit the crossbar shortly before the game drifted beyond the 90th minute and towards extra time and potentially penalties - at which point Cisse again came alive and headed us into the quarter finals, where we were paired with Benfica.

At the DW Stadium the following Sunday, however, our good fortune ran out in one of the games likely to stick longest in the memory from this season, for all the wrong reasons. Mathieu Debuchy had already limped off when his replacement Massadio Haidara's knee was the victim of a sickening assault from Callum McManaman. The full-back was stretchered off but remarkably the Wigan winger remained on the pitch without even a booking to his name. It was another full-back, Davide Santon, who scored our goal, cancelling out Jean Beausejour's opener, but the Latics ultimately prevailed thanks to more incredibly inept officiating, Maynor Figueroa's injury-time handball flick-on from a corner unseen and Arouna Kone allowed to bundle the ball home.

The fallout from a defeat that smarted more than most rumbled on all the following week: Delusional Dave Whelan presenting a predictably hypocritical defence of McManaman, referee Mark Halsey sent to Coventry (literally) and, most incredibly, no retrospective punishment for Haidara's assailant. The club were understandably furious about the FA's inaction, though fortunately for McManaman and Wigan our initial threat of legal action was forgotten when it was confirmed that the Frenchman had, somewhat improbably, sustained no long-term injury as a result of the challenge. Meanwhile, it turned out that destructive acts had been perpetrated by some in black and white too that afternoon, Wigan Cosmos complaining that their match was disrupted by a bunch of disorderly Toon fans fresh off the coaches.

We may have had the international break during which to simmer down (an international break during which Saylor received a call-up to the full England squad) but we fared no better afterwards. Man City had all but lost the title to their fiercest rivals, but we had the considerable misfortune to encounter the outgoing champions in no mood to surrender their trophy cheaply. Four times Rob Elliot's net rippled without reply, and with results elsewhere also conspiring against us, Paul's claim that the Stoke victory meant "that the Silver Fox can afford to focus 100% on the Europa League" suddenly seemed decidedly doubtful.

Still, on the bright side, at least the club's finances were looking relatively rosy (participation in Europe couldn't be doing any harm on that front, even if Llambiarse had previously declared that it should be more lucrative) while we could at last toast the departure of the Lone Ranger - who was promptly arrested again. Oh well, our loss is Sunday League football's gain, obviously...

Contrast that utter waste of raw talent with two of our other young guns, Conor Newton and Paul Dummett, who collected winners' medals by helping St Mirren to lift the Scottish League Cup. Newton in particular was invaluable, scoring what proved to be the decisive goal against Hearts. Meanwhile, two other loanees made their impact felt south of the border, Little Big Lad scoring on his debut for the Smogs and Shane Ferguson putting in a superb shift as Birmingham romped to a 4-0 win at promotion-chasing Crystal Palace. When the duo found themselves on opposing sides, bragging rights went to Fergie, who set up Blues' winning goal.

On the subject of bragging rights, the Mackems gave our derby prospects a massive boost by sacking Martin O'Neill and appointing inexperienced lunatic and self-confessed fascist Paolo Di Canio in his place. At least they could guarantee that the training would run on time, I suppose...




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