Friday, April 18, 2014

Unattainable goals

Ahead of the Swansea fixture tomorrow, one stat makes for particularly painful reading. In our 17 home league games so far this season, we've scored just 19 goals - a figure that is woeful enough before you consider that five of those came in one match, against the nine men of Stoke (incidentally, still the only time we've come from behind to win points this season). Utterly pathetic.

Thankfully, it looks as though we'll have our talismanic loanee Loic Remy back for the visit of the Swans, and so won't be reliant on the unholy trio of Papiss Cisse, Luuk de Jong and Big Lad (total Premier League goals collectively this season: 2) to avoid registering yet another blank. The Silver Fox confirmed that Mathieu Debuchy is also back in training, and his presence at right-back might help to give us more attacking impetus from deeper areas. Sadly, though, without Moussa Sissoko we still look short of anyone capable of contributing goals from midfield. Will HBA get another chance? Your guess is as good as mine.

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In from the cold?

Could Spidermag return to St James' and pull on a black and white shirt again next season? It's possible, I suppose. After all, a fully-fit and on-song Spidermag would undoubtedly be an asset, his appetite for hard graft matched by few in the current squad.

However, such an eventuality is surely unlikely given his lack of form all last season, his injury problems this campaign, the thorny issue of triggering the clauses in his contract and the way he was unceremoniously stripped of his squad number in January. If so, then he may well find himself in limbo - unwanted by his parent club but unwilling to move to his current temporary employers Norwich if they drop out of the Premier League, as many (myself included) expect they will.

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Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Up for a scrap

It's usually us tearing ourselves apart, so it comes as some relief to note that the club whose internal infighting is splashed across today's back pages is Swansea, the next visitors to St James' Park. Given that our final two away games are at Arsenal and Liverpool, Saturday's match against a side who are struggling but will probably be safe represents almost our last opportunity to build on our points tally and ensure the top-half finish that was established as a minimum requirement this season. These latest revelations give further cause for encouragement - and currently we need all the help we can get.

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Monday, April 14, 2014

Different day, same bullshit

Stoke City 1 - 0 Newcastle Utd

Defeat to a fluke goal from a defender and one-time Toon target who last scored in 2008. Is there any indignity left for us to suffer? Actually, best not ponder that question and just reflect briefly on the latest miserable Saturday afternoon of a season that has become positively purgatorial - with four games still left to endure.

The fit-again Tim Krul returned for Rob Elliot, who can consider himself somewhat unfortunate to miss out, while outfield the Silver Fox decided to make significant changes in both personnel and formation. Saylor came in to a back three alongside Sideshow Bob and Iron Mike, Paul Dummett was drafted in to play on the left of a midfield five (with Vurnon Anita on the right and Mr T, Dan Gosling and Goofy in the middle) and Big Lad was picked to partner Papiss Cisse up front. Massadio Haidara, Davide Santon and Luuk de Jong all dropped out as a result.

While the changes made us look more solid, we once again offered very little going forwards. The Silver Fox noted afterwards that "we lack creative flair and a bit of ability around the box" - in a nutshell, Dreamboat. How we could have done with someone like man-of-the-match Marko Arnautovic, a constant threat down our right and the supplier of the tenth-minute cross from which Peter Crouch nodded against Krul's right-hand post. The gangly goalgetter later headed another chance high over the bar.

Things could have been different had Gosling not fluffed an excellent opportunity from close range or Mike Jones not waved away legitimate appeals for a penalty following Geoff Cameron's challenge on Cisse. Given Jones' decision to disallow Mr T's long-ranger against Man City, he's far from being our favourite official at present.

With three minutes remaining until the half-time break, the Potters' left-back Erik Pieters secured the headlines by mis-hitting a cross over compatriot Krul's head and in off the far post. It was mightily fortuitous for Stoke, but they say you make your own luck and in our case we've deserved nothing but the worst for the past few weeks.

Having come from behind to snatch points only once so far this season (against the Potters' nine men on Boxing Day), anything other than a defeat looked like a distinctly remote possibility, and the second half continued in much the same lacklustre vein as the first. Substitute Charlie Adam spurned a decent opportunity for our hosts, while it was a measure of our desperation that two of our best efforts came from Iron Mike, both blocked. The real golden chance, though, fell to Anita - the wrong man in the right place to head Big Lad's inviting cross high and wide.

The Silver Fox introduced both HBA and Adam Armstrong (that de Jong remained on the bench was telling), but these popular substitutions were neither enough to change the course of the game nor pacify supporters by now openly calling for the manager's head.

In his post-match interview, the Silver Fox trotted out a series of excuses, ranging from the just-about-acceptable to the downright ridiculous - the quality of the opposition, injuries to ten key players (ten - really?), the actions of the local press: "I actually don’t think the media in the north-east helped us this week. I think they whipped it up, for whatever reason. I know one or two of them are banned from the stadium and they probably used that as a bit of an agenda, which is a shame for us because we want them to support us." Cue a suitably sarcastic retort from the Sunday Sun.

Southampton's shock home defeat to Cardiff means they remain only two points ahead of us in eighth, but the three points pocketed by Stoke have moved them to within a win of us. Relegation-threatened Swansea are up next - we've already given them one timely leg-up this season, and they'll surely fancy their chances of getting another.

 Other reports: BBC, Observer

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Saturday, April 12, 2014

A Month Of Saturdays: March 2014

So January kicked off with a disappointing 1-0 defeat to West Brom, and 1st February saw us slump to a painfully humiliating 3-0 loss to the Mackems. What would the first day of March hold in store for us? A victory at Hull, as it happens - and a handsome one at that, 4-1, with Moussa Sissoko bagging a brace. Sadly, though, it wasn't the margin of victory or our sudden rediscovery of how to score goals that made the headlines in the Sunday papers. Oh no. Instead, the back pages were dominated by images of our manager headbutting an opposing player. At least we finally got to find out what it takes to get us up first on Match Of The Day, I suppose...

"Headbutting" should really have inverted commas above, as to describe it as such is to exaggerate any aggression in either the intent or the execution, but it nevertheless was hardly becoming for someone in the Silver Fox's position - someone whom senior players are supposed to respect and to whom young players are supposed to look for guidance and leadership - and did absolutely nothing for our permanently fragile public image.

The club's reaction was swift and decisive; he was fined £100,000, issued with a formal warning about his future conduct and ordered to deliver a written apology to Hull and Steve Bruce (an apology later accepted), but retained his job. (Perhaps Jabba and company were anticipating he wouldn't need to be pushed and would just jump, as reserve team manager Willie Donachie had in similar circumstances the previous month.) The FA's own punishment, when it came, was hefty: a seven-match ban (the first three of which were complete stadium bans) and a £60,000 fine. It could have been even more severe, though, given the media hysteria surrounding the incident, and indeed would have been had the club's damage limitation tactics not been appreciated by the panel.

Those who surmised that the whole affair would undermine the Silver Fox's authority and ability to motivate or discipline were vindicated at least in part when we next took to the pitch. He may not have been allowed inside Craven Cottage, but he'd had a whole fortnight to work with the players since the Hull game; but, while bottom-of-the-table Fulham may have been in a parlous state themselves, we were in no mood to deny them the easiest three points they'll get all season on an afternoon when absolutely everything was abysmal with the exception of the weather.

The loss through injury of Mathieu Debuchy and Loic Remy hadn't helped our cause, of course, and they were both to be sidelined for the month's remaining fixtures too. Remy's absence in particular was a huge blow, given our alarming inability to find the net without him. At least Papiss Cisse assumed goalscoring responsibility when we took on Crystal Palace at St James' Park, in what proved to be a carbon copy of the Villa match - us dominant without being especially dangerous against poor, unambitious opposition, and only emerging with a 1-0 victory courtesy of a strike deep into stoppage time.

Three days later, when Everton were the visitors, we arguably played better, only to be undone by a superior side in a rich vein of form who weren't about to be distracted from their mission to track down and overhaul Arsenal in the fourth and final Champions League spot. Ross Barkley's goal was a peach, too, even if he was assisted by some woeful defending.

The following fixture away to Southampton had been billed, somewhat less than thrillingly, as the Battle For Eighth, but from first whistle to last it was no contest. In what was an uglier spectacle than a caricature of Peter Beardsley, Jay Rodriguez notched his second and third goals against us this season as he sought to enhance his claim to a place on the England plane to Rio in the summer, only for those hopes to be dashed by a long-term injury sustained in the Saints' next match. The game ended 4-0, though it could have been many more, and we travelled back up to the north-east with spanked arses sorer than those of the Toon fans who had cycled down to the south coast in aid of charity.

The examples set by both Southampton and Everton could teach us a great deal, I argued, though whether the Silver Fox will be around much longer to learn those lessons was fast becoming the subject of some speculation. If I were a betting man (like, say, Dan Gosling), I'd be inclined to wager that the man now permitted back into stadia on matchdays is living on time that's so borrowed Cisse might actually score in it.

Our woes in front of goal were only thrust further into relief by the fact that our two loanees at Rotherham, James Tavernier and Haris Vuckic, scored no fewer than three times each over the course of the month and fixtures against Notts County, Brentford and Bristol City. Tavernier isn't even a forward - and neither is Perchinho, Wigan's improbable matchwinner as the Latics beat Man City in the FA Cup for the second successive season.

With Adam Campbell still at St Mirren, we do at least have one potential star striker of the future currently at the Silver Fox's disposal. Adam Armstrong, along with Freddie Woodman and Lubo Satka, has signed his first professional contract and made his first-team debut from the bench against Fulham, briefly providing a spark to our otherwise moribund attacking play.

Our problems aren't confined to goalscoring, of course - we're also incapable of defending. (A seriously toxic combination, that.) But there could be good news on that front too - or should that be Good news? Centre-back Curtis Good made an impressive debut for Australia against Ecuador in London, though succumbed to an injury well before the South Americans completed a remarkable comeback victory from a three-goal deficit.

But even if there are reasons to be optimistic about the future, that optimism relates only to the team, rather than the fanbase. As Adrian Tempany argues in general, but also with specific reference to Newcastle, the average age of football crowds is pushing steadily upwards, young people apparently abandoning the game in their droves due largely to the hefty cost that being a supporter incurs. I can't speak for all clubs, but - given the pathetic performances from our players, the shameful example set by our manager, the level of ambition shown by our owner and his board, and the general apathy among our fans - it's little wonder that teenagers are turning their backs on ours.

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Friday, April 11, 2014

Saints sinned against

The trip all the way to Tyneside from the south coast in mid-December to watch their side take on Newcastle would have been bad enough for Southampton fans, even if they hadn't been fleeced for the privilege. Irate at having paid substantially more for their tickets than those home fans in the same section, Saints supporters complained to their club, who in turn passed it on to the Premier League, who have now ordered us to refund nearly £12,000. Quite how this ticket-pricing tactic can be squared with our apparent endorsement of the Football Supporters' Federation's Twenty's Plenty campaign is unclear - and justifying the high price by claiming that it's precisely the sort of thing our fans face elsewhere is not an adequate defence, I'm afraid.

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Cheik's mate

It may smack of "Hey, look, over here! Forget about the results and everything else, here's a nice, fluffy, feelgood news item!", but this does at least portray some of our players in a favourable light. Kian Heneghan's story is indeed inspirational - here's hoping it provides more inspiration to the team than the Silver Fox has been able to communicate over recent weeks.

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Thursday, April 10, 2014

Charnley steps up as Jabba cashes out

So the new man filling the managing director shoes vacated last June by Derek Llambias isn't new at all - it's former club secretary Lee Charnley. He marked his appointment with the release of a lengthy mission statement that largely reiterated what was communicated in the most recent Fans' Forum. The Ronny Gill's Neil Cameron has analysed it closely and written a sharp critique, so I won't dwell on it for too long except to flag up one particularly staggering admission: "We don’t look at transfer windows in isolation, but rather as a full trading year, and our intention for the first team is to sign one or two players per year to strengthen the squad."

It's a marker of the club hierarchy's delusions if they genuinely believe that one or two signings a year would be sufficient to ensure progress. As underlined by our last three matches, the brutal truth is that the squad needs a significant overhaul in the summer - perhaps four or five players in several different areas, and that's before we even start talking about the possible sales of the likes of Tim Krul and Mathieu Debuchy. A couple of additions would be likely to see us neither advance nor stand still but regress in relation to all those around us. It's a policy that's very hard to square with the claim that "our primary focus will remain the Premier League", given that it would be a recipe for relegation to the Championship...

Charnley's statement pours more than a bucket of cold water on any hopes we might have had that the £200m Jabba has just pocketed from the unexpected sale of Sports Direct shares might be put towards bankrolling a serious summer spending spree. Fat Fred (remember him?) has crawled out from under his rock to claim that he would "not be surprised" if Jabba was actually gearing up to cash out of the club too - and to hint at a desire to resume control should Jabba choose to sell up. You know things are grim if that prospect looks like salvation of sorts. Better the devil you used to know than the devil you've had to put up with for the last seven years?

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Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Quote of the day

"Fans can forgive a defeat, but they cannot forgive a team that simply does not try and this one is on its holidays. ... With no chance of going down or qualifying for Europe, they have simply given up. How can you do that when 52,000 come along to cheer you on?"

Forgive me for quoting from the Sun, but Wor Al hits the nail squarely on the head in his latest column.

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Monday, April 07, 2014

Yellow fever

While some of the decisions taken at Newcastle are unfathomably stupid, I don't think even we have done anything quite as "bonkers" (to use Gary Lineker's term of choice on Twitter) as sacking our manager with five games of the season remaining and the team deep in relegation trouble. Hats off, then, to Norwich for dispensing with the services of our old boy Chris Hughton, who might have thought being hit on the head by a canary yellow clapper would be the final ignominy he'd suffer last weekend.

Hughton was sacked from his position on Tyneside in slightly different circumstances, though the decision seemed equally harsh at the time. At Carrow Road, as at St James' Park, he's conducted himself with dignity, avoiding the moaning, mind games and histrionics of other Premier League managers (our own included).

Norwich's home record has been decent of late - prior to Saturday's loss to West Brom, they were unbeaten in six matches, keeping clean sheets in five of those fixtures (against Man City, Spurs, Hull, the Mackems and ourselves). But on their travels they've been wretched, and last avoided defeat at Crystal Palace on New Year's Day.

Clearly all wasn't well, then, but while Hughton can't be absolved of all blame, the players need to have a long, hard look at themselves - especially those brought in for big money in the summer. The club's all-new strikeforce has been a spectacular failure, Ricky van Wolfswinkel in particular, while Toon loanee Spidermag has contributed next to nothing.

Hughton leaves his post with the commiserations of many, including his former 'keeper at St James' Park Steve Harper. Given that Norwich's remaining five fixtures are against arch relegation rivals Fulham and then Liverpool, Man Utd, Chelsea and Arsenal, and that they'll be guided by youth coach Neil Adams, a man with no managerial experience, the Canaries must now be favourites for the drop alongside Cardiff and the Mackems.

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Sunday, April 06, 2014

The Devils may care, but we certainly don't

Newcastle 0 - 4 Man Utd

According to some, the current Newcastle side is lacking in targets and ambition. Nonsense. They remain resolutely focused on their objective: making a mockery of the Premier League's claim to being the best league in the world by finishing in its top half despite being chronically awful.

Given our wretched run of results at St James' Park since Christmas, the last thing we needed was a visit from the side with the best away record in the league. But, with all eyes on their forthcoming Champions League tie with Bayern Munich and perpetual tormentor Shrek out injured, Man Utd were clearly there for the taking. Not for a team devoid of anything approaching form, motivation or inspiration, though. Despite the best efforts of Papiss Cisse, there was never really the remotest possibility of us turning them over as we did at Old Trafford in December, the Red Devils enjoying an easy ride and racking up their biggest win of the season.

HBA and MYM, both hauled off at half-time at St Mary's, were dropped to the bench, with their south-coast replacements Luuk de Jong and Davide Santon stepping up. Meanwhile, Moussa Sissoko's injury and the paucity of alternatives gave the Silver Fox a headache. His decision to hand Dan Gosling, a player who pulled up no trees at all while on loan at Blackpool earlier this season, only his second ever Premier League start for the club speaks volumes about the damage the sale of December's matchwinner Dreamboat and our transfer window inactivity have wrought on the squad.

Rob Elliot had been critical in keeping the score down at Southampton, and Tim Krul's stand-in was soon called into action as it became apparent he would again be in for a busy afternoon. Phil Jones did get the ball into our net, but only after the whistle had blown for a handball by Marouane Fellaini in the build-up. At the other end, Cisse's first effort on goal was a flying flicked header from a Santon cross, which Anders Lindegaard tipped over.

Gosling was aggrieved when penalised for a foul on Fellaini - bizarre, given that the Belgian had swung an elbow that was careless if not definitely malicious - but couldn't have too many complaints when conceding a free-kick for an ill-timed challenge on Darren Fletcher. Juan Mata may be yet to show he can combine successfully with Shrek and Robin van Persie, but, given his ineligibility for the Munich game, he clearly saw this as an opportunity to start repaying some of that hefty transfer fee, and promptly curled the dead ball over the wall and in at Elliot's near post.

It could have been worse before half-time, Javier Hernandez striking the base of the post via Elliot's fingertips, and indeed it was shortly after the break. Sideshow Bob got hopelessly caught out and Hernandez and Shinji Kagawa combined to set up Mata, who sidestepped our skipper's desperate attempt to redeem the situation and passed the ball past Elliot and into the net.

The Silver Fox - who you'd hope has free minutes, given how much time he spent on the phone up in the stands - waited until the hour mark before withdrawing the abject de Jong and introducing HBA, but before the substitute had any opportunity to make his mark the gulf had widened further. This time Kagawa broke into the box and pulled the ball back for Hernandez to supply the smart finish.

While all around him heads hung low, Cisse at least refused to join in with the meek surrender, stinging Lindegaard's palms with a right-footed shot and then pressing the Swede into urgent action to keep out a close-range attempt.

But there was no chance of us overturning the deficit, and Adnan Januzaj placed the cherry on the dog-turd-flavoured cake by firing home from Mata's backheeled pass in stoppage time. Four efforts on target, four goals - stats we can only dream of.

After the Manchester derby, my City-supporting friend Graham was somewhat non-plussed by the extent of his side's superiority, commenting that beating Man Utd has become like kicking an old drunk tramp. What, then, does this result make us - a side so poor as to be thrashed by said old drunk tramp?

In the eight home games since Boxing Day, we've won two and lost six. Even that paints a flattering portrait, though - the two victories have been by a solitary goal to nil, and in the six defeats we've scored none and conceded 17. Not even the positive omen of having Kevin Friend on officiating duties was enough to spare us from another tonking - he'd previously reffed nine of our matches and we'd won them all. In that ninth victory, though, he dismissed the Silver Fox for the headbutt on David Meyler, and it's hard to overlook the fact that our current run has coincided with our manager's absence from the touchline. Much more of this and that absence will be made permanent by Jabba.

A Man Utd fan's perspective: Red Rants

Other reports: BBC, Observer

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Thursday, April 03, 2014

Learning our lessons

Two consecutive comprehensive defeats to sides who, in theory, are roughly our equals. Rather than just sweeping everything under the carpet and moving on, what can we learn from Everton and Southampton?

1. Find a formation that works. Everton's 4-2-3-1 and Southampton's 4-3-3 were devastatingly effective against us, as they have been for much of the season, and suit the personnel available to their respective managers. Our usual 4-4-2 looks rigid and stale by comparison.

2. Develop young players and introduce them to the team at the right time, when they're ready. Roberto Martinez and Mauricio Pochettino may be lucky to have inherited talents like Ross Barkley, Seamus Coleman, Adam Lallana, James Ward-Prowse and Luke Shaw, but are doing a superlative job of using them wisely. Pressing youth prospects into action too early or too frequently, whether out of apparent necessity or not, runs the risk of destroying their confidence. One wonders, for instance, how Paul Dummett will react to being dropped following a wretched couple of games, especially bearing in mind that he was clearly in the side due to Davide Santon's injury rather than on personal merit alone.

3. Don't underestimate the value of signing players who've made their name in the lower leagues. Leighton Baines cost Everton £6m from Wigan but went on to become England's left-back; Rickie Lambert has made his way up the divisions, finally pitching up in the Premier League and performing as though it's always been his natural stage; Jay Rodriguez was bought for a relatively handsome £7m fee from Burnley but now finds himself as the second highest English goalscorer in the division and a likely recipient of a plane ticket for Brazil from Roy Hodgson; and John Stones, a teenager bought from Barnsley, is earning rave reviews standing in for Phil Jagielka in the heart of the defence.

4. Use the loan market wisely. In Everton's case, they've brought in two players with sufficient Premier League experience to make a significant impact in key areas of the pitch (Romelu Lukaku up front and Gareth Barry in defensive midfield), as well as the exciting and occasionally exhilarating spark of life that is Barcelona's Gerard Deulofeu. By contrast, while Loic Remy has proven to be a huge hit on Tyneside, injury problems aside, our other loanee Luuk de Jong has shown precious little to suggest it was worth pursuing a deal we first contemplated two years ago - he's far from the player he was at FC Twente.

5. Don't sell your best player or players during the course of the season. There must have been interest in numerous players in both squads in January, but no one was allowed to leave. If you really must sell a star man, squeeze as much as possible out of the bidders and make sure you have a cheaper but capable replacement lined up (see Everton and Marouane Fellaini/James McCarthy, and compare to our bungled dealings over Dreamboat).

6. Show some ambition. This is achieved partly by taking note of point #5 above, but also by regarding progress in all cup competitions and the prospect of European qualification with anticipation and excitement rather than with pessimism and dread. Southampton seem determined to push for a Europa League spot, something for which we appear to have little appetite, while Everton's dogged persistence in the apparently vain pursuit of Champions' League qualification may yet bear fruit if Arsenal continue to falter.

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