A Month Of Saturdays: May 2012
An audacious effort, an extraordinary trajectory and an improbable end result. If you're looking for metaphors for our season, then you could certainly do worse than Papiss Cisse's second goal at Chelsea, when May was just two days old.
Our Senegalese goal machine had been talking pre-match about the distinction and honour (and associated pressure) of wearing the number nine shirt, and about wanting to "show everyone what I can do" - and he certainly didn't disappoint. His late physics-defying strike - which had the jaws of Wayne Rooney and Little Saint Mick clunking on the floor, and which went on to be named as goal of the season (tough luck on our very own HBA, in particular) - sealed a sweet victory at Stamford Bridge, our first in the league since 1986. Admittedly the Blues were distracted by the imminent prospect of an FA Cup final and, on the horizon, a Champions League final to boot, but that shouldn't detract from our achievement in recovering so splendidly from that 4-0 humbling at Wigan which had ended our winning sequence in the most brutally abrupt manner imaginable.
That result set up the following weekend's crunch fixture perfectly, when Man City were our visitors. All eyes were on St James' Park as we strove to underline our determination to secure Champions League qualification - but in the event, as well as we performed, we perhaps afforded Mancini's men a bit too much respect, and their quality (and Yaya Toure's in particular) ultimately shone through. The 2-0 scoreline edged City closer to a first title since 1968 while leaving our hopes hanging by the most slender of threads.
We travelled to Merseyside knowing that only a win over Everton would be enough, and in truth that never looked likely, an unusually shoddy and slapdash display punished ruthlessly by our in-form hosts. Our only consolation was a Tony Hibbert own goal, while Tim Cahill saw red for grabbing Dreamboat by the throat after the full-time whistle had blown. It's a measure of the success of our campaign that this was only the second time we'd lost back-to-back league fixtures. As it transpired, our result was immaterial given victories elsewhere for Arsenal and Spurs - though the latter had to look on in horror as Chelsea stunned Bayern Munich in the Champions League final, thereby denying their London rivals a seat at European football's top table.
By any standards a fifth-placed finish represents a remarkable achievement, one which the Silver Fox - deserved recipient of both the Premier League manager of the year and LMA manager of the year awards - has been quick to suggest will be impossible to repeat. As is customary round these parts, Paul cast his eye back and explored the various secrets of our success, while I analysed some key factors going forwards over the summer.
The season isn't yet over for some of our players - Tim Krul was selected for the Netherlands' Euro 2012 squad, while Dreamboat and HBA will be among the Frenchmen attempting to block England's progress in the tournament - but we're wisely refusing to rest on our laurels and instead already making plans and preparations for the forthcoming campaign. The first arrivals of the summer were French midfielder Romain Amalfitano and Slovakian defender Lubomir Satka, and we've been credited with interest in Mathieu Debuchy, Roberto Rosales and Mapou Yanga-Mwiba, amongst others.
On his way out, meanwhile, is out-of-contract Alan Smith. His destination may be unknown, but it's a fairly safe bet it won't be League 1 play-off winners Huddersfield, some of whose fans took to the Galpharm pitch to physically abuse him for his Leeds roots. Joining Smith on the summer scrapheap will be Little Saint Mick, who, after another four injury-plagued years at Old Trafford, will have to sex up that infamous brochure if he's to land another fat contract. No such worries for another permacrock, the Little Waster, who's somehow hoodwinked QPR into handing him another deal so he can sit in the stands keeping ASBO company. The latter's 12-match ban means he'll have plenty of time to continue waging his feud with Wor Al - don't go expecting the two to kiss and make up any time soon.
Still, I suppose stranger things have happened. Like Newcastle being hailed as a shining beacon, a business paragon to which other clubs and sporting organisations should aspire. Like us not only washing our dirty laundry in public but choosing to do so and actively inviting the media to watch - and it not being a bad thing. Like the long-forgotten Xisco Kid rising Lazarus-like to emerge from obscurity and fire his temporary employers to glory. Like an unfancied bunch of young players assembled at relatively low cost securing fifth spot, ahead of the sides which won the Champions League, FA Cup and League Cup. Well done, lads - for once, you've done us proud.
Labels: a month of saturdays