Saturday, December 08, 2012

A Month Of Saturdays: November 2012

When the calendar finally flipped over onto 1st December, the collective sigh of relief at St James must have been louder than a jumbo jet crash-landing on a Slayer concert. Put simply, November was beyond horrific, a prime candidate for being packed off to Room 101 if ever there was one.

Fitting, I suppose, that the club chose last month to host an I'm A Celebrity ... Get Me Out Of Here! theme day. That exclamation must have crossed the Silver Fox's mind at points, while Jabba must also have found himself pondering the wisdom of committing to that same eight-year contract. In truth, though, the blame could hardly be laid at the manager's door. He could only look on - helpless, frustrated and the very definition of beleaguered - as we lost key players to injury (repeatedly), suspension, international duty, miscommunication and even (arguably, and in psychological terms) the distractions of personal life, while also losing match after match. Indeed, so desperate was our predicament that the Lone Ranger found himself back in the first-team squad just three weeks after I'd dismissed it as almost beyond the realms of possibility.

Initially, at least, the month gave little hint of the horrors that were to unfold. A resilient display and a creditable draw at that unhappiest of hunting grounds Anfield, courtesy of a splendid Dreamboat finish, were worthy of celebration, even if at the time we were disappointed to have witnessed another lead surrendered. If there was cause for alarm, it was that Sideshow Bob - sensational against the Mackems - was given a torrid time by Liverpool goalscorer Luis Suarez, eventually earning a straight red card for a brutal challenge on the odious little racist.

Never mind, though, we thought - the coming weeks presented a very winnable run of fixtures. Of course, we should have known better...

First up was a trip to Bruges, where in the first 40 minutes we gave a very passable impression of a side that had been overenthusiastically sampling the wares of the local Trappist monks. 2-0 down, we struck back smartly, a tasty first Toon goal for Vurnon Anita followed by a Big Lad strike, to record another 2-2 comeback draw away from home (see also: Everton, Reading). Mr T and Sideshow Bob were both eligible to play, their suspensions applying only domestically, but the former picked up the yellow he needed for his collection to ensure a European ban too, while the latter continued where he'd left off against Liverpool, looking a shadow of his usual self.

If only the same had been true of our old friend Kevin Nolan three days later. The build-up to the visit of Nolan's West Ham to St James' Park had been dominated by the Silver Fox's confession that he'd be delighted to have both our former skipper and the Hammers' Liverpool loanee Rocky back on Tyneside permanently. Like most fans, I laughed off any potential double deal as a backwards step - which made watching Nolan instinctively stab home the only goal of the game in trademark fashion all the more galling. The fact that Rocky was denied a goal on his return by Tim Krul gave precious little cheer given an injury to Spidermag and the infuriating vision of Fat Sam's smug face at the final whistle.

The international friendly break proved no respite - in fact, quite the opposite. First, Dreamboat reported an injury that will keep him sidelined until February. (Still, I suppose this at least gives him plenty of free time to tap up French colleagues ahead of the transfer window opening. Fellow midfielder Moussa Sissoko seemed amenable to the idea of a move to Newcastle, while Dreamboat's old mucker from Lille, Mathieu Debuchy, reiterated his disappointment that a deal couldn't be struck over the summer.) Second, Big Lad returned from making his international debut for Nigeria at the age of 31 too tired to start our next fixture. And how we could have done with him, because, third, a farcical communication mix-up with the Senegalese FA resulted in Papiss Cisse receiving a one-match ban.

All that was the perfect recipe for a second home defeat in a week, Swansea this time the beneficiaries. A lacklustre performance was punished with a Michu goal, and then a second from Jonathan de Guzman as we chased the game. Ba struck in injury time but, as consolations go, it paled in comparison to his subsequent nomination for the BBC's African Footballer of the Year.

Also reliant upon being shortlisted for a major award for a measure of solace was HBA. The Frenchman's stupendous FA Cup strike against Blackburn in January was named as a contender for FIFA's Puskas Award for the best goal of 2012 alongside efforts from the likes of Messi and Falcao, but he then inevitably limped out of our clash with Maritimo. Sylvain Marveaux followed Anita's lead and seized the opportunity presented by the Europa League to notch his first goal in black and white, but the 1-1 draw that secured qualification for the knock-out stages was less than convincing and came at the expense of HBA's fitness, as well as a niggling injury for Cisse.

Hence the extraordinary reprieve handed to the Lone Ranger, the Silver Fox's stipulation that he needed to be punctual for training for a solid six-week period presumably quietly swept under the carpet. While the club was enduring a terrible November, the Lone Ranger was actually enjoying it, first cleared of criminal damage charges and now back on the bus for the trip to his former side Southampton. Not that he played any part in what was without doubt our most disspiriting defeat to date. The previously struggling south coast outfit tore us to shreds, the 2-0 scoreline flattering in the extreme, while an extension to the treatment room looked ever more urgent with the news that Saylor was our latest casualty, out until February.

The only way was up, surely, and certainly we were much improved three days later at Stoke. There was to be no repeat of Ba's Pulis-baiting hat-trick from last season, though Cisse suddenly looked back to his predatory best with a goal early in the second half. But, coming under increasing pressure, we crumbled in a critical five-minute spell, conceding poor goals to Jon Walters and substitute Cameron Jerome and ending up empty-handed for the fourth league game in a row.

So, needless to say, smiles were in short supply in November - but at least we could rely on ASBO for entertainment and amusement. Good moaning!




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