Wednesday, January 16, 2013

A Month Of Saturdays: December 2012

December, then. 'Tis the season to be jolly, or so they say - and, after a truly wretched November, we were in desperate need of some jollity.

So a handsome victory over Wigan  - our most comfortable league win of the season - when the month was just three days old was gleefully received. Our cause was certainly helped by an early bath for the visitors' Maynor Figueroa, but it was exactly the slice of good fortune we'd been craving without reward for weeks. The final goal, a splendid effort from Master T, was a memorable first for the club, though it was really only the icing on a cake baked by Demba Ba. On a day when rumours of our Senegalese hotshot still having a release clause in his contract began to do the rounds, Ba's brace was both a timely reminder of his importance to the club and (less happily) a further demonstration of his abilities for any salivating scouts in the stands.

Our previous biggest win of the campaign had also been 3-0, at home to Bordeaux in the Europa League, but three days later a repeat never looked remotely likely in the return fixture. Sure enough our reserves turned in a dreadful performance and we concluded the group stage with a comprehensive defeat. Having already qualified for the knock-out stages, it was a journey we hadn't wanted to make (something former Toon midfielder Danny Guthrie could empathise with), but it wasn't quite a dead rubber, the result condemning us to second place in the group and consequently supposedly tougher opponents in our next fixture. In the event, we were paired with Ukrainians Metalist Kharkiv, so another joyless jaunt awaits.

Back to league action, and it had been a while since an old boy had come back to haunt us - so, right on cue, up popped Fulham's Damien Duff to stick a couple of daggers into the back of the side who once paid his wages. The Irishman had a hand in both Steve Sidwell's deflected opener and Hugo Rodallega's winner, deriving great pleasure from shoving the away fans' taunts back down their throats. Sideshow Bob seemed keen to put himself forward as an option in the potential absence of Ba, having one audacious 18-yard header cleared off the line in the first half and striking the outside of the post with a superb curler in the second. Meanwhile, HBA returned from injury with a goal but then hobbled off back to the treatment room after the match. It seems he was only on day release - more's the pity.

We'd made a decent start of a new losing streak, then, so it was with low expectations that we welcomed the champions to St James' Park. We'd already had the misfortune to come up against lowly sides hitting their richest form of the campaign (Reading and Southampton spring to mind) and struggled to find the answers on those occasions, so what we really didn't need was a side of Man City's calibre producing exhibition stuff to blow us away inside half an hour. Thereafter we coped somewhat better and exerted plenty of effort and endeavour but ultimately were always playing catch-up in vain.

The stage had seemed set for us to suffer the ignominy of being the first side vanquished by hapless QPR until 'Appy 'Arry's mob broke their duck against Fulham. Nevertheless, their arrival in Toon marked a must-win fixture as well as representing a potentially embarrassing banana skin. Thankfully, Big Lad mistook the Hoops for the Mackems and pulled a fine late goal out of the bag to settle a precariously balanced game. Before that, the match had been notable only for Papiss Cisse throwing a tantrum when hauled off by the Silver Fox.

That now made two disgruntled strikers, given that Cisse's compatriot Ba had publicly grumbled about our hoofball tactics despite all the evidence suggesting we were playing to his strengths. His mood won't have been helped by missing out on the BBC's African Footballer Of The Year title, and his future on Tyneside looked distinctly uncertain. Meanwhile the squad as a whole missed out on a Christmas party, its cancellation a welcome move both as an acknowledgement of the club's league predicament and in that it spared us from the anticipated lurid tales of the further misadventures of the Lone Ranger...

Our festive munificence towards opponents is notorious, and 2012 was to prove no different. First, the Silver Fox boldly set out to exploit Man Utd's much-publicised defensive frailities at Old Trafford on Boxing Day, and we duly plundered three goals - the second a controversial though correctly awarded own goal by Jonny Evans. Unfortunately, he had neglected to brief the defence on their critical role in the masterplan, and our hosts were allowed to fight back level three times before Javier Hernandez summoned up the ghosts of 1996 with a devastating Fergie Time winner.

Taggart had been incensed by the award of that own goal and, when the Silver Fox justifiably opined that his opposite number would be lucky to escape censure for his barracking of the officials, he found himself on the wrong end of the infamous hairdryer treatment. Hypocrisy was the charge - laughable coming from someone for whom hypocrisy is second nature - though Taggart also took the opportunity to belittle our club and earn his face a place on a few more dartboards.

Arsene Wenger was one of those who essentially came out in support of the Silver Fox by also querying Taggart's conduct, and there was no such ruckus when the two managers locked horns in our final fixture of 2012. There was, however, another extraordinary defeat for Newcastle. This time we were the side who battled back from a deficit on three occasions, only to fall behind again and then, in a horrifying final few minutes, concede a further three goals to give the scoreline the distinctly unflattering look of 7-3. All we could do was savour our attacking ambition and verve, lament our kamikaze defending (and hope the back four got some training drills in their stockings) and reflect on the fact that the result did at least underline our need for new recruits in the January transfer window.

In truth, though, that need had been evident for some time. Even the powers-that-be seemed prepared to concede having regrets over the extent of our dealings in the summer. This time around, it was to be hoped that Jabba would be concentrating fully on the task in hand rather than getting sidetracked by trivial distractions, such as attempting to resurrect the Sports Direct Arena vision north of the border. Six months on, though, and attracting new faces would be easier said than done. Our appeal with respect to prospective signings looked significantly weaker, the league table an obvious indicator of our current malaise, and it was questionable whether our status as the world's first carbon positive football club would prove a sufficiently strong selling point...




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