Thursday 9 May 2013

As Good As It Gets

Ask anyone for a list of seminal moments in the Premier League era and you´d be hard pushed to find one that didn´t feature Kevin Keegan´s finger-jabbing outburst in the spring of 1996 as Manchester United slowly but surely eroded Newcastle´s seemingly insurmountable lead to take the title to Old Trafford.

While Manchester United have had some worthy adversaries in the intervening years, it is a testament to how close Newcastle ran their title rivals that year that Sir Alex Ferguson pulled off a positively Keeganesque masterstroke last summer to ensure that Manchester City´s first Premier League success would be a one-off.

Rewind to July 1996 and Kevin Keegan is sitting alongside Alan Shearer at a press conference to announce the return of Tyneside´s prodigal son in a world record £15 million transfer from Blackburn Rovers. Shearer´s arrival was intended to ensure that a front-line boasting Ferdinand, Beardsley and Asprilla would become even more irresistible and guarantee that the near-miss of the previous season would not be repeated the following May.

The popular public perception of Keegan´s ´Entertainers´ was that they were thrilling in attack but lax at the back and more than happy to accept the challenge of outscoring opponents rather than aiming to shut them out through defensive solidity. However, while there´s an element of truth to that, time has helped to exaggerate and perpetuate the myth. The reality is that Ferguson´s men scored 73 goals that season (seven more than Newcastle managed) and conceded 35 (while Newcastle´s notoriously ´leaky´ defence only let in two more goals).

Faced with the challenge of taking his team onto the next level, Keegan pre-empted one of Frasier Crane’s most classic lines by subscribing to the notion that “if less is more, just think how much more ‘more’ will be!” There was no subtle tweaking of tactics to tighten up at the back - the idea was simply to blow everybody else out of the water.

Unfortunately, however, it’s too simplistic to say that the team who scores the most goals (or, indeed, concedes the fewest) will win the league – the reality lies somewhere in the middle. So, while it would be bordering on sacrilege to suggest that Newcastle should never have signed Shearer, with the benefit of hindsight, we’re entitled to wonder whether a top class defender may have been a more shrewd purchase and provided the steeliness and resolve that was sadly lacking as Stan Collymore, Graham Fenton, Ian Woan and other Geordie nemeses dashed our title dreams.

The Premier League, of course, has moved on since the heady days of the mid-90s; tactics are now more nuanced and intricate, many teams advocate a more cautious, possession-based style of play and few teams play in the free-flowing cavalier style that Keegan employed. All of which made it so surprising that Sir Alex Ferguson decided not to address the relative lack of quality midfield options he has at his disposal and chose to bring Robin Van Persie to Old Trafford instead.

It’s plain to see that he has been the difference between the two Manchester sides this season and it’s both frustrating and refreshing to realise that, for all the criticism he has endured over the years, Keegan may well have been right all along. Attack truly is the best form of defence and very few opponents can withstand a constant bombardment from world class opponents for 90 minutes. Keegan was so close to achieving footballing perfection with the players that he had at his disposal – they may not have received detailed notes on the opposition before every game or studied different tactical permutations but Newcastle were absolutely scintillating when Shearer, Ferdinand, Beardsley, Ginola and co. clicked and the 5-0 destruction of Manchester United was one of the greatest performances in the club’s history.

Now, nearly 20 years on, despite successive owners having ploughed hundreds of millions of pounds into the club, we haven’t even come close to mounting another title challenge and while Sir Bobby’s team were wonderful at times, they never replicated the style and ruthlessness of Keegan’s men.

Sure, Keegan didn’t win us a trophy but, in many ways, his legacy is much greater than that. We played to win and, more often than not, we not only won but we won in style. Now, as we limply struggle towards the finish line after a campaign of abject failure, it’s thoroughly depressing to think that we will never reach those heights again. What if that was as good as it gets?

Tempting Fate

Published in The Mag on 13th April 2013

Alan Pardew’s post-match interview after our lucky last-minute defeat of Stoke in early March was a classic example of tempting fate. When asked about Newcastle’s involvement in the relegation battle, he replied: “to be honest, I think we are done” and while Newcastle aren’t quite in a precarious position yet, Pardew is surely wishing that he had kept his mouth shut.

This season has been nothing short of a disaster and the sooner it is over, the better. The old cliché goes that some teams are “too good to go down” and while that may genuinely seem to be the case as far as Newcastle are concerned, it is far from inconceivable that they could find themselves heading back down to the Championship by the time the final whistle blows after the Arsenal match on 19th May.

To be fair to Pardew, most of our defeats this season have been due to a lack of quality rather than a lack of effort and the level of performance, while not yielding many points, seems to suggest that he retains the trust of the players. Although, it is somewhat concerning that our meekest and most dispirited surrender so far this season came in our last league outing, against Man City, and hopefully it was just a blip rather than an ominous sign of things to come. While nobody realistically expected us to beat Man City in their own back yard and there were arguably mitigating circumstances for our defeat to Wigan, those two defeats have dragged us right back into the relegation scrap and arguably in an even worse situation than we found ourselves in when Reading had just left St James’ Park with all three points back in January.

However, while the spirit in the camp remains high, one battle that Pardew may well be losing is the one to keep the fans on-side. Despite the obvious toll that their Europa League exploits have taken on his team this season, Pardew’s optimism has grown as they have progressed and he has recently been trying to encourage the fans to believe that Newcastle can go all the way and win it. However, the unfortunate reality is that while progress has been steady, it has also been unconvincing and has come at a significant cost as injuries to Tim Krul, and, in particular, Hatem Ben Arfa, have had a hugely negative impact on our domestic campaign.

Nevertheless, some supporters have said that they would happily swallow the bitter pill that is relegation if winning the Europa League was the spoonful of sugar to help that particular medicine go down – although in recent weeks Newcastle have had the worst of both worlds as the defeat of Anji set up a very tricky tie with Benfica that will, in all likelihood, end the European dream before leaving a dejected Newcastle side facing into an uncomfortable relegation dogfight as the season draws to a close.

While there have been some very good performances and victories since January’s transfer dealings reinvigorated the club and brought new hope following a bleak mid-winter, we are now at the stage of the season where points need to be earned if we are to secure our Premier League status for the next campaign. While the French imports have settled in remarkably well and have undoubtedly raised the overall standard of both our starting XI and the squad in general, a survival scrap is a tough introduction to the Premier League for anybody – regardless of whether they are French internationals or not. Pardew has often shown himself to be tactically naïve and some of his substitutions often leave a lot to be desired (but that’s a discussion for another day). My point is that he is unlikely to have a tactical epiphany that will see everything click into gear and for us to suddenly start putting teams to the sword with decisive mastery – so, with so few games left, confidence will be key if Newcastle are to hold their nerve and ensure survival.

The match against Wigan was a genuine six-pointer that turned the tide in their favour and has given them momentum and confidence going into what has now become a consistently strong part of the season for them. Similarly, the upcoming derby at St James’ Park presents both sides with a massive opportunity to leave the other deeply mired in what Adrian Chiles would call “the brown stuff”.

Until the recent managerial upheaval on Wearside, I had complete faith that Newcastle would confidently sweep Sunderland aside but Martin O’Neill’s sacking has really thrown a cat amongst the pigeons and, despite his success with Swindon, Di Canio remains somewhat of an unknown entity as a manager and it is virtually impossible to predict what effect he will have in the remaining weeks of the season. A victory of any kind would, of course, be one to savour and may well have the added bonus of helping to sink The Good Ship Mackem but it’s vital that Newcastle don’t let the pressure and the emotion of the occasion put them off their stride and leave them vulnerable to yet another smash-and-grab home defeat in a game that they should really win.

Nobody has a God-given right to stay in the Premier League but while Pardew was somewhat premature in saying that Newcastle had pulled clear of trouble, he was right to suggest that his side should have too much quality to spend their weekends worrying about what’s going on below them. Hopefully the last couple of weeks have given both the players and staff the wake-up call they needed to ensure that they finish on a high and set themselves up to challenge at the right end of the table again next season.

Sunday 10 March 2013

The Romance Of The Cup

They say that success breeds success. While none of us are naïve enough to think that finally winning a trophy would ensure dazzling success for years to come, it is worth remembering that nobody starts out a stud – even the most confident and charismatic Casanova was once a shy and awkward virgin and the League Cup represents Newcastle’s best chance of popping their cherry and hopefully one day developing into a moderately successful club.

If not, however, if it were to simply be a fleeting romance, then we would revel in our wild night of debauchery and cherish the memories – memories to keep us warm on long and lonely winter nights. The likes of Blackburn, Middlesbrough and Birmingham have pulled in recent times, while we’ve returned home alone, drunk and deflated, wondering about what might have been.
So, watching Swansea sweep Bradford aside in League Cup Final left me with a familiar hollow feeling. They imposed their superiority on their plucky opponents with such ease that the game was over before it even got started and if anything the 5-0 scoreline ended up being a merciful and conservative reflection of the massive gulf in class between the two sides.

It got me thinking back on our two FA Cup Final appearances in 1998 and 1999 and how unlucky we were to come up against such devastatingly superior opposition in the form of a rampant double-winning Arsenal team and Manchester United’s swashbuckling treble-winners. Looking back, Newcastle were about as likely to win either of those finals as Bradford were to beat Swansea.
While even reaching the final was a laudable and incredible achievement for Bradford, my over-riding emotions were of frustration and jealousy. Sure, I could appreciate their remarkable giant-killing exploits as they somehow defeated three Premier League sides en route to Wembley but their heroics were a painful reminder that Newcastle consistently spurn their best opportunity to finally win some silverware by getting knocked out in the early stages.

Our interest in the competition was, of course, ended way back in September when an under-strength Newcastle team were inevitably beaten by a Manchester United side composed mainly of understudies and reserves.

Before the trip to Old Trafford, Alan Pardew indulged in the usual bland platitudes about winning a trophy before completely contradicting himself by openly admitting that the League Cup was bottom of his list of priorities and that a top 4 finish would constitute real success. Of course, in one way, he is absolutely spot-on and the fans would be delighted to finish in such a
lofty position in the league – although not as happy as the men in the boardroom.

Cup runs are great for fan morale but are nowhere near as lucrative as a Champions League campaign. So, while club owners and supporters may seem to be singing from the same hymn sheet, they are, in fact, not. Club owners want success, while the fans crave glory. Accordingly, the money men dictate that the league must always be the priority and it is this, rather than the fans’ dreams, that will inform the manager’s thinking.

Sure, we all want Newcastle United to be in safe hands and for sensible business practices to be put in place to ensure the financial stability of the club in the long term – but success off the pitch is kind of pointless unless it paves the way for success on the pitch too.

While some tricky ties and a lack of squad depth have often precluded us from having a genuine chance in either of the cups, the fact that teams place cup success so low down in their list of priorities baffles me. The prize money may be paltry compared to what’s on offer in the Premier League but this new-fangled notion of fourth place in the league being the top prize is ludicrous.
Surely the whole point of being in a competition is to try to win it. While it’s a foregone conclusion that the Premier League crown isn’t a realistic target for 17 or 18 of the top flight teams, it must also stand to reason that any team who qualifies for the Champions League by finishing fourth are also on a hiding to nothing. They aren’t particularly likely to go all the way and to lift the cup the following May.

Of course the ridiculous irony of football is that clubs are businesses and aim to make a profit, so while chairmen measure success in financial terms, fans don’t dream about seeing the club captain trudging up the steps in Wembley, bloodied and battle-scarred but still smiling, shaking hands with Prince William and accepting his medal before triumphantly raising a crisp, fresh balance sheet aloft.

Yes, we want a well-run, successful club but we also want the glory of trips to Wembley, of cup finals and open top bus parades. We want to win trophies, to have stories to tell and to make memories that we can cherish in years to come. A trophy is just that - a bloody trophy! It’s not a pit-stop on the way to somewhere else, it’s the destination.

Wednesday 13 February 2013

Ashley Keeps His Pards Close To His Chest

So, there we have it. January has come and gone and Alan Pardew remains in the hot-seat at St James’ Park despite overseeing a drastic and disastrous slump that has left Newcastle fighting for their lives.

Newcastle’s so-called ‘fickle fans’ have been remarkably understanding and supportive as they have witnessed the wheels come off in spectacular fashion this season after the heroics of the last campaign. The tide of public opinion was beginning to turn against the manager after the 2-1 reverse at home to Reading but the club’s swift and decisive transfer dealings since then have served to dissolve the negativity and pessimism that has been circling around Tyneside for the last few months.

In many ways, it’s a masterstroke by Mike Ashley. While mistakes were made last summer when the squad was not reinforced with some top-class signings, backing the manager so significantly during this transfer window has given Pardew a great platform to build on and has also silenced the critics who question Ashley’s dedication to the cause. Last season’s achievements notwithstanding, it’s fair to say that Ashley has shown remarkable restraint as, let’s face it, far greater managers have been sacked for less. I just hope that Pardew knows how lucky he is.

Fans are willing to absolve Pardew of some of the blame for this season’s woes after the calamity of last summer’s failure to strengthen the squad – after all, he plays little part in transfer dealings and is employed primarily as a coach, although that’s not to say that he is not to be held accountable for the disastrous season we’re having. While he may not be entirely culpable for the results (based on the shallow pool of resources he’s had at his disposal), the buck must stop with Pardew for the team’s performances; the one-dimensional play, the poor positioning, the ineffective set-pieces, the negative mindset, and, most worryingly, the lack of resilience. Regardless of the tools he has at his disposal, Pardew should be able to send out a team that is well-drilled, knows what it wants to do and plays with passion, pride and confidence and, sadly, that has become the exception rather than the rule.

The circumstances of his arrival on Tyneside remain unknown but, unlike Chris Hughton, who viewed the PR side of the job with a jaundiced eye, Pardew revels in his role as spokesman for the club and happily fields questions which would never even be directed his way if Llambias and Ashley conducted their business more transparently. He keeps his mouth shut, trots out the company line and gives media-friendly soundbites which reveal very little about what goes on behind closed doors at St James’ Park and that seems to be something that his superiors value greatly.

After a few interviews before the recent flurry of activity in this transfer window where he looked jaded and anxious, Pardew is back to spinning out the hackneyed lines about each remaining game being ‘like a cup final’ and players returning from injury being ‘like a new signing’, so it’s full steam ahead for the SS Bullshit.

Nevertheless, and despite Newcastle’s shocking recent league form, there have been enough flashes of brilliance amidst the dross of recent months to suggest that the spark remains and that Pardew retains the support and trust of his players but the soundbites are wearing thin and he has to put in the hard work on the training ground to ensure that he arrests the slide and turns the team’s fortunes around.

He must rediscover the defensive solidity that underpinned last season’s success as well as ensuring that he sends his charges out equipped with more ideas than the very basic ones contained in the hit best-seller ‘How To Skin A Cat’ by Shola Ameobi.

January’s arrivals also spared Pardew some backlash for his comments about the fans getting on the team’s back during the Reading defeat. While he was right in saying that the fans were negative and that it spread to the players on the pitch, he neglected to acknowledge the fact that his substitutions were the catalyst for the negativity in the first place. Pardew’s criticism of the players currently in the ‘development squad’ also had the potential to be divisive but, luckily, just when it seemed that his mouth was about to get him into trouble, Ashley intervened and the script has been re-written.

However, Pardew would do well to remember that just as one swallow doesn’t make a summer, five Frenchmen do not necessarily make a team (as Raymond Domenech and Laurent Blanc would no doubt attest) and this long overdue recruitment drive throws the ball straight back into his court. The lack of depth in the squad has been addressed and now is the time for Pardew to get back to basics and put in the hard hours on the training pitch or else the only French export he’ll need to worry about will be the guillotine.

Wednesday 16 January 2013

The Ballad Of The Child Of Prague

Once upon a time in the Eastern Bloc
There lived a child most hallowed
Who brought light where there was darkness
Who grew crops where fields were fallow.

His face smooth and angelic
Sweetened by his rosy cheeks
But don’t be fooled by his appearance
For the child was far from meek.

He was small but he was mighty
Yes, the child packed quite a punch
While two raised fingers brought peace and love
Five clenched did make a bunch.

Woe betide any man who scorned him
For the child was well-connected
His devotees were heaped with blessings
Grief consumed men who rejected.

He was sitting all alone one night
When the world was fast asleep
His ears perked up when his iPhone 5
Began to buzz and beep.

A text from his boss Benedict
On his holy throne in Rome
Said “pack your bags for Ireland,
You’re heading off across the foam”.

A cynic might have objected
But he knew how his bread was buttered
The order came from on high, away he did fly –
Not a word did the child mutter.

Life can be so cruel at times
And innocents get slaughtered
Yet with a happy heart he made a start
And headed west across the water.

Yes, a handsome holy chappy
Came west from his native east
A credit to his species
More sacred than a priest

An infant coming from the east
With a cute angelic smile
I thought my eyes deceived me
I was swimming in denial

Getting off the bus in Galway
Half-starved and mute with thirst
The child rambled down to Naughton’s
where his blessed life got worse

He sunk a pint of Guinness
Then another - and many more
His eyes rolled around their sockets
He could barely see the floor

That is until he staggered off
His belly for to fill
He did justice to a snackbox
But soon felt a little ill

Down an alleyway he took a piss
But fell into the lion’s den
Attacked by a gang of hoodlums
Out-numbered one to ten.

In the wrong place at the wrong time
the child fell in the dirt
Covered head to toe in blood and guts
Like a baby after birth.

It was then The Big Man intervened,
the assailants quickly fled
but the poor Child Of Prague lay prone on the ground
as his wounds they ached and bled.

Then stumbling towards a taxi rank
His robes in disarray
Blood upon his collar
In the breeze the child did sway

In the queue he met a happy chap
A disciple most devoted
Dressed to kill in multicolour,
Accessorised and sequin-coated.

A Raphaelite angel
Head full of luscious curls
A lad to all the fellas
A gent to all the girls

Even the Gods need help at times
Yes, this saintly human crutch
Took pity on the Child of Prague
And saved him with his touch.

I always try to be objective
But maybe now I’m biased
Never once in this cruel world of ours
Has there been a child as pious.

Once upon a time in the Eastern Bloc
There lived a child most hallowed
Who brought love to the cold-hearted
Who brought depth to waters shallow.

Wednesday 9 January 2013

Poet Wanted: Enquire Within

Poetry is bollocks.
Self-indulgent shite.
I, Myself and Me,
Me, Myself and I,
I'm so lonesome I could cry.

Analysing life with fatal persistence,
Straightening branches that look better twisted.
You sentence yourself to misery to pay for your crimes,
tying thoughts together with imperfect strands of rhyme.

Trying to fight your way out
of this braindead herd of cattle.
Afraid of uniformity,
lacking stomach for the battle.

Well, I'll tell you a little secret,
you might thank me when you're older
when you rise above your sorrow
and the solace of the shoulder:
no-one wants to listen to your ego-centric shite
about the tears you cry into your pillow in the night.

Ah, but I'm up there with the worst of them
a word-whirling wizard
who couldn't make a snowball
in the midst of a blizzard.

Tuesday 8 January 2013


Whoever said that “the meek shall inherit the earth” has clearly never set foot inside St. James’ Park because Demba Ba throwing his toys out of the pram after being dropped for the trip to Everton back in September was clearly the catalyst for him wrestling ‘top dog’ status back from Papiss Cissé and ensuring that he would not be the one shoe-horned into the wide role that neither of them are truly happy in.

Despite his spectacular fall from grace and the fruitless frustration that has characterised his performances this season, it is very difficult not to feel for Cissé. If anything, he settled in too well last year and he has become the unfortunate victim of his own stunning success. However, as we all know, Cissé’s heroics came at a price – Demba Ba took a back seat as his goal-scoring exploits came to a shuddering halt after the 2-1 victory over Aston Villa on Cissé’s debut. Similarly, this season has again seen both men unable to excel in tandem and Cissé has suffered.

Being loud, greedy and petulant helped Ba get exactly what he wanted and while he once again hit a rich vein of scoring form, it came at the overall expense of the team. While his colleagues flapped about hopelessly and completely failed to get any sort of momentum going, Ba stole the limelight and used his central striking role to showcase his talents and ensure that he would finally get his big money move away from us. So, credit to Ba for his stellar performances and for being the one shining light in an increasingly dull and dispirited side but I will not be sorry to see him leave.

Team morale has clearly suffered as a result of his behaviour in the last couple of months and the happy, upbeat mood that characterised last season has been replaced with a muted and miserable silence. There have been whispers of discontent from within the dressing room and if Ba’s departure can nip that in the bud, then it may well be a blessing in disguise. The constant media speculation about his future has undermined the feel-good factor created by last season’s success and it has almost certainly contributed to the team’s below-par performances and subsequent slide into mediocrity.

Ironically, Ba may have stolen the headlines in recent times but it turns out that Cissé has won the war despite losing the private battle and the time has come for him to take centre stage once more – he has remained the consummate professional and silently sacrificed himself for the good of the team, despite his obvious unhappiness and frustration at times and now, hopefully, he can reap the rewards.

So, good night and good luck, Demba and thanks for the memories but it’s time once again to focus on those who actually want to play for the club and who are willing to pull together and work for the good of the team, not just to enhance their own reputations and bank balances. Collective success brings individual rewards but the opposite is rarely the case (we need look no further than the example of our very own Alan Shearer to prove that point) and that is the lesson that Newcastle’s players must take from the Ba saga.