Tuesday 16 October 2012

Like A Bat Out Of Hell

They say that you never really choose your football team. With little regard for your mental health, current (and prospective) relationships and general hopes and ambitions for the future, one big brutish bastard of a team will grab you by the hand and forcefully drag you down the aisle to join them in irrational, passionate and bittersweet matrimony until the day you die. Not that it’s all bad – there are good times. Just enough of them to keep you blinded by hope when the shit invariably, and repeatedly, hits the fan (no pun intended).

Now, while I haven’t quite chosen a new team per se – New-fucking-castle won’t be nudged out of my affections that easily – I have been presented with a choice since arriving here in Valencia.

I was blissfully unaware of the fact that the city boasted two La Liga sides until I arrived here and started fishing around for something to do one Sunday afternoon (actual fishing not being an option that day, unfortunately) and saw that Levante were playing host to Real Sociedad and that tickets were readily available. So, I went and enjoyed the atmosphere and saw a decent, if unspectacular, game as a debut goal from none other than former Newcastle livewire Obafemi Martins helped ‘Los Granotes’ overturn a one goal deficit to win 2-1 in the type of stifling heat that one would expect to find in the muggy, breathless kitchen of a sizzling Texas steakhouse owned and run by the devil himself.

“Adelante Levante!” and all that but I wasn’t quite ready to fork out €60 on their faux-Barcelona jersey or even buy as much as a pencil in the club shop. I couldn’t nail my colours to the mast just yet.

A trip to the Mestalla awaited and I had an inkling that Valencia just might be my team. I was, after all, in a position to engage in a spot of glory hunting for once in my life and I was damned if I was backing the lame horse.

Weekends came and went and either Valencia were away or I was, so we’d have to wait a little longer to consummate our marriage. Not to worry, we’d get there in the end.

A midweek liaison with Lille in the Champions’ League saw an upsurge in form for Valencia as Jonas scored two in an altogether greatly-improved team display as Mauricio Pellegrino’s men put their league woes behind them and ran out 2-0 winners. They were hitting form at just the right time – a few days before the local derby.

Sunday 7th October had been an eagerly-anticipated date in the Spanish football calendar since the league fixtures were announced during the summer but that had absolutely nothing to do with either Levante or Valencia. Real Madrid were heading east to face Barcelona in the first league meeting between the two sides this season and all the talk was about ‘El Clásico’ – nobody seemed to care about the other mammoth derby that was taking place down the road…

I cared though. I would finally get to see Valencia play and, what’s more, I would do it as one of their own. I made a bee-line for the ticket desk at Levante’s ‘Estadio Ciudad’ and bought one in the ‘away fans’ section and eagerly walked around the perimeter of the stadium until I was safely ensconced in the bosom of ‘my people’.

Although, one quick look around me and I noticed that the bosom wasn’t particularly welcoming or fragrant. It was 11.30am. Thirty minutes prior to kick-off – very early for anyone, anywhere to be up and about and enthused about a game of football in the mid-day sun, never mind the notoriously lazy Spaniards.

A quick scan and sniff of my new family told its own story; bleary eyes, designer stubble, the pungent waft of stale sweat and the hoarse-yet-hearty laughter of an all-night reveller too wired to even think about trying to sleep. Anyone who was here was still up after a serious all-night session and they were here to shout abuse, act the prick and sing their little hearts out with little regard for anything that might
actually unfold on the pitch.

The minutes immediately before kick-off were brilliant and the excitement and anticipation were palpable. The air was dense with a swampy honey-glaze of molten noon-day heat as I found my seat right in the middle of the sleep-deprived, half-pissed Valencia Ultras. They were in fine voice and were all twirling and waving their scarves proudly as the two teams lined up. Once it was underway, the game itself was pedestrian, insipid and repetitive as neither team took control. The real action was in the stands. Classical-sounding ballads of local pride and vanity blended seamlessly into artless anthems of bilious hatred, before all the fans came to their senses as one, realised that there was a game on and that whoever had the ball was an ‘HIJO DE PUTA!!!!!!!!!!’

La Liga is often accused of lacking the passion of the Premiership and that may generally be the case - I don’t know - but I do know that this was quite a fiery occasion. Little sons looked up adoringly at their fathers as they hatefully roared in unison, while tattoo-covered brick shit-houses puffed heavily on joints and screamed profanities over at the Levante fans in the adjacent stand.

Yes, the Valencia fans were loud and they were proud but, most of all, they were just annoying. I didn’t feel entirely comfortable in their midst and while I should take the blame for my unwise choice in terms of the seats, I didn’t expect to be surrounded by complete lunatics. On a different day I may well have showed up drunk myself and seamlessly blended into their band of miscreants but it was early on a Sunday; I was clean, I was sober and I was interested in watching some football.

I longed to be sat amongst the wholesome, well-mannered Levante fans. Mothers bounced their babies lovingly on their knees and clapped hands in unison as fathers shared Cokes with their parched sons (as opposed to coke, which many of the feral Valencia fans may well have fed their children for breakfast) and everyone encouraged the team with ripples of applause and constant good-humoured singing. I was trapped and there was nothing I could do.

Or was there? Levante had taken a 1-0 lead during the first half thanks to an Obafemi Martins goal that was somewhat against the run of play but they were looking good for the 3 points. For the first time in my life I was in a position to be a glory-hunter for a day and change horses mid-race. It didn’t matter to me that Levante are really quite shit and will do well to reach mid-table this season. I knew I didn’t want to join Valencia’s army of spiteful, hungover semi-hooligans, so I changed out of my Batman costume… and into a different Batman costume.

A subtle sea change, imperceptible to the masses surrounding me, and I ripped my colours from the Valencia mast and nailed them firmly and proudly to Levante’s! Yes, I was now an undercover agent; behind enemy lines and living dangerously - ostensibly wishing for a Valencia goal on the rare occasions that they made a breakthrough but secretly delighted when Roberto Soldado and Co. frequently fluffed their lines.

With the clock ticking down, the tension ratcheted up. Minute after minute the fans grew more restless and the players became more purposeful and frenetic - everything seemed to be crescendo-ing towards a noisy, repugnant and ill-deserved Valencia equaliser. How the hell would I get out of this? My mask would surely slip! I could try to explain that I’m Irish and didn’t really support either team but that mightn’t wash with Big Gus and Hairy Jorge. I crossed my fingers and my toes and fixed my gaze on the scoreboard as the four minutes of injury time slowly evaporated. I wasn’t looking at the pitch but I knew that Valencia were on the attack. I heard the collective gasp of the crowd as a long ball was foisted goal-wards… and then I hear them exhale… and moan… and groan… the whistle had blown!

I shook my head sadly and knowingly as my eyes met those of the dejected fans around me as we all gloomily swarmed towards the exit… but inside I was somersaulting in tandem with Oba Martins.

Pardew must be brave if Magpies are to continue flying high

Originally published on various websites in early September, I forgot to post it here.

Prior to Newcastle’s recent meeting with Aston Villa, Alan Pardew warned his misfiring front pair, Demba Ba and Papiss Cissé, that their places in the Magpies’ starting XI were far from assured – despite the apparent dearth of viable alternatives that Pardew has at his disposal.

The comment was probably designed as a motivational rallying-call to reignite the spark that has been so sorely lacking in the duo since pre-season training started in July. In stark contrast with last season’s superb performances, Cissé and Ba have contributed one solitary goal between them so far this term and, far more worryingly, have looked blunt, listless and off the pace. Pardew now needs to show that his threat was not an empty one.

Perhaps their complacency is to be expected given that Newcastle are currently bereft of any other attacking options. “There’s only two Ameobis!”, has become a favourite chant of the St James’ Park faithful since Sammy joined his brother Shola in the first team squad in early 2011 but fans and staff alike are probably thankful for that at the moment given that the only fitting use of the word ‘prolific’ in any sentence involving the pair would be in describing their respective injury

To be fair to Shola, he has often proven to be an able understudy in times of need but his presence in the dressing room is unlikely to have Ba and Cissé quaking in their boots, while Sammy is still far too young and inexperienced to be called upon in a game of high stakes.

While neither really set the world alight, both Leon Best and Peter Lovenkrands were reliable professionals with international experience who could do a job when required and their respective departures during the summer have left Newcastle dangerously short up front. Forgotten men Nile Ranger and Xisco remain on the club’s books but are about as likely to feature for the first team again as Peter Beardsley is.

Indeed, the only non-Senegalese striker to appear for Pardew’s side so far this season has been the 17-year-old academy prospect Adam Campbell who made his debut against Atromitos as a makeshift Newcastle side limped to a 1-1 draw in Athens on their way to sealing qualification for the Europa League group stages. Those in the know are making all the right noises – praising Campbell’s ability and attitude and tentatively speculating about whether he will prove to be the North East’s next
great footballing luminary. However, one is inclined to wonder whether his involvement in the first team set-up has been fast-tracked out of necessity.

One gets the feeling that this summer presented Newcastle with the perfect opportunity to build on last season’s achievements and to consolidate their position as a ‘Top 6’ club by adding reinforcements to what is already a strong and cohesive team. Curiously, however, Newcastle chose not to invest in another striker during the transfer window – a move that one hopes will not come back to haunt them in the coming months; defeating Atromitos has added a further six European
fixtures to the 20 league games scheduled between the season’s start and the re-opening of the transfer window in January.

The possible return of Andy Carroll was an intriguing prospect but one always assumed that Liverpool would sooner keep him warming their bench than admit defeat and allow him to return to the North East for a fraction of the £35 million that they forked out to prise him away from Tyneside in the first place.

Newcastle have a growing reputation for keeping transfer targets under wraps until they’re signed, sealed and delivered and this, coupled with the excellent work that Head Scout Graham Carr has done since joining the club in 2010, has given fans a new-found confidence in the club hierarchy’s ability to deliver in their time of need. Selling the likes of Carroll, Barton, Nolan and Enrique was seen as a suicidal move at the time, yet Newcastle stuck to their guns, ushered their replacements in
with little fanfare (and modest transfer fees) and have since gone from strength to strength – all the while playing a more free-flowing and expansive brand of football than has been seen at St James’ Park since Bobby Robson’s charges were genuine title challengers in the early 2000s.

All of this only serves to make the decision not to bolster their limited attacking options all the more baffling. Ba and Cissé were both unstoppable on their day last season but, sadly, Ba’s outstanding early contribution to Newcastle’s cause petered out after Cissé’s arrival and a 2-1 victory over Aston Villa in early February was the only time that the pair ever scored in the same match. As the season wore on, Ba was shoe-horned into an unfamiliar position on the left side of a front three in a
formation that allowed Hatem Ben Arfa to come into the fold and paved the way for Cissé to blaze his trail and hit 13 goals in his 14 league appearances last term.

While Cissé and Ba stroll around looking lost and lethargic, making up for lost time and quickly becoming the club’s new talisman is the magnificent Hatem Ben Arfa, who has finally made the successful transition from bit-part luxury player to indispensable match-winning maverick. He embodies the boldness, craft and cunning that Newcastle fans have long cherished – from the great Jackie Milburn through to the tempestuous Laurent Robert via Malcolm Macdonald, Kevin Keegan, Peter Beardsley, Paul Gascoigne, Chris Waddle and countless other fleet-footed magicians.

The terrible injury Ben Arfa suffered when he clashed with Nigel De Jong in a game against Man City in October 2010 kept him sidelined until the summer of 2011, when an ankle injury delayed his anticipated return until the new season was well underway. Even then his involvement in the first team was fleeting as Pardew was reluctant to entrust him with a starting berth, believing that he didn’t work hard enough for the team. He was used largely as an impact sub but gradually started to
win Pardew over with his improved work-rate and appetite for the ‘ugly’ side of the game, whilst still displaying his own brand of Messi-esque wizardry by conjuring up sublime solo goals against Fulham, Blackburn and Bolton to name but three.

Newcastle have been disappointingly stagnant and toothless so far this season – “a ghost of a trace of a pale imitation” of their former selves, as the song says – and Ben Arfa has been the only stellar performer in an oddly one-dimensional and unimaginative side.

Pardew believes that mischief-making agents are partly to blame for Newcastle’s slow start with Yohan Cabaye, in particular, and possibly Ba, Cissé and Cheick Tiote all believed to have had their heads turned by enquiries from Champions’ League clubs in England and beyond. There may be an element of truth in what Pardew says but all of that is out of his control and there is nothing he can do about it now; what’s done is done. More importantly, however, what has been said has been
said and Pardew has painted himself into a corner.

The only way out now is for him to deliver on his promise and to take the bold decision to dispense with the static and lacklustre 4-4-2 that Newcastle have stubbornly tried to make work and, accordingly, to relegate one of his big hitters to the bench and to wholeheartedly embrace the more fluid 4-3-3 (or, at least, some derivative thereof) that brought so much success last season.

An outsider looking in may see dropping an enormously talented – though, admittedly, goal-shy – striker as a negative move. The truth is quite the opposite. Ba and Cissé haven’t ever complemented each other to great effect for club or country and there is a growing belief that they are too similar to prosper in unison. Placing them in direct competition with one another for the central striking role may just shake them out of their lethargy and reinvigorate them, while simultaneously allowing Pardew to remind everybody that he is in control and is not afraid to make big decisions.

There is a sneaking suspicion in some quarters that a leopard can never change its spots and that this team are merely a reflection of their manager; over-confident, smug and believing their own hype after confounding all their critics last time out and finishing the season in a vertiginous 5th place. To be fair to Pardew, however, he has handled himself impeccably since being installed as manager in December 2010 against a backdrop of bewilderment and incredulity. Replacing somebody as popular as Chris Hughton was always going to be a tough task and he has passed the test with flying colours; fine-tuning a functional side and gradually encouraging them to play with more flair and flamboyance.

Having under-performed at Charlton and then been sacked by Southampton in August 2010, Pardew seems to have learned from his mistakes. He cuts a more humble and well-rounded figure since his return to top-flight management. He remains self-assured and still possesses a steely determination but the brash and flashy over-confidence that seemed to characterise him in his days as manager of West Ham has been replaced with a quiet poise and a dignified belief in his own ability.

Pardew did a tremendous job last season as evinced by the fact that he won both the ‘Premier League Manager of the Season’ and the ‘LMA Manager of the Year’ awards. Building on that remarkable achievement will take some doing but the ball is now in Pardew’s court. Sticking with Plan A in the hope that the glories of last season can be replicated is a dangerous ploy, while ‘fixing’ something that many people may not necessarily see as being broken is sure to raise a few eyebrows too…

Pardew had nothing to lose when he arrived at St James’ Park precisely because he had nothing; he was a forgotten man and expectations were non-existent. Now, however, he has it all and therein lies the problem.