Monday 31 December 2012

Snakes On A Plane

People. Airports. Pee-fucking-pull and Air-fucking-ports. People and airports. People in airports.
Two significant sources of annoyance whisked together, poured all over me and baked at a low heat for 15 hours - all because good old Christmas-time is here again. Not that Christmas bothers me, I actually quite like it but the journey home is so much of an inconvenience that it’s almost an outright deterrent. 15 hours all alone – well, alone apart from all the annoying bastards everywhere.

So, here I am, trapped in a flying metal phallus with an intriguing array of curious characters. Every minute spent in here is torture and my journey’s just beginning; I’m tired and irritable and my misanthropic thoughts are in danger of turning into wanton acts of mile-high violence as I slowly become acquainted with my fellow passengers...

First up is an over-worked young banker-type, run down from ‘living the dream’; quickly coming to realise that living the bloody dream involves little more than getting up at 6am and working like a dog to impress some muppet who in turn is getting raped by his superior – all to make money for some nameless, faceless asshole who wouldn’t even piss on him if he was on fire.

Maybe he’d get along well with the prissy little bitch who’s thoughtfully scrawling in her ludicrously expensive diary, elaborately decorated with butterflies and crystals and the obligatory little lock that keeps inquisitive on-lookers at bay – on-lookers that would need to be both deranged and perverted to have any interest whatsoever in discovering more about her world.

Next we have the mowler with the crumpled chinos, tailored grey sports jacket and shiny black shoes – all beautifully complemented by the Liverpool jersey that he proudly wears to complete the dashing ensemble. Although, to be fair to him, the ‘St.Michael’s GAA’ gear bag that he’s carrying his Christmas presents home in is a lovely seasonal blend of red and green.

The loved-up young couple are here too, of course. The guy saying all the right things. The girl beaming from ear to ear, reveling in the attention and the fact that she has him wrapped around her little finger. Not that he minds and he dutifully trudges up and down the aisle hoping to find a place for her ridiculously over-packed rucksack – while the people in the queue forming behind them are growing increasingly restless and frustrated, audibly tutting and shuffling on the spot, willing him to snap under the pressure and to shove the bloody bag up her stupid fat arse. (Or maybe that's just me...)

Then the too-sweet-to-be-wholesome air steward makes his announcements, carefully enunciating all his syllables and urging the passengers to “feel free to contact myself as I pass through the cabin should you wish for anything”. Such subservience is music to the ears of the smug, chubby middle-aged man sitting across from me and with 330ml cans of Heineken costing a mere €5 he’d surely be a fool to miss out. He’s a sophisticated adult and he always likes to have a little treat when he’s flying, regardless of the cost. It’s his little present to himself to help him unwind and enjoy the flight. After all, he deserves it.

At the top of the cabin we have the horse on stilts standing with her arms behind her back, desperately trying to look professional and eager to help but her mask is slipping. Another inch of make-up flakes off with each forced smile and she’s there in body only - her tiny mind is away in the clouds, plotting her escape. Maybe this will be her year; after all, she’s Miss February in the Ryanair Babes calendar – all she needs is for the right guy to see that and pluck her from obscurity and make her a star. Well, a porn star at least.

My train of thought is interrupted by an important announcement made by an enthusiastic Finn who advises everybody that some self-important shit-head has made it known that they are allergic to nuts and nut products and could all passengers please kindly refrain from eating these… and at that exact moment I wanted nothing more than to stuff a big bag of dry roasted peanuts into my mouth and to cough and splutter everywhere, hoping that the fucker would be dead by the time we landed. Or, well maybe not dead - it is Christmas after all - but at least itchy and bloated and in need of urgent medical attention.

Now, I'm no stranger to hating every last member of the human race when the mood is on me but this is bad, even by my standards, so there and then I vow that next year, to save me from tears (and a possible court appearance), I'll have to avoid airplanes.

I'll stay away or get the train or walk or something. Maybe I'll try hitch-hiking - Chris Rea sounds like he might have a seat going a-begging...

Monday 17 December 2012

Identity Crisis

Upon his return to Newcastle in January 2008, Kevin Keegan spoke of the weight of expectation and the fans’ desire to be entertained; how they want to “see something that’s worth seeing”. He likened a visit to St James’ Park for one of the Geordie faithful as being akin to a trip to the theatre for the more cerebral and culturally-inclined southerners. While it may have been a slightly cringe-worthy analogy, his conviction was palpable and we all understood what he meant.

Keegan has always known what he’s wanted and he is synonymous with a certain style of football. His 1996 team captured the public’s imagination in a way that no team ever had or, arguably, has done since – at least until Pep Guardiola took the reins at Barcelona. Essentially, you know what you get when you appoint Keegan. The same, however, cannot be said for Alan Pardew.

While last season’s superb 5th place finish rightly saw Pardew lauded, it’s fair to say that he doesn’t adhere to any particular philosophy – nor does the team don’t have any identifiable style of play. Indeed, this struggle for an identity has been on-going since Bobby Robson’s departure and while Keegan’s return ultimately didn’t result in a repeat of the heroics of the mid-90s, at least it was a step in the right direction. Since Ashley forced Keegan out, however, the subsequent managerial merry-go-round has ensured that the good ship Newcastle has been somewhat rudderless.

The popular perception is that having weathered the storm after his initial arrival, Pardew set about overhauling the team by shipping out the likes of Kevin Nolan and Joey Barton in favour of more technically gifted ball-players like Yohan Cabaye. Granted, there were some superb performances and excellent results last season but Newcastle are not the free-flowing, dynamic attacking force that many believe them to be. Indeed, when they were at their most scintillating in the final third of last season, it was more by accident than design – with a rejuvenated Hatem Ben Arfa finding form and confidence at a particularly opportune time and Papiss Cissé hitting a prodigious purple patch shortly after his arrival.

Newcastle’s current problems lie in the fact that they have no footballing philosophy to speak of. This season has been a chaotic shambles so far and despite his new 8 year deal, Pardew will know that a failure to arrest the recent decline could edge him towards the exit door. Contracts aren’t worth the paper they’re written on and Mike Ashley is nothing if not brave and ruthless, so his position is far from assured. Nor, however, is it anywhere near untenable just yet despite a disastrous and scarcely-believable run of 5 defeats in 6 games against some of the league’s lesser lights.

While their points tallies are low, both Liverpool and Aston Villa’s recent performances have been quite encouraging and the decision to abandon the quick fix in favour of a more sustainable long-term strategy looks curiously far-sighted in a world where instant gratification is routinely demanded. Similarly, fans have more patience than they are given credit for and Rodgers and Lambert may well reap great rewards in the coming years as they are being afforded the time needed to implement a new playing style and to instill a fresh ethos in their respective clubs. The time has come for Pardew to do something similar.

It’s fair to say that this season has been a write-off for quite a while now and the best we can hope for is to avoid spending the next few months in a relegation dogfight. However, Pardew can turn the situation to his advantage in the second half of the season by attempting to develop a signature style of play and to bring some cohesion to a fragmented group of talented, yet purposeless, players.

The common misconception is that Newcastle’s midfield quartet of Ben Arfa, Cabaye, Tiote and Gutierrez are the heartbeat of the team and that they dictate the tempo of the game and carve out opportunities for whichever of the Senegalese strikers is in the mood that particular day. The truth, however, is that Newcastle are heavily reliant on the long ball and the midfielders spend a significant proportion of every game stargazing as hopeful balls are repeatedly launched over their heads in the vain hope that Ba or Cissé can make some magic happen should they happen to get on the end of it, which is a rarity. (Though, rarer still are the occasions when the aforementioned players are all actually on the pitch together at the same time).

If he wants to play a direct, long-ball style then Pardew needs to have courage in his convictions – he shouldn’t attempt to sugar-coat it and to pull the wool over the fans’ eyes. If it’s to be long-ball, target-man football then Andy Carroll needs to come home. If it’s not, then either Ba or Cissé need to be sacrificed and the appropriate personnel must be deployed in the 4-3-3 system that reaped so many rewards last season, rather than attempting to shoe-horn an out-and-out striker into an unfamiliar wide position. Similarly, Ben Arfa’s match-winning magic is compromised when he’s required to play on the wing as his talents are better suited to playing centrally and creating space for others as well as wreaking havoc himself with his thunderous shooting and his delightfully incisive passing.

Also, it might be a loss of appetite or perhaps it’s complacency brought on by the lack of competition in the squad but Danny Simpson and Jonas Gutierrez have been particularly disappointing this season and may well have out-lived their usefulness. They’ve both been great servants in recent years and have made massive contributions but neither is deserving of a starting berth anymore and must be replaced if Newcastle are to progress. Jonas in particular looks a spent force as he has lost a yard of pace and no longer goes on the long, mazy runs which he was famed for in his early days, while his unreliable delivery and distribution have diminished even further in recent times.

On the other hand, while Davide Santon has been one of the stand-out performers this season, he has shone more as an attacking threat than as the heir apparent to Paolo Maldini, which he was mooted to be during his breakthrough season with Inter. His marauding runs, mazy dribbles and quick thinking have invited comparisons with a young Gareth Bale – a similarly gifted player who also started out as a full-back before being moved higher up the pitch to take full advantage of his talents. One wonders whether Pardew might consider making full use of Santon’s abilities and deploying him as a right-winger and buying a specialist left back in January. It would bring a greater balance to the side and could rejuvenate and reinvigorate the team as an attacking force.

Of course, such a gamble may not pay off but the time has come to think outside the box as Pardew needs to stamp his authority on a team that looks increasingly clueless, unimaginative and one-dimensional. He can no longer afford to rely on moments of individual brilliance from match-winning mavericks like Ba and Ben Arfa. The time is nigh for Pardew to cultivate a signature style; a philosophy on how the game should be played. Nobody’s expecting Barcelona’s tiki-taka but a little joined-up thinking and cohesion would go a long way and may just be the making of him as he struggles to stay in control of his destiny having enjoyed a remarkable journey during his first two years at St James’ Park. Then, who knows what might happen - sentimental old romantics in years to come may recall ‘the good old days’ of Pardew’s Newcastle with the same wistful smile and far-away look in their eyes that they currently reserve for Kevin Keegan and his ‘Class of ‘96’.

Sunday 9 December 2012

Slack & Shite Army

This month sees the second anniversary of Alan Pardew’s appointment as Newcastle manager but he’ll be lucky to see out even another season of his new 8 year deal unless performances and results improve dramatically.

The defeat at the Britannia stadium was our fourth on the bounce and it meant that a series of winnable games against so-called ‘lesser’ sides have yielded absolutely no points and that’s just not good enough. Of course, there are mitigating circumstances: the strain of the Europa League, injuries to key players and frequent suspensions have all taken their toll but the lack of investment in the summertime now looks like it has ended our season before it ever even began. Far from building on last season’s success(or even standing still), the team has gone into free fall this autumn and they are bereft of confidence, devoid of ideas and lacking fight – all of which is in stark contrast to last season. Jonas Gutierrez has mentioned that Newcastle are now a marked side and that opposition teams have figured out how to stifle their threat. That clearly is the case but, worse than that, Newcastle have shot themselves in the foot by blindly hoping that last season’s good form would continue on into this year. ‘Plan A’ worked a treat in the second half of last season when Cisse and Ben Arfa were in sparkling form and shot us up the table but there were some comprehensive defeats – such as the 5-2 reverse at Fulham and the 4-0 spanking by Wigan - that Pardew and the players clearly failed to learn anything from.

The strain of European competition coupled with the fact that Newcastle are overly-reliant on Ben Arfa producing a rabbit from a hat meant that investment needed to be forthcoming in the summer but, sadly, funds were denied. Not only did the squad need padding out but investment in what Derek Llambias has termed ‘purple’ players could have cemented the club’s place in the top 6 and helped take us to the next level but a long list of supposed targets yielded only one signing and to describe his start as patchy is being somewhat generous. Now, however, not only is Plan A not working but Pardew doesn’t have enough bodies to change things up, so some players are still basking in the glory of last season’s achievements and not pulling their weight – safe in the knowledge that their starting berths are all but guaranteed.

Our early season draws were frustrating but understandable given the strain of our Europa League participation but we imagined that it would be a solid platform to build upon. We weren’t picking up wins but we were still robust and hard to beat but that steeliness has evaporated since the draw at Anfield and defeat now seems inevitable as soon as we concede a goal. Indeed, quite amazingly, Newcastle have never overturned a deficit to claim all three points during Pardew’s reign - the last time they did so was in October 2010 in a 2-1 win at Upton Park in a game that was overshadowed by media reports of Chris Hughton’s impending departure. The team has a losing mind-set at the moment and it is up to Pardew and his staff to shake the players out of this malaise.

Similarly, our set pieces are regularly a frustrating non-event. Long gone are the days when a free-kick or a corner launched in the general direction of Andy Carroll would cause mayhem in the opposition box see the ball ending up in the back of the net and our boys wheeling away in celebration. Steven Taylor used to be good for the odd headed goal but that has dried up of late, Williamson hasn’t managed a league goal for us yet and the likes of Gutierrez, Cisse, Anita, Simpson and Co simply don’t have the physical stature to be an aerial threat (although that’s assuming that the ball will even get beyond the first man).

Even more curiously, Newcastle top the statistical charts for long balls played despite the widely-held belief that Carroll’s departure and the arrival of Cabaye and other more technical players has resulted in a new, more expansive passing style. These long ball tactics don’t particularly suit Demba Ba and certainly negate Papiss Cisse’s threat, while the lack of an attacking central midfielder in the Nolan mould means that any aerial duals that the frontmen do win are not capitalised upon and rarely result in goals.

Ironically, Pardew is in danger of becoming a victim of his own success but he needs to show that he is not just a one-season wonder – he needs to build on last season’s success and be inspired by it, rather than seeing it as a millstone around his neck. Newcastle need to evolve and reconfigure the team’s playing style; changes need to be made, underperforming players need to be dropped and the good of the team must come before any one individual. Pardew has a lot of credit in the bank with Newcastle’s fans and defeats will be forgiven if it’s all part of a greater plan and we can see progress being made. A slow and sad decline will not be tolerated, however, and Pardew must rally his troops and ensure that performances improve quickly even if results do not. While we all dream of glory, at times failure seems inevitable and so, if we must fail, at least let us fail gloriously – it’s better to burn out than to fade away…