Posts Tagged ‘sunderland’

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A few months ago I found myself sitting, staring at my computer screen in a state of utter disbelief. The reason for my jaw almost hitting the floor was one that has had many a Newcastle fan doing exactly the same over the years. It centred around Tyneside’s favourite Nigerian with a Geordie accent, the Fenham Eusebio, our very own Foluwashola Ameobi. Few football players divide opinion from their own fans like wor Shola – surely the definition, if ever there was one, of a love/hate relationship in a sporting sense. Yet whilst many a Geordie’s jaw has dropped over the years, inspired by the gangly-forward’s ability to both delight and frustrate in equal measure, the reason for my state of shock revolved around something written about Ameobi, rather than his consistently inconsistent on-field antics as is usually the case.

Ameobi - head in hands after missing a chance - A common sight for Toon fans

The article in question started like your average North-East football opinion-piece with the premise of the piece being to discuss the role of playmakers in the modern game, applied to the regions 3 (debatable) major teams. The argument put forward was that playmakers in the modern game are seen as a rarely afforded luxury, often overlooked in favour of players with pace, work rate and tactical rigidity. The article highlighted Andy Reid at 5under1and, and former Valencia and Barça player Gaizka Mendieta at Boro as those, slightly unorthodox midfielders that had been cast aside by Steve Bruce and Gareth Southgate respectively because of their non-conforming playing styles – and in Reid’s case his “physical limitations”.

Fair enough, I hear you say. Sounds like a decent argument. Give those playmakers more game-time, more freedom. To complete the article in non-discriminatory fashion however, an example was needed of such a player to satisfy the readers of a Black & White persuasion. Who would be a good example of an unorthodox playmaker – undoubtedly skillful yet discarded for not being “identikit” as the article’s author put it. I started to rack my brain for United’s playmakers in recent years… Beardsley? Nah, more of a forward and he was hardly cast aside. Dyer? Hmm, sold for fitness reasons rather than tactical non-conformity. I then realised that actually, in the last 15 years we’ve hardly been blessed with what I would call a true “playmaker” – a central attacking midfielder with composure on the ball and an eye for a killer pass – the Xavi’s, Modric’s and Sneijder’s of this world.

Emre is the closest Newcastle have come to having a true 'playmaker' in recent years

The best I could come up with was Emre – incredibly talented yet unfortunately injury-prone. His injuries were probably the main reason behind his departure but he was also criticised at times for his lack of defensive work – the true habit (perceived or real) of a playmaker in the English game. So Emre it was. Not a great shout but surely the journalist would refresh my memory and pick a corker. So I scroll down just as you are about to and then my jaw drops…

“SHOLA AMEOBI could sympathise. An unpredictable amalgam of fine touch, exquisite skill, clever turns, inspired passes and accomplished finishing, the Newcastle striker’s unorthodox talent does not always sit comfortably with today’s tick-box culture”

Wow, wasn’t expecting that. I check my watch for the date on one hand whilst frantically scrolling back up to the top of the page with the other. Nope, not April Fools Day. Yep, written by a certain Louise Taylor, a mackem sympathist with a penchant for less than favourable NUFC-related coverage. Things were starting to make sense. The article wasn’t anti-NUFC in any way, but my God was it inaccurate. I know it’s an opinion piece but there is a difference between opinion and downright fiction.

Now let me get this out there – I like Shola as much as the next guy. Obviously I’ve doubted and criticised the big man before, as all Toon fans have (be honest) but at the moment on the 10-year ride that has been the Sholacoaster, I have to admit he is in my good books. Despite his inconsistency and ability to infuriate, his commitment to the cause cannot be faulted with Shola having played through countless injuries in his decade serving the Mags. At present, he is the Man in the Plastic Mask, returning early from a fractured cheekbone sustained at Craven Cottage in February to more than play his part in securing the club’s Premier League status for another year. In particular though, it is his performances against the arch-rivals from down the road that have given him cult hero status, with a song to boot:

I’m a fan of Shola and I’ll admit to ‘doing the Ameobi’ on several occasions but; ‘An unpredictable amalgam of fine touch’ – Rarely. ‘Exquisite skill’ – Sometimes. ‘Clever turns’ – On a good day. ‘Inspired passes and accomplished finishing‘ – Meh, his finishing’s alright but inspired passing?! Anyone reading this without seeing Shola’s name attached could be forgiven for thinking it were an article on Zinedine Zidane, not a man affectionately known as ‘Strolla’ or ‘Bambeobi’. The article continues:

“Ameobi splits managerial opinion as he divides defences but Newcastle almost always excite when spearheaded by their Nigerian Geordie.

The first part is fairly accurate and funnily enough, the same could easily be said of Louise Taylor’s musings in the Guardian with regard to splitting opinion. Newcastle always exciting when wor Shola takes to the pitch however? I’m sure you’ll find a fan or 50,000 that aren’t excited when he produces moments like this all too often:

After the initial shock of seeing Ameobi compared to skillful midfield playmakers and described as having ‘inspired passing’, my mind cleared enough to think ‘I’ve heard this before’. A quick google search reassured me that I was not going insane. Sure enough, an article by Louise Taylor in The Guardian just over a month prior to the playmaker article described Ameobi as:

“A deep thinker and a voracious reader, Ameobi… might have followed his father into academia had an unorthodox amalgam of exquisite skill, clever turns, inspired passes and, of course, goals not led him down an alternative path.”

Interesting – the same description – almost word-for-word. Intrigued by my discovery of Louise Taylor’s admiration for anybody associated with Newcastle, let alone the much-mocked Ameobi, I hunted for more. A quick google search turned into a lengthy one, with endless articles of Ameobi admiration having been churned out by Taylor over the years:

October 2003: “Ameobi is no brat but he can, à la Chris Waddle, at times appear deceptively laconic, almost interested.”

August 2006: “Much more of this and Newcastle’s ‘Shearer’s Bar’ will soon be renamed ‘Shola’s’.”

August 2009: “With the transfer window’s closure looming, time is running out to recruit replacements. After Ameobi’s exploits, Ashley might believe none is necessary.”

August 2009: “..leaving the Geordie-Nigerian striker to chest the ball down and, in one impressively seamless movement guide it expertly just inside a post.”

March 2010: “Switching feet, the Geordie-Nigerian, spun sublimely, stealing half a yard on his markers. Having refined his shooting angle, Ameobi beat Camp with a stunning low shot which flew in off a post. His brilliant backheel then created the second..”

August 2010: “Shola Ameobi is better than many people think.”

October 2010: “..it was an assumption-challenging kind of afternoon. The same went for those who said 4-4-2 was “yesterday’s formation” or believed that Ameobi was washed-up.”

January 2011: “Coloccini as commanding in Pardew’s defence as Ameobi was imperious up front..”

March 2011: “If Arteta’s extreme skill and Ameobi’s sheer guts proved the afternoon’s overriding themes..”

April 2011: “The impressive Ameobi, all fast feet and aerial dominance…”

April 2011: “Received wisdom has Shola Ameobi down as a frustrating, inconsistent, injury‑prone bit-part player lacking Premier League quality. This reputation is inaccurate, unfair, and, above all, out-dated… the Wolves centre-halves terrorised by Ameobi will doubtless be convinced that his skilful turns, clever distribution, fancy footwork and heading ability comprise a formidable armoury... at least they do not have to face the Geordie Tevez every week.

So Louise Taylor is certainly not shy in handing out the praise and superlatives for the ‘Geordie Tevez’. In the words of Alan Oliver, she certainly ‘waxes lyrical’ about Ameobi at every opportunity and it is therefore surely no coincidence that Ameobi is often willing to grant her interviews – quotes from Shola are certainly not in short supply throughout Taylor’s articles. It seems Taylor is besotted with our cult hero and has been since 2002 – the earliest Taylor article on the Nigerian-born mackem assassin that I could find. In it appear direct quotes from the Newcastle boss at the time – the late, great Sir Bobby Robson talking about the young Ameobi:

“Shola’s got some exquisite skill, a clever turn and a great pass”

Sir Bobby Robson – 2002

Sound familiar?

I’ll leave you with some of Shola’s better moments in a Toon shirt – watch out for his unorthodox mixture of exquisite skill, aerial prowess, precision passing and clever turns!!

Saturday saw Newcastle repeat their performance of 6 days previous, against Sunderland at the Stadium of Light. In the Tyne-Wear derby, having led 1-0 through an early second-half goal and despite dominating proceedings, Sunderland somehow equalised in added time to snatch 2 points from the Magpies. On Saturday, at home to a (supposedly) title-challenging Spurs side, Newcastle again led through a goal in the third quarter of the game, only to be denied taking all three points by another injury-time leveller. The main difference between the two games was that unlike Asamoah Gyan’s lucky looping effort that took him by surprise the week before, Tottenham’s sickening equaliser was most definitely avoidable.

A combination of injuries, suspensions had left the squad looking incredibly bare, with even the lesser-spotted Xisco making it on to the bench for the Spurs game. The absence of key players Cheik Tiote and Andy Carroll in particular had dampened expectations ahead of the two games, combined with the recent and utterly humiliating FA Cup defeat to League 2 minnows Stevenage. Whilst most level-headed Toon fans would agree that they would have taken draws against two sides pushing for Europe prior to the matches, to lose 4 points in injury time over the two games makes them feel more like defeats and leaves the Toon Army with the feeling of “what if?” Nevertheless, it’s two points gained, but four points lost.

The Premier League table makes for good reading for Toon fans, but it could have been even better.

As far as achieving our original aim at the outset of the campaign of finishing 17th, we are well on course. In fact, we are on course to finish in the top-10; something even the more ambitious Toon fans would probably admit they didn’t expect back in August. Compared with the infamous relegation campaign of 2008/09, we are 7 points better-off than at the same point (23 games in) 2 years ago. Despite only taking 2 points from the last two fixtures when we should really have taken all six, the signs are good for the Mags. Unbeaten in the league in 2011, Newcastle have collected 8 points from a possible 12, pushing thoughts of relegation onto the back-burner once again. Yet it is the performances in the last four (league) games that have quelled relegation talk as much as the points haul that they have brought. The team has impressed, despite notable absentees, in all four games.

Beating the beatable

Firstly, Newcastle won for the first time ever in the DW/JJB stadium. The 1-0 scoreline at the DW belies the ease with which Newcastle dominated their blue and white opponents. As far as Newcastle away performances go, they don’t come much easier than this. Newcastle dominated a poor Wigan side from start to finish and should really have added to their goal difference with Shola Ameobi and Leon Best both squandering great chances they would usually bury. Secondly, only a matter of days after registering 3 points at the home of Mike Ashley’s sports-retail nemesis, the team maintained its winning ways by thoroughly thrashing a woeful West Ham by five goals to nil at St James’ Park. The game saw Leon Best mark his full Newcastle United and Premier League debut with a left-footed hattrick, moving him above Wayne Rooney in this season’s Premier League goalscoring charts in the process.

Leon Best silenced some of his doubters with a well-taken hattrick on his full debut against West Ham

It was also the third time this season that United have registered 5 or more goals in a single game (following Villa and Sunderland); something Toon fans could only dream of 2 years ago. These are the games that Newcastle notoriously struggle to win. Over the last decade, impressive performances against the so called bigger-teams have often been followed up by humbling defeats to the likes of Wigan and West Ham. It is these games that must be won if United are to survive and in winning these, Newcastle went a long way towards securing their place amongst England’s elite come the end of May.

Failing to hold on

After the debacle at Stevenage in the 3rd round of the FA Cup, attention turned to the Stadium of Light where local bragging rights were again at stake, although it would take some performance from Sunderland to match or eclipse the events of Halloween when they were well and truly embarrassed by a rampant United side. In the end, an under-strength Newcastle team performed admirably and dominated the home side in a tense affair. The lack of cutting edge that would have allowed Newcastle to score a deserved second goal to kill off the game however, was obvious. Squandered chances and a defensive approach in the final minutes allowed Sunderland to score their undeserved and fortuitous last-gasp equaliser that robbed the Mags of all three points. The failure to convert a second goal and claim all three points on Wearside clearly had a profound effect on the Newcastle team that faced Tottenham on home soil less than a week later. Heading into the last 15 minutes in the same situation as they found themselves against their local rivals, Newcastle led 1-0 through a fantastic Fabricio Coloccini strike at the Gallowgate end. However, whilst Spurs dominated possession, they looked unlikely to score as Newcastle defended magnificently, led into battle by their Argentine Colossus who snuffed out attacks and blocked shots at will.

The difference in approach from Newcastle was obvious against Spurs. Wounded by the mackems’ late leveller the week before, the team broke forward on the counter-attack against Spurs at every available opportunity, often finding themselves with men to spare as Tottenham pushed for an equaliser. Again, numerous chances were squandered by the home side; Lovenkrands hitting straight at Cudicini when clean through on goal and Nile Ranger sidefooting just wide when a simple pass to the unmarked James Perch would have sufficed. Then, as the game entered injury time, United broke forward with 3-on-2. The corner flag beckoned and had the game taken place some 10 years ago, we surely would have seen the iconic image of the club’s greatest ever goalscorer facing the flag, ball at his feet, fending off 2 or 3 opposition players at a time, all in the aid of 3 precious points.

However, it was not to be. The usually impeccable Joey Barton had given his all in the previous 89 minutes as he broke forward with the ball at his feet, Peter Lovenkrands to his right and Nile Ranger to his left. Barton was visibly shattered as he overhit his pass, intended for Ranger into the box and the waiting hands of Carlo Cudicini. The former Chelsea keeper threw it to Michael Dawson, who in turn launched a long ball onto the head of Peter Crouch, some 50 yards up the pitch. Crouch duly won the header, with the ball ending up at Aaron Lennon’s feet, via Jermain Defoe. By this time, the miniature England winger had switched flanks after it took him nearly an hour to find his way out of Jose Enrique’s pocket on the opposite wing. For the last half hour of the game, Lennon ran his marker – Danny Simpson – ragged. As Lennon approached the Newcastle box, Simpson continued to back off at an alarming distance, as has become his trademark. By showing Lennon too much room, he invited the former Leeds trainee to cut inside and onto his favoured right foot. The wideman duly obliged, before placing his shot low into the bottom left corner of the Leazes’ end net. Had Barton not misplaced his pass or had Simpson shown Lennon onto his weaker, left foot, we would surely be talking about a fantastic victory and 3 points. Instead, we are left to rue our misfortune/mistakes for the second time in a week, leaving Alan Pardew with the task of finding a more balanced approach to seeing out games in the future.

Safety virtually assured

Whilst the late, harsh equalisers in Newcastle’s last two games have soured fantastic team performances, it should be remembered that a current Champions League team and our Europa-League chasing local rivals have both left the field extremely happy to have a solitary point in the bag, having been out-battled and at times outperformed by a newly promoted team. If the current form of the team carries on and coincides with the return to action of Tiote, Carroll and, further afield, Hatem Ben Arfa, then there is no reason why the team can quickly reach the “magical” 40-point safety mark and push on for a top-10 finish.

The return of Mr T-iote will help the club push towards guaranteed survival

If Alan Pardew can add to the current squad with some real quality in the coming week then this will help to improve the squad depth and go some way to re-establishling Newcastle as a Premier League side. With the recent departure of Wayne Routledge, the addition of a right sided midfielder is a necessity before the window closes. At the moment though, on the basis of the league performances since the turn of the year, only minor tweaks are needed to see us through to the summer when more radical changes can take place and Pardew can start to put his own stamp on what is in reality, still Chris Hughton’s squad.

Maybe as a Toon fan I’m just biased but I saw no way that the Cheik Tiote challenge against Stevenage on Saturday should have earned a red card. Yes, in real time it looked two-footed and nasty and it is therefore understandable how Andre Mariner and his assistants may have come to the decision to dismiss the Ivorian. However Newcastle chose to appeal the decision and its subsequent 3-match ban. This puts the decision into the hands of the FA as to whether or not to rescind the card, thus allowing Tiote to play in the vital Tyne-Wear derby this coming weekend, as well as the following games against Spurs and Fulham should the decision be reversed. By referring the appeal to the FA’s committee, Newcastle hoped that by benefiting from the various different angles and slow motion replays available to them that they would see sense and rescind the card.

In my opinion, the challenge on first, real-time viewing looks rash but Tiote does clearly win the ball. The main argument by those in favour of the sending-off is that the tackle is two-footed and both feet leave the ground. My argument is that yes, both feet do leave the ground, but don’t most slide tackles involve both feet leaving the ground? Then comes the two-footed argument. Tiote is a few metres away from the ball when he starts his jump (slide). From a physics point-of-view, he needs to leap with both feet in front (like a long-jumper) in order to reach the ball. This is where the “two-footed” point of view comes from. However, as the photo below shows, when in the air, Tiote retracts his left leg and swings it underneath his body, as would be expected in a ‘normal’ slide tackle.

Tiote's left leg is clearly tucked underneath his body, dispelling the "two-footed" myth

The photo also shows Tiote’s right foot to be coming down, studs first onto the ball in a chopping motion. If the Stevenage player were in full control of the ball, this would be an issue. However, in the moments before the tackle, he lost immediate control of the ball, thus allowing Tiote the opportunity to make the tackle. As Tiote takes the ball completely, with the opposition player then falling over the Ivorian’s outstretched body, it is clear to me that the tackle was completely legal and undeserving of even a free-kick. In my opinion, the infamous ‘tackle’ by Nigel De Jong that broke Hatem Ben Arfa’s leg in September was more heavy handed and reckless than Tiote’s was on Saturday. Of course the laws are not set in stone and are open to debate so you may well disagree with me and side with the FA. For me though, the decision to send off Tiote is similar to many we see that involve the use of the elbow as leverage when jumping for the ball. There is and probably never will be a cast-iron definition that distinguishes leverage from violent conduct.

You can see the tackle in the video below, at 2:00 in.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e9SqAiRsWog

As I said earlier, I can fully understand why the referee, without the benefit of replays and hindsight, sent Tiote off on Saturday. However, I feel that the FA should have been able to see that the challenge was a perfectly good one and whilst appearing to be reckless was certainly not deserving of a red card. The conspiracy theory that the FA is reluctant to go against its referee’s decisions in appeals – regardless of the appeal’s validity – continues to gather creedence.

“What’s the point in having these appeals because there’s no way in the world that was a red card,”

“We’ve got to change the system because that is not right.

“He didn’t touch the player, the lad’s even said he didn’t touch him, and I think everyone who’s looked at it has agreed it’s not a sending-off and it’s not a red card, so how has he still got a three-game ban.

“We’re going to lose arguably one of our best players of the season, if not the best player of our season, because of a mistake by a referee.”

Kevin Nolan, speaking to Skysports

Yet not only is common sense dying a quick death in football’s rule-making and administerial corridors, but also, it seems in Newcastle’s management. The issue of whether Tiote should have been dismissed could and should have never even taken place. Tiote, due to his nature of play and position as a defensive midfielder, has already shown this season that he is not adverse to picking up the odd booking or 8. Therefore, why Alan Pardew chose to introduce him at 2-0 down, with little over half an hour left in the game, was ill-advised. With almost the entirety of the team performing poorly, the introduction of a defensive midfielder was unlikely to inspire the team to a remarkable comeback. Taking the gamble, when you consider our next fixture is against hated-rivals Sunderland, made Pardew’s decision nigh on indescribable. As a result, we will now have to do without Tiote for the return leg of the Tyne-Wear derby on Sunday. Based on Alan Smith’s performance at Stevenage, we need to start praying for a miracle.

For Newcastle United supporters, 2011 was going well. Too well. Two wins on the trot and six points closer to Premier League survival, surely it wouldn’t take long until the self-destructive side of the Magpies reared its ugly head once more. Today at Stevenage, live on TV, rear its head it did. Some would argue that the 3-1 loss to the League 2 side was a poor performance. For me, it was a non-performance. Every player apart from Joey Barton delivered truly woeful performances yet the most appalling thing was that no one looked interested. A basic rule of thumb on Tyneside is that if even if you lack talent, pure grit and determination can see you become accepted and in even in some cases a fans favourite. This theory is becoming severely tested – like the Toon Army’s patience – by the likes of James Perch, Alan Smith and Wayne Routledge. As much as fans may admire Smith’s obvious hard work in the centre of the park, there comes a point when that simply isn’t enough. In the case of the Stevenage game, this involves being able to pass the ball to a teammate or at the very least NOT to an opponent when they are standing 3 feet in front of you. How Smith continues to disguise himself as a professional (let alone Premier League) footballer is beyond me. If there is a chance we can move him on in the current transfer window, we must take the opportunity. If not because he is a burden on the other 10 players in the team when he plays, then because he picks up a disgraceful weekly pay packet of more pounds than St James’ Park has seats.

Alan Smith in his disguise as a professional footballer

Anyway, enough of my grudge against Smith. There were 9 other shit performances on the pitch today, starting at the back:

Krul  6 Couldn’t do anything about the goals and made a few decent stops but the lad needs to sort out his kicking.

Simpson  5 Again shown up to be what he is. A Championship defender. Should host his own version of Can’t close down/Won’t close down.

Williamson  4 Unfortunate for his own goal but for the rest of the game he looked shaky and was at fault for their third goal. One of his worst performances in a Newcastle shirt.

Coloccini  6 Didn’t do much wrong but had a lot to do thanks to the lack of cover in front of him.

Perch  5 Not a left back. Not a Premier League footballer. A liability.

Routledge 4 Tried in vain. Simply not good enough. Too small, too weak and can’t cross.

Smith  2 The only way he could have scored worse is if he’d conceded his usual free-kicks near the box and seen a red card. Similar to Simpson, can’t pass/won’t pass.

Nolan  4 Tried hard but when not doing damage in the opposition’s box, he flounders in midfield. Contributed massively to our defeat with a succession of hoofed clearances, surrendering possession too easily.

Barton  7 The only man to come out of the game with any credit was United’s in form midfielder. Constantly trying to make the Toon tick, his goal was just reward for a good display. Must be frustrated that his teammates couldn’t match either his desire or quality.

Lovenkrands  5 Poor performance from the forward. Would have scored lower if he’d had any semblance of decent service.

Best  5 Same as for Lovenkrands. Proved he cannot replace Carroll for aerial prowess and hold up play.

Subs:

Ranger  5 Made to chase shadows in the second half, such was the lack of service and support from midfield.

Tiote  6 Very harshly done by for the red card. If it isn’t appealed and rescinded to allow him to face the mackems, we might as well all give up and go home.

Airey  6 Didn’t have long enough to do anything meaningful.

Manager:

Pardew 6 Only so much you can do from the dugout. Should have played Barton in the centre and started Tiote alongside him. Long-ball tactics played into their hands.

Simply put, not only did the players not look interested, but our supposed superior quality was non-existent. By resorting to long ball tactics we played into their hands and ensured that the side with greatest desire would emerge as the victors. Evidently, that wasn’t us.Whilst injuries and tiredness should not be discounted, we must take this opportunity to realise that beyond the first XI, we are severely lacking in quality; particularly in the creativity department. Whilst our strikers struggled today, it is hard to see how Carroll or even Drogba would have made an impact such was the shocking quality of service offered up by the midfield.

If one good thing comes out of today’s debacle it should be the old cliche that we can now concentrate on the league, as more games in our fixture list would undoubtedly stretch our already thin (on quality) squad even further. The upcoming week and the negative attention from the media that it will bring should also help us to refocus and come out fighting in the Stadium of Light in a weeks time. A win on Wearside will see the events of today largely forgotten, if not by those outside the north-east.

Forget Emmerdale, Neighbours, Hollyoaks and even Coronation Street. As soap opera’s go, nothing quite matches North-Eastenders for drama and unexpected plot twists. The popular Newcastle-based soap opera returned with a bang for its first episode of the 2009/2010 season after a significant absence of major storylines in the last 18 months.

The UK's most popular soap-opera returned with a bang on Monday

The major storyline that grabbed headlines on Monday was of course the sacking of Chris Hughton from his position as Newcastle United’s manager. After the 5 years of almost non-stop turmoil at the club that followed the late Sir Bobby Robson’s sacking in 2004, the club looked to have finally found a semblance of stability under the reserved Irishman. The club reached rock-bottom in the summer of 2009 following a season that saw the team relegated to the Coca-Cola Championship via 4 managers (2 of which were club legends), boardroom upheaval, heart-attacks, player sales and generally shambolic organisation both on and off the pitch. Newcastle United made Harchester United from the now-defunct Sky1 football drama “Dream Team” look incredibly well-run. Some of the stories that have come out of St James’ Park over the last decade would have probably been thrown out by Dream Team’s scriptwriters as too unrealistic. Who knows? Perhaps Sky took the decision to drop the programme in 2007  as they couldn’t keep up with their competitors?

Anyway, enough of the soap opera comparisons. Hughton is widely regarded as the main reason behind the revival in Newcastle’s fortunes that started some 16 months ago on a sunny August day at The Hawthorns. Working with a depleted version of the squad that was too weak to maintain their place in England’s elite division at Villa Park 3 months earlier, Hughton galvanised a threadbare squad and instilled a team spirit and determination that had been lacking since the Robson days. Hughton not only ended the rot, but transformed a bunch of individuals into a team, leading them emphatically back to the Premier League at the first time of asking, via a permanent contract and the Championship trophy, United’s first piece of silverware since Keegan achieved the same feat back in 1993.

Hughton turned 11 individuals into a team

Fantastic. Hughton must have earned himself a new, lucrative contract for his exceptional work you say? Not a chance. Not with Mike Ashley at the helm. The man who made his fortune by flogging gear that comes fresh out of the factory with 70% off stickers already attached was not about to reward a man he saw as incompetent. Ashley no doubt thought that by paying the Championship’s largest wage bill obviously warranted promotion regardless of the man in charge. To him, Hughton was a cheap, temporary ‘yes’ man. Good enough to steer the club back to the big time but nothing more. Yet Ashley was faced with a problem in the summer. After winning The Championship, registering 102 points and going unbeaten at home for the entire season, Hughton had made himself 50,000 fans in Newcastle and many more admirer’s across the country. Sacking him now would bring an enormous backlash from everyone, far and wide. The answer was simple; give him time and he’ll dig his own grave… surely.

Unfortunately from Ashley’s point of view, Hughton started his Premier League managerial career well. An encouraging defeat at Old Trafford on the opening weekend was followed up by a 6-0 thrashing of Aston Villa. Although some poor home performances followed against some of the ‘smaller’ teams, Newcastle picked up unexpected points away from home with good wins at Everton and West Ham as well as a 4-3 victory at Stamford Bridge in the Carling Cup. The home form was a concern but everyone agreed, Newcastle had surpassed the expectations of most and started the season well. The subsequent 5-1 mauling of local rivals 5under1and and excellent 1-0 win at The Emirates saw the Mags rise to the heady heights of 5th place in the league. Yet all the while, Mike Ashley was unscrupulously plotting Hughton’s demise. Despite pressure on Hughton from outside the club, not least from Tyneside’s unfavoured son Alan Oliver, the vast majority of the club’s fans remained thoroughly behind the former Spurs man. The wins against Sunderland and Arsenal turned the media bandwagon in Hughton’s favour, calling for him to be awarded a new contract. Before United’s defeat to Arsenal in the Carling Cup at the end of October, betting had been suspended on Hughton being the next Premier League manager to lose his job. Following the game, the board released this statement:

“Chris is our manager and will remain our manager, and it is our intention to re-negotiate his contract at the end of the year.”

Hughton received the dreaded vote of confidence™ and although some saw it as a good sign that Hughton had the backing of the board, the statement stunk of Hughton remaining on a trial period. The reluctance of the board to offer him a new contract, either in the summer or after the Sunderland/Arsenal wins showed a complete lack of faith in Hughton’s credentials as a top-flight manager. The team’s performances and the board’s bizarre statement gifted Hughton breathing space, yet that was all it was. A home loss to Blackburn was followed up by a disappointing 0-0 draw at home to Fulham. Subsequent heavy defeats away at Bolton and West Brom came either side of a spirited 1-1 draw at home to the champions Chelsea.  Suspensions and injuries played their part, with five of Hughton’s arguably strongest lineup missing from the defeat to West Brom (Harper, Coloccini, Williamson, Nolan & Barton), not to mention the long term absence of French whizz-kid Hatem Ben Arfa, cruelly struck down by Nigel de Jong at Eastlands.

The poor performance at West Brom on Sunday was without several first team players

The first half of the defeat at West Brom saw Newcastle play some of their poorest football since their 2008/09 relegation campaign, yet the fans still chanted Hughton’s name, confident that the new-found stability he had instilled would lead to safety come May. Mike Ashley saw it differently however. Taking 2 points from a possible 15 since the win at Arsenal signaled his best chance to dump Hughton. Whether or not he expected the Newcastle fans and football fans in general to agree with his decision is unclear. What is clear is that he couldn’t care less. It seems he could benefit from employing a PR agency (Even England’s 2018 bid team could do a better job) as he clearly has no understanding of the way his decisions impact upon the people that matter within the football club; the fans. Not to mention the players, whom are known to have been very close to Hughton. The question being asked now is how they will react to his sacking. Whether or not they will maintain the spirit that has seen them take a respectable 19 points from 16 games remains to be seen although the late kickoff against Liverpool on Saturday should reveal their levels of desire.

The overwhelming feeling amongst Newcastle fans yesterday was one of anger. Angry that a good man has undeservedly lost his job. Angry that when it finally seemed the club was headed in the right direction, Ashley has contrived to drag the clubs name though the dirt once more. Angry that we are once again the laughing stock of the country (Perhaps OXO should sponsor us after Northern Rock) and angry that the proposed replacements – Martin O’Neill and Alan’s Curbishley & Pardew – seem like sideways steps or in Pardew’s case, a backwards step. The late night announcement from Holland that ex-Spurs man Martin Jol had stepped down from his position at Ajax improved moods slightly, although it is thought that his resignation was coincidental and Pardew remains favourite with the bookies. The board have let it be known that they want Hughton’s successor in place by the end of this week. Quite who Mike Ashley will pick as his leading role for the next episode of North-Eastenders is unclear. It is however, sure to be yet another controversial decsion.

So for the man that effectively started his tenure with a dogged, determined draw at The Hawthorns in August 2009, it is ironic that his managerial term should also end at the same ground, some 16 months and 121 league points later. To the man who saved our club and restored dignity (albeit temporarily), we thank you.

 

SHOULD HUGHTON HAVE BEEN SACKED?

WHO DO YOU WANT TO BE THE NEXT NEWCASTLE UNITED MANAGER?

 

For Keegan, read Hughton. For Ginola, Gutierrez. Shearer: Carroll, Ferdinand: Ameobi, Beardsley: Nolan… You get the picture. Newcastle’s emphatic Tyne-Wear derby destruction of hated local rivals Sunderland led to fans harking back to the days of “The Entertainer’s” in the mid-nineties. Comparisons have been made with the infamous ‘Howay 5-0h” five-nil drubbing of Manchester United in October 1996. Darren Bent’s late consolation goal aside, the scoreline against the mackems on Sunday would have replicated that of arguably Newcastle’s greatest ever game.

Sunday's atmosphere and feel-good factor have been compared to that of the 5-0 win over Man United in 1996

Granted, times have changed (massively) and Sunday’s game was played between two relegation rivals (Or mid-table at best), rather than the clash of the title-challenging giants that took place on the same pitch some 14 years ago. Since the heady days of challenging for the FA Carling Premiership under Kevin Keegan in the mid-90’s, Newcastle have had 8 permanent managers and several others whom held the fort temporarily, not least Tyneside’s local hero and record goalscorer Alan Shearer. Keegan himself returned for a brief period before leaving under a cloud once more. The club reached two FA Cup finals then languished in the lower echelons of England’s elite league before returning to Europe under Robson after the turn of the century. Robson came and went, as did the club’s stature and relative success. The club went into decline once more and soon became the laughing stock of the country, spearheaded by chairman Freddy Shepherd and his successor Mike Ashley. The decline of the club, once commonly known as “everyone’s second favourite team”, culminated in its relegation in May 2009. The team on that day contained supposedly World-class players. The likes of Michael Owen, Damien Duff and Obafemi Martins all helped to sink the club into the depths of England’s ‘Championship’, or Division 2 in old money. The players of season 2008/09, although undoubtedly unsettled by the constant managerial changes and off-field troubles, seemingly didn’t want to be there and they played like it too.

Comparisons were quickly drawn with other fallen footballing giants including the likes of Nottingham Forest and Leeds United. Yet, guided by Chris Hughton, Newcastle returned to the Premier League at the first attempt, selling their uncommitted players and installing a new-found camaraderie along the way. A 6-1 pre-season defeat to Leyton Orient and the subsequent inquest is seen as the turning point in Newcastle’s recent history that paved the way for the club’s immediate return to the Premier League; the team’s fighting spirit evident throughout a season in which the Magpies went unbeaten at home. At the start of this season, pundits from far and wide queued up to offer their opinions that the Newcastle squad that came up would just as quickly be going back down. Whilst that may still happen, the baffling reason most pundits gave for Newcastle’s predicted relegation battle was that the playing squad had changed little and was, in fact, weaker than the one that took them down:

“It worries me that he has come up from the Championship with pretty much the same Newcastle team that got relegated from the Premier League.”

Andy Gray, 13 August 2010

What Andy Gray somehow forgot to include in his analysis, however, is that a good or bad team is much more than simply a collection of good or bad players (as Man City are demonstrating at present). If that were the case, Newcastle would surely have never been relegated in the first place and FA Cup ties between Premier League giants and non-league minnows might as well never take place, as only one team is guaranteed to win. Gray completely omitted the effects of mentality (including team spirit, determination and confidence) on a teams performance from his pre-season predictions. As a result, he has been made to look somewhat silly, as Newcastle and their promotion counterparts West Brom and Blackpool have taken the league by storm. To be fair to Gray, however, he later admitted that the new-found confidence in United’s squad was both surprising as well as responsible for their decent start to the season:

“The biggest difference for me between this team and the one that went down is confidence and it’s amazing what that can do for a team.”

Andy Gray, 24 September 2010

Newcastle’s improvements since that fateful day at Villa Park in 2009 stretch far further than just an increase in confidence however. For a start, stability both on and off the pitch has helped dramatically. The appointment of Chris Hughton as the team’s permanent manager just over a year ago has led to similar starting eleven’s, week-in week-out. And arguably, for the first time since Sir Bobby was in charge, players have been played in their correct positions, with the exception of the occasional deployment of Messrs Guthrie and Barton on the right wing. Hughton has by and large been a success in the transfer market too, despite what some of the media would have you believe. The signings of Mike Williamson and Wayne Routledge in January provided the team with a timely boost, changing Newcastle’s return to the big time from a steady process into an emphatic one. Add to that, the arrival of Ivorian midfielder Chei(c?)k Tiote in the summer. The battling anchorman has proved to be a snip at £3.5 million and is surely an early contender for Premier League signing of the season.

Cheick Tiote has been a revelation since signing for £3.5 million from FC Twente

Yet the main differences in Newcastle’s squad from 2009 lie within both mentality and player improvement. In dropping to the Championship Newcastle’s players, with their newly instilled fighting spirit, had to do what no Magpies side had done successfully since the Robson days; win away from home. Regularly. For too long, Newcastle have relied on their home form to have a decent season, far too often turning in poor performances when playing away. Whether or not they scraped survival or challenged for Europe depended mainly on how many points they picked up on their travels. In order to gain promotion, the mentality of the players needed to change. Spurred on by the external criticism of them, the players took on a winning mentality, especially away from St James’ Park. That mentality has been carried through into the Premier League, with victories at Everton and West Ham having already matched the amount of away wins the club recorded during the entire 2008/09 season.

The technical improvements in United’s existing playing squad have also been underestimated by those who blatantly never bothered to watch Newcastle play last season before predicting a bottom-three finish. Andy Carroll, Jonas Gutierrez, Fabricio Coloccini and Jose Enrique all benefited hugely from their year in England’s second flight. For Carroll, the much needed playing time he received significantly improved his game, transforming him from a raw, lanky striker into Newcastle’s new number 9, with rumours of a full England call-up growing at the same rate as his criminal record. As for the latter three, the Spanish speaking trio all arguably possessed the talent required to succeed in the Premier League, yet they had failed to show it on a regular basis. In the Championship, they flourished, adapting to the English game with 46 physical battles coming thick and fast.

Spanish speaking trio Enrique, Coloccini and Gutierrez benefited greatly from their 12 month secondment to the Championship

The settling in period proved invaluable as the trio each staked their claim for player of the season, with Enrique eventually picking up the accolade. The vast improvement of Enrique and the Argentine duo over the past 12 months has undoubtedly helped the team in the Premier League this season. Behind Ashley Cole, Evra and Clichy, you would be hard pressed to find a better Premier League left back than Enrique, whilst Gutierrez, since being dropped at Goodison Park, has put in some performances akin to his debut at Old Trafford, when he looked every inch a World-beater. As for Coloccini, mocked the length of the country during the relegation season, he has returned to the top flight with a point, and a hefty price tag to prove. Now idolised by the fans with a song to boot, the fact that Coloccini has worn the captain’s armband in the absence of Kevin Nolan this season is testament to the curly-haired centre back’s progress and increased importance to the team over the last year.

In the 14 years since St James’ Park rocked to The Entertainers 5-0 thrashing of Man United, much has changed, but arguably more change has occurred over the past year than in the preceding 13. For a team that was predicted by many to collapse into obscurity, they have returned with a vengeance and whilst the 5-1 victory over Sunderland at the weekend may not have seen the return of The Entertainer’s, it certainly signaled that times are changing at St James’ Park and the Geordie faithful can once again have pride in their team. Whether or not they can survive come the end of the season is unknown, but one thing is for certain; if Newcastle do return to the Championship in May, it will not be for want of trying.