Theresa May’s speech outside 10 Downing St on Wednesday has put the Tories’ election strategy in stark relief. It’s an entirely negative campaign, proposing nothing but claiming the EU are ganging up on the UK and on herself in particular, and warning that Labour aren’t competent to govern or to deliver what they promise. Labour for their part are promising quite a lot. Their campaign has been a steady stream of policy announcements, by and large policies which are popular with the general public, but May’s line is that it doesn’t matter what Labour promise because they won’t be able to carry it through.
The Tories are relying on Project Fear yet again, and why wouldn’t they? It worked very well in the Scottish Independence Referendum in 2014 and the General Election the year after. Last year’s EU Referendum was the exception which proved the rule as both sides tried to enlist the fear factor and cancelled each other out. The Tories have a big poll lead and with that in their back pocket they seem to feel they don’t need to offer anything at all to the electorate, save pointing out that the other lot can’t be trusted. The promise to administer the thrashing the nation requested is about as inspirational as they get. You asked for it and by God you’re going to get it.
That Tory poll lead is based on people accepting that Theresa May is a safe pair of hands to run things. It proceeds from the unjustified veneer of self-proclaimed competence she assigned to herself in her unchallenged party leadership campaign and which has somehow lingered and become attached to her government and herself as Prime Minister. May’s time at No 10 has been anything but impressive, characterized by policy gaffes and forced u-turns in Parliament. Her dourness is supposed to be a positive for her as the nation searches for a rock to cling to, but it doesn’t seem that way during her wooden, stilted performances at the despatch box. And while I and many others would be delighted if she did give up her day job, she’d be badly advised if it was to pursue a career as a stand-up comic. Even though her parroting of soundbites in the early part of the election campaign has led to her being compared to the Daleks, they probably deliver a joke better than she does. She displays all the personal warmth of a pensioner’s boiler after the Winter Fuel Payments have gone, which is why her meet-the-people events are typically held in places like the middle of a forest 16 miles outside of Aberdeen.
Labour need to point all this out and more. May’s personal competence is on the verge of delivering her victory and it has so far gone largely unchallenged, which is why she must be made to look bad personally. Jeremy Corbyn’s New Politics has aimed to concentrate on issues and avoid personal attacks and it’s been an admirable and honourable experiment. It’s popular among his supporters but the general public don’t seem to care too much about his ethics while he’s smeared yet again by the Tories. It’s unfortunate but the New Politics and their prim sensibilities need to be ditched fast if Labour are to overturn the certainties the Tories are relying upon. Corbyn himself would be completely unsuitable to do it but he doesn’t have to. I don’t recall Tony Blair lowering himself to personally savage Michael Howard. There was no need, his attack dogs did it all for him behind the scenes. It means exposing May as untrustworthy and duplicitous. She has to be painted as self-serving, sacrificing the nation’s interests at the altar of her own. Her lust for power and refusal to be challenged must be shown to be a severe character flaw rather than a sign of strength. If pictures of her sneering at children can be used as evidence of some inner truth so be it. If people see her pick up a cone of chips and think the chips are more likely to be the ones objecting to the amount of vinegar in the other then things are going well. Labour can knock the Tories out of their comfort zone and force them to engage in a policy debate they haven’t prepared for if they fight the unfounded smears by batting them right on back. The emptiness of the Tory offer in comparison to Labour’s will become clear and only then will the contest really begin.
The poppy seller advances the tin
donation barely a choice
An urge to protect those loved by the fallen
become “Support our Brave Boys”.
The flower of youth in your lapel,
“Lest We Forget” the memorial proclaims,
but blank panels gaze down from its flanks
and wait for our childrens’ names.
The circle turns and comes round again,
Tension and hatred increase
The world gears up to do it again
Our silence hasn’t brought peace.
Let’s make a vow: we won’t raise a gun
Or pay for a bomb, or help deliver one.
Let’s turn our backs on ignorance and spite
Let crushing the hawks be our only fight!
It’s the morning after the night before and sleep hasn’t helped the feeling. Prior to yesterday’s match at Norwich, the consensus seemed to be that the game was make or break, that defeat would leave Newcastle to be inevitably relegated. That holds true in the light of the new day, Newcastle probably have too much to do, 6 points adrift with 7 fixtures remaining. We can’t allow that to affect how we approach the rest of the season however. The drop is not yet a certainty. There are points to play for, and anything could happen between now and May; a dramatic turnaround in our form, natural disaster or illness striking our rivals. We have to keep plugging away for wins and hope results go our way elsewhere. The balance of probabilities is that we are going down though.
I like Rafa Benitez. Performances have improved in the 3 games he’s been in charge, just not enough for us to pick up the wins we needed. If he’d taken over in January I think we’d have been alright, though that is a hypothetical situation. He had only just been relieved of his post at Real Madrid so even if he’d been approached then he’d probably still have been gathering his thoughts and unlikely to take another job. He has a fine record and given time I think he would make this club successful. He’s certainly the best appointment we’ve made in over 15 years, since Bobby Robson took over. In fact our impending relegation is less of an issue than persuading him to stay. If he does then going down just means starting his long term project from a lower baseline. If not we are cast adrift once more on the stormy seas of Mike Ashley’s whims.
The trouble Benitez is currently finding in kick starting his under-achieving charges into a unit that can win matches casts interesting light on the short time in charge of another panic appointment, Alan Shearer. Viewed as a failure by the wider footballing public after failing to save us in his 8 games in post, Shearers time here should perhaps be reevaluated. Like Benitez, he was saddled with a non-performing squad he couldn’t change. Also like Rafa so far, there were improved performances without that being enough to drag us away from trouble. The point being that both men were on a hiding to nothing and shouldn’t be viewed too harshly for failing to achieve what they set out to do though Benitez still has time to make a difference against the odds of course.
The squad isn’t just not performing at Newcastle though, it’s unbalanced to the point it’s virtually incapable of performing as required. In hindsight, the early successes of Graham Carr were a disaster for the club in the long term as he gained more and more influence and his successful signings became more and more infrequent. Perhaps without Cabaye, Ba, and the early form of Tiote and Cisse the “model” would have been ditched a long time ago.
This season would be the 4th relegation of my lifetime supporting Newcastle. We’ve always come back before and there’s no reason why we shouldn’t again, should it happen. Benitez and the promise of doing things right that comes with him is a rare chance of positive change for us and in contrast to bouncing back we don’t often take those chances. Maybe we can look back in years to come and say this is when we started to get things right.
Those in charge at Newcastle United have displayed breathtaking complacency in their attitude towards the team’s ongoing and ever-worsening slump. Was it a refusal to face facts or a naive hope that a lucky break would smash the cycle of poor performances and defeats that led them to allow Steve McClaren to continue to lead the club? It became clear weeks or even months ago that he wasn’t achieving any kind of positive progress. Yet they have allowed the situation to deteriorate until it is almost too late to escape the drop. Twice in recent seasons the club have assumed they would be ok in the end without anything concrete to base their confidence upon, and the easy option of doing nothing came off. They were right and Newcastle survived a relegation scare. This time however, when they tried the same trick there was no cushion of a points gap to the bottom three built up earlier in the season. A mid-season spending spree didn’t provoke any upturn in results or performances. This time it’s been obvious we are going down without something changing, but the hierarchy chose to follow their tried and trusted path and hope for the best. They’ve been asleep at the wheel as a great big brick wall approached at speed.
It’s not just their inaction towards a failing manager that’s displayed their complacency however, the club’s recruitment too has been the result of sticking their fingers in their ears and ignoring stark realities. They’ve been totally open for some years now that the driving factor in recruitment has been resale value. Players aren’t bought over the age of 26. They have searched obsessively for value, targeting leagues of a lower standard, unproven youngsters, and players with talent but who carry baggage with them, either in the form of their injury record or their reputation for attitude problems. The idea was these players may be better on the pitch than the price paid for them warrants. Unfortunately we’ve ended up with an injury-prone squad lacking in motivation and character. The point here is we’ve concentrated for a number of years on boosting the balance sheet in this way and completely neglected the idea of building a team. The last two transfer windows, two of the three in McClaren’s and the board’s much-vaunted grand transfer strategy, have been a depressingly characteristic illustration of this. Struggling for numbers of the correct standard at the back, we signed only one centre-back. Needing a proven goalscorer we could rely on we signed a promising youngster from the Belgian league and took a gamble on someone rotting in a Serie A reserve roster. All the while midfielder after midfielder kept arriving, to the point where we could probably field a complete eleven made up only of Number 10s. No attempt was made to address the deficiencies of the first team or the squad. We bought the players we might make the most profit on. In our chase of Saido Berahino we pursued for far too long someone who was never going to meet our criteria because West Brom were insistent from the off he wouldn’t be leaving unless we paid top dollar for him. We were never going to do that because it would make it doubtful we’d turn a profit on him so the entire episode was an utter waste of time for all concerned.
On the pitch too, there’s been an acceptance of things going wrong, a lack of urgency. The manager and coaches have assumed things would get better if we kept plugging away but they have not. We haven’t changed a team setup which has been failing for 4 years now. We have a number of players who lack commitment either because they assume they are destined for bigger and better things or because they’ve had enough of banging their heads against that brick wall. No-one has assessed our weaknesses and addressed them. This is what we do and we’ve had to hope it’d be good enough. Our downward spiral has ended with it being not good enough and even when it couldn’t be clearer still we persevere.
The fallout from the uncertainty over Steve McClaren’s position since the catastrophic defeat in the must-win home game against Bournemouth at the weekend has been perhaps the clearest example of the theme. If the board were of the opinion that they’d need to replace McClaren in the event of defeat, and they must have known that was the case, you’d think they’d have sounded out a few people beforehand about their availability and enthusiasm for taking on the job. As it is, it appears McClaren has just kept on turning up for work for day after day as the board attempt to line up a successor. Once again urgency has been in short supply. The board didn’t even meet until Monday. Lee Charnley has supposedly not spoken to McClaren since Saturday. It would be bad enough if it was just a case of not having had a contingency plan in operation, of being caught on the hop yet again and not moving as fast as most of us would like to enable a new appointment to have time before our next match at Leicester on Monday to find their bearings. If as is rumoured they are about to appoint Rafa Benitez then they should be congratulated, he would be a fantastic appointment. It doesn’t alter the fact that their dithering has cost the new man vital days on the training pitch, or even weeks if they’d bit the bullet on McClaren when they should have. If Benitez turns out to be the managerial equivalent of Berahino however, someone who would never accept restrictions to his role the club weren’t prepared to relax, then it would be even more of a waste of scarce, previous time, something we can afford even less now than we could in January.
It could yet be that our board plan to stick with McClaren, even if it’s just to give him another game or two to turn things around. Call that complacency, call it a dereliction of duty if you like but it would be a disaster for our chances of still being in this league next season. With only 10 games left every point counts and passing up an opportunity to increase our chances of gaining some at this stage wouldn’t just be sticking their heads in the sand, it’d be wilfully neglecting their duties. Whatever happens between now and May, McClaren cannot be allowed to be a scapegoat for the failings of others.
This weekend’s match against WBA has assumed make or break status for both Newcastle and Steve McClaren as the season’s finish line starts to accelerate towards us with no sign of improvement in the club’s fortunes. Poor away form means salvation lies in the 7 remaining home games if there’s to be any. There just aren’t enough left for any of those home fixtures to be wasted.
Previously I’d thought McClaren’s position was unassailable, that Ashley wouldn’t sack him under any circumstances. That’s based on his record of dealing with previous permanent managers, who were each given several lengths of rope and hung themselves with all of them without the owner losing patience. The closest Alan Pardew came to this situation was in 2012/13. With an almost identical record by mid- January of 21pts from 23 matches, Ashley reacted then in exactly the same way as he did this season; he panicked. On both occasions he splashed out and brought in a host of players in the January window to try to stave off the threat of the drop. The difference between 2013 and now is that Pardew’s side gave an immediate positive reaction and went on a run of 4 wins from 6 games. The pressure was off. Without such a reaction, starting this Saturday, Ashley may well not feel so lenient towards McClaren as he did to Pardew. The only time we’ve really stared down the barrel of the gun under Ashley before, he jettisoned caretaker manager Chris Hughton with 8 games to go of our last relegation season. If things go on as they are, there’s every chance Ashley will gamble again rather than let us go down with barely a whimper.
It might seem a strange idea to sack a manager mere days after rubber-stamping his spending £30m on new players but the whole point of our management structure is to avoid the need to clear out players should the manager be changed. Having said that, it may need a few games more to determine if the new players will turn things around. McClaren won’t get another chance at a Premier League job after this so he needs to rack up some wins and fast.
When McClaren was given the job in the summer the sense of us being underwhelmed was palpable. That said, he was an upgrade on the previous two managers then, and that still holds true. However he’s proven unable to change much of what was wrong with the team’s performances before. Newcastle are still unable to take games to the opposition, to dominate teams. They still tend too much towards caution and don’t apply enough pressure without the ball to provoke mistakes from opponents. What passing there is, is too slow, too clumsy and too safe. McClaren also recognised an air of negativity in the dressing room when he arrived which contributes to all this and he attempted to change that by psychology. It hasn’t been a roaring success obviously but perhaps it explains his refusal to spurn a positive spin on any depressing defeat. He knows what’s wrong though, without being able to solve the problem of how to change it. He spoke early in the season of the need to pass it better and pass it more. Possession is the key to domination of games and we do have more possession now, but it’s of the sterile kind that never leads anywhere. It’s killing time rather than killing off the opposition. He also spoke of the need to get the whole team 20 or 30 yards up the pitch as a unit. We don’t sit back quite as much as we habitually did under Pardew but neither have the players embraced the pressing game. Coloccini’s fear of being outpaced means he’s inclined to sit deep no matter what and that has a knock-on effect on everyone else.
Perhaps this lies behind the strange recent misuse of Rolando Aarons. Pressed into service as an emergency left back, perhaps the idea is to drag that whole flank of the team up the pitch by playing a classic winger in a deeper position. Whatever the theory it hasn’t worked, Aarons has looked all at sea while actual experienced defenders like Steven Taylor sit on the bench. Last season every single sub appearance Aarons made was electric. His presence changed our team’s outlook each time. The staid plodding grind of Pardew’s eleven became miraculously transformed into a forward-flowing wave. That boy has got something but we won’t find out what it is while he’s running towards our own goal line.
The team’s impotence isn’t helped by the insistence on playing with a lone front man. None of our strikers are capable of fulfilling the role, either not strong enough, not a good enough finisher, or they don’t hold up play well enough. But play two together as a unit and their strengths could complement each other and improve our results. With Aarons attacking down one wing and Townsend the other, Shelvey pulling the strings and Wijnaldum arriving in the box, there are goals in that team and getting goals is currently our biggest problem. It’s closely followed in the problem stakes by our inability to defend of course but now isn’t the time for timidity. On the few occasions we’ve looked potent this season we’ve also offered teams plenty of opportunities to score themselves. So be it. We do that whether we attack or not so we might as well go for it. Whether McClaren is the man to throw off our shackles I don’t know, but I do know that he’s capable of it. Despite being generally cagey as Boro manager, numerous times when left without a choice after falling behind in their run to the UEFA Cup final in 2006, he repeatedly threw caution to the wind, brought on as many strikers as he could, and it kept on paying off. We’ll know soon enough if he can get the team moving forward. If not he can’t last long.
Plus Ca Change
It’s a year tomorrow since Alan Pardew was given permission to talk to Crystal Palace about their vacant managerial post, effectively ending his time in charge here at Newcastle United. It’s been a year of turmoil and talk, protest and pledges. When he left Newcastle had lost 3 of their last 4 following on from a 5-game winning streak which had propelled them to the temporary heights of 5th in late November, and which it was evidently considered was enough to keep them up for another year. Following his departure they appointed a placeholder, someone to keep things ticking over to the summer in the understanding their safety had already been achieved. That decision came very close to being catastrophic but in the end they did indeed stay up, albeit after some desperate panicked scrabbling for points and unrest in the stands. Mike Ashley went on TV before the last game of the season to tell us all everything had changed; he had, the club had, their direction and ambitions had.
Now we stand roughly at the half-way point of this brave new dawn, and not so much has actually changed. Yes, money was spent in the summer. But it was an attempt to head off a credible possibility of large-scale season-ticket cancellations by the disaffected masses rather than evidence of new priorities. It also followed to the letter the previous transfer blueprint, of buying young potential which can be sold on at a profit. The experience and character the team so desperately needed were nowhere to be seen. Our new manager talked of playing an expansive possession-based game then influenced by awful results decided our roster left us with no option but to sit back and try to hit teams on the break. If this is an attempt to change how the club operates it’s an attempt to do it by acting in exactly the same way as we always have.
Kick in the Teeth
Losing to Everton on Boxing Day with virtually the last unintentional effort at goal of the game was a disappointment, and a tad unlucky after weathering the storm of their attacking superiority. Newcastle missed a fair few chances which if any had been converted could well have resulted in them winning the game. Should we take the close nature of our defeat as reason for optimism, a sign of improvement? Unfortunately it’s on the finest of lines that success and failure are decided and right now we are on the wrong side of it. Improved performances if that is what they are will lead us only one way if dropped points continue as their consequence. If we have improved, then it’s not by enough.
2/10 See Me
An end-of-term report on Steve McClaren would be harsh without question right now. He’s failed in changing the team’s style. He’s failed to change the team’s losing mentality. He’s failed to integrate new signings effectively. Most importantly he’s failed to alter our results or league position. He’s stated that the plan he’s working to involves 3 transfer windows, each with similar spending. His problem after the start he’s had will be getting Mike Ashley to give him another half-yearly £50m to blow in the transfer market.
The Buck Stops There
Sepp Blatter has been barred from all football activity for 8 years this week following FIFA’s investigation into irregular payments to Michel Platini approved by Blatter. Blatter will be appealing ( I’ve phrased that badly – he’ll never be appealing but he will be challenging the verdict) so we’ve not heard the last of this but few will be surprised. More of a story is that Platini was also suspended, who would otherwise have been favourite to supplant the long-tarnished Blatter. However the pair have taken each other down in a mutually vindictive death-grip. The week’s top car-crash TV was Blatter’s press conference immediately following the verdict when he appeared to be puzzled and hurt to be treated so badly. Lovers of Shakespeare will be reminded of Hamlet and think Blatter “doth protest too much”. “8 years suspended… for what?” was the stand out quote. The simple answer to that of course being that it was for misuse of funds. In a broader sense though, he has been head of an organisation for 17 years and during that time not only has that organisation been riddled with corruption, but he also spent much of the time refusing to address that corruption. Perhaps if he pondered that a bit more and considered the concept of executive accountability he’d have a bit more of an idea why all this was happening.
Front-page news in the Daily Mirror earlier this week was the manager of Bolton Wanderers threatening to knife his mistress if she told his wife what was going on. It’s interesting to note that while sordid and reprehensible, the sole reason the story gained such prominence was its connection to football, and that this connection was to someone involved with a club which are currently bottom of the Championship. It’s not Arsene Wenger or Jurgen Klopp, it’s Neil Lennon. This is by no means high society misdeeds, just footballers behaving badly and it seems any old footballer will do. You can’t even say it was because of a slow news week, the nation currently being involved in a war and all. It says a lot I suppose about the all-pervading nature of football stories these days, and the appetite of the general public to read them.
Doorjambs for goalposts
While scouring my 7-year-old’s xmas list I noticed something called a Hoverball in pride of place. This thing is basically half a football which hovers over the ground on a cushion of air so you can play football in the house without smashing stuff. Whatever happened to the good old days of breaking your Mam’s ornaments with a pair of high-velocity rolled-up socks? The skill as I remember from my distant childhood was in the method of rolling the socks to create the tightest-packed, most solid object to maximise the power with which it could be volleyed into the most fragile vase in the house. Where’s the fun in this sanitised modern experience? It’s like playing darts without the risk of hitting a wire and getting speared in the foot or worse.
Back to Reality?
The disappointing performance last week and failing to beat bottom club Villa at home seemed a classic example of Newcastle building up their fans only to let them down. It’s probably closer to reality than the previous two victories against Liverpool and Spurs. What it definitely told us was that our inability to break teams down when we can’t hit them on the break remains unchanged. 7 points from 9 can’t be sniffed at of course but the problem with that is we’ll play more teams like Villa this season than we will teams like Liverpool or Spurs. There was a story in the press this week that we’d been coaching our team to take “at least six passes before initiating a full-on attack”. I have no coaching badges so could be misguided but this seems to be a perfect example of doing something which is almost totally counterproductive. It sounds like passing and possession for the sake of it, allowing the opposition time to regroup and set themselves up defensively. I think to become a good team you need to be able to keep the ball and dominate possession but the idea surely is to have constructive possession, not just waste time passing along the back line until an arbitrary number of completions is achieved. The story in the link mentions that this policy has now been ditched and McClaren is trying to achieve a balance between getting the ball forward early and keeping possession which sounds like a good idea but also something which won’t happen overnight.
One for the Road
The big news in English football this week has been the dismissal of Jose Mourinho as Chelsea manager. While not exactly unexpected, his side having lost far too many games recently, it still seems harsh. Just last May they were crowned champions of England and the Special One was hailed for working his magic once again. He’d bought two players, Fabregas and Costa, who had transformed them from also-rans into unstoppable certainties. Not for the first time, player unrest has done for a Chelsea manager. Andreas Villas-Boas also got the push after the players decided they didn’t like him trying to reshape the squad. Now Fabregas and Costa have both been misfiring recently and there are rumours the dressing room is unhappy, though it’s unclear precisely what they’re unhappy about.
Managing a losing side and turning things around is a different job entirely to tweaking a dominant side and keeping them performing consistently. This is the first time Mourinho’s been faced with this kind of problem and he hasn’t been able to come up with any answers. Many’s the time I’ve heard someone say “Jose Mourinho couldn’t get that lot playing well” and for the first time ever I think I’m persuaded it may be true. Even so there will be no shortage of suitors for his services. With him available and Swansea apparently close to tying up Marcelo Bielsa to succeed Gary Monk, there will be a lot of clubs wondering if they can punch above their weight in attracting a new boss too.
New Kids on the Block
Mourinho’s last game in charge at Chelsea was a defeat at Leicester who are tearing up the division under their new coach, another ex-Chelsea supremo, Claudio Ranieri. People still seem to assume their bubble will burst but they are still top, it’s Christmas and they aren’t involved in European competition so any squad deficiencies may not get exposed before May. You have to hand it to them, they made an imaginative choice of manager in the summer, one many thought wouldn’t work and their team has blossomed. Ranieri has an attractive public persona, their team works hard and have plenty of skill at their disposal. What’s not to like?
In a season when so many of the usual top teams are underperforming, maybe they have a chance of staying if not top in the end then very close to it. We’ve been as guilty as anyone of falling into the trap of underestimating them, considering our 0-3 defeat at home to them as one to a side we should be beating. They are the team in form however and instead of bellyaching about it we should be looking to them for inspiration.
Two wins on the trot, for the first time in a year. It couldn’t have happened at a better time for us, just as we were threatened with getting stranded in the bottom 3. Even more impressive than the points was the calibre of opposition, Liverpool and Tottenham, both sides in form when we came up against them. Of course this being Newcastle United, and us playing bottom club Aston Villa at home next, many of us expect a perverse response from us with a return to our previous lacklustre ways and a frustrating defeat.
This is a real opportunity to put together a good run though, one which could be enough to keep us up by itself at worst and transform our season at best. Villa are struggling badly and if we could pick up the points against them we have another home game the week after, admittedly against a good Everton side but with the confidence of a 3rd straight win on our side we’d definitely have a chance. In our final game of the year 2 days later we’re away to WBA. Imagine where we’d be after a good set of results in those games.
Today’s game also has the possibility of preventing Villa from picking up momentum of their own, just as important perhaps, and opening up a 13-point gap between us. If we can do that it’d take a huge turnaround for them to catch us by May. To be blunt about it, we’d only then have to outstrip two other sides to be safe, and once that’s done we can start looking up the table instead of downwards, which is how we want to be approaching our football. This is a big game for us, pivotal perhaps. With the right performance and result we’ll be a big step closer to enjoying our football again.
Another False Dawn?
Who was expecting that then? Not me, that’s for sure. As welcome as the result at the weekend was, it’s probably best not to get too carried away. This season has been a tale of false dawn followed by false dawn. After a reasonable start of two draws against difficult opposition in our first 3 games, we suffered 3 narrow but limp defeats on the trot. We then managed an upturn in response by drawing at home to last season’s champs Chelsea, a game we should have won after being 2 goals up with 11 minutes of normal time remaining. Newcastle then reverted to type by capitulating to a 6-1 thumping at the Etihad, after a very good opening half. The sense that our performances were starting to improve was enhanced by a 6-2 win at SJP against Norwich, though the scoreline didn’t really reflect the play. That was followed by again slumping to a 3-0 defeat to arch-rivals Sunderland, though the performance deserved more. A draw with Stoke would surely have been victory but for the performance of their top-notch keeper Jack Butland, and that was succeeded by a fortunate win at Bournemouth by a single goal from a single shot on target. Again, as we hoped that a run of results was building, if not always great performances, disappointment was to follow. Leicester totally outplayed us at SJP and then we threw in the towel against a previously stuttering Palace and got beat 5-1. Now we’ve managed to beat a Liverpool side who’d swept all before them in the weeks before. The lesson to be learned if there is one is that we don’t seem to be progressing at all. We merely have good weeks and bad weeks. I’m hoping we can carry on today where we left off, but I certainly don’t expect it.
Television, the Drug of the Nation
I’ve heard suggestions that we only put in a good performance when we’re on the telly. The rationale behind the theory is that our players, who moved here on the basis of NUFC being a stepping stone to greater things, only put in a decent shift and get motivated when they are in the shop window. Our results back this up to some degree. Half our points have come from draws with Chelsea, Southampton and Manchester United, and a win against Liverpool. In contrast to that we’ve suffered defeat to Swansea, West Ham, Watford, Sunderland, Palace and Leicester, though of course Leicester being top currently means they’re a good side not a poor one. It may just be the recognised phenomenon of sides raising their game against bigger teams. Some years ago I recall Roy Keane railing against struggling sides who’d roar into matches against his Manchester United. “If they played like that every week they wouldn’t be struggling” was the crux of his argument, that those players suffered from a lack of motivation and drive which would prevent them ever stepping up to that level. Our players might note that only turning it on against the big teams is not an attribute which will deliver them the big-money move they crave.
The rumour before the Liverpool game was that Steve McClaren had two games to save his job. As those games were at home to Liverpool and away to Spurs many thought he was a dead man walking. I have my doubts after the number of chances Alan Pardew got to take us down. Maybe in Pardew’s case they just didn’t want to pay up his crazy contract, and it’s not as if Ashley has never pulled the trigger a bit too rapidly, but I think the win against Liverpool will be enough to gain McClaren a reprieve until January even if the rumours were true. That being the case, and with us probably looking to spend in the mid-season transfer window, it’d be a surprise to me if McClaren then didn’t get to see the season out with his new players. I suppose surprises have been Ashley’s stock in trade during his time here however. Perhaps we are all wasting our time trying to guess the plan of someone who doesn’t have one.
They’re in the Money
The owners of Man City sold 13% of their club to a group of Chinese investors this week for an astonishing £265m. My maths tells me that means their club is valued at around £2bn. That is an awful lot for a small slice of even a club that wins a fair bit of prize money. Investors must be able to see that not only is the potential there in quite a few clubs to match them, not least ourselves, but that it might be a better investment to pay peanuts in comparison and get a club which still receives a share of the TV money. It’s worth wondering how much they foresee themselves taking out of football if they’re prepared to pay this much as a route in. Still, there are people around prepared to pay serious money for Premier League clubs. There is no reason why our misery under Mike Ashley shouldn’t come to an end very soon. Our wishful thinking may never come to pass but at least it’s not in the realm of fantasy any more.
Jobs for the Boys
The announcement of Gary Neville as manager of Valencia came from nowhere. He talks a good game on the telly of course, but that doesn’t really qualify him to take over at a club currently in the group stages of the Champions League. We’ve watched Mike Ashley give jobs to his cronies time and time again here at Newcastle over the years of course and it seems this one can be explained away similarly. Valencia’s owner Peter Lim also bought into Salford City as a part-owner with Neville and some of his ex-Man Utd buddies, as documented in the current BBC series “Class of 92 – Out of their League”. Lim evidently knows, respects and trusts Neville to the point that he’d give him a role like this despite the lack of experience that even Neville admits he himself has. Good luck to him, maybe he’ll succeed. You can understand why owners do this kind of thing, but I suppose the difference between us and them is the quality of the crony the respective owners happen to know. The reaction in Valencia may have been more extreme if the unveiling had been of JFK or Dennis Wise.
We were thrashed at the weekend 5-1 by Palace, who had Alan Pardew at the helm with his usual methods meaning they’d been struggling at home and were on a run almost as bad as ours. This weekend we play Liverpool, who inspired by new broom Jurgen Klopp slaughtered a very good Southampton team 6-1 midweek at St Mary’s. Klopp’s style is to press high up the pitch so we won’t get a moment’s respite and there will be nowhere to hide for our malingering malcontents. The score could be anything but not in a good way. It’s coming to something when us getting a point from the game could be the season’s biggest giant-killing act. I really hope I’m wrong but it feels like things are building to a crescendo at SJP. Could this be the weekend when we really implode, once and for all?