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?
I Call That A BargainOur terrible performance against Leicester had little encouragement we could take from it. Outperformed in all areas, admittedly by an excellent well-motivated team, all we can do is hope today’s game is better without there being any reason to think it might be.We have reached a point where despite a fully-populated squad there are numerous positions we are extremely weak in – mostly up front and wide midfield but also right across our defensive line. The reason is the lesser-understood twin to the persuasion we use on prospective signings that if they do well we can sell them on to a bigger club. We buy players not because there is a need for the type of player they are, but because we sense the chance to make a big profit. When asked this week about his plans for January, Arsene Wenger said he loved a bargain but he wasn’t going to buy two tellies on Black Friday because he doesn’t need them. In contrast, we get anything cheap we can lob onto ebay, whether we need them ourselves or not. So we end up with loads of central midfielders but apparently there’s a chance a striker, Yoan Gouffran, will play as a defensive midfielder today. Meanwhile, someone who when bought was a defensive midfielder, Moussa Sissoko, is deemed more suitable to play right wing. We have no credible options at full back, centre-half and striker so there is no competition in those positions. Why haven’t these problems been addressed over the last 5 or 6 transfer windows? I’d say because we haven’t tried to, because that’s not our priority. What a sham.Should Auld Aquaintance Be ForgotI’ve heard a number of people saying recently that Alan Pardew, manager of today’s opponents, wasn’t as bad as we portrayed him at the time. I’ll give him this: our problems while he was manager weren’t entirely of his own making. He wasn’t given the players he wanted (remembering who they were I’m quite glad about that), and our players certainly can’t be absolved of blame themselves either. They have failed now under 3 different managers, over the last 3 seasons and the current one. We didn’t try to build on the single season of success you could say Pardew had here, something he had no say in.Pardew’s big fault was that he could only set his teams up one way ( we all know what that was so I won’t bother expanding).This was the most clearly-signposted trap in history. If the opposition chose not to walk into it he had no answer and between Summer 2012 and Christmas 2014 very few fell for it. Sticking to the plan over that period was more denial of the truth than dogged perseverance.None of this means I’d be surprised to see us lose today. We are as bad as we ever were whereas Palace’s squad and their pace probably suit Pardew’s breaking tactics better than ours ever did.Tea Cup Chuckers Our Club Needs YouSteve McClaren strikes me as a thoughtful kind of man. He would probably be offended to hear a suggestion he needs to lose his rag a bit more. Last week’s ineffectual performance deserved just that though, and It’d be very interesting to hear what happened at half time against Leicester. Tactical instruction is all very well but sometimes players need to be yelled at unfairly and if McClaren’s not the man to do it he needs to employ someone to act as bad cop very quickly. We certainly need someone to smash a few tea cups in that dressing-room and tell a few home truths.I hear there have been furious disagreements at the training ground this week, and that’s bee portrayed as the staff getting tough. Well I believe when a manager is so upset he raises his voice, players need to zip up their mouths and listen and that evidently hasn’t happened. Perhaps what’s needed is someone of the ilk of John Sitton to do the telling, shown here tearing a strip off his Orient players during a half time break.
If the Kids are United
In the January 2015 transfer window Dele Alli signed for Spurs from MK Dons
after being widely tipped to join us. At the time I questioned his choice
and the advice of his agent, referring to Spurs as a ” midfielders
graveyard” where he’d rot in the reserves without ever getting a chance.
That was in contrast to us who were so poor and in such need of some spark
that there was a chance he’d have walked into the first team.
Fast forward less than a year and the positions have turned out to be the
exact opposite to my thoughts then. Alli has broken into Spurs first team
and made a goalscoring first start for England in midweek. Meanwhile, our
own youngsters appear little closer to our Premier League eleven. Adam
Armstrong’s made a splash this season but he’s playing in League 1. Kevin
Mbabu was briefly impressive but we’re yet to discover if he’s seriously in
contention or was just last man standing at the time. The creaking bones of
Rolando Aarons haven’t held together long enough to confirm last season’s
promise. The rest are nowhere near. Does anyone think if Alli had come here
we wouldn’t now be fast tracking him into becoming the next Haris Vuckic?
There’s a point in a youngster’s career where they need the opportunity to
show what they can do and they’re just not getting the chance.
Half season tickets went on sale this week, with the expressly stated
purpose of filling up empty seats in the stadium. They’ve noticed then.
What’s interesting is that they appear to have heeded the grumbling from
full season ticket holders in previous years. This time, the part-season
tickets appear to work out at exactly the same price per game as the
full-season ones, as opposed to the last few years when tickets became
available part way through the season which were appreciably cheaper than
those bought to cover all 19 home games.
It’s probably a wise move on the club’s part, as they may be slightly less
likely to fill up those empty seats, but full-season ticket holders are
also less likely to give their ticket up for next season and wait for a
cheap half-season of football from Christmas onwards. Of course it’s great if you’re getting to see a match on the cheap, not so great if you’ve paid top dollar for your ticket and your loyalty is rewarded by casual attendees turning up every week having paid less than you. I await an
announcement that the practice of offering batches of £20 tickets to large
NE employers will also now come to an end.
I Walk the Line
You may have missed a strange story where a Director of Carlisle ended up running the line after the ref was injured during their FA Youth Cup victory over Doncaster Rovers this week. You’ve guessed it, Carlisle’s director flagged for offside and disallowed an equaliser for Doncaster 2 minutes from the end of extra time.
I’m astonished this was allowed to happen at this level. My own experience some years ago of Sunday League where club officials usually take the flags, was that you had to start attacking runs a minimum of 5 yards onside to avoid activating the Lino’s hair-trigger flag arm.
The serious point here is that people cannot avoid being swayed by their loyalties when officiating. The Premier League rely on officials stating their own allegiances to decide which ones shouldn’t run matches involving particular clubs and that doesn’t seem enough to me.
Keeping it RealWith our 3 senior keepers all injured the talk all week has been of youngsters and loans coming in. Surprise surprise, there’s been no move for out-of-favour Victor Valdes at Manchester United as yet. If the only one of the 3 who has a chance of being fit today, Rob Elliot, doesn’t make it then we will have Freddie Woodman making his debut and youngster Brendan Pearson on the bench. Pearson is actually older than Woodman but he’s not on a pro deal yet whereas Woodman has at least been out on loan and played some senior football so you know what I mean.The temptation here is to be very critical of the club hierarchy, especially after much the same thing happened last season. However in this case I have to say that 3 senior keepers should be enough, especially with Woodman next in line of whom much is expected. We are marginally better off for keepers than last season, with our current 3rd choice Karl Darlow being a better option than Jak Alnwick was, who with the best will in the world just wasn’t up to it when he got his chance.Our injury problems are even worse this time round though. Last time we had our top 2 injured, now it’s all 3 so we bypass Darlow for selection. If the spotlight needs to be pointed anywhere it’s not at our recruitment in this case but at why our players get injured so often. Aside from our keeper problem, we have players who I’d expect to be first-team regulars who are just never available and we seem to permanently have more injured than other clubs. If McClaren is searching for a target for incremental improvement he could do a lot worse than look at this.Terry’s All GoldJohn Terry has been quoted as saying he’ll take criticism from people he regards as his equals, Rio Ferdinand, Jamie Carragher, Gary Neville, but not from someone like Robbie Savage who he says “played at a really bad level, who haven’t had a career”. Now if Terry had said he wouldn’t take criticism from Savage because he’s a halfwit who wouldn’t recognise an incisive point if it stabbed him between the eyes, I’d be inclined to agree with him. But the fact is, Savage played 13 straight seasons in the Premier League, and was a regular in international football for Wales. That’s really not a bad level, yet Terry’s chosen to attack that rather than Savage’s opinions.Of course Terry’s point is that unless you’ve won the Champions League and captained England he’s not interested in your opinion. That includes you, me, and every single person who’s ever bought a ticket to watch Chelsea or England. The contempt drips from the man, and his indifference to the disapproval of others has been clear from his behaviour throughout his time in the spotlight so perhaps no-one should be surprised. The “Show Us Your Medals” attitude was clearly misguided when Hansen and Souness used to do it and it still is now.Beeb Bangs the DrumsAnyone tired of watching Manchester clubs and the other usual suspects on TV all the time might have been looking forward to the 1st round of the FA Cup this weekend. However the BBC have chosen to show Salford City at home to Notts County on Friday night and BT Sport have opted for FC United of Manchester against Chesterfield on Monday. Have Salford City been chosen because of the chance of an upset or because they are part-owned by 5 of Manchester United’s “Class of 92”, and just happen to be the subject of a currently showing and very enjoyable BBCTV documentary series? FC United even tried to refuse to have their game shown, having been founded by ex-Man Utd fans disillusioned by that club’s selling its soul.There are plenty of possible upsets and interesting ties which could have been shown this weekend. They could have done good by showing Carlisle’s game away at Plymouth, and saving a few diehards a round trip to beat them all though I suppose diehards would go anyway. TV executives have been lured by the possibility of boosting viewing figures by attracting the many who are interested in Man Utd and may be at a loose end, even when they aren’t on themselves.Cole ComfortEx-Magpie favourite Andy Cole has announced he’s been struggling with serious kidney trouble recently. Though he lost much of his popularity with our fans while on Manchester United’s books later in his career, I for one wish him well and I’m guessing most of you do too. He was a major part of the most exciting period of my time supporting this club and as I look back fondly to 20 years ago, what happened between then and now matters less with each passing year. What a player he was for us. Get well soon.
Iron Mike on his WaySo Mike Williamson’s on his way out of the club. He’s signed on loan for Wolves, who play in the Championship. It’s a quick downturn in his fortunes here. Last season he was one of our first-choice pairing at centre-half, now he appears to have dropped if not off the radar completely then certainly down the pecking order. Not only is he not a first-choice, neither is he even next in the list to replace one of those who are. Just 18 months ago, our fans only half-jokingly campaigned to #GetMikeOnThePlane, the plane in question being that taking the England squad to the Brazil 2014 World Cup. Now it’s more likely we’ll #GetMikeOnTheMegabus, all the way to Wolverhampton. In the continued and continual absence of Steven Taylor this leaves us with Jamaal Lascelles as our next replacement at centre-back. Lascelles is young and unproven at this level and it’s not right that we should rely on him, though the return of Paul Dummett from injury means he can fill in there too if necessary. For all Williamson’s well-documented faults, even if he did want to leave for first-team football, I find it astonishing that we are reducing our already-thin defensive options. If we were going to ship him out, the time to do it was the summer, when we could have replaced him. This is nothing less than short-term, short-sighted incompetence by our transfer team.Rats in a SackSepp Blatter has come out fighting this week and attacked Michel Platini, saying that Platini began the whole FIFA crisis merely to unseat Blatter. He also let slip that the decision to award the 2018 tournament to Russia had already been made before it was voted upon, implying that the entire voting process was merely a PR exercise, a sham. In his enthusiasm to smear others he doesn’t seem to have noticed that he is digging himself an ever-bigger hole. None of this makes him look any better certainly yet he lashes out anyway. Apparently he considers himself still FIFA President and astonishingly will attempt to carry on as such if there isn’t a clear winner of the Presidential elections in February, even though he is currently suspended from all football-related activity by the organisation he claims to lead. How on earth did we ever let these people run our game?On a RunYou may have noticed Derby storming up the Championship recently, they are currently the form team of the division with 6 wins and 2 draws in their last 8 league games, and are poised in the playoff positions to push on. Their manager Paul Clement has turned them around from the awful run they suffered under Steve McClaren at the end of last season to miss out on the playoffs on the final day. Contrast that with McClaren’s so far unsuccessful attempts to alter the relegation form we’ve been in since before last Christmas.Of course it’s not as simple as that. Prior to their bad run Derby were top until as late as the end of February. They were never a bad side so changing their fortunes wasn’t as difficult a task as doing the same to us, who’ve been flirting with the drop for years now. Derby’s form at the end of last season was out of character but ours wasn’t. I read a story this week about Alex Ferguson phoning Paul Sturrock when he was struggling and telling him he should “get rid of under-performing players instead of trying to change their mentality”. We may need to employ a similar tactic sooner rather than later.The top of the Championship makes interesting reading for those interested in Newcastle. Top are Brighton, managed by Chris Hughton, proving his credentials again. Next come Burnley and Hull, newly relegated and enjoying their financial superiority over their competitors, a situation we could feasibly find ourselves in again next season. After that come Derby, their problems under McClaren apparently solved now by Clement, and finally Birmingham who perhaps even more impressively than at Derby have been reborn under Gary Rowett after they dispensed with the services of ex-Mag Lee Clark.Points mean PrizesPeople tell me there’s a silver lining to our defeat down the road last Sunday, that being our performance in dominating the game even with 10 men and losing only to the vagaries of a whistler’s whims. It’s certainly better than the flat drifts to defeat we’ve suffered so often recently in that fixture. However we are 10 games into our league season now, over a quarter of the way in and we are at the point where encouraging performances are of scant use. We need points and fast. I appreciate that in the long term better football will serve us well but we are in a fight now and there’s only one way to get out of it: win and keep winning.