Tuesday, January 10, 2012

A Month Of Saturdays: December 2011

We entered the final month of 2011 bloodied but unbowed after our successive skirmishes with the big bully boys from both sides of Manchester, the point-saving performance at Old Trafford in particular giving us heart ahead of the visit of a third bunch of title hopefuls. But the subsequent defeat to Chelsea set the generally grim tone for December.

Not that the 3-0 scoreline was an accurate reflection of events, despite Tim Krul's early penalty save and numerous missed chances. The hapless David Luiz should have been dismissed inside the first ten minutes, we whacked the woodwork three times and our opponents' second and third goals only came at the death, as a desperate side shorn of both Sideshow Bob and Saylor through injury pushed too hard for an equaliser. In all likelihood we won't see the latter again this campaign - perhaps he should give the Little Waster a call for tips on how to pass the time.

Having faced the top three and emerged with credit if only a solitary point, we might have been forgiven for looking forward to the relative respite of four fixtures against lower calibre opposition. But, without a single fit natural central defender for the trip to Norwich, the Silver Fox was forced into pairing full-backs James Perch and Danny Simpson, and Paul Lambert's side expertly exploited our aerial vulnerability. Grant Holt and Steve Morison had a field day, plundering three headers between them, and two goals from Demba Ba proved insufficient - not least because Dan Gosling contrived to get himself sent off for a foolish second challenge.

Thankfully the defensive cupboard wasn't quite so bare for the Silver Fox the following weekend. Who knows how slighted the club medical staff felt at Mr T's you-just-couldn't-make-it-up decision to leave their care, fly back to his homeland and consult "his favourite witch doctor", but it worked and he was back in the side to face Swansea together with Sideshow Bob, while Mike Williamson was a welcome face on the bench. Defensively we were parsimonious in the extreme, though the Swans, then yet to win away, were never likely to pose much of a threat. But, try as we might, we just couldn't get the better of the visitors' own much-vaunted back line and had to content ourselves with a goalless draw.

No matter, we thought - another home game in a few days in which to right wrongs. Sadly, though, it wasn't to be. While we did at least score against West Brom, Ba again at the double - and spectacularly so - our defensive resolve crumbled, the Baggies' pacy partnership of Shane Long and Peter Odemwingie slicing us up from the first whistle as we fell to a damaging defeat. Particularly concerning was our naivety, though there was at least one crumb of comfort in the form of Haris Vuckic's fine display in midfield.

Recent history suggested that a Boxing Day game of any kind, let alone away at Bolton, would be about as welcome as a sprout fart wrapped in a Christmas jumper - but HBA had other ideas. Not that he was able to implement them until the second half, on as a substitute to volley in a Raylor cross with consummate coolness and class. Ba (who else?) swiftly doubled our lead, and a defence bolstered by the reassuring presence of Williamson easily held out to ensure there were many happy returns from the Reebok to Tyneside.

But the joy of winning our first match since beating Everton on 5th November didn't last for long, the year ending with a disappointing 3-1 loss to the Toffees' cross-city rivals. Even when a goal up (somewhat fortuitously), we never looked to have the confidence that we could possibly win. Anfield may be less a happy hunting ground and more a barrel in which we're routinely shot, but the lack of self-belief was upsetting in view of our general attitude and spirit this season. Not quite as upsetting, though, as the sight of the No-Necked Text Pest scoring twice or Steven Gerrard returning from injury just in time to haunt us again.

Before the match, the Silver Fox had suggested he'd relish the opportunity to have Rocky back, but after that wasteful, lacklustre performance he might have changed his mind. Rocky, of course, left Tyneside for Merseyside last January, and it had been anticipated that Modibo Maiga would be arriving to help fill the hole this time around - but a failed medical put paid to that and we were left to start our hunt for new recruits from scratch.

Public pronouncements from Obertan Kenobi and, more importantly, Krul - a hero so often this season - suggested they were unlikely to follow Rocky out of the door. The situation with Simpson looked less certain, though, with the news that contract negotiations had stalled.

Contract negotiations were something the Mackem Tango Man could only dream of, his own contract having been shredded by Preston, allowing him to join Ol' Cauliflower Face on the dole. Meanwhile, two of the latter's recent charges, Lee Cattermole and Nicklas Bendtner, distinguished themselves by being arrested for damaging cars in Newcastle - perhaps the only motoring-related offence of which none of our own players has yet been guilty (to my knowledge).

Still, as the year came to a close, there didn't seem to be too much to laugh about. We lost four matches in December - four times as many as in the preceding four months combined, and there was only the small matter of our perennial butchering at home by Man Utd to look forward to...




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