Friday, February 10, 2012

A Month Of Saturdays: January 2012

(Image courtesy of Dave-F)

Given that Magpies have a reputation for coveting and attempting to steal the shiny things in other birds' nests rather than jealously guarding what they already have, we did a pretty poor job of living up to our nickname in the first month of 2012. "As last January demonstrated, this transfer window is not so much about who we can bring in ... but more about who we can hang onto". So wrote Paul early in the month - and so it proved.

When the window swung shut, we could breathe a sigh of relief at the fact that the spine of our team - Tim Krul, Sideshow Bob, Dreamboat, Mr T and Demba Ba, who have been critical in our surprisingly successful season so far - were still our players. Whether that was because we actively rebuffed the overtures of other clubs, Jabba steadfastly refusing to be tempted by the lure of making a hefty profit, or because those approaches never actually materialised, is unclear. The fact remains that - despite the media feverishly massaging quotes into come-and-get-me pleas and the flabby-faced managers of other clubs trying to act as salesmen on our behalf - the key quintet are still in our employ. Even Fraser Forster, whom Celtic had identified as a prime target, remained a Newcastle player in name at least. Our only departees were long-out-of-favour midfielder Alan Smith, who joined MK Dons on loan, and James Tavernier, recalled from a temporary spell at Sheffield Wednesday only to be promptly sent off to follow Smith down to Milton Keynes.

Even more improbable than the possibility that we might cling onto all of our stars, though, was the prospect of us being the month's biggest spenders, at least in terms of a single deal. More cash coming out of Jabba's wallet than going in? Surely not. But if Wayne Routledge could finally score his first top-flight goal with his seventh Premier League club, then anything was possible. It transpired that claims we'd abandoned our pursuit of a new striker following the breakdown of Modibo Maiga's move were all just a smokescreen when, seemingly out of the blue, it was announced that we'd snapped up Freiburg's Papiss Demba Cisse. If our recent recruitment record would suggest that scouts' eyes have been firmly trained on France, then this move implied an even narrower focus: "He's a free-scoring forward, he's Senegalese, he's got 'Demba' in his name - let's sign him up"... If he proves to be even half the player his compatriot is, we'll be delighted.

Cisse may have been the only arrival, but inevitably we were linked - in some cases repeatedly - with a whole host of other potential targets: Rocky, Vicenzo Iaquinta, Lewis Dunk, Jordan Rhodes, Junior Hoilett, Aly Cissokho, Eljero Elia, Jay Rodriguez, Wilfried Zaha, Adrian Mariappa and Ravel Morrison. We did actually bid for the latter pair - Mariappa choosing to stay at Watford and Morrison eventually joining Fat Sam's West Ham - while Bognor Regis striker Jason Prior even went so far as to pull on a black and white shirt and score for the Reserves while on trial, but wasn't offered a contract.

In light of our desire to keep hold of our best players, we could perhaps have hoped for a low-key start to the month. Fat chance. The new year was four days old when we momentarily forgot our usual inferiority complex and clumsy deference to Man Utd, turned a blind eye to the lessons of history and administered one of our occasional thrashings. Mr T was phenomenal, while Dreamboat and Ba - fuelled post-"Ramadam" by strawberry syrup, we learned - both scored stupendous goals, but it was above all a superb team performance, and the first time we'd beaten them since we were mounting that fondly remembered and improbable title challenge of 2001-2.

With Ba and Mr T then jetting off to the African Cup of Nations with our blessing and best wishes, we desperately needed someone to step up to the plate for the visit of another side from the north-west. Just twenty minutes of the FA Cup tie with Blackburn remained when HBA, shunted out to the right wing, scored what will in all likelihood be the most stunning goal most of the crowd will ever witness live. (It wasn't the winner, mind - that came from the boot of Spidermag deep into stoppage time.) The Frenchman had been giving hints of being unsettled, unfavourably (if somewhat inaccurately) contrasting our style of play with that of Swansea. I wonder whether the Silver Fox was able to put that public affront to his tactics down to the lack of paternal love HBA felt growing up?

Equally determined to step into the breach left by Ba, it seemed, was Leon O'Best, whose neat trick and clinical finish a week later was enough to ensure Mark Hughes went home empty-handed from his first fixture as QPR manager. Curiously, though, that was our only effort on target of the entire game, and it was only the loss of Dreamboat to injury and the consequent introduction of HBA that really sparked us into life, the Londoners having evidently set out impress their new boss.

No such luck the following weekend at Fulham. Granted we could have made more of our complete first-half superiority than a solitary Danny Guthrie goal, but we couldn't have foreseen a collapse that even the England cricket team would be ashamed of - albeit one prompted by an appalling refereeing decision. HBA had an impact for the third week in a row, but his strike was little consolation as we slumped to a 5-2 drubbing.

The news of Senegal's surprise failure to qualify for the group stages of the African Cup of Nations, meaning that Ba would be back home sooner than expected, and with new boy Cisse in tow, was a huge boost, but things were to get worse before the duo arrived back on British soil. The Curse of Poyet struck for the umpteenth time, this time at Brighton, as we were beaten by a horrid deflection despite dominating proceedings. Unfortunately, a premature exit from the FA Cup was just one of the game's repercussions - another was the three-match ban handed to Dreamboat for a hot-headed reaction to a foul. Perhaps he and ASBO aren't so dissimilar after all - though at least our current midfielder didn't spend January picking Twitter scraps with first Norwich midfielder Bradley Johnson, then a computerised version of himself and finally the manager who'd signed him and whom he subsequently helped to oust...

Off the field, one change was welcomed (Northern Rock's new owners Virgin Money taking over shirt sponsorship - even if it did make the strip I got for Christmas instantly out of date) while dissent about another continued to fester, with the City Council formally registering their refusal to accept Jabba's rebranding of St James' Park. Meanwhile, inspired by an impromptu December trip to watch FC United of Manchester, I pondered the prospect of an FC United of Newcastle. If we had a club to call our own, we could name the ground whatever we like. But, of course, there are those who will say we already have our own club to support and be proud of, irrespective of whatever Jabba does - and, on nights like 4th January, when we're busy humiliating the Premier League champions, it does genuinely feel that way.




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