Wednesday, May 14, 2014

View From The Home End: end-of-season reflections

Primary objective of a top half finish secured; six places higher than last season, and above the Mackems; never in any danger of relegation; tremendous victories (complete with clean sheets) at home to Chelsea and at White Hart Lane and (at long, long last) Old Trafford; a November in which we couldn't stop winning; the Boxing Day hoodoo banished with a five-goal romp against Stoke; a win in our final home game of the campaign for the first time in years.

Forgive us if we aren't cracking out the champagne, though. And here's why. After that thrashing of the Potters, we were sitting pretty in sixth, one point behind fifth-placed Everton. And then came a pathetic haul of 16 points from a possible 60; trouncings at the hands of Man Utd, Southampton, Everton, Spurs, Chelsea, Arsenal and (worst of all) the Mackems; six consecutive defeats spanning March and April; and an FA Cup exit at the very first hurdle.

So much for a game of two halves; this was a season of two halves. The first, sadly, feels like a distant memory, obliterated by the nightmare of the second. So, inevitably I'm afraid, what follows is less a review and more an inquest into what went wrong with a season that had shown such rich promise but that descended into frustration, anger and mutiny.

So, where to start? Obvious, really...

* * * * *

Dreamboat sails off into the sunset

It's not often that the success (or otherwise) of a whole season can be largely attributed to a single individual or a single event, but that was, I think, the case this campaign.

After a disappointing 2012/13, during which he suffered a physical and psychological hangover from France's abject failure at Euro 2012, Dreamboat cruised back into top form, contributing valuable goals from midfield (including that Old Trafford winner) as well as oozing class and creativity that stood him head and shoulders above his team-mates.

So it was inevitable, really, that after a man-of-the-match performance at Upton Park in January, he would be flogged off to the highest bidder - indeed the only bidder, moneybags PSG, who had little trouble tempting him back to his home country with the promise of fine wines and stinky cheeses, not to mention Champions League football. We may have felt powerless to prevent him from leaving, given the stature of his suitors, the size of the bid and the secret deal he struck with our hierarchy in the summer, but the sale of a player who proved remarkably good value at just £4.3m left me fearful that "for the rest of the season we'll be left ruefully watching the space Dreamboat used to fill".

And so it proved - our midfield was embarrassingly prosaic, stodgy and unimaginative without his quick mind and bright invention. It was certainly no coincidence whatsoever that our form nosedived sharply as soon as he had gone.

Window pains

Of course, Dreamboat's loss could and indeed should have been mitigated by the arrival of a replacement. Not only did we have PSG's cash to reinvest, but it was also revealed that we had had six months' forewarning that his departure was very much on the cards. And yet we were left flailing around in a desperate and undignified fashion over the last 48 hours before the January transfer window shut, with a move for Lyon's Clement Grenier comprehensively rebuffed. A rumoured deal for Montpellier's Remy Cabella also failed to materialise, his coach mockingly branding us "not a big club", and the loan signing of Luuk de Jong from Borussia Monchengladbach was the only addition to the squad.

Incredibly (or perhaps not, to seasoned observers and followers of Newcastle), we appeared not to have learned from the invaluable lesson of the summer of 2012, when we mustered just one acquisition, and for the second successive transfer window Jabba ended up keeping the belt encircling his enormous girth tight and his wallet firmly shut - to the considerable detriment of our fortunes over the second half of the season.

Ambition not part of the mission

Even if we accept that the sale of Dreamboat was something that couldn't reasonably be prevented, Jabba's reluctance to part with any money in January was certainly symptomatic of a club crippled by a lack of ambition. As a successful businessman, he must surely know that the problem with cost-cutting is that it very often proves to be costly, so one can only assume that the decision not to invest was taken in the knowledge that we would still be able to survive comfortably. If that meant we would miss out on Europe (as became evident very soon after Dreamboat's departure), then so be it - there was evidently as little appetite for qualifying for the Europa League as there was for continued participation in the FA Cup, the latter clearly a distraction we could ill afford when we had, er, nothing else to play for...

What's football worth without dreams, hopes and aspirations (even unrealistic or fanciful ones)? Not a whole lot.

Jog on, JFK

Whatever else you say about Jabba, you have to admire his guile and gumption. If you have no intention of spending any money, then who better to entrust with the responsibility of transfer negotiations than a bumbling, buffoonish blowhard so incompetent that he expresses an interest in a player his club already owns? Even over the course of two transfer windows there was about as much chance of an amoeba completing a cryptic crossword as there was of JFK actually managing to make a permanent signing, let alone a bad one.

And when the flak came in early February, as Jabba must have known it would, JFK made a convenient scapegoat who could be dispensed with, his function served, leaving the owner to save face as well as cash and JFK to do what he does best - namely, swear and spout preposterous bullshit - at someone else's expense.

The Silver Fox loses his cunning

While JFK may have been unwittingly doing Jabba's bidding, the Silver Fox's exasperation with his failure to get transfers "over the line" (probably because he had absolutely no idea what or where the line was) became increasingly apparent. "If I was in charge, solely, of transfers", the manager growled, "things might be different but I'm not". Few (myself included) would deny that he once again found himself doing his job with one hand tied behind his back, but that isn't enough to absolve him from blame for our second-half slump.

He certainly tried to absolve himself on enough occasions, pointing the finger instead at everyone from HBA (our most creative player in the absence of Dreamboat) and match officials to supporters and the local media. However, no one else can shoulder the responsibility for some decidedly questionable tactics and substitutions, or for an inability to motivate highly paid players into doing their job with even a modicum of professional pride, or for becoming the first Newcastle manager to lose six consecutive Premier League matches, or for the moment of insanity that saw him headbutt Hull's David Meyler and earn an unprecedented seven-match touchline ban and £60,000 fine.

This time last year, I noted that some fans were calling for the Silver Fox's head, adding, "We're not joining that chorus just yet, but would say that he has a lot of work to do to rebuild public trust." Over the course of the last season, he's done the precise opposite and is now a liability whom Jabba should (but probably won't) cut loose.

Nil point

And so to the players. By the time Arsenal visited St James' Park on 29th December, we had lost just once at home all season. The fact that the Gunners headed off down back down the A1 with all three points that day didn't seem hugely significant at the time - they were the league leaders, after all - but in retrospect the outcome signalled the beginnings of our decline, and a horrific sequence of results on our own turf in particular.

Of those heavy defeats to Chelsea, Arsenal, Southampton, Spurs, Man Utd, Everton and the Mackems, the latter four came at home, and all seven were by three or four goals without reply. "Without reply" is telling - in the run of 20 league games that began with the visit of Arsenal and ended with Sunday's trip to Liverpool, we scored in just seven of them.

While Dreamboat's departure was a critical factor in our slump, Loic Remy's absence - due to a combination of injury and a three-match suspension incurred by a red card at Norwich - was also keenly felt. The QPR loanee's 14 goals were crucial in ensuring we somehow managed to keep our heads above water and squeeze into the top half of the table. It was telling that Dreamboat still ended the season as our joint second top scorer with Goofy, who registered in four consecutive home games in the autumn but, like everyone else, lost form in the spring.

As for the rest, Papiss Cisse carried on where he left off last season, not even a shadow of the player who scored for fun on his arrival from the Bundesliga, and contributed just two league goals, one of which was a penalty. Big Lad was no better - we may have identified him as a key component of that November run, but he didn't actually weigh in with any league goals until the last two home games of the campaign, against Swansea and Cardiff, before talking himself into a red card at Anfield in what is likely to have been his final appearance for the club. Luuk de Jong, meanwhile, was utterly useless, offering only a couple of assists.

That put the pressure on the midfield to deliver, and - Dreamboat aside - they didn't. Moussa Sissoko and HBA mustered only three each, while our only other league scorers were Mini V, Mathieu Debuchy, Paul Dummett and Saylor, all of whom donated a solitary strike to our paltry collection.

In truth, even our most handsome victory of the season, the tonking of Stoke, was hardly the delicious feast of goalscoring that it might have seemed. All five goals came after the visitors' ill-discipline reduced them to nine men - prior to the dismissals, we had shown no signs whatsoever of being able to penetrate their defence.

Half-season holiday

Even worse than our woes in front of goal, though, was the lack of effort shown by the players in the second half of the season. Losing heavily to the likes of Man Utd, Arsenal and Chelsea is nothing novel, but the manner of many of the defeats - in which we barely even bothered to turn up and make the vaguest semblance of a game of it - was alarming. It was as though they'd all bought into Jabba's policy of abandoning all ambition in favour of lazy complacency.

As an evidently furious Wor Al noted in the wake of Man Utd's 4-0 win at St James', they appeared to "have simply given up": "Fans can forgive a defeat, but they cannot forgive a team that simply does not try and this one is on its holidays". A holiday was deserved - a long one, in a gulag.

Noisy neighbours

Our lack of effort and fighting spirit was only thrown into sharper relief by the way the Mackems clawed their way back from the brink of relegation, somehow managing to make up a seven-point deficit with six games to play courtesy of a run of results that included a draw at the Etihad and victories at both Stamford Bridge and Old Trafford. Faced with similar adversity, you suspect that we would have been dead and buried.

While we may have finished above the Mackems, they nevertheless comprehensively retained local bragging rights by first beating us down at the Dark Place and then improbably repeating last season's trick of thumping us on our own patch. Throw in an appearance at Wembley in the League Cup final, which they valiantly lost to eventual Premier League champions Man City, and it's plausible to argue that a side that spent much of the season reeling from the damage wreaked by Paolo Di Canio and battling against relegation actually enjoyed a better campaign than we did.

Newcastle Disunited

All of the above - the sale of Dreamboat and subsequent failure to replace him or sign any other players permanently, the patent lack of ambition, the employment of JFK, the Silver Fox's drivel and antics, the appalling goal-free and effort-free performances served up at St James' in particular, and embarrassment in the derbies - conspired to drive an even greater wedge between the club and its long-suffering supporters.

The 2013/14 season saw valuable lines of communication severed - whether through the exclusion of NUST from the Fans Forum for a minor indiscretion (if that) or a petty ban on the Ronny Gill, the Journal and the Sunday Sun which confirmed Jabba as a totalitarian dictator swift to crush any impertinent criticism of his regime.

However, it also saw the emergence of fissures among the fanbase, as supporters debated and disagreed over what should be done. Pre-match protest marches, coordinated walkouts, boycotting matches altogether - each course of action had fierce advocates and opponents.

At root, though, there was some consensus - things have to change.

* * * * *

This time last year I pondered, "Are we actually a solid mid-table team in very good disguise?" As it's turned out, the reverse has been true - a solid mid-table finish has disguised a plethora of problems. Pointing to the fact that we ended up tenth is not so much papering over the cracks as trying to paper over the Grand Canyon.

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1 Comments:

Blogger 63soul said...

Well summarized. And looks like you are right in your prediction that parwho will be staying, according to the board minutes as reported by the nufc.com blog. Europa league conundrums aside, the notion being spouted by the board that FA cup ambitions amount to doom in the league is ridiculous. The relationship between cup success and relegation danger is specious, based simply on recent anecdotal evidence, bears no statistical significance, and is a "correlation" (again, not statistically significant) that lacks any causal direction. I.e., did wigan seek domestic silverware in the context of their already sinking league ship, etc., etc.? I would much rather finish less than 10th and win a cup (or even make a decent effort in the cup), than flog it off and have the kind of season we just experienced, with little to make us proud.

8:55 p.m.  

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