Mickey Blue Eyes
Having missed the home match V Manc United I was anxious to get my weekly footy fix, so on Saturday I set off only partly reluctantly for Newcastle. Years ago I loved visiting the north east for a footy match. Loonies apart (and we've got a few of those ourselves) locals there of course enthuse about the game as much as the rest of us. You could always have a good laugh and chat with the same football-daft mindset. But it simply wasn't worth it after Northumbria policing turned ugly: for me enjoyment was submerged by a gang of uniformed thugs, some of whom seemed to relish the look and sound of a Brit neo-SS. So I decided to see if, as Terry assured me, matters had improved. Maybe it was as much in the past as those asinine male hair "styles" of a few years ago where some adolescent heads were plastered with axle grease, stuck in a concrete mixer and surfaced with the look of an array of startled hedgehogs. You kept hoping it was a bad dream, just as you do now with shorn heads, nose rings and moronic sans culottes.
Not that there weren't funny moments even during the worst experiences. I remember a visit to Middlesbrough when The Bus pulled up directly outside the Riverside Stadium and we were boarded by two seedy Smoggy bizzies who wouldn't have been out of place at Guantanamo concentration camp or in the CIA or MI6. The one suffused with acne scars and an attitude to match began to berate everyone with a list of dos and don'ts. At the end of the tirade he said, faux military, "Any questions?" And a cheeky voice at the back asked, "What's the capital of Peru?"
But that was a rare event. At the time, visiting buses were stopped at a designated location on the A1, you had to get off, and police searched everything before you were allowed to go on your way in a convoy surrounded by motor cycles or cars. It was hateful, and all for a game of football. It was as worthless as a soap opera footy "message" forum or an ale house diatribe from your standard know-it-all drunk. There are many much better things in life. A sensible man acts accordingly.
As it turned out, police methods were marginally less oppressive, probably due to theft of your money by spiv bankers and opportunist politicians - you know, "public debt" as a diversion from privatised theft, hence "cutbacks" (read: more dosh for spivs, less for you and your family and less for social infrastructure). This manifested at one services stop as a mere two squad cars and two police vans with two gangs of tooled-up uniformed sniggering thugs inside and outside the building; well, at least they weren't sneering, didn't search anybody and didn't get on The Bus. Alas, this was an unscheduled stop for a call-of-nature. We still had to pull into a designated stop at Washington services. There we were met by a single police car manned by an unhappy-looking lonely bizzy. Unhappy, that is, to tell our driver to "carry on and do your own thing." So instead of feeling that the north east has turned into a Nazi-occupied zone I assume we were supposed to feel relieved it wasn't necessary to prove our innocence or present travel passes. Presumably, Northumbria police couldn't afford a police escort, which meant we went on our way undisturbed by flashing blue lights. No wonder one of our best novelists has described neocon Britain as a litter-strewn authoritarian rat-hole.
It was a pleasure to finally get into Newcastle itself and stop outside the ground. The city has an interesting topography and pleasant feel about it, quite different from its miserable policing methods. Unlike London, nobody can accuse Newcastle of lacking a sense of identity or community. Almost alone the accent ensures you know where you are, supported by any chat you can manage with the locals. Sadly, the maddeningly early kick off meant we had to go straight in.
But wait, I didn't mean "straight in" literally. I shit you not with the next bit. The entrance gates for away fans were surrounded with yellow and black crime scene tapes; you entered through one controlled access where you were given a plastic bag and told to deposit in it anything in your pockets. Then you had to go through a screen of individual "security guards" who examined the bag and searched you. A searcher told me it was a rehearsal for the Olympic Games security system. Which, if true, is yet one more reason for London to shove its looming circus up its arse. After climbing umpteen flights of stairs to the away section you don't feel well disposed to Newcastle's "match experience." In fact it's shit, since you are so high up you might as well be watching a Subbuteo table football game. All this and "security" too. Yeuk. By the time the match actually starts it's almost an irrelevance. You are still getting your breath back and adjusting to the lower temperature. Some nice views across the city, though.
The stadium itself remains an oddly asymmetric unattractive place, but still a huge improvement on the old slum that was St James Park. Its increased revenues have helped Newcastle survive relegation and get them back up to third in the table despite having a hundred managers in three years and, to the chagrin of some locals, a cockney owner and manager. Still, they managed to avoid Terry Venables and the Sullivan-Gold axis. Now of course all that is forgotten after ridding themselves of high-earning, ineffectual players and an unreal expectation. Having seen them in this match I think this will hardly last the season. After which, football fans being the institutional hypocrites they have always been, they will come down to earth with a bump accompanied by the same howls of dissatisfaction that haunted them for years. 'Twas ever thus, and ever thus will be.
We were without Felli in this match, but I was reasonably optimistic for no good reason. Perhaps it was the thin air in the away section. Newcastle didn't seem to have any particularly good players and despite our small and ageing squad we still seemed to have enough to win if Our Boys applied themselves properly. As always, we fretted about our lack of fit strikers. Louis hasn't lost his brilliant close control but now, as we all know, his full match fitness has finally collapsed and we are lucky if he lasts a full ninety minutes. Everyone else up front is either raw or untried. It isn't a matter of numbers, as some deluded berks think. It is a matter of ability and fitness combined with experience. In these circumstances, for example, play Tolos (or any of the current strikers) and Louis up front and you subtract one from midfield, get swamped, create even less chances and then lose heavily. Every time we tried 4-4-2 last season we were roundly beaten. And of course you have to take account of substitution shenanigans. You would think this straight forward footy thinking would get through to even the thickest of mindsets but you would be wrong. This game was no different.
We were mostly in ineffectual control - the same story of the last couple of seasons - for the first twenty minutes. It took the Skunks ten minutes to have their first harmless effort, then immediately at the other end Louis headed Seamus clear at right side angle of the goal area but he badly miskicked it wide of the other upright. It seemed to sap his confidence for the rest of the game. At that stage our depleted midfield of Seamus-Jack-Phil-Leon-Drenthe was doing reasonably well despite Royston Drenthe being kicked from pillar to post at every opportunity and Phil carrying an injury. Plainly, word has got around that Royston has to be slowed down even at the risk of a booking. Welcome to English football. Two minutes after Seamus's miss we let in a ludicrous own goal. A harmless cross from the right was going straight into Tim's hands when Johnny Heitinga intervened. Instead of hoisting it, as he should have done, he simply stuck a boot on it and Tim was stranded and helpless. Somebody shouted, "Fuck off, Heitinga!" which sounded pretty good advice to at least one Evertonian.
Then Royston and Seamus did their standard wing switch. It made no difference to the kicking Royston got, but he managed one superb long left-footed cross from wide right that Jack got on the end of and brought out a good low right save from their 'keeper. Our Jack continues to bed in well in midfield and is getting stronger with each outing; at this rate he'll fulfil his promise. Then Jags struck a superb long pass from centre right mid that took out the entire Skunks defence and left Louis clear right side of the penalty area. He should have buried it. Instead he hit row ZZ. That's what happens when you're on a bad run.
Still, Newcastle weren't making any impression apart from a few long crosses that were easily cleared. So when they got a second after half an hour it was well against the run of play and very much a hit and miss chance. Jack headed out from the centre penalty area for what seemed like a routine clearance but nobody picked it up and their man had a clear run and time to hit it on the volley. They either scream in or soar over. This one screamed in even though he leaned back and lofted it. Louis's had screamed over. With normal luck by this time we should have been two ahead. Instead, we were two down. Some heads went down and seemed ready to give Moyesy a hard time at half time.
Then Seamus led a raid down our left that had him twisting and turning in the penalty area at the goal line. Eventually it came back to Louis and he hit the inside base of their left post, it got cleared to the right and an inrushing Royston smacked it just outside the same post. The same Skunks player who scored with the lofted shot then lofted a speculative cross from wide left that could have gone anywhere. It hit the bar, about the only luck we had throughout the entire game.
Just before half time, Tony Hibbert combined down the right with Royston and forced a right-side corner. Drenthe took it left footed and swerved it in to the right centre edge of the goal area, where Jack made it his and bulleted a header home to get a more realistic look on the scoreline. 1-2 down was a bad joke at our expense.
The second half was mainly a game of attrition. If anybody looked likely it was us. Plainly, though, it was going to be a day when nothing went right. As the half went on I kept expecting us to leak another one after three rebounds or something similar. One of theirs even handled clearly in blocking a Louis shot. No penalty, of course. Then Louis missed another shooting opportunity. Royston went on a couple of high speed runs despite always having at least two men on him and again getting a kicking until eventually he retaliated and got booked. Once again we had plenty of possession and territory without making it count, though in this match we had enough chances to win it easily. But you could see why Newcastle have managed to get high in the table: they might lack skill but they chase everything and for the time being have impetus and luck to carry them through - whether this lasts will be another story.
At least we created the chances and for the most part kept moving the ball well, though at times it was infuriatingly slowly. Sylvain Distin made a huge difference at centre defence when he came on as sub. We even survived Tony going off and being replaced by Seamus at right back to snuff their lively left winger. When Tim Cahill came on for his late cameo it also kept the enemy engaged and nail biting right to the end. Jimmy Mac also came on for a surprising cameo but achieved nothing; what Bily thought of this is open to conjecture. In the end the loss of Felli was decisive. You can't operate successfully with a 2.5 midfield of Jack-Royston-Seamus. It is asking too much of human flesh and blood.
So we again move into "nervous" times that looked likely after the dismal opening day defeat to modest QPR. It seems to me almost everything is going to depend on Felli and Jack and, to a lesser extent, on the mercurial Royston Drenthe. But as usual everything is in yoyo ferment below the top three league placings. Doubtless coming months will see usual artificial phone-in hysteria as teams bobble up and down on an elastic band, a product of instant communication and phony neuroses, a sort of fans Crackpot X Factor, and just as worthless.