Mickey Blue Eyes
By any current football measure Newcastle United should be contesting at the top of the league: average attendance about 50,000, multimillionaire owner on the "Rich List" (note: the richest and most powerful ensure they never appear on it), modern stadium, enthusiastic fans in a hotbed of the game, and their manager signed on an eight years contract to give stability. They have, so to speak, "got it made." Everything at St. James Park should be hunky-dory. But not so fast.
Look closer and see a different picture: they never manage more than an occasional surge in form, then fall to midtable, sometimes lower. Their fans are notorious for en masse fractiousness. A few years ago they even got relegated before bouncing straight back. It all seemed appropriate when last season one of their loopiest fans punched a police horse after they lost badly at home to Sunderland. And then their manager, Alan Pardew, took this to its logical conclusion when a few weeks ago he butted (in our beloved city we do not say "head butt," since we take human anatomy for granted; for the same reason we have not adopted Yankee "butt" in place of "arse" or "bum") an opposing player and got banished for seven games. I have not the faintest idea why North East affairs should be so chaotic nor do I much care, club football-wise. We have our own problems.
In fact Newcastle United is a classic chastener for those who think money is the solution to every football problem. For such money fools, global financial meltdown and football bankruptcies simply have not happened. It almost goes without saying pumping in money is not the answer unless you have absurd amounts to waste......which even the Newcastle owner does not, though according to published figures he is more than ten times wealthier than Bill Kenwright. The biggest difference between him and Bill is that Kenwright made two masterly choices of manager; in the same period Newcastle have had nine - that is nine - managers and a plethora of "technical directors," whatever that is.
It is of course a matter of how you use what you have, as Roberto Martinez has rightly pointed out. Use it wrongly and all you get is the kind of inflation and economic gangsterism and spivvery that destroys whole economies, let alone football clubs. However, you cannot tell that to a tin drummer who claims clubs should spend money they do not have. Managers can and do misjudge players as much as they get it right. Excess money á là Chelsea and Manchester City merely mops up blood; for the rest of us one financial mistake can be an arterial disaster. One wrong multimillion signing can set a club back years. So much is obvious except to charivari , but nature has decided such mentalities never, ever learn. There will always be ignorant people who prefer breaking glass to admiring and using its properties - what they do to youthful sensitivities hardly bears thinking about. Small wonder the global sport is headed for bankruptcy.
So our Tuesday night game at Newcastle's peculiar lopsided ground was important in our chase for European football. For us it was the first of three successive away games. Lose, and we would fear the worst. Win, and we would be back at fifth. Draw, and we would merely tread water. Maddeningly, we had not won away in the League since December 22nd last year. During that same period the enemy had contrived to lose five successive home games and had plummeted dangerously down the table until they won their previous home game with a last minute goal. Plainly, anything was possible at the St. James circus.
Our team for the night had Leon Osman and Gerard Deulofeu in place of Kevin Mirallas and Aidan McGeady. Everyone else kept their place. Newcastle had a lot of very young players I never heard of. In the end it was a three goal rout of the home team and could have been two or three more. The Skunks chased hard but had only two short periods in each half when they looked as though they might get something from the game. It was a performance all Our Boys can be proud of, as good as anything they have produced this season. It made the long journey well worthwhile for the just over two thousand supporters who dragged themselves there and back. They were in good voice and spirits for the whole game; when they finally got some sack time they must have gone to sleep with a smile on their faces.
However, prospects looked bleak within a few minutes. Newcastle attacked straight from the kick off, got a left side corner, and almost scored. Should have scored in fact, but everybody threw themselves at it in a scramble and it came off Deulofeu's head and foot before being hoofed clear by Sylvain Distin on the edge of the goal area. How playing fortunes can hinge on a few seconds of play. Had we leaked one then it might have been an entirely different game. Still, we gradually imposed and soon had the tempo and movement in near complete control. Newcastle were running in circles trying to get the ball back. When they did, they invariably returned it to us with increasing generosity. A score for us looked just a matter of time. But how often have we said that this season?
The inevitable opening goal came at about twenty minutes in, though we had good opportunities before then. The first chance came after an excellent move down the right when Deulofeu - he was everywhere all night, a brilliant game - slid a pass across to Osman a few metres outside the D, who touched on a first time through ball for Lukaku to shrug off a defender and leave himself left side one on one with the 'keeper. He hit it straight against their 'keeper and it rebounded to safety.
That narrow escape fired the enemy into a brief attacking flurry and a couple of corners. They could do nothing with either. The second ended at the centre edge of the penalty area when John Stones half heartedly hoofed it up in the air toward the centre circle. It looped high and then dropped well short. Deulofeu got there ahead of a defender and cushion-headed it beautifully to our right. Whence came Ross Barkley; one touch killed it and he was off right-footed on his way to one of those solo goals you never forget. It was a run of at least seventy metres parallel with the touchline, pursued all the way by six Skunks racing back in desperation. By the time he reached the right edge of the penalty area it was six defenders against four attackers. So he turned inside and followed the outer line of the area; bemused, their big-haired centre back obligingly fell on his arse, which meant the youngster could angle out left, switch feet, then blister an unstoppable left-footer high into the net. It was quite, quite magnificent. Up there in the away section fans had screamed, "Pass the fuckn ball! Pass the fuckn thing!" with his every second stride. I am pleased to say he ignored them all. Of such single-mindedness are great players made.
A few minutes later another good move down the right ended with Deulofeu double-stepping-fandangoing their defender into the penalty area until the poor guy nearly disappeared inside his own jockstrap. But instead of squaring it to three waiting Royal Blues in the centre he opted for a ground cross shot that whistled past the far post by less than a metre. All it needed was a touch. No matter, five or so minutes after half time we got a second anyway.
Newcastle had restarted reasonably brightly and had us on the back foot at the time. And then were caught with yet another superb quickfire counter-attack. They attacked down their left but could make nothing of it and McCarthy and Barry broke it up without too much trouble. Then Barry passed it forward centre right to Osman who did an interchange with Lukaku in the centre circle before dropping a magical long range air pass out right to an advancing Deulofeu. Without breaking stride he killed it and knocked it forward without losing impetus. Try it yourself and see if you can do it without the ball ending up in the next street. The mood Deulofeu was in meant it all went exactly the way he wanted. Once again he was on an inward angled run chased by a hapless defender. Just before the tackle arrived he hit a hard ground cross to the right edge of the goal area where it was met by Lukaku's sprint from the centre circle and that made it 2-0. Again, brilliant.
With nothing to lose the enemy had perhaps their best spell of the match. First, a centre right mid attack started when their man dispossessed Osman and raced forward, but ended with a hasty long range hard shot that went straight at Tim Howard and thence to safety. Then their substitute Ben Arfa - sounds like an East End second hand car salesman, superb footballer though - weaved circles around Gareth Barry and Seamus Coleman at our right goal line before squaring it for a tap in. The recipient was the unfortunately named Anita, who snatched at it as though he is an Anita and it went out. Relief all round. Leak one then and we might have been in for a nervy if heroic last stand. Understandably, it seemed to finally knock the stuffing out of Newcastle, though they had another (missed) header half chance shortly afterward.
The final nail was hammered home with a little over five minutes left when their centre left midfielder hit a pass straight to McCarthy, our right side of the centre circle. Bad move. It was immediately played forward to substitute Naismith, who knocked it over the same midfielder and went round him as though he was a wisp of fog, ran centre right mid for maybe five metres, then angled it across to Deulofeu wide left at the edge of the penalty area. He caressed the ball with the sole of his boot for a few seconds before rolling it backwards into the centre to Lukaku, a turn right through 360° before laying it right to Leon Osman......and he smashed it home.
Game shot, though there was still time for Deulofeu - they must have been sick of the sight of him by this time - to break down the left, close in to the left angle of the goal area, and smack in another cross-cum-shot that should have been turned in but wasn't.
All told, it was the kind of result and performance we had hoped for, even bearing in mind the opponent. That made it four wins in a row......Now can we dare to dream?