1. Northern Exposure
Over the last 18 months or so, only Newcastle United can match West Ham for the sheer volume of negative press cuttings written about them. However, there is a distinction: whereas we were unjustly rebuked for commendably giving two young, disadvantaged Argentinean street urchins the chance of a better life, Newcastle have allowed their deluded self-regard to get them into all sorts of trouble.
Current owner Mike Ashley’s recent announcement that he is willing to sell up is just the latest episode in a long litany of disruptive happenings on Tyneside. The rational and even-handed Toon Army only had a few minor differences with Ashley: that he was from London, that he was unwilling to sacrifice his entire self-made fortune in pursuit of a mirage and that he was neither Kevin Keegan nor Alan Shearer.
Since the turn of the century, Newcastle have conducted themselves with all the composure of an epileptic break-dancer stuck at a set of traffic lights, their all-too-public dealings sufficiently farcical to make even ourselves look as if we’re run by a bunch of fiscally prudent Mormons.
As things currently stand, Newcastle are once again trying to find themselves both a manager and a buyer and can have no real qualms if they experience trouble acquiring either. Without any help, this well supported and largest football outpost of the North East has become the poisoned chalice of the domestic game.
2. Who Lives In A House Like This?
If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be? Manhattan’s Lower East Side? By the beach in the Maldives? Among the untamed jungles of South America, perhaps?
For me, there’s only one place – inside Kevin Keegan’s head.
From what I gather, the interior of Keegan’s cranium constitutes a fantastical world of flight and whimsy, the breeding ground and nursery of the most unrealistic scenarios imaginable, a place where the most outlandish requests soar across marmalade skies.
Before the most recent of his many departures, King Kev thought it wholly reasonable to demand that his paymasters fork out whatever cash necessary to buy Frank Lampard, Thierry Henry and David Beckham.
Amazing. You’ve got to admire his resolute belief in the utterly illusionary, if not his tactical shortcomings or questionable coiffeur history.
Now just because you want something really badly, it doesn’t mean that (a) you’ll get it and more importantly (b) you’re entitled to it. The sooner that Newcastle United and all their followers realise this, the sooner they’ll come to terms with the fact that they’re nothing more than an average Premiership outfit and not in fact destined to frequent the upper regions of the league with which they flirted so briefly in the mid-90’s.
A case in point - “I would love it, love it” if I were an integral member of CHiPs, but I’m more contented having slowly begun to realise that the chances of this are now only hovering at around 40%.
3. Little Big Man
I struggled to aptly incorporate the word ‘Zola’ in the title for this section, having spurned Ms. Beluga’s valiant suggestion of ‘Let’s Not All Get Extinct Like The Zola Bears’, (firstly ‘Zola (read ‘Polar’) Bears’ are alive and well and secondly, there’s no suggestion that Upton Park will this weekend be the scene of a genocide, unless Lucas Neill has missed lunch).
Anyway, Saturday sees new manager Gianfranco Zola’s first proper game in charge having taken the reins on Monday after seeing his new charges throw away a goal advantage at West Brom.
In past previews it has been possible to have a fair inkling as to the approaching game’s formation, personnel and tactics (4-5-1 at home, Scott Parker x11 and guarded restraint). This Saturday is a more complex affair for obvious reasons.
Zola has highlighted general fitness levels as his main area of concern, having witnessed his side fade in the final 20-minutes at The Hawthorns. It is strange that something so immediately apparent to Zola went largely unnoticed by Curbishley. Curbs no doubt felt the spotlight of Neill’s voracious eyes burning into his back many times, unwilling to deny the big Aussie that fifth pie.
One would assume that the starting XI would remain largely the same, albeit minus Dean Ashton who is predictably out for a few weeks having turned on his ankle whilst bending down to pick up some shortbread.
His absence and that of eternal truant Craig Bellamy underlines the fragility of our main attacking options. For all his endeavour, Carlton Cole isn’t going to get us 20-goals a season.
Formation will surely be the standard 4-4-2 affair and one would expect that, in his first game at home, Zola will be intent on attack from the outset. Steve Clarke’s recent arrival as first team coach also gives hope that our defenders have not spent this week getting carried away with the new manager’s ethos by practicing volleys.
We are currently the proud/baffled guardians of the only 100% home record in the league, although this dubious accolade masks the reality that we are yet to keep a clean sheet at home since last season’s last minute 1-0 win over Liverpool - a stretch of seventeen games.
In the absence of George McCartney and Anton Ferdinand, it will be interesting to see what the back four line-up is and whether the promising James Tomkins can force away in to form a potentially sturdy centreback pairing of himself and Matthew Upson.
Another question mark is whether Herita Ilunga or Wally Lopez will get a regular spot thanks to the advantage of being genuine attacking full-backs in comparison to Valon Behrami (more of a midfielder cast adrift) and Lucas Neill (not really movable).
One hopes that Gianfranco has a few surprises up his sleeve, be it tactically or in terms of team selection, if only to keep the players on their toes, but I think it will also send the right message to the fans that this truly is the start of something new.
Lastly, what with the recent managerial goings on at both clubs, I would like to think that this fixture will feature prominently on Match Of The Day in a change to our traditional post-midnight slot.
The tea ladies at Chadwell Heath have been rushed off their feet this week, frantically sewing on patches of ever so slightly off-colour ‘claret’ material onto first team shirts in order to cover the recently defunct XL logo.
The sale of replica kits on the club website has been suspended and it remains to be seen whether they will return only with the announcement of a new sponsorship deal or logo-free.
Some think it would be a bit cheeky to sell the kit anew now that many of us have forked out £40 or more on the sponsored version, but I think more than a few would be interested in buying the increasingly rare sight of an untainted football shirt.
I’d probably get another one myself were they to be reissued unsoiled by ‘Poundstretcher’, ‘Tangy Toms’ or my bet, ‘Lehman Brothers’.
Addendum: since this segment was written, an online petition has sprung up asking for people to sign an appeal in support of The Bobby Moore Fund cancer charity becoming this season’s official sponsor in light of XL’s demise - in much the same way as Barcelona are sponsored by UNICEF. I would urge all those who have not already done so to click on the link blow and add their name to this worthy cause:
5. The Opposition
It doesn’t really matter what team Newcastle field this weekend as none of them must know what they’re doing at the moment.
Newcastle traditionally have a shambolic defence coupled with an adventurous attack and our similar qualities produced an entertaining 2-2 draw in the same fixture last season. Unsurprisingly, we squandered a two-goal lead.
We haven’t managed to beat Newcastle since a 3-0 win in September of 2001, having drawn four and lost five of our last nine encounters. Everyone knows that Shay Given is a consistently fine ‘keeper, but come on, this is Newcastle.
Michael Owen is always a threat, although less so nowadays and particularly when played in the hole behind the strikers as he has been of late, which negates his favoured goal-poaching tactic.
Formerly one of world football’s most effective attacking threats, Owen has been so injury-ravaged that he deserves a place in our treatment room. It appears that over the last five or so years, his bottom half has metamorphosed from lightening quick, pin-sharp striker to flaccid sea kelp.
For the last couple of seasons, Obafemi Martins has been Newcastle’s most potent attacking threat, but thankfully he is out injured and a doubt for tomorrow.
Joey Barton should be in prison.
6. Speaking of Convicted Criminals
Well look who it is.
Never one to miss an opportunity to stick the knife in, the odious Dave Whelan has piped up again this week to give us his opinion on the current Newcastle fiasco. According to the repellent little man, Mike Ashley is getting all he "deserves" for not being "100% Geordie”.
Despite my belief that Ashley has done little wrong bar try and prudently stabilise a club that was on the financial precipice prior to his investment, even if you were the most ardent Geordie who believes his conduct has been shocking, the last thing anyone wants is to hear it from Whelan.
I don’t mind Newcastle as they are largely irrelevant, but what I can’t abide is the regular assertion that they are somehow better supported than nearly any other club or, as Whelan puts it, "a different kettle of fish to most in the land".
Different in terms of wildly unrealistic expectations most definitely, different in terms of being an actual football club as opposed to say, Wigan, sure - but to insinuate that they would rally to the banner more than a Liverpool, Rangers, West Ham, Everton, Celtic or Manchester City is one of the greatest myths of the modern age.
(Yes, I’ve gone off message a little, but regular readers will be aware of my fondness for a Wigan-directed rant. Bare with me, the next part is staggering.)
It appears even I have underestimated both the cataclysmic effect and range of Steve Bruce’s Angular Hooter TM, although Dave Whelan’s regular proximity to his craggy-faced manager can not be discounted.
"Sooner or later one of the Big Four clubs will come for Steve, I realise that and I think the whole country realises he is one of the best four managers in the world."
In the world?! The world??
Had he said ‘one of the best four managers in the country', we all would’ve fallen about laughing.
Even 'one of the top ten managers in Lancashire' would’ve raised an eyebrow.
Only‘one of the best four managers in the Wigan area with the ability to refract light with his chaotic snout' would’ve caused us all to say 'he's got a point'.