Jul 10, 2012

Killing Honour: Lessons from the Managerial Merry-Go-Round

The Premier League close season managerial changes have so far been more noteworthy than any player moves. The immediate post-season sackings of Kenny Dalglish and Alex McLeish from Liverpool and Villa respectively were hardly shocking. They did however kick off a chain of moves which say a lot about those concerned and the clubs involved. McLeish’s P45 in particular was not only the most predictable tax office filing of the year, but also had specific interest for Newcastle fans. His immediate replacement at Villa, Paul Lambert, was himself replaced at Norwich by Chris Hughton, possibly the unluckiest managerial sacking at Newcastle ever. Hughton in turn was replaced at Birmingham by ex-Newcastle midfielder Lee Clark, also unfortunate to be sacked by Huddersfield. Kenny Dalglish had spent the season defending the indefensible in terms of both behaviour and performance. When he was summoned to meet with Liverpool’s American owner immediately after the close of the season it was possibly the least appreciated Atlantic Crossing since my last visit to a second hand record store. The transatlantic boot having been applied to his behind, a recruitment process took place which appeared from the outside to be anything but planned. Swansea’s Brendan Rogers had initially passed up the chance to speak to Liverpool without having been shortlisted first but eventually took over when other avenues led nowhere.

Lambert forced through his move when Norwich tried to rebuff Villa. Remember this was only a few days after publicly ordering Grant Holt to stay when the striker requested a transfer. Loyalty appears to be a one-way street for Lambert, something he demands from everyone around him while keeping an eye out for the main chance on his own behalf. After a difficult start to life as a manager at Livingston, Wycombe took a chance on him. After catching the eye there with a cup run he left after less than two years to move up a division to  League One Colchester. Less than a year later he moved again to Norwich. Following two successive promotions and an impressive first Premier League season Villa came calling. His record so far has been undeniably good, but he runs the risk of becoming another Steve Bruce. Bruce blazed a trail through the lower divisions, taking advantage of a reputation as an up-and-coming talent to swap clubs repeatedly when he perceived there to be advantage in it. The downside for him is that now his reputation has taken a few blows, many clubs are wary of taking on someone who will be off somewhere richer or more glamourous at the first hint of success. What is the benefit of taking a chance on someone who either fails or leaves immediately he attracts attention? While Lambert continues to impress he won’t care, but he should be wary of moving on too soon without achievement.

Whelan: stubborn

The most interesting thing about the whole set of moves was the reaction of clubs to their manager being approached. Swansea and their chairman were lauded for being ‘classy’, in standing aside and allowing Rogers to up sticks when the mood took Liverpool to ask him. Contrast that with Wigan’s Dave Whelan, widely derided as the nightmare chairman to end them all, who argued, refused to give in, and generally made life anything but easy for both Liverpool and Villa when they were reported to be interested in his manager Roberto Martinez. Look what happened to the managers of those clubs. The annoying embarrassment of a chairman retained the services of his manager, the respected honourable man of his word lost those of his.

Which of Swansea’s and Wigan’s fans do you think were happier? I know which type of chairman and owner I’d rather have in charge at my club, and I know which we’ve got at Newcastle in Mike Ashley and Derek Llambias. I won’t go over ancient history but we all know mistakes were made, mistakes which prevent some, many even, from ever approving of their tenure. Even those who refuse to give credit for successes of the Ashley regime such as the improved financial situation must surely recognise that those in charge of the club drive a hard bargain, whether buying or selling. They might say that Ashley only acts as if he’s spending his own money because he is spending his own money, but either way that cussed refusal to do anyone else a favour acts in the interest of our club. The job of an owner or chairman is not to curry favour with fans of other clubs. Another season like last would mean someone showing interest in Alan Pardew, but it’s a certainty that only after kicking and screaming by the club would he be prised away, and that is something I have no difficulty in approving of.


Author: Mark Brophy

Website: http://markbrophy.wordpress.com/ for a back catalogue of Mark’s writing.

Follow Mark on Twitter @mark_brophy

Jul 3, 2012

KK on canvas!

With Euro 2012 now but a memory, we once again find ourselves entrapped in the baron wasteland that is ‘no football’.  Pickings are usually slim for topics around this time of year (unless of course you consider dealing with transfer rumours as anything other than a complete waste of time), however this week a very splendid piece of artwork has came to our attention which we’d like to share with you.

Amsterdam based artists The London Police recently paid a visit to our fair city, teaming up with local gallery Unit-44 for a special release – produce a piece incorporating  all things Newcastle – a substantial part of which is obviously the football…

Recognise this cheeky chap? Of course you do.  KK adorns one corner of the piece delightfully entitled ‘The Circle Of Truth Just After A Toby Carvery Hovering Above Newcastle‘ – along with the likes of Brian Johnson, Lord Armstrong and all the landmarks you’d expect to be associated with the city.

The original canvas (above) is currently hanging at Unit-44 gallery in Hoults Yard, Byker – that’s available for the sum £3,333, but for the more financially conservative (no political reference intended…) limited edition prints are available for £44.   The gallery also holds further work by the artist, which can be found here.

To paraphrase KK himself, I ‘love it…’

Jun 6, 2012

Leavers: 2012

On Friday the first of June, the Premier League released two fairly mundane looking lists.  Usually such a release would be met with little interest, however, these lists contained a comprehensive statement for every player released or retained by every team who competed in the 2011/12 Premier League season.  

Players of substantial reputation were contained within -  such as Manuel Almunia, Dider Drogba, Ledley King and Vince Grella, as tightening budgets have turned clubs ruthless.  Of course, Newcastle were no different, and in fact in releasing 11 players from their registered squad only Queens Park Rangers and Bolton have shed more from their respective squads.  As is a common occurrence, most of the departed are made up by youngsters who failed to make the grade in ability and / or attitude – such as Tamas Kadar who has done so to great disappointment.  However, there were a few notable seniors joining them who have featured extensively in the first team squad over past few seasons.

Danny Sean Guthrie

Easily the most disappointing of all the departures, this season Guthrie appeared to have finally found the perfect position to harness his natural talent for creative passing.  From his arrival from Liverpool in 2008, Guthrie always looked comfortable on the ball, however a lack of athleticism for a competitive Premier League midfield battle and a drastic lack of intelligent runs in front of him (no surprise with Obafemi Martins) saw him struggle to gain consistency, and was part of the relegated team in his first season.

Like only a few other hardy souls, Guthrie opted to stay after our demotion and flourished in the Championship with crucial extra seconds on the ball.  The signing of Checik Tiote and the re-emergence of Joey Barton saw Guthrie’s chances limited after our instant promotion, only managing 15 appearances after playing practically the entire season previous.

A similar theme continued for Danny after the signing of Yohan Cabaye – however, after injury, suspension and midfield departures created spaces in the midfield, Guthrie seized his opportunity and looked excellent in a deeper role, showing a superb range of positive, attacking passes. But the absence of key players was short lived, and when Guthrie was dropped to the bench to accommodate Cabaye (returning from suspension) it seemed pivotal in him deciding his future lay elsewhere.  Indeed, the writing was on the wall when Alan Pardew stated in his late season radio interview ‘I’ve told Danny if he wants first team football he’ll have to look elsewhere’.

Guthrie’s decision to leave does seem slightly strange given our European involvement next season will open up a host of opportunities for him to play more regularly – not to mention an opportunity for him to play abroad.  But as he looks to establish himself as a Premier League player, it’s hard to blame him for looking for a club where he’ll be a first team regular.  Personally, I only hope he opts for a club which can both match his ability in league position, and play him to his strengths – Danny Murphy’s departure from Fulham creating what looks like a perfect opening for him, if it is indeed available.

All in all, Guthrie has proved a very handy squad player to have and performed with great professionalism despite occasionally being on the end of some heavy handed groans.  We here, simply wish him all the best for the future.

The veterans

Elder statesmen Peter Lovenkrands and Alan Smith also followed Guthrie out of the door after new deals were not offered to the pair.  Being no more than squad players at the ages of 32 and 31 years old respectively, their departures were widely expected – Smith in particular having no way back here with the burden of his reputed £60k of week contract hanging heavy on the club’s wage bill.

Smith was brought in under the first, and thankfully only, splurge of the Sam Allardcye / Freddy Shepherd nightmare combo – moving from Manchester United where he had fell out of favour but retaining a generous remuneration in his shift.  Smith always looking willing, as you would expect, but the horrific leg break he sustained when at his previous club had clearly taken the edge of a player who had looked very promising at an young age.  Smith played an important role in the Championship winning team of 09/10 – his finest moment in Black and White shirt arguably coming in a 1-0 away to Cardiff where he threw himself in front of attack after attack.  But upon promotion Smith was quickly replaced by the far superior Cheick Tiote and his involvement drastically diminished.

Overall, Smith shouldn’t be viewed in the same light as the likes of Owen and Viduka, having always tried his best, even if his best was no longer up to a sufficient standard.  But the huge imbalance between wage output and playing contribution is hard to ignore, as is the fact that his 85 appearances failed to produce a single goal – and as such Smith sadly leaves having effectively been a failed signing.  Nevertheless, we hope he can at least see out his playing days to greater effect at a lower level.

Peter Lovenkrands on the other hand leaves Newcastle having been a greatly effective stop-gap addition.  Although his three goals in 12 in his first stint wasn’t enough to prevent relegation, his 13 goals in the following Championship season were a huge boost in our run to the title.  In particular, his equaliser in the pivotal league fixture against West Brom that season, just days after his father had passed away was as a crucial an act as it was selfless – something which I for one will not forget.

The Dane struggled in his return to the Premier League, with his infamous pace having long since been diluted.  However, having maintained a good level of fitness and adapting his game effectively to his striker’s role, Peter managed another seven goals, followed by three in a far less involved season afterwards.  In the end, 22 goals in 75 games is far from a shabby return for a man who has predominantly been a squad player – and only impresses more when remembering he was signed (twice) on a free (once from Germany, once from nobody…).  An excellent character, and a man who should always be welcome on Tyneside – if he chooses to continue his career we can only wish him the best.

A few notes on the retained…

As mentioned earlier, a retained list was also submitted to complete formalities.  Although that list was far more, shall we say obvious, than the other list (“Ameobi, Foluwashola – retained”) there was a couple of interesting points.  Contract offers are still active to highly rated youngsters James Tavernier and Michael Richardson, and to the-not-so-highly-rated Brad Inman, Connor Newton and Paul Dummett.

An offer to Tavernier is unsurprising, with the Yorkshire born full-back having made excellent progress over the last two seasons.  However, it has come at a slight surprise (as you may have guessed) that messrs Inman, Newton and Dummett have survived the cut where so many have not.  We can only presume their inclusion will see them more involved in first team activities over the next season – otherwise things are a little unclear as far as they go.  We can only wait and see…


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Jun 5, 2012

2011/12 Season Review part 3: The Opposition

Yaya Toure

This is the third and final part of our end of season review, reflecting on everything Newcastle United in the 2011/12 season. We end the trilogy with a review of the opposition:


Best opposition

RD and Smith: Manchester City.  This could perhaps be seen as an easy choice, but as far as opposition go (particularly at St James’ Park) the eventual Champions were simply incomparable in ability, organisation and work-rate.  The biggest shame for City’s plaudits was only winning the title on goal difference, despite being vastly superior to their illustrious neighbours: “United” a shadow of their previous self in both fixtures this season.

Of course, the timing of when Newcastle played the Citizens this season will have helped facilitate this view, but Man City are no less worthy having looked every bit as impressive when observed in their other fixtures.  The only sour point of note was the involvement of Carlos Tevez after going AWOL – yes, refusing his return could have cost City the Premier League title, but from an outsider’s perspective it’s hard to find affection for such a man.  Nevertheless, for one Tevez there was an array of admirable players and performers – such as the influential, model professional Vincent Kompany and the colossus Yaya Toure – players who are a delight to watch even when they are upstaging your own in the process.

Opinion isn’t exactly unanimous on whether City’s surge to their current lofty position by way of financial doping is good for the English game (personally thinking it’s more detrimental to the progress of the likes of Newcastle) but it the sheer footballing ability and professionalism Manchester City possess cannot be overlooked, and should not be overlooked.  Simply a brilliant footballing outfit.


Worst opposition

Newcastle vs BlackburnRD: Blackburn Rovers. One of just 3 sides that we took maximum points from, in the company of Bolton and Stoke, Blackburn edge it as the worst opposition that we have faced this season. Not just because of the aforementioned 6 points that we picked up from them, but more so because of their lack of quality and, criminally, their lack of application.

In the fixture at St James’ Park, we were 2-0 up within half an hour as Blackburn were hopelessly outclassed. On 64 minutes, Martin Olsson was dismissed for a second yellow card (remember that lack of application?), and we eased to a 3-1 victory. In truth, with 21 shots to Blackburn’s 3, it could have been a much higher score line. In the return fixture at Ewood, Rovers put up more of a fight, but ultimately lacked the quality to get on the score sheet in a 0-2 defeat, even failing to convert a penalty with the score at 0-1. Lacking consistency and an effective manager in the hapless Steve Kean, it was of little surprise to see Blackburn relegated in the final weeks of the season.

'Another possession victory'

Smith: Likely to be received as a surprise choice to most, Swansea were in my opinion the worst opposition faced this season, simply due to the sterile football served up in both fixtures.  As QPR’s fans sang to them “it’s just like watching paint dry”, Swansea are the only team I’ve known who will see the game out for you if you’re winning with a string of sideways and backwards passes – as they graciously did when we played them at the Liberty Stadium. 77% possession – 0% goals.

‘Sterile domination’ probably the best description I’ve heard of their football – a bluntly honest statement in a footballing world who’s slightly bizarre fixation with debatable possession stats has seen Swansea elevated to a team who apparently ‘play the right way’ (presumably with the only alternative being for a team to hoof and rush).  It remains to be seen whether much will change in their play after Brenden Rogers’ departure to Liverpool, taking key back room staff in the process – here’s hoping for just a little more positivity…


Best opposition player

Emmanuel AdebayorRD: Emmanuel Adebayor. Although we didn’t exactly do ourselves any favours with our overzealous attacking approach and defensive play, Tottenham’s on-loan striker Emmanuel Adebayor was simply unplayable as he helped his side to a 5-0 victory at White Hart Lane.

Adebayor’s all-round forward play was impressive, but it was his intelligent movement that stood out in particular as he regularly drifted to the right to find space and link up with Kyle Walker and Niko Kranjcar. He was involved in everything good that came from Spurs and played a part in all 5 goals with 4 assists in the first half alone, 2 of which originated from his taking up of that position on the right. Adebayor then deservedly scored a goal of his own in the second half to cap a memorable performance. 4 assists and 1 goal; quantity and quality.

Smith: Yaya Toure – narrowly edging it over his exceptional team-mate Vincent Kompany.  The younger Toure was a colossus in the Champions 2-0 win at St James – simply the difference between a very good side and a Championship wining side. He dominated Cabaye when playing in his more regular deep midfield role, and then Tiote when moved forward, as City pushed to win the game.  And indeed it was Toure who won the game for them, almost single handedly, scoring twice and dictating play for the opposition. Newcastle gave a very good account of themselves that day, but titles are won and lost by performances like Toure’s, and in my view it was a performance completely worthy of a champion.


Worst opposition player

Elmohamady

Elmohamady: productive.

RD: Ahmed Elmohamady. The man nicknamed ‘Elmo’, put in a performance worthy of his muppet namesake in our 1-0 victory over Sunderland at the Stadium of Light. Deployed on the right of Sunderland’s midfield, Elmohamady’s task was presumably to use his pace to unsettle the out-of-position Ryan Taylor at left back. Yet, for all that Raylor performed his defensive duties admirably, Elmohamady was of little threat and lacked any semblance of quality in the final third. Having pace is one thing, knowing how to use it effectively and consistently is another and therein appears to lie Elmohamady’s failings. Unsurprisingly, he is yet to start a game since Bruce departed and the party with Marty began.

Smith: Anthony Modeste – Blackburn (A). Presumably one from the Dennis Wise school of player scouting.  On first viewing, Modeste ‘looks’ to have the makings of a fearsome striker –the wide shoulders topping his 6ft 1inch athletic frame suggest a pacey, powerful, dominating front man.  And it couldn’t be any further from the truth.  Modeste was woefully ineffective in our sloppy win against Rovers at Ewood Park in January – failing to capitalise on an array of slack play, including missing what was to all purposes an open goal after a dreadful Krul clearance.

It’s comfortable to say with some half decent forward play that night we probably wouldn’t have left Ewood with all three points, let alone a clean sheet – but with the likes of Modeste in the ranks it’s little wonder Blackburn were eventually relegated.  Having only been on loan from Bordeaux – it’s unlikely we’ll see Modeste plying his trade in England again.  Unless of course he takes up a trade more suited to him than football…


Best opposition manager

Roberto ManciniRD: Only one side managed to record a home and away double over us in the season just gone: Roberto Mancini’s Manchester City. Both Newcastle and City went into the meeting at the Eastlands in November unbeaten. Mancini gave his two wingers – Samir Nasri and James Milner – nomadic license to cut infield, helping to provide another option in central midfield and creating space for the full backs – Gael Clichy and Micah Richards – to push forward. Richards made the difference, winning a penalty and scoring a goal as City went on to win 3-1. A tactical victory for Mancini; however, it was at St James’ in the penultimate game of the season when his tactical nous really prevailed.

With the score at 0-0 and Newcastle providing sturdy opposition, Mancini withdrew Nasri for holding midfielder Nigel De Jong. With De Jong taking up his place alongside Gareth Barry, this allowed Yaya Toure to play in a more advanced position off Sergio Aguero and proved to be an inspired move by Mancini. Freed of his midfield responsibility, Toure opened the scoring 10 minutes later and scored again to seal a 2-0 win with only minutes remaining to all but secure City their first title in 44 years.

Smith: Although tempted to agree with my counterpart on this one, I’ve opted for the since departed Norwich manager Paul Lambert.  While his tika taka infatuated, newly promoted counterpart Brendan Rogers was elevated to near genius status by the media, Lambert guided his equally ill-experienced squad of lower league purchased success stories to an impressive final position of 12th place in the Premier League (two points more than ‘established’ ‘top ten contenders’ Sunderland, I must add).

What impressed me mostly about Lambert is his ability to identify critical weakness in an opposition and change his team’s strategy to exploit that weakness.  Our 4-2 loss at Carrow Road was perhaps an example which doesn’t do the extent of his success justice – with Norwich far more impressive in their narrow 1-0 loss at St James’ Park, strangling Newcastle’s play through an industrious five man midfield and looking positively to create their own chances when in possession.

His move to Aston Villa is on paper a sensible one – a natural progression at the perfect time when establishing Norwich as a stable Premier League team would take years of hard work.  However, it is Aston Villa and although we try to remain as objective as possible in our opinions I can’t extend my best wishes to him on this occasion.  Regardless, Lambert looks to have all the attributes to be a top class manager, and on his newly elevated platform could very well prove that sooner rather than later.


Worst opposition manager

RD: Tony Pulis.

Tony PulisHis guidance in simplistically but effectively undoing NUFC on two occasions was as equally frustrating as it was admirable“.

That was our verdict of Tony Pulis, through gritted teeth, last season as we suggested him for best opposition manager. This season, however, Pulis has been tactically out-thought by Alan Pardew in both meetings between Newcastle and his Stoke side and has watched his side comfortably beaten – 3-1 and 3-0 – on both occasions. Of course, this isn’t playing down the superb performances put in by Pardew’s men, but Pulis showed little in the way of a plan B when his team’s direct approach failed to pay off.

Smith: Kenny Dalglish.  In short – his management in the fixture at St James could only be described as clueless. From the off, his rigid front three struggled to really cause Newcastle problems relying mainly on the efforts of Andy Carroll for a spearhead, only to substitute Carroll despite his efforts and laying him open to a torrent of jeers in the process. Dalglish was also instructed off the field by his team captain whilst remonstrating, and paid so little attention to his own changes ordered substitute ‘keeper Doni to get stripped to fill in for the dismissed Pepe Reina, despite having already made his three substitutions.

After the game, our former gaffer could have praised the purring Newcastle side which had outplayed his, but instead chose to mumble moans at the officials for poor decisions, in particular saying anyone who didn’t see Danny Simpon’s ‘handball’ would need to “go to Vision Express” – despite himself making no appeal at the time…

Dalglish’s handling of the Suarez incidents (take your pick) only further built a just reputation of a grumpy, delusional old man to further alienate him from the rest of the footballing world – ironically taking a large amount of attention away from his inferior tactical and strategy decisions.  He may have been a legend off the field, but I hope to see little of him again involved in football off it.


Opposition goal of the season

Yaya 1st goalRD: For the importance of the goal and the sheer composure of the finish, I’m going for Yaya Toure’s 1st in the home defeat to Manchester City. As mentioned above, the younger of the Toure brothers had been pushed into a more advanced position by this point, as City looked to break the deadlock, and his opening goal was one of  calm and class.

With 20 minutes to go, Toure received the ball from Nigel De Jong 25 yards from Tim Krul’s goal. A quick one-two with Sergio Aguero allowed him to lose his marker – Yohan Cabaye – and get into a more central area. Receiving Aguero’s return pass on the edge of Newcastle’s penalty area, and with Coloccini closing him down, Toure stepped up to the ball and confidently curled a powerful shot with the inside of the right foot, low into the corner of Tim Krul’s net. Unstoppable.

Smith: Franco Di Santo – Wigan (A).  An unlikely source for a goal of stature from an opposition player, Di Santo’s goal was as admirable as it was hard to take in our 4-0 reverse at the Dave Whelan (Dave Whelan, everyone) Stadium.  Only Di Santo’s sixth goal from a paltry seven all season, the young Argentine took the ball centrally on the field and roughly 25 yards from goal, ignored the attention of the onrushing Tiote by talking a deft touch then side-footing a beautifully controlled shot at an angle over a helpless Tim Krul.

Everything Wigan hit in that first half went in as we were blown away by their vastly superior passing and movement – Di Santo’s goal personified a brilliant half of football from Wigan and a minor disaster for Newcastle.  Credit also goes to Steven Piennar’s similar long distance strike on the final day and Junior Hoillet’s rocket into the Gallowgate end in the first our four fixtures against Blackburn.


Part 3 concludes our review of the 2011/12 season – a season which has been as thoroughly enjoable to watch as it has to have been part of.  Here’s to the future!

In the mean time, if you want our instant news and (kneejerk) reaction to anything Newcastle United or football related then follow us on Twitter: http://twitter.com/leazesterrace or on Facebook: www.facebook.com/leazesterrace

May 31, 2012

2011/12 Season Review part 2: The Players

Cisse and Ba

This end of season review is part 2 of 3 and will reflect on everything Newcastle United in the 2011/12 season. Unlike some, we decided to wait until the season was complete before conducting our post-mortem. We continue our review with the players:


Player of the season

Tim Krul player of the seasonRD and Smith: We naturally start with the big one, and after a season like Newcastle have had it’s difficult to quickly pinpoint any one player as the catalyst for our success.  But after much deliberation, we both agreed upon Tim Krul. The young Dutchman has had a storming first full season for Newcastle, and we feel he has performed at an extremely high level, more consistently than any other player this season – saving us countless points (well beyond the 10 Alan Pardew predicted pre-season), ending the season with an impressive 15 clean sheets to his name.

Credit also goes to Alan Pardew – firstly for having the strength of conviction to make and state Krul as his number one for the season, rightly ignoring the sentiment bound to the loyal but aged Steve Harper, and secondly giving Krul the confidence to rise up to the role.

With Maarten Stekelenburg struggling for fitness, Krul looks set to be first choice for The Netherlands in this summer’s European Championships, and should that campaign prove successful, Krul has all the potential to be both Newcastle and Dutch number one for years to come. He’s a superb professional with the world at his feet, and all of it in a Newcastle shirt – here’s to the future!

Note: credit also goes to Fabricio Coloccini and Jonas Gutierrez – two model professionals who have performed excellently all season and only miss out for the individual contribution of Krul.


Goal of the season

RD: Papiss Cisse 2nd vs Chelsea (a). There were so many superb goals scored by Newcastle players this season that you could easily fill a top 10 list. But for the sheer audacity and uniqueness of Cisse’s 2nd in the 2-0 win at Chelsea, I can’t look past it. In fact, I must have looked at it over 100 times by now. On the night it was scored, I sat in front of my laptop at midnight just staring at a GIF of the goal on loop for about 20 minutes. Like Demba Ba after Ramadan, I just couldn’t get enough.

To hit a shot from that angle, with the outside of the foot, and to lob Peter Cech who was practically on his line at the time, takes some beating. It had it all – pace, power, spin, accuracy. Magnificent. I’ve seen a few try to dismiss it as a fluke or that Cisse was trying to put the ball out of play to waste time, with the latest hilarious reasoning being that ‘anyone could have done it’. No, Cisse knew what he was doing and there was a reason why he received the Barclays, Match of the Day, and Sky Sports goal of the season awards. An unforgettable goal, like Alan Shearer’s volley vs Everton, that was set up by Shola Ameobi.

Here’s the goal of the season described by pundit of the season, Gary Neville:

Smith: A near impossible task given the quality of goals on show – from individual shots, to individual skill to team goals. But for me, Hatem Ben Arfa’s piece of individual genius against Blackburn in the FA cup was a simply astonishing goal – a goal only a rare few players are capable of.

Picking the ball up just past the centre circle, towards the dug-outs, Hatem was instantly under pressure, having his shirt tugged by Pederson. He quickly broke free, skipping a sliding challenge from Givet and breezing past Formica to the corner of the 18 yard box. He then feinted to cut inside Martin Olsson, only to head straight for the goal-line sandwiched between two Blackburn defenders. Space was running out, but with a lightening twist he was free – rifling a shot over the well placed Robinson from the edge of the 6 yard box.

The ball hit the back of the net with no less than three Blackburn players on the floor, with another two standing completely shell shocked at the improbability of what had just happened. It’s fleeting appearance on ITV’s FA cup coverage was nothing short of scandalous – meaning the goal will be largely lost to the mainstream, living on mainly through Youtube and personal recollection. A great shame for it’s probably the best goal I’ve personally witnessed in my lifetime.

Here it is, viewed in the only way it’s possible to properly digest it – in slow motion!


Assist of the season

RD: I’m tempted to agree with Smith on his choice – a perfectly weighted pass that the majority would have been unable to see, let alone complete – but, as I’m a sucker for a Trivela pass with the outside of the boot, my vote goes to the lesser spotted assist by Gabriel Obertan vs Nottingham Forest in the Carling Cup.

With the scores level at 3-3 and in the final minute of extra time, Obertan received the ball on the left of Forest’s penalty area; being predominantly right footed, he used the outside of said foot to delicately and accurately curl the ball to the back post for Coloccini to head the winner. Completely unexpected, given that Obertan’s delivery from the right has been mixed at best, but an excellent piece of ingenuity and technique from our Gallic winger nonetheless.

Smith: Cabaye’s assist for Cisse vs Stoke (h) gets my vote – an assist that simply got better on every subsequent viewing. His individual performance in that game was flawless, only being narrowly beaten for that award (more on that later), scoring twice to go with his assist. And it was that assist which was the diamond of that performance – a defence AND midfield splitting pass to create a chance simply out of nowhere.

Picking up the ball midway in the Stoke half, Cabaye was presented with a simple lay-off for the breaking Ben Arfa who had clear ground in front of him. Instead, the intelligent vision of Cabaye spotted Cisse making a run across the Stoke defensive line and opted to play a ball so perfectly positioned and weighted it almost defied belief. Simply – the world moved one way, whilst Cabaye passed the ball the other… absolutely superb.


Best individual performance of the season

Jonas vs StokeRD: Jonas Gutierrez vs Stoke (a). I was tempted to go with Danny Guthrie’s performance in the home fixture vs Chelsea – such was his range of accurate passing and control of the midfield area, by far the best game I’ve seen him play – however, Gutierrez’ selfless performance in the away game at Stoke set a tone for the fixture and indeed the season in terms of hard work, determination and putting the team first.

Gutierrez played almost as a second left back in front of the out-of-position Ryan Taylor at left back to double up on Jermaine Pennant, Stoke’s preferred attacking option on the night. Jonas sacrificed his own attacking ambitions and dropped deep whenever Stoke attacked on their right. He made 5 tackles and 2 interceptions, not bad for a left midfielder. Even on a night when Demba Ba scored a hat-trick, it was a stand-out man of the match performance by Spiderman. Gutierrez’ performance also didn’t go unnoticed by Gary Neville, on pundit duty for Sky Sports, who described it as one of the best individual performances he had seen up to that point in the season.

Smith: The nature of our season has meant the majority of wins have been attributed more to a team output rather than an individual to credit. However, Hatem Ben Arfa’s performance in the 3-1 away win at West Brom was as good as it got from any Newcastle player this season. Scoring once himself and assisting both others, Hatem was simply unplayable, being the fulcrum for all our attacking play – only being denied a further assist by the usually ruthless Papiss Cisse failing to score when 1 on 1 and another goal by a smart save from Ben Foster.

In my opinion, this was the first time we’ve seen what Ben Arfa is really capable of – rather than the very memorable but very brief flashes of brilliance shown previous. The first time his true potential has been harnessed in a Newcastle shirt and one which gave huge hope for the future.


Most improved player

James Perch

RD and Smith: James ‘Perchinho’ Perch.

“In his 6th game he managed to direct a bullet header into his own net to give Stoke the match-winner, capping a disastrous start to his Newcastle career.”

Those were the words we used to sum up the start of James Perch’s Newcastle career just last season. The turnaround he has made since then is testament to the character of the player that the fans now refer to affectionately as Perchinho.

Signed by Chris Hughton, Perch must have thought his short-lived days at Newcastle were numbered under Alan Pardew, as he travelled to Holland for pre-season with the reserves, rather than to the United States with Pardew and the first team. Yet, Perch didn’t make a fuss. He simply kept his head down, worked hard and looked to make the most of first team opportunities to come his way. And that he did: impressing, growing in confidence and improving with each game he played. A notable defensive performance against Didier Drogba, perhaps being the one which caught Pardew’s eye.

From looking like he was not going to feature for Newcastle this season, Perch played 25 games and has shown a willingness to fill in where the team needs him. Maybe not as technically gifted as some of his teammates, his determination and desire is second to none. Featuring at both full back positions, centre back and central midfield – and performing well in each – his versatility has been vital for the club this season. A sound tackler and reader of the game, the ever understated and reliable Perch has developed into a key member of this Newcastle squad.


Most disappointing player

Nile RangerRD: Nile Ranger. I hate to sound like a preacher, I mean, if I was on the type of money Ranger will be earning getting when I was in my late teens/early twenties, I’m sure I would have done some regrettable things (the drinking, not the law-breaking). He’s still a young lad, after all. But, I’m pretty sure I would have learned from the error of my ways by this point. That’s where the problem lies with Ranger, though: he’s made mistakes, big mistakes, but he doesn’t seem to learn from them and know when he’s on to a good thing.

He has gone from a promising youngster, on the edge of first team football, to making the grand total of 0 appearances for Newcastle this season. Farmed out on loan to Barnsley in the Championship and then Sheffield Wednesday in League One, Ranger’s stock has dropped considerably. And the sad fact is that the raw ability that brought him into first team contention is probably still there, it’s just a shame the attitude isn’t. It’s the same tired rhetoric when it comes to Ranger, unfortunately.

After scoring for Sheffield Wednesday to secure promotion, Ranger wore a t-shirt with the message ‘I am a changed man’. I would love it if this were the case and Ranger could turn his Newcastle career around; however, I think it’s one misdemeanour and attitude problem too far for the self proclaimed ‘gangster first, footballer second’.

Smith:  A player I had decent, if not very high, hopes for was Dan Gosling. The hope was he would recover from his various injury woes and slowly work back into being a useful squad player – perhaps mainly as an alternative/additional defensive midfielder. However, he’s struggled for fitness, which has made it impossible to gain any sort of reasonable match form which has abandoned him after such a long lay-off.

His dismissal in the away defeat at the hands of Norwich may have perhaps been a little harsh, but nevertheless epitomised how drastically he has struggled to regain Premier League pace. His contract does not expire until 2014, but it remains to be seen whether he will remain at St James’ – a loan move to the Championship could do him the world of good. Providing he stays fit, next season could be huge in the direction of his career.


Underused resource

Gabby ObertanRD and Smith: With resourcefulness being one of Alan Pardew’s many attributes, this question was one which we were almost unable to answer.  However, a big area of potential for both player and team arguably being overlooked is harnessing the awesome pace of Gabriel Obertan.

Firstly, a role as an impact sub when pinned back (particularly away from home) was used only once to great effect, with him registering his first goal for Newcastle against Blackburn, back in January. The willingness for Obertan to contribute defensively and to break with the ball on his own can give us an excellent threat, without sacrificing the defensive position of, say, central midfielders in doing so.

Secondly, a more positive role since our implementation of the 4-3-3 system could see him playing as left sided forward, with the potential to open up his pace and cut inside onto his favoured right foot after one of his infamous slalom dribbles – his height and physique also suiting the role very well.

Of course, we’d not expect him to be transformed from the willing but inconsistent Obertan he is now, to an equal of Ben Arfa overnight, but we certainly feel harnessing that attacking talent and the blistering pace could certainly make a very useful player of Gabriel.


One to break through in 2012/13

Haris VuckicRD: There are many youngsters who are in contention to step up to regular first team football next season – Sammy Ameobi, Shane Ferguson and those identified by Smith below – and a few probably will, but choosing just one I would go for Haris Vuckic.

The young Slovenian, surprisingly still only 19, has been spoken of highly in the last few seasons and featured in a couple of Premier League games in the season just gone, against West Brom (h) and Liverpool (a). It was against West Brom that he impressed, looking composed and certainly not overawed, he demonstrated his primary attributes – driving forward from central midfield and unleashing a number of efforts from range with his powerful left foot.

With the Europa League campaign potentially adding 17 extra games onto next season’s schedule, and hopefully with lengthy runs in the FA Cup and Carling Cup to come, we are going to need to use all our playing resources and I can see Vuckic getting his opportunity and prevailing in the role of the most attacking of the central midfielders in our new-found 4-3-3 formation.

Smith: For the first time in some years there are a number of very exciting youngsters on the fringes of the Newcastle squad – enough to get more than a little giddy about any substitute glimpse or naming on the bench. From Sammy Ameobi at the forefront, to Remie Streete at the further end of youth, any of these fledglings could break the first team should circumstances and progression prove favourable.  However, the player I would most fancy like to make a serious break onto the first team stage would be Mehdi Abeid.

The French born midfielder was brought to St James’ under the pretence of having a season in the reserves first, before being seriously considered for first team duties – and having excelled in doing so on the field, whilst building a very promising partnership with Haris Vuckic, this season ‘should’ see Mehdi far more involved in the first team.

Also, as a wildcard mention, should transfer activity not go as hoped and Danny Simpson depart as it appears he will, it would be difficult to understate the chances of James Tavernier being fast-tracked into first team football. The 20 year old has earned rave reviews whilst on loan at a variety of clubs and could provide a cheap, organic alternative to any potential right back vacancy.


Next up, in the last of our 3 part end of season review, the opposition…

In the mean time, if you want our instant news and (kneejerk) reaction to anything Newcastle United or football related then follow us on Twitter: http://twitter.com/leazesterrace or on Facebook: www.facebook.com/leazesterrace

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