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FA Carling Premiership, 11/3/00
Newcastle United
A long way
By Matt Rowson

How can "things could be worse" and "at least things can't get any worse" both express consolation? The French girls I spoke to on Saturday night were right; this is a bloody stupid language.

Sometimes the fact that things probably could get even worse is very little help. Like now, for instance. Yes, it's great that we made the Premiership, it's good that GT has been sensible with the money (although of course in his place we'd all have signed the hordes of high quality lower division players for reasonable money with reasonable demands that nobody else has spotted yet...but fussy, fussy).

It feels like hell at the moment, though, this merciless agony of a campaign. The "good cop, bad cop" routine is the quickest way to break down someone's resistance - we've all seen the movies. A ferocious win against Chelsea. Then collapse. Ha. The brief, tantalising return of Gifton Noel-Williams in November, long enough to remind us what a frightening prospect he is, or might have been. Then snatched away. A bold, courageous display at Stamford Bridge, promising much. Then...oh, piss off, just piss off will you? We don't need this shit any more. I'll tell you anything you want to know, all right, just cut it out!

In the circumstances, it makes no sense whatsoever to be travelling to Newcastle on Saturday. But there you go. No away trip is longer, few if any hold the potential for utter misery. A long train journey is always a risk, of course, but it's the thought of Alan Shearer and Big Dunc mixing it with our backline that's really distressing.

Not that Shearer's performance at Vicarage Road did much to strike fear into our hearts, characterised as it was by a lot of mouth, a header against the post and plenty of stick from the home support. Incidentally, Bobby Robson got very upset about those chants, didn't he? And then defended David Ginola's treatment at St.James' Park barely a week later - he got what he deserved, natch. Hmm.

The secret to stopping Newcastle, popular understanding has it, is to cut off the supply to the front two. Not that this did Manchester United a lot of good last month, as they hilariously went down 3-0 to the Magpies. Since then, however, Newcastle's performances have lacked the same conviction, culminating in a particularly sterile showing against Chelsea on Saturday. Described as the worst since Robson's arrival, this brought to an end a run of fourteen home games unbeaten during which United have averaged three goals per game.

Behind the formidable front two, questions are beginning to be asked about the midfield's creativity. It's heartening to note that the tried and tested cop-out strategy of punting hopeful balls up to your big strikers when the chips are down is not restricted to the lower divisions.

Nolberto Solano, recovered from the injury aggravated whilst playing for Peru, had a fitful forty-five minutes on Saturday and is being linked with a move to either Manchester United or Real Madrid in this week's papers. Kieron Dyer, increasingly a fixture in the England squad, is not recapturing his effervescent early season form. Robert Lee, one of two survivors from that match in 1992 (there are none from the Watford side), is apparently showing signs of age, although Gary Speed is still a "prodigious leaper" (© Big Jack) and a goalscoring threat. Most impressive of late has been Kevin Gallacher, playing wide on the left, but he was absent through injury on Saturday. Silvio Maric skulks around in the reserves, whilst the enigmatic one-time Watford triallist Jose Antunes Fumaca is on the bench.

At the back, injuries restrict the selection with Helder, Charvet, Marcelino, Pistone, Goma and Griffin all out, although the latter two have played their first reserve games during the week. Scorer at the Vic Nikos Dabizas, long-serving Steve Howey and Aaron Hughes played as a trio against Chelsea as Robson fielded an uncharacteristic break from his preferred 4-4-2, Barton and Domi being employed as wing-backs.

Irishman Shay Given has regained the keeper's slot due to Steve Harper's injury, although the latter made the bench for the last game.

Finally, a feature on Newcastle at the moment can hardly ignore the recent court case over the contentious 1994 bonds. Fact: Newcastle raised several million by selling around seven thousand of these bonds at 500 a shot, a ten-year right to a seat at St.James' being the reward. That this was only a SPECIFIC seat for as long as it was convenient to United was apparently hidden in the small print, which is why the SOS (Save Our Seats) appeal, formally backed by around a third of the bond holders, failed last week. The group has been offered the right to appeal on the basis that the club misrepresented the original offer to the extent of asking supporters to choose their specific seat. However given that 81,000 costs beyond even the group's insurance payout are outstanding, an appeal does not seem likely.

My view: bonds or no bonds, shunting supporters from prime positions to facilitate more corporate seating is pretty disgraceful behaviour. To do this having already fleeced 500 from supporters simply for the right to renew their season tickets is utterly contemptible, legal or otherwise. To proclaim that the ground redevelopment is with a view to provide the capacity for these supporters (given the clearly unavoidable corporate expansion) is simply laughable. Surely no other directors in the country could less have afforded to be so tactless.

The day of reckoning cannot come too soon for these bastards.

Count to ten.

Newcastle. A long way. Not hopeful of a result, not after last time.

But anyone who comforts me after the game with a "well, it could have been worse" had better have that pint of Guinness ready....