Thursday, October 04, 2012

A Month Of Saturdays: September 2012

(Image courtesy of sreeat89)

There are few hard-and-fast certainties in this world, but one of them is that anyone who's already seen The Shawshank Redemption on many occasions before and indeed even owns it will nevertheless find themselves compelled to watch it again if it's on the telly. And so it was that, at some point in September, I happened to catch the beginning on Film4 and remained glued to the screen until the end. Fitting, really, given that I spent much of the month watching and reporting on prison breaks which, though metaphorical rather than literal, came close to being as extraordinary as Andy Dufresne's.

The first took place when September was just two days old. Aston Villa were the visitors to St James' Park - easy pickings given their woeful start to the campaign, or so we thought. Ciaran Clark gave them the lead as we struggled, caught offguard by their intensity and work rate. Just as it started to look as though a demoralising defeat was on the agenda, though, up popped HBA with a characteristically sensational goal to grab a point.

A fortnight later, after the international break, it was Demba Ba who set about proving himself to be our equivalent of Dufresne's rockhammer. Trailing - and deservedly so - to a Leighton Baines goal, we turned to the Senegalese striker, who took just three minutes to fire Dreamboat's delightful pass beyond Tim Howard's outstretched hand. That strike - our 1000th in the Premier League - kickstarted the team and we started to perform markedly better. Nevertheless, we didn't so much then ride our luck as win both the Grand National and the Derby on it, the Toffees dumbfounded to witness two legitimate goals disallowed. Victor Anichebe did eventually put them back in front - but Ba wasn't to be defeated, simply shrugging his shoulders and bundling home Big Lad's knock-down barely two minutes later. That our saviour had started on the bench prompted his agent into intimating disgruntlement with incomprehensible managerial decisions - unsurprisingly the Silver Fox was not amused.

After the goalless Europa League draw away to Maritimo - when it was all change except for the defence, and a largely uneventful game, though we did strike the woodwork three times - it was back to Premier League business and being bailed out by Ba. We might have taken all three points from the home game with Norwich, Ba finishing clinically from HBA's superb through-ball, but it was far from a convincing performance. The team were as generous in affording struggling Norwich possession and opportunities as the crowd were in acknowledging our significant debt to Canaries manager Chris Hughton. If that made the Silver Fox uncomfortable, then the decision to allow Papiss Cisse to take a penalty won by Mike Williamson left him furious - or at least it did once our out-of-form striker had blazed the ball high over the bar.

Cisse finally did break his duck for the season at Old Trafford in the League Cup the following Wednesday, but by that point we were already 2-0 down. He later hammered the bar with a spectacular overhead kick, but in truth an equaliser wouldn't have been merited, Man Utd having struck the woodwork and squandered several other chances themselves. We were left rueing a missed opportunity - all the more so given the Silver Fox's claim that he's determined to win silverware at Newcastle, which didn't really square with his decision to field a weakened side against a wet-behind-the-ears Man Utd defence.

Cisse's header came courtesy of an inviting Shane Ferguson cross barely three minutes after the pair had been introduced, and it was quite a month for the Northern Irishman; he also made his competitive international debut against Luxembourg and, deployed as an impact sub, played a pivotal role in the point-saving goal of our final fixture of September down at the Madejski. Once again, though, our "Get Out Of Jail Free" card was Ba, who may have been banned from driving for speeding but who has sped to six goals for the season. His first equaliser against Reading was a peach of a volley from Mr T's pass to silence the home supporters less than a minute after Jimmy Kebe had given our hosts the lead. His second - assisted by Ferguson - was extremely fortuitous, a handslap into the net which none of the officials spotted, much to Brian McDermott's chagrin, and which somehow salvaged a point as reward for a sluggish and desperately uninspired display.

In the context of being comprehensively outplayed by a newly promoted team sitting rock-bottom in the league, it's hard not to revisit our assessment of the club's transfer activity over the summer. Paul was right, of course, to argue that we wisely avoided the perils of panic-buying (not something we've always done successfully in the past), but I'd venture to suggest that some targets - Mathieu Debuchy, Douglas - had been identified and stalked for months and so wouldn't have been characterised as panic buys.

Liverpool had us guffawing in amusement with John Henry's denouncement of "risky spending" - did we thank you for that £35m, by the way? - but it could be argued that our owner took a hugely significant risk himself in offering the Silver Fox and his staff new deals running through until 2020. Perhaps an indication that the manager had taken the opportunity afforded to him by a two-match touchline ban to whisper sweet nothings into Jabba's ear up in the stands?

Which brings me to giving credit to the Lone Ranger, who - no doubt inspired by the misdemeanours of Ba and the Silver Fox - endeavoured to trump both. No sooner had he declared (with an incredible lack of self-awareness) that "respect is earned" than he'd got himself arrested again, this time on a charge of criminal damage. Best get watching The Shawshank Redemption, son - you might learn something useful. (Ranger getting his collar felt by the long arm of the law wasn't the only routine event of the month - Tim Krul's elbow knack meant we also had the return of that perennial favourite, the injury to a key player sustained while away on international duty.)

Of course, September's back (and front) pages were dominated by a story of football-related misdemeanours on an altogether different scale. The publication of the Hillsborough Independent Panel Report came as a bombshell, its remarkable findings revealing a rottenness at the core of the establishment as well as offering a reminder that to be a pre-1990s football supporter was a dangerous business, practically an invitation to be victimised and treated as scum. A valuable sense of perspective for those of us inclined to moan about our lot in 2012, perhaps, when arguably the worst we have to put up with is our club trying to flog us black-and-white onesies...




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