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Thursday, December 8, 2011
This weekend’s opponents Newcastle United are a club that I will admit to having a bit of a soft spot for.
It probably stems from that fantastic period in their history when Kevin Keegan was manager and they took the Premier League by storm with some fantastic attacking and open play.
Think of Newcastle during that time and it conjures up fond memories of that brilliant 4-3 win against Liverpool, Faustino Asprilla, Phillipe Albert and Keegan’s entertaining “I would love it” rant against Alex Ferguson – fantastic despite the fact that it marked the moment the mind game between the two opposing managers went Manchester United’s way.
In recent years shambolic events at the club have no doubt tested the resolve of the most hardened Geordie fans – let alone someone who admires them from afar – yet despite this I can’t help but feel genuinely excited about this weekend’s game.
Part of that excitement may stem from the fact that we have faced them so infrequently in recent year – and because the most recent games hold such happy memories.
There was little to cheer during our most recent foray into the top division in 2004/05, but much of it came against the team in black and white.
The 2-2 draw away from home was probably the only occasion we truly did ourselves justice on the road.
Two goals behind, first David Bentley clawed one back and then centre forward Gary Doherty (YES YOU DID READ THAT RIGHT) slotted home the equaliser. I remember it clearly, awkward bobbly shot from six-yards which only made you love The Ginger Pele more.
In April of that season a last-gasp Dean Ashton goal in a 2-1 victory provided some hope that relegation may be averted. Alas it was all too little too late.
It’s staggering to think that these were the only two times we have met in the league this millennium.
But the fact those four points represented our best haul against any opposition in that miserable season, provides a good excuse to make the point that there’s no reason to think we can’t do the same this time around – starting with a win on Saturday.
The league table may suggest anything but, however this is a Newcastle team on the back of just one point in three (granted those three were Manchester United, Chelsea and Manchester City) and suffering from a crippling injury list.
I just hope that come 3pm on Saturday we see a return to levels of bravado and belief amongst the players that was such a mark of much of the first few months of the season.
It often happens with newly promoted clubs, but a little bit of sparkle does seem to have gone from our game in recent weeks.
Blackburn, Aston Villa, Arsenal and QPR were all games where you could honestly say we weren’t quite at our best.
Last weekend against the might of Manchester City was a different ball game of course, but I don’t think I was the only one a little disappointed that we didn’t give it more of a go, a la the efforts against Chelsea, Manchester United and Liverpool.
It’s easier said than done, but we are yet to see what happens if a club really goes at Manchester City at home and tries to fight fire with fire. Perhaps just the surprise element would reap some reward. At home this weekend you would expect, and hope, the Canaries will revert to their normal attacking game and with that in mind there are two key players I’d like to see return to the fold – Wes Hoolahan and David Fox.
It seems to be the thinking that with the two in the side we lose some of our defensive prowess. However, in the eight games they have both started we have let in 12 goals compared to 14 in the six games in which neither or one of them didn’t start. What’s more the stats appear to show we create much more with the pair in the side, especially midfielder Fox.
Of the six games in which he has been left out, we have created fewer than 10 chances on goal in four of them. The average number of chances created with him in the side is 13.5.
He showed with his cross for Steve Morison on Saturday, as well as the memorable one which helped secure promotion into this league against Portsmouth back in May, just what he can bring to the side.
• It’s often said that 40 points is the magic target we should be aiming for to avoid relegation. But the early indications are that fewer points could see us home this time around. After 14 games last year, 16 points would have placed us in 15th position, just two points off the bottom three. Then, the bottom three had just nine, nine and 14 points respectively (32 in total). This time round it’s 9, 9 and 10 (28) and we are six points clear of the relegation zone. On current form at least just 20 more points would see us home.
• A piece in my last column praising the apparent relaxing of moves to stop people standing in the Barclay ignited the wrath of one supporter who e-mailed me to disagree with my views that this is a good thing. She rightly pointed out that it is the club which decides the policy, not the stewards, who are simply following orders. And in the interest of balance here are her views: “There were a number of complaints from fans who were not standing up and could not see the game because people in front of them were standing and blocking their view. The situation could have become dangerous as people drifted in to the gangways. “When people purchase a ticket to sit in the Barclay, they are agreeing to such terms.” Let me know what you think.
• I have often covered the great FA Cup debate in this column (I think we should take it seriously and it doesn’t have to negatively impact results but can in fact do the opposite). Whatever people’s views on that debate two things seem certain; Burnley will hardly set the fans’ pulses racing and Paul Lambert will probably play an under-strength team. How about slashing prices for tickets then or possibly bring back Kids for a Quid? It would be nice to have a full-house for this game as well as victory, because surely the players won’t risk the wrath of the manager with another MK Dons-style no-show?
• Poor old Match of the Day. As if they haven’t wound up Norwich fans enough this season, with their perceived lack of recognition of the mighty Canaries, they go and dig the hole deeper by getting our number 9 Grant Holt confused with former midfield dynamo Gary Holt. Anyway, to try and help them out I have been given a sneak preview of Saturday’s starting eleven. Here it is: Declan Ruddy, Matt Jackson, Andy Johnson, Lee Crofts, Dave Bennett, Ruel Fox, Gary Holt, Ricky Martin, David Smith, Ashley Ward and Kyle Notman. Oh and if they are wondering, we are managed by Rickie Lambert.