Monday, November 1, 2010

Surely now?

A match against arch-rivals proving the ultimate testing ground for an under-pressure manager. Theatre has been scripted along these torrid yet predictable lines since the days of the Greek tragedy. A drama written in the stars with the same inevitability as another Rocky sequel or JK Rowling penning another Harry Potter novel.

Yet it was this familiar situation in which Newcastle United found itself before their weekend North-East derby with Sunderland following lengthy speculation over Chris Hughton's job-security. Rumour-mongers presented the same hackneyed storyline: a poor showing or even a spirited defeat at home could perhaps cost The Understated One his job.

The match belonged to Newcastle's front line. Hughton opted to start Andy Carroll and Shola Ameobi alongside one another for he first time this term; captain and part-time live-in-babysitter Kevin Nolan moved from his typical second striker role to a place in midfield. It was to be him that benefited from the Carroll/Ameobi pairing as time and again he found himself unmarked in the right place at the right time. In fact, the entire game could well be described as coming at the right place at the right time - a home ground at which the Toon Army have so far struggled at a time where their manager is under "friendly" fire for the first time in 2010.

Sunderland were simply unable to cope with the athleticism (!) that Newcastle displayed in front of their home fans. The superb Joey Barton and the irrepressible Jonas Gutierrez were magnificent in creating aerial opportunities in the Wearside box, chances that the Black Cat defence was thoroughly unable to repel as the muscle and pace of Carroll and Ameobi perpetually drew their opponents into horrible positions. It wasn't just the pace of the Broadsword Brigade up front - though it was directly responsible for both the penalty and Titus Bramble's red card - but Carroll/Ameobi's ability to get themselves up for second and third probing runs that created the malarkey in the Sunderland half.

The man to benefit was Nolan. The captain - who's nose for goal has never been questioned - was unmarked in the penalty area so often that if he hadn't been everywhere all day, his hattrick could be thought of as effortless. The Sunderland forwards were unsighted thanks to a midfield performance so ineffectual that it beggared belief: unable to control the ball and unwilling to match the gut-running that marked the Magpies' game. Jordan Henderson must be cursing that it was in this match that England Assistant manager Franco Baldini came to scout him. The confusion that the twin strikers were able to spread within a bemused Sunderland defence was equalled only by the utter ineptness of the Wearsiders' physicality and concentration. Apparently they didn't want to mark Carroll's babysitter.

Surely now Chris Hughton has earned a new contract. Surely now, Mike Ashley? His side has come out in support, most notably Barton this week and Nolan after Sunday's match. Other league managers have done so as well. It's rare that you see a Manager under such boardroom scrutiny yet not from either the terraces or the newspapers. It's certain that a few of the more low-brow English tabloids would love a change of management at Newcastle if only for increased newspaper sales - but only a crazy person would excise the normalcy brought by The Understated One for the bombastic actions of a Joe Kinnear.

The ball, Mike Ashley, is firmly in your court.

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