Diamond Geezers, Episode 61: Newcastle in the League Cup 3rd Round
I watch the Magpies’ players step down from their ostentatious team bus with slightly less fear than I might have in previous years. Not only because we beat them 4–0 in this same fixture last season, but also because I don’t see as many familiar faces as I peer through the forced gap in my office window blinds. They’ve sold Robbie Elliott, Laurent Robert, Nobby Solano, Warren Barton and Steve Caldwell since we met them last, and replaced them with Nordin Wooter and someone called Alan Pouton. What is an Alan Pouton, you ask? Well, he’s an AMRC they’ve signed from Grimsby, which should have made him cheap since he can bring his shirt with him, but despite that still set them back £3.7m — the most they’ve spent on a single player since 2001, if I’m seeing right. To be fair, he has 6 assists in 9 games for the Magpies while playing in centre-mid with CM01/02 favourite Stefan Selakovic, so even though they might not be a side packed full of household names, we’re still going to have to be on our guard today if we want to see our way to the fourth round of the League Cup.
To that end, we will make ourselves snug in the warm, cosy bosom of the 4–1–3–2 that has torpedoed us through the leagues and into Europe. Baggio and Andersson are suspended, while Møller and Benjani are still injured, so Sir Les will be tasked with returning to haunt his old club alongside Javan, with Samba on the bench. At the back, Hélder Rosário has quietly been our best player over the last five games, averaging an 8, so he’ll start alongside Fernando Couto — I prefer him to Teddy at the moment. In midfield, I’ve plumped for Bubb and Hysén either side of my new favourite, Kim Källström. I’m tempted to go full Sweden Under-21s with Farnerud, but Byron has gotten over his unhappiness and, honestly, has been my best player this season, so there’s no leaving him out.
Alrighty then. My primary tactic for this game is to get their goalie sent off again, since that worked really well last time. Everyone try to wind Shay Given up please.
Peter Shreeves has taken no chances with his starting line-up after reading in the papers about our triumph in this competition last season, and puts out his strongest available side, save for maybe Jari Litmanen, who’s on the bench. Despite that, and like we so often do, our start is bright and positive. Meysam Javan twists and turns inside the box to get two shots on Shay Given’s goal in the opening stages, but the Irishman is equal to them.
After that, all hell breaks loose. First, Shearer combines with Jermaine Wright and Pouton to find himself through one-on-one with Pinheiro, and — in true Alan Shearer fashion — almost destroys the net with a first-time hellstrike to give the visitors the lead. However, we’re level with the next action of the game, as Mike Duff puts a low cross into the near post, Javan meets it first time, Given saves yet again, but Jamie Victory is loitering around at the far post to tuck home and bring the scores level.
I reach down to take a swig of whatever’s in this bottle Roar has put down next to me — he’s an enabler, and I love him — and when I look back up, the referee has awarded Newcastle a penalty for a Mahouvé push on Selakovic inside the box. All 21 other players on the pitch restrain the Destroyer as he advances on the referee to calmly explain his side of the story, but in the end, although he gets away without a card, Shearer steps up to the spot, and he’s off on his familiar one-handed running-around-the-goal celebration before we can blink. It’s 2–1 to Newcastle after a frankly bananas first 22 minutes.
I consider what I should do. The truth of the situation is that Alan Shearer is 2–1 up against us, not Newcastle. He might as well be playing alongside nine training cones in the outfield for all the good they’ve done, but for all their sluggishness and our endeavour, we are still losing. I might have to actually do managering at half time.
My players obviously realise this too, and do everything they can to avoid it — first, Bubb nods down to Victory wide on the left, and my full-back’s hard, low cross to the near post is once again met by Javan, and this time he crashes the ball past Given for his 10th goal of the season, which brings us level once more. Then, just as we’re ticking over towards the break, Byron Bubb gathers the ball in the middle of midfield and lofts a trademark ball onto the head of Sir Les, who nods past Given to break the hearts of his former lovers and give us a 3–2 lead at the end of a bonkers first half.
Phew. It’s all happening here, isn’t it? The only player we’ve got on a 6 is Pinheiro, which makes sense since he hasn’t saved anything yet, but Newcastle are awash with them — more than half their team haven’t moved from their starting number, including all their defenders. As a result, I feel confident that we should keep going and hope that Shearer quietens down a bit. I tell Marcel to do more than push Selakovic in the second half, he cracks his knuckles for a full minute in response, and we’re off once again.
Five minutes into the half, it’s clear that we’ve got the measure of Shearer and Selakovic. With Newcastle’s two best players being marked so tightly that Mahouvé and Couto might end the game on the sex offender’s register, Shay Given decides to punt his goal kick to… Olivier Bernard? Why not. He’s been so quiet that I didn’t even realise he’s playing. The Frenchman takes the ball down and comes forward. He comes forward some more. He’s still coming forward, with no mention of my team whatsoever. He gets into the area and blasts the ball towards the top corner. Olivier Bernard scores his first Newcastle goal! Congratufuckinglations. What the hell are my defenders doing? I know I said to watch Shearer and Selakovic, but I didn’t mean to only watch them! Jesus wept.
Pinheiro is down to a 5, and I’m tempted to take him off, but you know what? No, no, it’s going to be fine. Subbing your keeper is such a passive-aggressive move that I can’t bear it, and surely attacking subs are much more sensible. We are all over Newcastle here; they’re just scoring lucky pot-shots and penalties. I bring Farnerud on for Hysén in pretty much the only move I can make at this point without changing formation, and we continue to bear down on Newcastle’s goal; only wonder-saves from Given keep out Farnerud and Duff in the minutes that follow. Litmanen comes on for the Magpies in the 76th minute, so I shout to the lads — he’s also good! Keep an eye on him!
Almost immediately, Litmanen takes down a Pouton cross and lashes a shot into the top corner to make it 4–3.
We are now the anti-Newcastle. In the first half they were nine watermelons in between Shay Given and Alan Shearer; we are now an entire team of megastars with a custard cream in goal. Pinheiro is down to a 4, I am livid on the touchline, and in a fit of rage I replace him with Rob Green and chuck Samba on for Rosário, going three up front in the process. There’s still time for Bubb to force Given into a world-class last-minute save, Farnerud clatters a shot off the post… but it’s not enough, and it’s all over. I know Newcastle are famous for incredible, seesaw matches that end up finishing 4–3, but my goodness, being on the receiving end is bloody rough. Especially when they score with every shot they take.
Our defence of the League Cup faceplants at the first hurdle. Usually when you get to the end of the game and your goalkeeper hasn’t made a save, it’s a good thing. It’s something you say when they haven’t had anything to do. Unfortunately, today, Pinheiro had plenty to do, and didn’t do any of it; we were always going to concede chances to a Premier League team, and he’s obviously absolved of responsibility for the penalty, but my god man — make a save. I suppose it must also be noted that all three of Newcastle’s goals from open play were “top corner” efforts, according to the match report, so perhaps they just scored a bunch of worldies and then Shay Given took his revenge for last year. That four, though. It’s a real blot against Pinheiro’s reputation.
Post-match, Blackburn bid £8m for Stefan Selakovic. Couldn’t have done that yesterday, could you? Unbelievable. Also, it’s time for the third round draw for the UEFA Cup. I settle into the break room with some Worcester sauce and sun-dried tomato popcorn from our Michelin-starred café (it’s disgusting) and watch the vidiprinter determine our fate. I really hope we don’t get Total Network Solutions.
We don’t. While our Welsh cousins will get a few days in France, we’ve been given a mouthwatering tie against Espanyol. Perhaps not the glamour fixture we could have had, but this is still a side that contains Raúl Tamudo, Florin Batrinu, Guti and Martín Posse. I’m really looking forward to it — they should be really good games. As long as we win, of course.
Our stacked fixture list means that no sooner have Newcastle left Nene Park, West Bromwich Albion arrive. Another team we played last season, the Baggies hold the record for inflicting the heaviest defeat of my career — a 4–0, Derek McInnes-inspired spanking in the Fourth Round of the FA Cup. And the Scot will presumably try to break my heart again, though this time surrounded by slightly different colleagues. Joe Kinnear’s side are 15th in Division One due to his Ian Holloway-inspired tactics, which see several players out of position as standard; the most obvious being striker Scott Booth, who’s been shunted out to left midfield in the absence of anyone else except youth players who can line up there. Not one to argue with an opposing manager who’s losing his mind, I note that Branko Strupar is injured, Jason Roberts is a huge threat to my scoresheets, and make some plans of my own.
Baggio is back, and not being able to ignore his productivity, I revert back to my new 4–3–1–2 formation. There is much tiredness and wound-licking to be done post-Newcastle, so several changes are made. Notably, I drop Pinheiro for Green, and give my Portuguese stopper an official warning for poor performance in the last game. He accepts it without question, and says he will motivate himself for future matches. Good to hear.
Otherwise, Andersson comes in for the tired Hysén, and Benjani’s return to full fitness means he’s back up front with Javan, and hopefully back amongst the goals. We need to keep winning if we’re going to stand any chance of keeping up with relentless Wolves, who are top by four points but having played a game more. We have to make this count.
It’s a very promising first half. Other than Källström getting booked for handball after four minutes — he’s now got a yellow card in every game he’s played for us — my defence hold firm in the face of initial West Brom pressure, with the one shot that makes it through their lines fielded comfortably by Rob Green. Then, Andrew Aitken gets away down his flank and crosses to Jason Roberts, who beats Couto in the air and heads goalwards — but Green pulls out a remarkable save to keep the scores level! I give myself a round of applause for starting him ahead of Pinheiro, and the players use the power of my smugness to rally and start creating chances of their own. First Javan hits the top corner from the edge of the box, but Kelvin Davies tips it away superbly, then Benjani heads narrowly over from the resulting corner. Källström intercepts a McInnes pass and lays the ball off for Mahouvé, who bursts through midfield and slides a pass through the back four — Benjani runs on to it, and strikes! GOAL BENJANI! On his first game back from injury, Benjani breaks the deadlock and gives us a very welcome 35th minute lead.
Mahouvé, smelling fear and weakness, decides it’s his turn. He takes a short pass from Couto in our third of the pitch and sets off on a stampede through the middle of the pitch, trampling McInnes, Sigurdsson and Jordão into the dirt along the way, and finally — on reaching the penalty area — smashes an absolute thunderbastard past Davis and into the top corner. The referee decides that’s worthy of finishing any half, and blows his whistle for the break.
I’m delighted with the lads at half time. We’ve been defensively solid, created chances through midfield, and finished clinically. I notice that James Chambers, the Baggies’ right-back, is sitting in the away dressing room on a 5 — so I tell my players to hit his flank more often, and allow Victory to be more ambitious coming forward. We pretty much just need to hold this together, and we’re onto a winner.
The second half starts, and ten minutes go by with no commentary. The 55th minute arrives. Benjani, booked in the first half for tugging the shirt of McInnes, “jumps unfairly” with Sigurdsson. Seem innocuous to you? Yes, me too, but apparently not our card-happy referee, who’s delighted to finally get the chance to whip out the red and send off my maverick centre-forward. Down to ten men yet again, I leave the team as they are and simply tell Baggio to get into the box more. The extra running takes its toll — ten minutes later he pulls up and is forced off, so I replace him in the hole with Källström and bring Farnerud into midfield. It has to be said that despite these setbacks, we’re still all over West Brom and they’re not putting any undue pressure on our reduced numbers. In fact, we still look the more likely, and in the very last minute, Farnerud sets off on one of his marauding runs and ends it with a low drive that rattles past Davis and secures the three points. Blimey. Can we just have a few nice, simple 1–0 wins?
In the wake of our win, Benjani is suspended for one game in a ban that I don’t appeal, largely based on feedback I’ve had from the Rushden Ultras. Thanks, lads. Baggio is out for ten days, and then Samba goes down injured for a month with a damaged kneecap, so I send him back to recover with the reserves.
Czech Republic manager Jozef Chovanec is sacked by the Czech FA after failing to qualify for next summer’s European Championships, so I send an extremely cheeky application in just for hipster points. Then, Sven is sacked as England manager for what I assume is the same reason… so I pop another CV in the post. Watch this space.
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