It feels nice typing something positive again after a Fulham fixture.
Nobody thought playing a somewhat rejuvenated Newcastle at home was going to be easy but our easy-on-the-eye football of recent weeks had not produced the results it should have making this a must-win game, something that sounds crazy in early November (especially given the desperation which characterised last season). The congested nature of this league – which matches the M40 in the rush hour – means that, somewhat unbelievably, our victory has vaulted us from second bottom to the top half of the table.
A word on our visitors. It seems remarkable given the circumstances of his appointment but they’ve really improved under Joe Kinnear. He’s never been a bad manager (you don’t keep Wimbledon in the top flight for as long as he did with a bit of nous and guile) and the quality players that Newcastle have – of which there are many – responded. The despicable Joey Barton had an effective game in central midfield and the wingers, Jonas Gutierrez and Damien Duff (who hit a post late in the first half), posed a real threat all afternoon. With the quality of Obafemi Martins and a soon-to-be-fully fit Michael Owen up front (as well as an unrecognisable Shola Ameobi – in that he’s now scoring goals rather than falling over in front of goal), they should finish well clear of the relegation zone. Whether we join them or not, largely depends on how regularly we replicate this performance.
I felt it was a victory that was entirely merited on the balance of the play. There were no surprises in the way in which we set up – the usual 4-4-2 and the usual personnel, although I’d be very surprised if that boy Clint Dempsey doesn’t get a start against Spurs next weekend. Apart from the seemingly contractually-mandated early second malaise and a nervy finish, I thought we defended well and I’d have to single out Aaron Hughes again for praise.
Hangeland has obviously made a big difference at the back with his height and decision making (one thing that hasn’t been commented on so often is his ability with the ball at his feet – for a big guy he looks very comfortable on the ball and started two or three attacks from inside his own half today with short, simple passes), but Hughes has had a storming season so far. Today, he was solid in the air might a couple of crucial interceptions and one goal-saving challenge. For someone who took some fearful stick last season (I remember some panic-inducing defending against Sunderland in particular), this sort of a form is a real bonus.
There are still obviously problems to be solved in the midfield. Gera looked woefully short on confidence and the barracking that followed a poor touch, a missed tackle or a misplaced pass probably didn’t help but since he was so ineffectual you can’t criticise the crowd for highlighting his poor performance. A spell on the sidelines looks likely if he doesn’t deliver soon – although, ironically, his first-half header could have been heading in without a timely clearance from Jose Enrique. Dempsey made a real difference when he came on, he has a natural confidence that gets him taking on a full-back, and he’s a good passer of a football. It was his slide-rule ball that played in Johnson for the penalty.
Danny Murphy is quite an understated footballer and, even when you are trying to follow him on the pitch, you miss plenty of what he does best. He took the penalty with supreme confidence – which shows how wrong I was about feeling nervous as he strode towards the ball. I think I read somewhere that he’s starting taking his coaching badges and, with his playing days seemingly coming to an end (although not too soon I hasten to add), what a terrific ambassador he’d be for the club on the coaching staff.
There are obviously positives and minuses from our attackers again. Johnson now seems to have had hit his stride. He’s exceptionally quick after the first ten metres and it’s the kind of pace that has defenders backing away from him in fear of being beaten too early. I honestly thought Cacapa had a nightmare against him yesterday afternoon – and perhaps that was a legacy of not having played for a month. Hodgson, a former national team coach of course, was moved to speculate that he might be in line for an England call-up and AJ did choose a good time to showcase his talents in front of the watching Fabio Cappello, but I think it’s a little early and extremely hopeful to be talking in those terms. He took his goal well and could have had more – indeed, we should have had more after a lively half an hour or so.
The disappointing aspect remains Zamora’s performance. There’s no doubt that he’s a trier – he didn’t stop showing for us out there but his first touch looked laboured and when he found himself in a shooting position his finishing wasn’t worth writing home about. I thought Nevland (in a far longer deployment than his usual cameo) offered more but it was difficult to judge because by the time he’d adjusted to the pace of the game we were more focused on keeping Newcastle at bay than adding to our tally.
And that’s really where I’d like to finish. It would be nice to see us take the game to the opposition and kill it off, but we always seem to be hanging on for a result. Everton is the only the most recent example where we failed to take our chances and paid for it, but it should loom large in a month where we’ve got some tough fixtures to come and the competitive nature of the Premier League could see you tumble down the table with a defeat. Something to bear in mind.
FULHAM (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Pantsil, Konchesky, Hughes, Hangeland; Davies, Gera (Dempsey 64), Bullard, Murphy (Baird 88); Johnson, Zamora (Nevland 74). Subs (not used): Zuberbuhler, Gray, Stoor, Andreasen.
BOOKED: Hangeland, Murphy.
GOALS: Johnson (23), Murphy (pen 66).
NEWCASTLE (4-4-2): Given; Beye, Jose Enrique, Cacapa, Colocinni; Gutierrez (Owen 70), Duff, Barton, Butt; Ameobi, Martins. Subs (not used): Harper, Guthrie, Bassong, N’Zogbia, Geremi, Carroll.
BOOKED: Coloccini, Beye.
GOAL: Ameobi (57).
REFEREE: Martin Atkinson (West Yorkshire).