Saturday, January 17, 2009
Big Sam gets his revenge
If Sam Allardyce and Newcastle United was a marriage destined for failure, it is hard to claim the latter has experienced happier times or found a more suitable partner since their bad-tempered divorce. Allardyce's eight months on Tyneside were characterised by a mutual lack of understanding - Newcastle's philosophy was a mystery to him, his ethos utterly alien to them - but the glee at his departure hardly prefaced an improvement.
Twelve months after his departure, they are in a lower position in the table and in greater danger of demotion. In Allardyce's first reunion with his former employers, Newcastle descended into disarray, ending defeated, by goals from Benni McCarthy and Jason Roberts, and depleted, by Nicky Butt's dismissal. Blackburn, in contrast, were energised by the half-time team talk and benefited from their substitutions.
Allardyce was barracked on the touchline, but the more meaningful chants from the stands were directed at Newcastle's absentee owner. "We want [Mike] Ashley out," chorused the Toon Army. Having once canvassed for Allardyce's exit, they may be better at loyalty than judgment, but it was indicative nonetheless.
Meanwhile, Joe Kinnear's position went unmentioned. Allardyce was sacked at St James' Park after winning one third of his games. Kinnear claims he has been offered a two-year extension to his contract after triumphing in less than a quarter. While Allardyce departed with Newcastle in 11th and they currently stand 12th, their position is more precarious than that suggests: two points above the relegation zone and three off the foot of the table.
The manner of Newcastle's capitulation suggests they have reason to be worried. Such fight as they displayed was the wrong variety. Two mistimed tackles brought Butt's exit. Joey Barton marked his comeback by shouting at the errant Jose Enrique after Jason Roberts scored Blackburn's third. An inquest into Newcastle's defending may be necessary, but it is probably not advisable that Barton conducts it, and certainly not on the pitch.
Nevertheless, Kinnear appeared to condone it. "I think Joey's just fired up in the way we conceded it," he said. "We've missed someone like that, to be honest." That is questionable. What is less debateable is that Newcastle's response to McCarthy's opener was incoherent. "We became ragged and we started chasing the game," Kinnear added.
"It was harsh," said Kinnear who, with the prospect of three FA charges, was minding his words. "I think that is the third time that referee [Rob Styles] has given a penalty against us." It came when David Edgar tripped McCarthy, minutes after the South African had hit the post with a free kick. The striker struck the resulting penalty emphatically beyond Shay Given.
Roberts completed victory with a brace, both provided by Pedersen. The first, however, was notable less for the Norwegian's use of the chest to divert the ball into the striker's path than the fact that the Newcastle defence allowed the ball to travel 70 yards, bouncing around the penalty area, from Paul Robinson's free kick before Pedersen intervened. After a low centre from the Norwegian, Roberts doubled his tally from close range. Cue an inquest from Barton.
It means Roberts, like McCarthy, is scoring at an average of a goal a game in the Premier League in Allardyce's short reign. The other facts also suggest the new manager is making an impact. His is an unbeaten start, elevating Blackburn from the bottom three for the first time in two months. It represents a transformation of a team who, by the end of Paul Ince's tenure, were in freefall. He inherited a side with the division's worst defensive record, but four clean sheets in five games have followed.
"Psychologically, it's very good," Allardyce said. "We've clawed our way out of it now. It's looking good with the squad being fit and the results we're picking up. We've only been five minutes away from having no goals against in five games. It was only a mad five minutes against Manchester City when we conceded two."
This represented revenge for him, but a comprehensive win enabled Allardyce to remain relaxed about the taunts from the Toon Army. "Many [people] sing 'you fat whatever it is' wherever I go," he added. "It doesn't bother me at all. In fact, I think I'm slimmer now than I used to be. The players have answered for me. That's what matters. We've won a very critical, very crucial game."
MAN OF THE MATCH: Jason Roberts - Muscular and menacing, he is combining superbly with Benni McCarthy, who took a painkilling injection before the game. If Roque Santa Cruz doesn't join Manchester City, he may face a battle for his place at Ewood Park.
BLACKBURN VERDICT: Allardyce's first month at the helm is proof of how a new manager can galvanise a team. Rovers were, their manager admitted, below par in the first half, but they showed sufficient steel to preserve parity. They were excellent in the second and he could note that the return to fitness of Santa Cruz, David Dunn and Vince Grella offered genuine options on the bench. On this form, they must be favourites to survive.
NEWCASTLE VERDICT: This was a second thrashing in three weeks, following the demolition job Liverpool performed at St James' Park. Once again, Newcastle's response was lamentable. "Nothing's changed. I said when I came to the club we're fighting a relegation battle and we still are," said Kinnear. In that, at least, it is hard to argue. Injuries are a constant complaint at the club and manager after manager asserts the need for reinforcements. Yet when a side performs below its potential, that is not a satisfactory explanation for Kinnear to use.
LA DOLCE VITA? Two of the most successful managers of all time were at Ewood Park. Not Kinnear and Allardyce, however, but Fabio Capello and Giovanni Trapattoni. There was little in Michael Owen's performance to suggest he will earn an England recall.