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Nov 24, 2007

Sam bears brunt of St James' wrath

Newcastle United 0 - 3 Liverpool

Civil wars, it appears, are contagious. Yet whatever the long-term repercussions of the transatlantic phone calls and veiled statements that Rafa Benitez and Tom Hicks trade, a more openly hostile relationship unravelled: that between Sam Allardyce and the Newcastle support.

During a second half of extraordinary ineptitude, the derisory chorus from the home fans - though the travelling Liverpool supporters were happy to join in - was: 'Big Sam for England'. Their previous verdict had been: 'You don't know what you're doing.'

With such a poisonous atmosphere, even if the performance rather justified them, opponents are hardly required to provide antagonists. As Joey Barton, in a remark that was both nonsensical and perceptive, said: 'The big thing about Newcastle is that there is only Newcastle in Newcastle.' With no one else to dilute the focus, even a man such as Allardyce, whose confidence carries him to the brink of arrogance, can flounder.

Welcome to Newcastle United, where visitors can be crushed by the warmth of the welcome and the home side by the weight of expectations. Welcome to St James' Park, half of it resembling the Nou Camp and half Pride Park, which rather sums Newcastle United up. They have aims as lofty as two of the stands, stretching out into the Newcastle skyline, but their achievements are decidedly more modest.

This is where vaunting ambition is married with a distinctly average reality, and never more so than today. It is where injury crises are more common than a clean bill of health, where accident-prone players are routinely signed and those who have rarely suffered from such afflictions develop a disturbing tendency to miss matches.

Hence the latest in a long line of makeshift defences seen at St James' Park, an ersatz back three that included two full-backs and was no less embarrassing than the three-man back-line Steve McClaren deployed a year ago in Croatia. The hapless Jose Enrique, in particular, produced a performance to rival Claudio Cacapa's disastrous cameo against Portsmouth.

Liverpool duly profited. An in-form Steven Gerrard - amazing how he improves when Frank Lampard is some 150 miles further south - scored a magnificent opener after Lucas Leiva touched a free kick to him.

Dirk Kuyt, probably inadvertently, added a second with his knee after Newcastle completely failed to mark at a corner. Ryan Babel, the impressive substitute, added a third after the culmination of a 17-pass move. Had Fernando Torres, otherwise excellent, been clinical in front of goal or Shay Given less reliable, the scoreline would have shown it to be a rout.

No wonder, then, that Allardyce kept his players locked in the dressing room for half an hour after the game. He said: 'I had to point out a few things where I think the problems lie. Right after the game is sometimes the right time to do it because it's more emotional and it has more effect. We've hit rock bottom and the moment and we've got to get ourselves out.'

If not appeasing the supporters, he certainly did not complain about those who barracked him, adding: 'It's only what you expect here. They're quite within their rights here to show their disapproval. They've paid their money and they've not enjoyed what they've seen.'

Defensive weakness is almost a tradition at Newcastle, yet the club now have a manager whose ethos differs dramatically from theirs. With a congenital weakness for centre-forwards on Tyneside, they have appointed a manager who cherishes his defensive midfielders. Newcastle started with two - that being Alan Smith's current role - and added a third in Barton, replacing the far more creative Emre when goals were needed.

We will need to do something in the summer and it will be more expensive.
Rafa Benitez
Perhaps it is the support of owner Mike Ashley - and showing how they defy logic, only Newcastle could have a reclusive billionaire who is conspicuous every week - who wears the shirt with the supposed England centre-forward's name on, but Smith was voted the sponsors' man of the match. It was an announcement that was greeted by an outbreak of laughter.

But then it is worth remembering who Newcastle's sponsors are. This is the city that is the home of Northern Rock. It was apt, then, that Benitez has problems with his budget.

Obstinate as ever, he is refusing to back down in his row with co-owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett. 'We need to sign three - and I insist three - players now,' he said. 'They know that the manager needs to manage the squad and prepare the squad for this year and for the future.'

'It is not a draft. We know what the transfer window means in Europe. So you need to sign players and talk with the agents now. If not, we will lose some targets now and we will need to do something in the summer and it will be more expensive.'

Newcastle, meanwhile, are counting the cost of another embarrassment.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Steven Gerrard - An eloquent response after his ineffectual display for England. This was Gerrard at his rampaging best.

NEWCASTLE VERDICT: Allardyce has signed five defenders this summer yet Habib Beye, Enrique and Cacapa are already struggling. The defensive solidity that was his hallmark at Bolton looks a long way off. On this evidence, it is doubtful that he will be granted the time he wants.

LIVERPOOL VERDICT: They remain unbeaten and excellent away from home. Mediocre for the first half-hour and remarkably dominant for the last, it was a performance of three thirds, each with some improvement, but Gerrard, once again, provided the inspiration.

While Benitez abided by his favoured rotation policy, however, Momo Sissoko is hideously out of sorts and Harry Kewell made little impression on a rare start. Newcastle were so poor that it hardly mattered, however.

SCREEN TIME: The capacity of St James' Park has been reduced by one this season. The seat that used to be occupied by Freddy Shepherd has been ripped out and replaced by a television for Sam Allardyce, when he sits high up in the Milburn Stand.

BRING BACK JACKIE: When the PA announcer asked Dennis Milburn to contact the nearest steward, a comment came: 'We need Jackie, too.'


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