I used to despise this international weekend break, depriving us of football just as we were getting going again, however this year I haven’t minded it as much for two reasons.
One is the totally selfish reason that it’s given me time to adapt and settle into my new city and job without having to miss much football. The second is the general malaise that our great club finds itself in, which I have to admit has sapped my anticipation for the beginning of the season and replaced it with dread for what is to come. My last competitive match was Benfica (a) and I intended for that wonderful occasion to be my last match-going memory for at least the next year. However, when presented with the opportunity of a couple of beers with pals either side of the Braga game I couldn’t help but step warily up the cobbles behind the East Stand for one last glimpse at the lads in Black & White (halves mind, not stripes).
As my pals are sick of hearing, I don’t rate our manager. He doesn’t have us playing with any sort of clear, organised strategy or system. Not only was this displayed during the friendly against Braga but then at the Man City and West Ham games (as well of all of last season). It’s become apparent that his plan A is to give the ball to Ben Arfa and hope he does something. For his plan B replace Ben Arfa’s name with Cabaye and for plan C add Sissoko’s name to the equation. And bring Shola off the bench. More worryingly, all this reveals he’s clearly not training the players well enough and moulding them as a flexible group of professionals ready to combat the range of situations the Premier League will throw at them. I guess this is unsurprising since we’ve been short on coaches since Allardyce and his cronies were shown the door at the start of Ashley’s reign. And there we have the name of the real villain of the piece. Ashley. My abiding memory of entering St James’ Park for the first time this season wasn’t the glistening grass or the blanket of black and white shirts as it had been in the past – it was the vulgarity of all those red and blue billboards that surely nibble away at the soul of each match-going Mag with every game.
Three years on and Dakar’s Leopold Sedar Senghor Aeroport is still at its mental best. Whilst I was expecting an attack on the senses upon arrival (as mentioned in my previous Blog), increasingly stringent Senegalese visa procedures meant that I was ushered through several offices for biometric testing before even setting foot for a second time on West African soil. The requirement for all EU Nationals to have a visa was controversial upon its introduction as many felt it would hinder the country’s burgeoning tourism industry. However, the measure was pushed through following a groundswell of support of the notion that Senegal should treat its visitors and immigrants in the same way that theirs are treated by European countries. Generally a feeling of frustration exists at how difficult it is for Sub-Saharan Africans to enter the likes of France, Belgium and the UK. Whilst initially feeling this measure was counterproductive, I developed sympathy after hearing that a Dakar school had struggled to get tourist visas for its Senegalese students to visit the UK whilst those with French passports had no problem.
One week in and my ‘Toon top total’ is at a fairly impressive 4, surpassing the count during the entirety of my last three month stay. All the more impressive is that one of them was the green/orange ‘sunset’ away kit from the ’98 (I think) season. In addition, my club crest-laden shorts that I wear whilst running have attracted a couple of “Newcastle!” shouts, pronounced locally as “Noo-cas-tel”. I put the awareness down to the generally increased coverage of the Premier League and, of course, the impact of our current number 9, Papiss Cisse.
Although admitting my bias now, with him being a nice shared link between myself and those around me, I have to confess to being angry over the summer at how some of our own responded to the whole Cisse situation. Enough has been written about the ‘Moral Maze’ of the sponsorship deal (I can’t bring myself to type it, let alone see it on our shirts) so I don’t want to go into it much further. Instead I’d like to take issue with those who took the opportunity to deride Cisse’s performances last year. This is a lad who arrived mid-season in January 2012, scored some of the most spectacular goals we’ve seen in recent times and then found himself ludicrously shunted onto the wing by his manager the following season to appease a want away Demba Ba. Then after Demba’s departure, the same manager, by this time well-on-the way to revealing himself to be tactically inept for managing at this level, decided to restore Cisse to a central position, yet forced him to feed-off long balls and hopeful hoofs. When considering this, it’s no wonder he strayed offside so often, eager that a ball be played through a desired channel for once. It seems miraculous to me that Cisse managed to maintain enough form to score some crucial goals for the side such as Fulham and Anzhi. It seemed unlikely that 4 months later I would hear these same views shared when discussing Cisse’s form with a group of lads having a kickabout outside my flat in the outskirts of Dakar. Therefore in the equally unlikely event that Pardew’s reading this blog I’ll bring this rant to a close by stating categorically Alan, Papiss Cisse is not a ‘back-to-goal’ striker. He is a goal-poacher, who relishes a pass to his feet in a yard of space around the opponents’ area (see his first goal away at Chelsea and several others). He is not Demba Ba. He is not Carlton Cole. He is not Ricky Lambert. Stop it. Just stop it.
The Senegalese Premier League finished only 3 weeks ago with Diambars of Saly (a coastal town south of Dakar) coming out on top, having only suffered one defeat at home all season, to the eventual Coupe de la Ligue winners Casa Sports (of the troubled Casamance region). Interestingly, the excellent galsenfoot.com website (for those of you with GCSE French) recently ran a poll asking whether the standard of the local league is ‘better, worse or much the same’. 50% of contributors decided it had declined, whilst only 2% felt it had improved, suggesting some local misgivings at a dearth of domestic talent. I’m not in a position to comment having arrived shortly after the end of the season, however I’ll return to this more over the coming months, with the new season beginning in February. With domestic football coming to a close, the Senegalese public this weekend turned their attention towards their national side.
The Lions Of Teranga were shot to prominence by that Papa Bouba Diop goal in 2002, which I remember saw a lad at my school sent out of lessons for celebrating ala Diop too vigorously in front of a French teacher. Senegal is currently managed by Alain Giresse one of French football’s ‘Carre Magique’ (Magic Square) of the 80s, alongside messyrs Fernandez, Tigana and Platini. He seems to have followed a well-trodden route of Francophone managers having dabbled with managing Gabon and Mali before taking this job. His current side are languishing in 78th in FIFA’s world rankings, following an absolutely stinking African Cup of Nations performance in January 2012 in which they were heavily favoured yet didn’t managed to get out of the group stages. This was followed by failure to even qualify for the 2013 edition and was the catalyst for Giresse to be appointed by the Federation de Foot Senegalais.
This weekend they faced-off against Uganda, needing only a point to qualify for the African regional playoffs after a steady qualifying campaign. The match was played in Morocco as a result of rioting in Dakar’s national stadium after defeat to the Ivory Coast in the 2012 ACN qualifier. Without a telly of my own and the internet as of yet, the match’s 9:00pm kick-off time thwarted my original plan of watching it inside an electronics shop alongside Falou, the fella who sold me a set of fans earlier in the week. Anyway, thanks to a talkative taxi driver, I found out the following morning that Senegal had squeezed past the Ugandans 1-0 with Sadio Mane of Red Bull Salzburg nicking a winner to ease nerves in the 84th minute. This sees Les Lions enter the final stage of African qualification – where the remaining 10 teams face-off across 5 two-legged ties in October and November to determine who will represent the continent in Brazil 2014. Their potential opponents in the playoffs are Algeria, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Cape Verde Islands, Egypt, Ethiopia, Ghana, Ivory Coast and Nigeria. So there’s no absence of the footballing heavyweights of both West and North Africa in the draw of 16th September. Those who I’ve spoken to have claimed only to be confident against the Cape Verdeans, Burkinabes or the Ethiopians, and even then, those sides are all improving quickly and performing at arguably a higher level than Senegal’s current crop of stars. I also think that hopes have been dashed by the ban on home internationals to be held in the country for all of 2013, an episode that has brought shame and embarrassment to a generally peaceful people.
On paper I’d argue Senegal’s striking options are as strong as, if not stronger than, England’s. Cisse, Ba, and Sow backed up by promising starlets Saivet and Niang. But we’ve seen first-hand that Papiss and Demba struggle to co-operate and Sow is as erratic as his decision to move to Turkey after scoring over 20 goals for Lille’s French title-winning team. If I had to pick two players for you to follow closely it would be two of the stars of Senegal’s U23 side that reached the knockout stage of the London Olympics. Cheikou Kouyate of Anderlecht is a strong centre half, linked with a move to the Premier League this summer. That move would probably become a reality should he lead his defence to Brazil 2014. The other already plies his trade in England’s top division but is often overlooked in favour of Toure, Essien and Tiote when African midfielders are discussed: Mohammed ‘Big Mo’ Diame. Anchoring West Ham’s midfield and allowing Kevin Nolan to stay forward, Diame is an excellent athlete who is actually pretty decent in front of goal too. I’d argue that he’s a more rounded player than Tiote and if I haven’t sold him enough, google ‘Diame Wigan women’. I promise it’s safe for work, which is more than I can say for Newcastle’s first team squad.
Hopefully the next time I sit down to write results have disproved mine and many others doubts. But let’s not let results blind us when assessing the current ownership of our beloved club and the contempt with which Mike Ashley, and all he stands for, deserves to be held.
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