In the TBAWE “hot seat” this week, as reports appear of Michael Martin being spotted around the training ground but being not quite ready for a return to first-team action, is Yousef Hatem.
This week, there’s only one place to start, and it is fully 4,600km from the Strawberry Corner. Somewhere in Antakya, the capital of Hatay Province in southern Turkey, one of our own remains unaccounted for, following one of the most catastrophic natural disasters of our lifetimes. At the time of writing (Sunday night), former Newcastle United winger Christian Atsu is still missing. 33,000 people have been confirmed dead so far, with the whereabouts of tens of thousands of others still unknown. Amid the horror, we hear stories of rescue: earlier today, of a baby girl, and of a Syrian man buried beneath the rubble for 151 hours. We also hear, sadly, of rescue efforts disrupted by civil unrest.
Of Atsu himself, we hear conflicting reports – on Wednesday he was found, only to be unfound a few hours later. We may fear the worst, but we hope – and those of us of faith pray – for the best. Mentioning Atsu’s exploits on the pitch for Newcastle United seems almost distastefully frivolous given the horror of the past week, but this is – after all – a fanzine. Atsu served Newcastle well: impressing on loan in the promotion season under Benitez (in which his free-kick away at Cardiff was one of our best goals of the season) and earning himself a permanent deal.
I was in the away end at West Ham just before Christmas 2017, a weird occasion on which the lesser-spotted Henri Saivet was glimpsed in the wild (and scored), and Rob Elliot saved a penalty (an under-rated “pivotal moment” in our survival that season), but the undisputed man of the match was Atsu. An assist for Diame, a goal for himself, and a new arsehole ripped for Pablo Zabaleta, who is probably still having nightmares, such was the torrid afternoon Atsu gave him.
He continued to feature prominently the following season, before his opportunities became more limited under Steve Bruce’s Countdown-inspired selection policy (“Jonjo, and then just ten others from anywhere please, Carol”) until he left the club in summer 2021, as possibly the only elite footballer ever to have had his name chanted to the tune of “The Logical Song” by Scooter.
A popular figure in a Benitez team which was always more than the sum of its parts, Atsu played alongside many of those who are in the squad now, and who may well be affected by what is happening to their former team-mate. Atsu was, Atsu is, a Geordie. We wait for news of him, and we put everything else in perspective.
Back to these shores, and to the Saturday teatime draw at Bournemouth. I confess that I didn’t watch it (there was a very sick toddler who has required my attention for much of the weekend – something else which puts football in a bit of perspective) and so I’ve got little to say about the match itself, but I have gleaned that we weren’t great and were probably a bit fortunate to leave Dorset with a point. It doesn’t sound like it was a classic, and it was one of the later games on Match of the Day.
Some are frustrated that we didn’t take advantage of a great opportunity to increase the gap between us and Spurs (who were thumped by Leicester); others point to yet another game unbeaten. Plenty seem aghast – if Twitter is to be believed, at least – that not all of their fellow supporters agrees with their own point of view.
For what it’s worth, I agree with the point Sam Dalling made in his match report for TF: “gratitude and disappointment are not mutually exclusive”. Pointing out that a draw at Bournemouth is a poor result is, I would venture, within the bounds of reasonable public opinion. The same is true, for that matter, of questioning the wisdom of not recruiting a striker in the transfer window.
Yes, we have come a very long way in a very short time (a point at Bournemouth would, not so long ago, have been cause for a public holiday, while “transfer window” meant hoping that Mike Ashley could find the loose change for Hamza Choudhury’s loan fee in the pockets of his XXL Lonsdale sweatpants), we know that we hit the jackpot with the takeover, and we know how lucky we are to have Eddie Howe.
That doesn’t mean that we must forever use the Ashley-Bruce era as a reference point, or that we can’t criticise performances, players or tactics now – or that supporters who are inclined to be more critical are any less justified in their views than those who have a sunnier outlook. The refrain “We’re fourth and in a Cup final!”, though demonstrably true, can’t be the answer to every question. It would be very boring if we all felt the same about matters black and white. In fact, it would be quite unhealthy.
It feels like every single week, for the past few months now, we’ve been saying that the next couple of matches are the biggest of the season so far. It won’t surprise anyone that I’ll make the same case for the next two. Liverpool at home is a big occasion in any season – but especially so this year.
Anger is an energy, and I cannot be the only one still angry at the circumstances of our defeat at Anfield back in August. Mags have had this one circled in their calendars for months. It’s another Saturday teatime kick-off at home. The Reds will take their full allocation, and the crowd should be suitably refreshed. This is the chance to give our lads a last proper send off before they head to Wembley, stopping only at Scotch Corner for petrol and tabs, and to allow Miggy to let off some steam in the arcades.
Three points will underline the power shift that has taken place in the Premier League, and give us momentum going into the following weekend. I can’t see Eddie Howe settling for anything less. Kieran Trippier is scientifically incapable of shirking a challenge. Joelinton has only one gear. This team cannot, and will not, play against Liverpool with any thought given to Wembley the following week.
Ah yes, Wembley the following week. The small matter of Newcastle United’s first domestic cup final in 24 years. I don’t want to use this week’s TBAWE to say that much about it, other than that True Faith will have it all covered – with huge amounts of top-notch Carabao Cup Final content: on the website, in the special edition print fanzine, via the podcasts, and there’s also a live event from The Star of Kings pub on the Friday night, featuring The Athletic’s George Caulkin.
I’ll just briefly comment on the ticketing situation: for what it’s worth (and as someone who did not enter the ballot), it looks like the club’s approach was as fair as it could have been. A little something for everyone: a nod given to those with loyalty points, a nod also given to those who had bought tickets for the earlier rounds, and season ticket holders prioritised above those without. It seems that the much-maligned ticketing website and queuing system has just about worked (so far), and the demand for tickets didn’t quite break the Internet. To the extent there have been gripes, they have mainly been with those looking to sell their Cup FInal ticket on secondary ticketing websites for an extortionate sum: a scenario as depressing as it is completely unsurprising. Remember when we gave out 10,000 season tickets for free? Newcastle United. Bloody hell.
Keep On’, Keepin On’…
YOUSEF HATEM – @yousef_1892