If anyone was under any illusion about the size of the rebuilding job United need to undertake this summer then it was laid bare at Fulham. Our side is severely reduced without the presence of Loic Remy in it and against a team with a woeful defensive record we were unable to score a goal. Creatively, we are severely lacking and with Cabaye now in Paris, Hatem Ben Arfa, seemingly in the United departure lounge and Marveaux nowhere we lack a clever pass here and there to unpick a defence and get a winning goal.
That’s not to say we didn’t create a chance at Fulham. Although the game will be quickly forgotten, a good chance fell top Cisse who forced a good save from Stockdale but another in the second half again fellow to our Senegalese striker whose finish was terrible, hitting a golden opportunity right at the Fulham ‘keeper. Cisse has been shown incredible patience by Mags but I detect exasperation is creeping in with a player who has been out of form longer than he was on song at SJP. What has happened to Cisse is a mystery. When he arrived he was on fire and played a massive part in getting us up to a fifth place finish and leave us gasping at the genius of some of his goals – those two at Chelsea, particularly the second, amongst the best many us have ever seen from a United player. But now? He just looks lost.
God knows what has happened to him but there is no shortage of theories. I’ve rather simplistically wondered if he was ever that good anyway but his record in Germany and his form on arrival can’t have been fluke. More rationally, people do wonder if Pardew’s treatment of him as he laboured to accommodate Ba, by moving him down the flank has been the cause of his loss of form and confidence. Additionally, the use of Cisse as an old fashioned target-man last season hasn’t done much for him and what we see now is a player who is shot with a loss of confidence. I’m not certain whether the conflict Cisse had with United over the shirt advertising of a loan-shark hasn’t upset a player who is a little different from the usual moral vacuums who play in the Premier League week to week. John Carver says the club will keep the faith with Cisse but I rather doubt that is the case as there was substance to the stories United were doing their utmost to sell him in January, perhaps another cause of Cisse’s on-field unhappiness. Who knows? Whatever, it is alarming a player has declined so completely in such a short space of time. Placed alongside the failures of Hatem Ben Arfa and Marveaux to blossom at United and there is merit in questioning whether Pardew and his coaching team have been able to coax the most from these talented players. I am not absolving the players in question of responsibility however and in Ben Arfa’s case his physical condition and lack of discipline on the pitch is down to his lack of professionalism and commitment.
Of course the defeat at Fulham came again on the watch of Howard Webb. Webb got several decisions wrong – the foul on De Jong in the run up to the Fulham goal and completely missing the hand-ball from Krul’s shot in the dying seconds. That was a nailed on penalty but maybe may have been too controversial for a notorious bottler of a referee. England’s best? God help us.
So then, the manager copped for a 7-match mix of stadium and touchline bans with talk of anger management counselling and all the rest of it. Pardew was completely wrong and needed to be punished. This is a strong punishment from the FA but I would ask why the authorities are not being beseeched by the football press this Monday morning to take severe punishment of Tim Sherwood for his antics at White Hart Lane during the North London derby and once again, press darling Jose Mourinho appears to be being cut quite a bit of slack by the football media for his predictable carry-on with Chris Foy following Villa’s unexpected win over Chelsea the weekend just gone. You can add Joe Hart’s head-butting at Hull which appears not to be bringing the same squeals from those in the press-box. Maybe, they aren’t quite as unedifying as Pardew sticking his head towards Meyler but they are serious breaches nevertheless and need to be dealt with. Let’s just see.
The absence of screaming headlines as we had for Pardew begs the question, is Newcastle United an unpopular club with the football press? I’d suggest we are and for good reason. The club’s attitude towards journalists, the bans and the alleged request for payment to be allowed access to players and managers etc for coaches will not have gone down well amongst football’s fourth estate and for what it’s worth I think it is entirely wrong how the club has treated certain parts of the press. Its not about whether you or I loathe certain newspapers or journalists there is a principle of freedom of expression and let’s get everything into proportion, it is only football and not world health, economics or famine journalists are reporting upon and we surely have to laugh off most of what is written about football from certain elements of the press. However, United’s persistent use of the blunt instrument of bans etc. means that when the same press who feel aggrieved at how United has treated them are presented with an opportunity to boot the boot into the club and feel justified in doing so, then they undoubtedly will. That is why when Pardew misbehaves he will have an angry press on his head but when Hart, Mourinho or Sherwood do likewise the vitriol will be somewhat diluted. This is the real world of score-settling and pettiness.
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Looking to the week ahead and the visit of Crystal Palace is a vital one for us to win as it will confirm our winter slump is over. If we fail to win that one then the victories over Villa and Hull will simply look like staging posts to a destination marked mediocrity. The players have a lot to play for, not least their own World Cup aspirations but also to ensure United finishes in the top half of the PL table and amongst as much money as possible because we don’t want any more excuses for the lack of investment into our club from the disinterested billionaire sitting somewhere in Berkshire counting his money and in the huff.