Thursday, March 03, 2011

English Premier League: Newcastle 1 v Bolton 1

Oh me lads, you should've seen us gannin
Passing the folks along the road
And all of them were starin'
All the lads and lasses there
They all had smilin' faces
Gannin along the Scotswood Road
To see the Blaydon Races

A jaunty tune, Blaydon Races. Bit surprised at the sheer duration of the version Newcastle play before kick off. But tradition, I'm all for it.

A rather flying visit to St James' Park as Bolton visited in the English Premier League.

Time only for a quick trip to the statue of 'Wor Jackie' and a plastic pint in the Gallowgate End before taking our seats and enjoying that fine Geordie folk tune and a blast of Mark Knopfler.

Over the years I've visited Newcastle on and off quite regularly. I've noticed - and it's very much an outsider's view - that the city has become less black and white, that shirts of red and blue, of clubs further south are now easier to spot on the city streets.

Any such dilution of passion wasn't particularly discernible inside the ground. This wasn't a sell out, it wasn't a game of massive importance but clearly there is still hope and belief aplenty from the 48,000 believers in the stadium.

A salutary lesson here for critics of referees. The game had been trundling along rather merrily, was finely poised at 1-1 and both sides were showing enough willingness to attack to produce an entertaining afternoon.

Then Ryan Taylor miscontrolled and lunged after the ball. In his desperation he appeared to foul Johan Elmander. It looked, from my seat, like a strong challenge that maybe merited the game's first yellow card.

I was at one with the Geordie Nation as they howled their disapproval when Chris Foy produced a red card.

My anger increased when Taylor's dismissal robbed a decent game of its shape. I was further convinced this was a third rate whistler who'd struggle to get an SPL gig in the middle of a strike when he was clearly influenced by the crowd in a delayed decision to book Bolton's David Wheater.

But I was wrong about the dismissal. Repeated viewing on Match of the Day on Saturday evening and over the weekend confirm that Taylor's was a two-footed, over the ball lunge. Elmander's speed of thought in taking evasive action probably saved him an injury. The red card was deserved, the fans' derision misplaced and my own judgement flawed.

Actually my judgement was wrong elsewhere as well. Bolton's loan signing Daniel Sturridge was well hyped going into this one. He spent much of the first half going out of his way to disappoint. His runs into blind alleys might have been more acceptable if he'd shown any willingness at all for a physical battle. Instead he seemed all too keen to submit to Newcastle's defenders.

And then he rather smartly hit Bolton's equaliser for his fourth goal in as many games. As I wiped the egg from my face I was forced to concede that, whatever he lacked here, he looks to be a confident and fairly lethal goalscorer.

Newcastle enjoyed more of the game in the first half but Bolton's willingness to launch speedy counterattacks probably meant Sturridge's equaliser was deserved.

The early red card in the second half robbed Newcastle of their shape with their first half goalscorer, Kevin Nolan, becoming a particularly peripheral figure but Bolton struggled to capitalise on their advantage.

It was Newcastle who finished the stronger. Jose Enrique spent most of the afternoon driving home the idea that if he could find consistent final balls to match his magnificent twinkle toes he would be one of the greats. In the dying moments he finally did produce a cross to match the destruction he'd left trailing in his wake on the wing.

Unfortunately for Newcastle, Nile Ranger was rightly judged to be offside after providing the finish the cross demanded.

So a stalemate from two teams who seem destined - if I'm not being too premature in dismissing their European hopes - to remain in mid table, enjoying the comfort of safety while evolving as teams and squads.

Bolton, as we might expect under Owen Coyle, have a commitment to play football a certain way. They remain a work in progress but offer enough to deserve applaud for their efforts.

Newcastle have, as ever, endured a season of ups and downs, of comings and goings. But in Nolan they have a galvanising captain and Leon Best impressed for spells. Cheik Tioté, celebrating a lengthy new contract, provided the assist for Nolan's goal and looks to have an impressive depth to his game.

I have, it must be said, been to many less enjoyable low scoring draws over the years.

Have I now risked all by flying to close to the sun? What damage will exposure to the greatest league in the world do?

Well, none.

It is possible to concede the superiority of the English version without ignoring Scotland's unique charm.

Compared to my usual diet of football the players display a speed of thought, an awareness of space and position and a nonchalance in control that allows games to flow better.

That is hardly to Scotland's shame given the grotesque disparity in funds available in the two leagues.

If I pay two carpenters to build two cabinets I will expect the carpenter who bills me £50,000 for his week's labour to have produced furniture of a higher standard than the carpenter who bills me £500.

That would seem self evident, but if I can't afford £50,000 a week I have to try and make the best of what I can afford. Simple as that.

The SPL and the English Premier League are now so far apart as to render comparisons redundant. Clubs, fans and league executives who look longingly over the border are doing our game no favours.

To constantly make comparisons can only lead to depression and self loathing, it would be like me sticking a picture of George Clooney to my bathroom mirror. Why remind yourself of your flaws?

Not only are the differences now so pronounced as to make it hard to import the same practices here, too many seem awestruck by money and blind to the very obvious flaws in the English game.

The football might be better but the grass it's played on is not always greener.

So I enjoyed my jaunt to the dangerous side of Hadrian's Wall.

I'll be back.

But it's Scotland - Old Firm ugliness and all - for me.

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