Football is back, but it is not football that many will be talking about after an opening game that left a sour taste in the mouths of many that witnessed it. In truth, that is partly because, from a purely football point of view, there wasn’t a lot to talk about – despite a huge amount of possession, particularly in the first half, we created little, and Tim Krul was rarely and never seriously tested. Plenty of excellent positions were found, but all too often an extra touch was taken or the final ball was wayward, and those chances came and went. At the other end, Newcastle were wholly unambitious.
It had the feel of a pre-season game, perhaps because both sides came in undercooked and unsure of their squads. Newcastle have sold, we are missing players that we are about to sell, and both clubs have moves still to make before the end of August. It showed on the pitch – neither bench was particularly strong (you could argue ours had talent, but not experience), and both sets of players looked rustier than the usual opening day fare.
That said, there were positives, particularly at the back, where Koscielny impressed alongside Vermaelen, Gibbs surged forward well, and Szczesny dominated his area superbly, especially from set pieces. That defensive solidity was important – had we crumbled under pressure at the end and conceded a soft goal, the pitchforks would be out. As it is, it isn’t a spectacular result, but it isn’t a bad one either – given the nature of our squad situation, a point and a clean sheet away from home is nothing to lambast, although I’m sure many will.
Of course, the football will not make the headlines – instead, two flashpoints will, out of which neither club, or anyone involved, came out particularly well. The first incident involved Song and Barton – Song, already on a yellow, was riled by a Barton challenge and appeared to quite deliberately bring his studs down on the back of his leg, a moment of sheer stupidity fortunately missed by Peter Walton. In the moment, I defended Song on Twitter as it appeared to be an accident on first viewing, but having seen the replays it is clear that he does look down at Barton before choosing where to place his foot.
It was the kind of stupidity we thought we had eradicated from the club once Eboue had been ousted, and I have little doubt that an FA charge will follow. The only thing that might save him is if the FA turn a blind eye to it, because of the actions of his victim later in the game.
With a quarter of an hour to go, Gervinho, who was having an excellent debut, turned in the box and was clipped by Tiote. There was contact, but my first reaction was that it was a dive. He certainly went down easily – one of those moments where you claim the spot kick if your player goes down, but feel hard done by if it is given against you. What followed was far worse – Barton decided on the vigilante approach and hauled our new signing up by his neck and throat, an action that would eventually earn him a yellow card. Any sympathy from the neutrals for a man seemingly unhappy about a fellow professional going down easily were quickly eradicated when Gervinho’s light bitch slap reaction saw Barton tumble back to earth clutching (the wrong side of) his face in apparent agony.
Repeatedly, Barton then claimed to be the victim of a powerful punch, which is somewhat ironic since he should know exactly what one of those is, having dished plenty out both on and away from the football field. If he thought that a punch, I would certainly hesitate to believe what sort of ‘tough unbringing’ he really had. Equally risible was the reaction of Steven Taylor, who hounded anyone who would listen with claims that, in fact, it was a swinging elbow that saw Barton so mortally wounded. You would have thought Walton would have smelt a rat at such wildly different accounts, but sadly not.
Incidentally, all credit to ESPN’s Rebecca Lowe, who pressed that very point home in an interview with Taylor after the game, in which the player claimed not to have seen the incident at all. Lowe refused to move on, pointing out that that was a strange claim to make by a man who had insinuated quite the opposite in the immediate aftermath. In doing so, she exposed Taylor quite brilliantly. Well played.
But, and this is a big but, for all the cretinous and blood boiling behaviour of Barton, you cannot defend what Gervinho did – he raised his hands, slapped his opponent, and in doing so gave Barton exactly what he wanted. Because for those who question why Barton does these things, there is your answer – he got a yellow card, and he incited his opponent into getting sent off. In short, he won. He is not embarrassed by his actions, and I question the logic of the masses who send him abuse on Twitter – can you not see that he likes to know he gets to people? You are playing into his hands, people.
No-one came out of the situation well. Barton and Taylor looked like manipulative weasels, Song and Gervinho naive, foolish and a touch spiteful, and the officials weak. Even the managers made me cringe – Wenger by claiming he would appeal the sending off, and Pardew for seeing no wrong in what his player had done.
My take on what should have happened? Song, Barton and Gervinho should all have seen red, and all for violent conduct – Song for the stamp, Gervinho for the slap, and Barton for lifting him off the ground by his neck. But as I’ve already said, Barton won the day, because he is almost certainly the only one of the trio who will not be missing next weekend’s games through suspension. The more this tactic works, the more he will persist with it – he did for Diaby six months ago, and he has done it again.
I will say this though – when Robbie Savage is calling you out after the game, and the nation is nodding in agreement, you have officially reached a new low.
So now Wenger has to plan for a testing fortnight without more players – Song and Gervinho are both likely to be missing for games against Liverpool and United, and with the squad already thinner than we would like, some careful rotation will have to occur for the Champions League tie. It is an unenviable situation, but one that is entirely our own doing thanks to the end of season collapse that helped create the ‘spend some fucking money‘ chant that echoed around the away end in the final moments of the game. For the record, while I think the away fans are superb and have the right to sing whatever they want, the timing was off – we were defending solidly, and were trying to see out a final push from a side with an extra man. Not helpful in that moment, no matter how resonant the sentiment.
Overall, I am a little disappointed by the result without seeing it as a disaster, but I’m worried about the next couple of weeks. For so many reasons, the next fortnight is enormously important.
Despite the turgid game, it is good to have football back. Next up, Udinese.