EPL Notes: Relief in Newcastle, Big Sam exits, more from the final day
The soundtrack at St James's Park for much of Sunday afternoon was the noise of nerves shredding.
Newcastle needed to beat West Ham to ensure Premier League survival. But winning is something Newcastle had not done since February.
At the start, Newcastle played as if they remembered how to do it. They tore into attack. The Toon Army roared the team on. The Magpies were trying. They weren't succeeding. As the misses and mistakes piled up the doubt quickly infected the crowded.
If Hull, which needed to win to stand a chance of overtaking Newcastle, had scored against Manchester United, the mood might have turned ugly. Hull did put the ball in the net twice in the first half, but both were ruled offside. If it wasn't for bad luck, Hull would have no luck at all.
In Newcastle, cheering became nervous muttering. The fans were anxious and impatient. They sighed and groaned every time a Newcastle player passed sideways and backwards rather than boot the ball into the penalty area.
The fans were proved right. After 54 minutes, Jonás Gutiérrez lobbed the ball into the goalmouth. Moussa Sissoko outleapt the defense to head in. It was a true center forward's strike. Newcastle had scored the goal they needed in the classic Newcastle way.
"That was a proper roller coaster," interim Newcastle manager John Carver told Sky after the game.
Gutiérrez, who only returned to the Newcastle team in March after missing 18 months as he overcame testicular cancer, added a second with a deflected shot with five minutes left. It was his first goal of the season. Gutiérrez and the fans reacted with instant ecstasy. Gutiérrez, like Sissoko, received a yellow card for ripping his shirt off in celebration. There was a nasty moment when it looked like he might also pull down his shorts and show off his scars.
Hull, which could not score even after Marouane Fellaini of United was sent off, drew 0-0 and was relegated.
Newcastle was safe. The fans could return to their favorite pastime. By the end they were chanting "We want Ashley out." Earlier this season, the Toon Army succeeded in persuading manager Alan Pardew, a Londoner, to leave and win games at Crystal Palace. Mike Ashley, the owner who is also a southerner, might prove harder to budge.
Ashley, against expectations, turned up at the match. He also broke with habit by facing the TV cameras before the game.
Anyone who has ever shopped at one of Ashley's Sports Direct stores will have discovered that he knows how to sell things. That includes himself, as the interview on Sunday showed.
When Ashley took over the club he cleared its debts with a $200 million interest-free loan. So far he has not taken any repayments. But the fans focus on the fact that Newcastle has been making operating profits – $29 million in its most recent annual figures – money that could have been spent on players.
Ashley accepted on Sunday that the fans had a point.
"The only positive is that we have the club on a very sound financial footing," he said. "We may have the cart financially but we now need to bolt the horse on."
He also warned Newcastle fans that one thing he wasn't going to sell was their club.
"I'm not going anywhere until we win something," he said, twice, though he added that qualifying for the Champions League counted as "winning something." It would certainly add a lot to the value of the club.
The hammer comes down – The final whistle had hardly blown in Newcastle when West Ham released a statement saying Sam Allardyce was leaving the club. "Don't let the door hit you on the way out," was the clear subtext.
Allardyce might be, as he says, a great manager. His record at Bolton certainly suggests he is pretty good. Yet his determination never to take the blame for anything, his lugubrious manner and his cynical tactics make him a difficult coach to like. The West Ham fans gave up trying.
Ashley, belatedly, has decided to work on his PR by facing the cameras and talking. Allardyce could work on his PR by doing the opposite.
The ugly game – During the week, Raheem Sterling's agent, Aidy Ward, threatened that the player would never appear for Liverpool again. On Sunday, Brendan Rodgers gave Sterling his supposed wish and left the sulking starlet on the bench at Stoke. He stayed there even as Liverpool was humiliated, 6-1.
What Sterling saw will only have encouraged the conviction that the ship is sinking and that being a rat might not be such a bad idea. Stoke scored five in the first half before allowing Steven Gerrard his goodbye goal.
Four years ago, the first lesson Liverpool taught Sterling was that in modern soccer money rules. Sterling was a 15-year-old in the Queens Park Rangers Academy when Liverpool came in waving cash. QPR sold. It is hardly surprising that a relationship which began when a richer club used its financial muscle looks likely to end the same way.
Sterling is not the only person who will profit if he moves. His agent will too. Ward left Impact Sports Management last year taking two young clients, Sterling and Saido Berahino of West Brom, with him. The name recognition he has attracted for insulting Jamie Carragher and by threatening a Sterling strike can only help build his fledgling business. If Ward can secure a headline-grabbing contract for one of his two clients he is sure to attract other young players. Like all agents, Ward is betting with someone else's money; even if Impact Sports do not try to claw back the money he makes on a Sterling deal. It is the player who will have to deliver on the agent's threatened boycott.
Liverpool, meanwhile, is trying to force Sterling to stay on its fast-declining team and earn less than he could elsewhere with an unpleasant mixture of condescension, coercion and emotional blackmail.
Nobody comes out of this well. Sterling is behaving like a greedy brat. Ward is pimping an inexperienced kid. The club is bullying its young star.
Welcome to modern professional soccer.
True blue – When John Terry appeared for Chelsea at Stamford Bridge on Sunday he reached a milestone he had never managed before in his 17-year career. At 34 years old, it is the first time he has started all 38 league matches in a season.
Part of the reason is that he has a manager who trusts him. Terry appeared in 36 league games twice in José Mourinho's first spell at Chelsea. Terry's age and lack of pace has worried some of the managers who held the reins in the Mourinho interregnum, though he appeared in 37 league games under Carlo Ancelotti five seasons ago.
"It's been tough," Terry told Sky after the game. "I've been feeling great most of the season. There have been two or three games where I've struggled but I've managed to get through."
Terry has been helped by Mourinho's defensive system and by the presence of Nemanja Matic, the best screening midfielder in English soccer. That should not distract from the fact that, this season, Terry has been the best center back in the division.
He has avoided injury. That is partly luck. Retiring from the England team helps. He said on Sunday that the international breaks had helped him recover this season. His fitness is also a testament to his professionalism. Long gone are the tearaway days when Terry attracted headlines for fighting American tourists in airports and bouncers in nightclubs.
Terry has also dialed back his aggression on the field. One reason he has been able to play every game is that he has not been suspended. Terry has not screamed abuse at any opponents. He picked up only two yellow cards in the Premier League this season. In the prolonged fracas at West Brom last Monday, which ended with Diego Costa receiving a yellow card and Cesc Fàbregas a red, Terry, as captain, remonstrated with referee Mike Jones but his body language conveyed disbelief rather than anger and aggression.
Rub your eyes! Terry is showing why the word "elder" often goes with the word "statesman".
Goodbye Brad – It takes some luck, ability and professionalism to start 38 straight Premier League games, it takes a huge dollop of all three to start a record 310 consecutive games as Brad Friedel did between August 2004 and October 2012 for Blackburn, Aston Villa and Tottenham. In a league where managers such as Allardyce and Tony Pulis run big, sharp-elbowed players at goalies from every set piece, that streak is a testament to Friedel's toughness, durability and size. It is also a testament to his ability. The American is good at what he does.
It might have been nice for Friedel to say goodbye to English soccer on the field at Goodison on Sunday, especially with Tim Howard, who is second behind Friedel in Premier League appearances by an American, in the opposite goal. But with Tottenham's traditional consolation prize of fifth place on the line, Spurs manager Mauricio Pochettino didn't name Friedel on the bench. Everton's manager, Roberto Martínez, did show there is room for sentimentality in soccer by naming Sylvain Distin on the bench. Everton brought the 37-year-old on for a six-minute curtain call at the end. But Friedel made 450 appearances because he deserved to, not because managers felt sorry for him.
With Friedel omitted and Brad Guzan on the bench for Aston Villa, only two Americans, Howard and Geoff Cameron of Stoke started on Sunday. While the past was banished from the Tottenham bench, the future might have been sitting there. DeAndre Yedlin, a 21-year-old US international, waited in vain to make his Premier League debut. It will come.