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Saturday, Sept. 11, 2004

PREMIER REPORT

Will Souness be able to make a difference for Newcastle?


LONDON -- There is a famous line by Groucho Marxo where he says he would never be a member of a club that would have him as a member.

Christopher Davies

It sprang to mind when Newcastle United appointed Blackburn Rovers' Graeme Souness as manager Monday.

Why would Newcastle want a manager whose club would allow its manager to leave?

There is a suspicion that Blackburn, a much smaller club than Newcastle, was happy for the Scot to move on, so if Souness was not wanted by Rovers, why would the club representing the Geordie Nation want the Scot?

The sacking of Sir Bobby Robson and the subsequent appointment of Souness could possibly have been handled worse by Newcastle chairman Freddy Shepherd, though it is difficult to imagine how.

If dismissing Robson was the correct decision, it was done at the wrong time in the wrong manner.

Shepherd's leadership has left the image of a proud, if underachieving, club damaged and it says much about how Newcastle is perceived that Bolton's Sam Allardyce and Steve Bruce or Birmingham were reluctant to leave their own clubs to succeed Robson.

The choice of Souness has not exactly had Tyneside jumping for joy, but he is probably the best manager it could have appointed given the availability of other candidates, the time of the season the vacancy occurred and who really wanted the job.

Newcastle has become a sort of footballing Hollywood with big name players (some bigger in their own minds than others people's opinion) and scandal aplenty. Dull it isn't.

Robson, at seventy-something, had clearly lost the respect of some in the dressing room and one wonders how some of the players whose ill-advised behavior prior to the manager's sacking feel now.

One young player missed a game not too long ago because the effects of Viagra the previous night had not worn off. Even a cold shower could not bring things back to normal.

Kieron Dyer, who apparently is paid £65,000 a week, refused to play on the right side of midfield when asked, preferring a more central role, a situation that did little for Robson's credibility even though the player eventually apologized.

Craig Bellamy went on television to say that if Newcastle signed Wayne Rooney he would have to consider his own future at the club.

Such outbursts were not the reason Robson was sacked, but they hardly helped the cause of a football knight whose days were clearly becoming numbered.

Shepherd wants "hard man" Souness to improve discipline in the dressing room, ironic because the Scot is a serial abuser of referees and has been punished several times for this touchline indiscipline by the Football Association.

However, it is a sad comment on the modern day footballer that so many cannot be self-disciplined.

Perhaps it is understandable that a young player earning twice in a week what most fans earn in a year will have his head turned.

How many of us can put hand on heart and say that becoming a millionaire would not affect us?

At the same time we would not behave unprofessionally in our job, we would still respect others (especially our elders) and realize that with such a vast income comes certain responsibilities.

Our attitude is likely to be that, for £65 grand a week, playing on the right of midfield is not such a hardship, while appreciating employees tend to have little say in who their company brings in.

Souness has mellowed a little with age but his career has been a colorful mixture of good, bad and ugly.

Video compilations of horror tackles invariably show one wince-inducing challenge by Souness as a player, which left his opponent wondering what he did to deserve such a battering.

His Liverpool career yielded five League titles, three European Cups and four League Cups. That, if nothing else, is guaranteed to win respect for the midfielder who was sent-off on his debut as Rangers player-manager in 1986.

It was at Ibrox Park that Souness broke the Rangers mold by signing the club's first-ever Catholic player, Mo Johnston. Previously there had, strangely, never been a Catholic player good enough for Rangers . . .

For this historic act Souness received death threats from those stuck in a bigoted time-warp.

In 1991, after three Scottish League titles with Rangers, Souness renewed his link with Liverpool by joining them as manager, but a year later suffered a heart attack which necessitated a triple bypass operation.

Souness then alienated many Kop fans by selling his story to The Sun, a newspaper reviled in Merseyside after untrue accusations Liverpool fans stole from the pockets of the dead at the Hillsborough tragedy.

In 1994, Souness was fired after Liverpool's worst start to a season in 30 years. A spell in Turkey, in charge of Galatasaray, was followed by a year in charge at Southampton, which was marred by the signing of Ali Dia -- an impostor claiming to be George Weah's cousin.

Souness tried his luck in Serie A with Torino in 1997 but was fired after just six games. Next stop was Benfica, before returning to English management with Blackburn in 2000.

He led Rovers straight back into the Premiership in his first year in charge, but a stressful 2003 was marked by training ground bust-ups with David Dunn and strikers Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole.

On the plus side, Souness has the experience of managing in five countries which few can boast. The down side is that he has, apart from Rangers (who are rarely far away from the title or a Cup) had little success.

It will be to Souness' advantage that he gets on well with Newcastle striker Alan Shearer, a huge influence at the club and the popular choice to become manager.

Shearer, however, seems destined for a career in television when he stops playing next summer.

Souness starts his new job on Monday. Both Blackburn and Newcastle agreed this was best because the clubs play each other on Saturday.

Indeed, Souness will not even be at St. James' Park to, hopefully, take some heat off what is now a fixture with an added edge.

AFTER the Football Association of Ireland announced plans to play internationals away from Lansdowne Road while it undergoes a two-year redevelopment, starting in 2006, an RTE camera crew asked Cathal Dervan, a respected Dublin-based journalist, if he would do an interview.

It went something like this . . .

Q. So where would your preferred option for Ireland to play be?

A. My preferred option would be Amsterdam (smiles) but I doubt of the FAI will take any notice of me . . .

Q. Really? That's surprising . . .

A. Well, maybe they will (smiles). The best option would be Croke Park but there is so much politics involving the Gaelic Athletic Association, who won't allow football to be played at their stadium. It drives me mad, but maybe the government can do something about it.

A few more questions were answered in a similar honest and controversial manner.

At the end the interviewer said: "Thanks very much. That's excellent. Can I just check Mr. Rooney, it is chief executive isn't it?"

Dervan had been mistaken for Fran Rooney.

And what would have been a controversial, headline-making interview -- "FAI boss wants games in Amsterdam" -- was destined for the dust bin.

Christopher Davies covers Arsenal and the Republic of Ireland for the London Daily Telegraph.


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