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Sunday, Feb. 5, 2006


Souness doomed to fail with Magpies

DETROIT -- There are some things in football that seem so obviously destined to go wrong you wonder why they happen in the first place.

Christopher Davies

Among such doomed scenarios was the appointment of Graeme Souness as manager of Newcastle United in September 2004, and when chairman Freddy Shepherd announced the unpopular successor to the popular Sir Bobby Robson, we sat back and waited for the rows and the sacking.

Souness' departure came on Thursday in the wake of Newcastle's 3-0 defeat by Manchester City, its third straight Premiership loss, which left it in 15th place.

Last August, Newcastle had high hopes of winning a place in Europe, now it is just six points above the relegation zone and faces a dogfight to stay among English football's elite.

Of course, the person to blame for Newcastle's demise under Souness is Shepherd, but the chairman will simply write out another massive compensation check and start the hunt for a new manager.

The reaction of Newcastle fans to the dismissal of Souness was more of frustration and anger against Shepherd but, of course, chairmen are virtually unsackable.

The man who has made so many poor managerial appointments -- Ruud Gullit was another who came and went almost without trace on Tyneside -- is still in charge.

If Shepherd was going to sack Robson, who led Newcastle to fifth position in 2003-04 and the semifinals of the UEFA Cup, then Shepherd should have had an ace rather than a joker up his sleeve.

Shepherd backed Souness with £50 million in the transfer market in his 16-month reign, too much of it wasted on players such as Jean-Alain Boumsong from his former club Rangers for £8.5 million (the .5 is no problem, it is the 8 that seems disproportionate) and Albert Luque, a lightweight forward who cost £9.5 million from Deportivo La Coruna.

Souness kept pointing to an injury list that never seemed to ease, while observers muttered about the likelihood that Newcastle's training may leave much to be desired with players needing appointments for the treatment table.

The timing of Souness' dismissal is beyond belief. A departure that has been on the cards for weeks happened two days after the transfer window closed, so any successor has no chance to add to the squad until the summer.

The Scot arrived with a reputation as a disciplinarian, yet last season teammates Lee Bowyer and Kieron Dyer exchanged blows on the field.

Managers tend to blame everyone but themselves; however, apart from some poor transfers, Souness may reflect on his decision not to talk to the local Evening Chronicle after Alan Oliver, its experienced and respected football correspondent, voiced the sort of criticisms every member of the Geordie nation has spoken of.

It was a public relations own goal and left Souness isolated as the pressure mounted.

The problem Shepherd has is to sell the job as manager of Newcastle to would-be successors to Souness.

Sam Allardyce of Bolton is the favorite for the post -- as he is to become the next England manager in the view of many -- and there is no doubt that, potentially, Newcastle is bigger than Bolton.

Yet prospective candidates will know the nature of the beast that is Shepherd, while Newcastle seems to be one of those clubs who will never lose its "sleeping giant" tag.

Glenn Roeder, the youth academy chief, will take charge against Portsmouth on Saturday, assisted by captain Alan Shearer, the man many Newcastle supporters would like to see take the reins at some stage.

This is Shearer's last season, and he seems set for a career in the media, where his job would be a lot less stressful and safer than working for Shepherd.

There will be huge support for Shearer to take the job on a full-time basis if results go well, but the former England international is aware that, while he can retire as the club's record goalscorer and walk away with his reputation sky high, he runs the risk of going the same way as other Newcastle managers if he stays on.

And working with Shepherd, a man he knows well, may not appeal to Shearer, who has witnessed first-hand how the chairman operates.

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

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