Bowyer the gamble that cost nothing

Robson is perfect father-figure to handle a controversial midfielder
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The Independent Online

Sir Bobby Robson is not averse to a little flutter. Indeed, after being invited to the Greyhound Derby at Wimbledon in June and hearing over the Tannoy that the 9-1 winner of the opening race was "owned by a Mr C Bellamy", he chastised his whippet-like Welsh striker for not telling him to get his money on such a good thing.

Perhaps he will have better luck if Newcastle City Council grant planning permission for a Las Vegas-style casino complex adjacent to St James' Park. Newcastle United, who own the land, have agreed a £150m deal with the American tycoon Sheldon G Adelson.

In the meantime, Robson is taking no gambles. In contrast to Claudio Ranieri, who has £75m of new playing chips at his disposal, the Newcastle manager has spent nothing in transfer fees on adding to the squad he takes into the final qualifying round for the Champions' League in Belgrade on Wednesday night. Win or lose in the two-legged encounter with a Partizan side coached by Lothar Matthäus, the free-transfer acquisition of Lee Bowyer is likely to remain his only piece of recruitment for the new season.

"We're just sitting tight, keeping our powder dry," Sir Bobby said, a smile of contentment playing on his face an hour after his team's 2-2 draw with an excellent Bayern Munich at St James' Park on Tuesday night. "We're just waiting and seeing what's happening.

"I don't think that we're short of any players going into the season. It may be that we'll just sit tight until Christmas. And then we might say, 'There's a loophole here. There's a piece of jigsaw there. Let's do something.' We have a lot of players ourselves, you know. I mean tonight on the bench we had Viana, Hughes, Jenas, Solano and Ameobi."

Solano rose from the bench after 67 minutes to replace Bowyer wide on the right of midfield. Some would argue that signing Bowyer for free was a gamble. Robson would not agree. "He was due to sign for Liverpool for £9m last year and I'm sure that his value hasn't gone down since then," the Newcastle manager said. "He's a quality player who will give us an extra option, and he's a great steal for us. He didn't cost us a coin."

The venerable Sir Bobby has been criticised for investing his faith in a player "with a bit of baggage", as he has put it, not least because he has reunited Bowyer with the former colleague who stood on trial with him at Hull Crown Court. Perhaps only Robson, with the reverential regard in which he is held, would have dared to sign the pair. But he did so out of shrewd pragmatism. For £8m, he has signed two players who were valued at £24m together at Elland Road a year ago. And if Bowyer settles into the Newcastle fold as impressively as Jonathan Woodgate has since his January move, then the Premiership's oldest manager will be looking like one of the smartest.

The important thing for Robson is that, despite mild mutterings of potential mutiny, the Toon Army have welcomed the new boy with such open arms. After Bowyer was jeered in the Asia Cup in Kuala Lumpur and in Newcastle's friendly at Hillsborough nine days ago, there were nothing but cheers for him against Bayern in his home baptism.

"I was delighted with the response from our crowd," Sir Bobby said afterwards. "I've said to Lee, 'Look, it might be difficult sometimes at some places, but you've got to be a tough character. We'll support you. You'll get through it'. The support tonight was a big help for him."

As yet, the support from the powers that be at St James' Park has extended to keeping Bowyer at arm's length from the media. There has been no welcoming press conference for him. His comments have been limited to an interview in the programme for the Bayern game.

"I've come here to win things," Bowyer said. "The prospect of achievement is the big thing that attracted me. I believe we can win things." That quest begins in Belgrade on Wednesday - but without Bowyer's assistance. Having stamped his authority on the head of Malaga's Gerardo in the Uefa Cup last December, he has a six-match European ban to serve. It was Bowyer's final act as a Leeds player at Elland Road. He has been back once - in a West Ham side beaten 1-0 in February. His every touch of the ball was greeted with the chant: "You're just a shit cockney bastard."

As fate would have it, his first competitive match for Newcastle happens to be at Leeds next Sunday. "I would rather have gone there a little bit down the line into the season," Bowyer said in his programme interview. "But it will be good to go back - and we do have a good record against Leeds at Elland Road."

Newcastle United - the new "we" in the life of Lee Bowyer - won 3-0 at Leeds last season. They also won 3-2 at Feyenoord and 3-1 at Bayer Leverkusen, and drew 2-2 against Internazionale in the San Siro. Whether they get back into the European big league will hinge on their two-legged fate against Partizan Belgrade.

Whether Sir Bobby gets any Christmas spending money probably hinges on it too. "It's crucial to us," he acknowledged. "It's where the players want to play, and it's where the big money is."