It is New Year's Eve in Newcastle. Four young men board the X32 at the Haymarket bus station, bound for Ashington, home of the Charltons and Jackie Milburn. They have yet to become the worse for the early-evening drink they have taken on board. Such is their mood of merriment, indeed, they burst into voice. "Ee-aye, ee-aye, ee-aye, oh!" they chant. "Down the Premier League we go. We are very average. We won't win anything. We are boring. We are boring. Dalglish is our king. Hey !"
Two days later, in a tea-shop in the Northumberland countryside, the talk is of what is known even in such genteel northern parts as "The Toon." The proprietor hands a toasted teacake to a customer out for the afternoon with his wife and young child. "Are you going on Wednesday night, then?" he asks. "Not likely," comes the reply. "They've got the money for my season ticket. I won't give them another penny until they start to spend."
When Wednesday came, 16,000 of the Toon Army's season ticket-holders - roughly half - were absent from St James' Park. Newcastle United had to take out half-page adverts in the Journal and the Evening Chronicle in a desperate attempt to sell unwanted tickets on the day of the Coca- Cola Cup quarter-final against Liverpool. There were still 3,000 unoccupied seats.
English football's great entertainers have become the run-of-the-mill containers. As Ian Ferguson puts it in the latest edition of The Mag, the best-selling Newcastle fanzine: "We have become a team which starts with a 0-0 draw and tries to hang on to it." He adds that if Newcastle United were his girlfriend, "I would have said it was time to split up and move on. For the last three months we've only had one good night to remember and the rest of the time you have just gone out of your way to embarrass me in public and make my life miserable."
It is an apposite analogy. A year ago, in the wake of Kevin Keegan's departure, a German television crew stopped one of the black-and-white- clad locals in Newcastle's Bigg Market and asked: "What will it feel like when your team gets a new manager?" "Like finding wor lass in bed with another man," he replied.
Next Wednesday, 14 January, it will be a year since the start of the affair between Kenny Dalglish and the Toon Army. It has been a rather curious one. Dalglish has taken Newcastle into the European Cup and to a famous victory against Barcelona. But the fans have yet to take him to their hearts. As "Toon Army Pete" of Whitley Bay put it last week, on the letters page of The Pink, the Evening Chronicle's sports edition: "Come back, Kevin. All is forgiven."
It is a popular sentiment on Tyneside 12 months after the high-profile changing of the managerial guard at St James' Park. It is hardly surprising, either, given the bumpy manner in which the Magpies have fallen to earth since their 3-2 success against Barcelona in September.
A run of seven League matches without a win has left them on the slide, perched precariously in the bottom half of the Premiership table. The last time Newcastle endured a longer winless streak in one season, the final nine games of the 1988-89 campaign, they slid into the old Second Division.
Dalglish's team line up against Sheffield Wednesday at Hillsborough this afternoon 20 points behind Manchester United but just six points ahead of Everton and Spurs. They have 26 points from 19 Premiership games. Sunderland had 23 at the same point last season and no one on Tyneside needs reminding of the fate they suffered on the May day of reckoning.
The prospect of passing Sunderland on the way down to the First Division is too great a nightmare for the Toon Army to contemplate. For the time being, they are simply aggrieved that the perceived dream football of the Keegan era has given way to the stupefyingly pragmatic.
"You want to know the mood of the fans !" Dave, one of the restless natives filing out of St James' on Wednesday night, exclaimed. "Ask anyone. We're sick of watching boring football."
You will struggle to find any Newcastle supporters still clinging to the belief that Alan Shearer is the only vital ingredient missing. You will, it must be said, also struggle to find those convinced that Dalglish will come up with a trophy-winning recipe.
Yet it is difficult not to sympathise with the man who is not exactly flavour of the times on Tyneside. Newcastle's transformation, as the North- east playwright Peter Mortimer this week chose to put it, "from Keegan's troubadours into Dalglish's donkeys" is not as black and white as it seems.
Newcastle were not always strolling minstrels when Keegan had the whip hand. They were as grey and lifeless at times as Dalglish's team have undoubtedly been in recent weeks. Indeed, this is the fourth successive term in which Newcastle have been afflicted by mid-seasonal affective disorder.
Three years ago, they suffered the slump that prompted the sale of Andy Cole. Two years ago, they lost their 12-point lead at the top of the Premiership. And last season they went seven League games without a victory shortly before Keegan packed his bags.
That latter streak, which matches the current one, has been conveniently overlooked by Dalglish's critics. Newcastle failed to win those games even with Shearer leading their forward line. Keegan knew his side, once again, were not quite championship-winning material.
He had put the bank on Shearer, and tempted fate by parading him at an all-ticket signing ceremony at St James' Park. It was a gamble for which Dalglish has been made to pay.
Keegan left not just because he could see another title chance disappearing, but because of Newcastle's imminent stock exchange flotation. It has been clear from Dalglish's failure to sign adequate striking cover for Shearer and Faustino Asprilla that there has been no bottomless pot of gold like the one into which his predecessor could dip. Keegan never had to skim the free-transfer market for such short-term long shots as Ian Rush and John Barnes.
Dalglish would not have been obliged to do so had he been left a decent depth of reserves. Keegan's decision to remove Newcastle's second team from the Pontins League last season cut off a vital production line and led to the sale of such unemployed assets as Darren Huckerby and Chris Holland.
It ought not to be forgotten, too, that Dalglish reversed Newcastle's form in the second half of last season, guiding them into the qualifying round of the Champions' League with an unbeaten run of 10 games and a 5-0 scything of Nottingham Forest on the final day. And Newcastle, even without Shearer, looked promisingly like the part in their early games this season, until injuries to Stuart Pearce and Alessandro Pistone punctured their new-found defensive bouyancy.
It remains to be seen whether irreparable damage has been done to the visions of trophy-winning grandeur that were inflated in Toon Army minds by the bold proclamations of Keegan and Sir John Hall. Dalglish, of course, knows that it is good to talk. It is just as well, given the strong verbal defence that was required for his toughest fixture to date this season: against Jeremy Paxman on Thursday night.
"Now, to the burning question in soccer," the Newsnight anchorman said, before launching his smarm offensive: "Is Kenny Dalglish a big girl's blouse?" There was barely a flicker of response on Dalglish's face, let alone the tell-tale flutter of mascaraed eyelashes. He even rode the charge of managing "a plutocratic side" without dropping his doughty Glaswegian guard or, indeed, stopping to consult his dictionary.
It is, though, a sign of the changed times for the Toon Army that their once-beloved-black-and-whites will not be the nation's darlings when Newcastle pay their reluctant visit to Stevenage in the fourth round of the FA Cup. The conquerors of the pounds 400m pride of Catalonia are running scared of the part-time Borough boys of Broadhall Way. There will be a few broken hearts if those fears are realised in humble Hertfordshire on 25 January - but not as many as there would have been 12 months ago.
Keegan v dalglish: how they compare
Last five games under Kevin Keegan: 23 Dec 1996: Liverpool (h) Prem 1-1(Shearer); 26 Dec: Blackburn (a) Prem 0-1; 28 Dec: Tottenham Hotspur (h) Prem 7-1 (Shearer 2, Ferdinand 2, Lee 2, Albert); 1 Jan 1997: Leeds (h) Prem 3-0 (Shearer 2, Ferdinand); 5 Jan: Charlton Athletic (a) FA Cup third round 1-1 (Lee).
Keegan's last Newcastle XI: Hislop; Watson, Peacock, Albert, Beresford; Clark, Batty, Lee, Beardsley; Ferdinand, Shearer. Substitutes not used: Barton, Elliott, Kitson.
Premiership position at the time of Keegan's resignation (7/1/97): Fourth, five points behind the leaders, Liverpool.
Previous five games under Kenny Dalglish: 21 Dec 1997: Manchester United (h) Prem 0-1; 26 Dec: Derby County (a) Prem 0-1; 28 Dec: Liverpool (h) Prem 1-2 (Watson); 4 Jan 1998: Everton (a) FA Cup third round 1-0 (Rush); 7 Jan: Liverpool (h) Coca-Cola Cup quarter-final 0-2.
Dalglish's most recent XI: Hislop; Watson, Beresford, Peacock, Albert; Hughes, Batty, Lee, Barnes; Gillespie, Rush. Substitutes: Given (gk), Ketsbaia, Tomasson.
Premiership position after Newcastle's last game (28/12/97): Eleventh, 20 points behind the leaders, Manchester United.
Black and white HIGHLIGHTS: Dalglish's first year AT NEWCASTLE
14 January 1997: Dalglish takes over, with Terry McDermott as his No 2.
15 Jan: Dalglish's first game. Alan Shearer scores 100th-minute winner in 2-1 home victory in FA Cup third round replay against Charlton. "It's nice to be back. It's better than working,"Dalglish says.
18 Jan: Dalglish's first Premiership game, away at Southampton, ends 2-2 after Newcastle lose two-goal lead in final three minutes.
25 Jan: Knocked out of FA Cup by Nottingham Forest.
6 Feb: Paul Kitson sold to West Ham for pounds 2.5m.
24 Feb: pounds 1.5m bid for Crewe's Danny Murphy rejected.
1 March: Newcastle's first Premiership defeat since Dalglish's arrival, at home game to Southampton.
4 March: Monaco beat Newcastle 1-0 in Uefa Cup quarter-finals.
18 March: Monaco win return leg 3-0.
6 May: Newcastle held 0-0 by West Ham while Manchester United take the Premiership title by drawing 3-3 against Middlesbrough.
8 May: Jon Dahl Tomasson signs. Newcastle spoil party at Old Trafford as champions are held 0-0.
11 May: Newcastle beat Forest 5-0 at StJames' to finish second and claim a place in European Champions' League qualifying.
29 May: Shay Given signs from Blackburn for pounds 1.5m.
4 June: Lee Clark sold to Sunderland for pounds 2.5m
1 July: Robbie Elliott sold to Bolton for pounds 3.2m
11 July: Temuri Ketsbaia arrives from AEK Athens on free transfer.
15 July: David Ginola sold to Tottenham for pounds 2.6 m
18 July: Stuart Pearce joins free from Forest.
25 July: Alessandro Pistone signed for pounds 4.3m from Internazionale.
26 July: Alan Shearer carried off at Goodison Park with severe ankle ligament damage in pre-season tournament.
9 Aug: Faustino Asprilla scores twice in first game of 1997-98 season in 2-1 win against Sheffield Wednesday.
14 Aug: John Barnes signs on free transfer from Liverpool.
15 Aug: Ian Rush signs on free transfer from Leeds.
20 Aug: Peter Beardsley sold to Bolton Wanderers for pounds 300,000.
17 Sept: Newcastle beat Barcelona 3-2 in Champions' League debut. Asprilla scores a hat-trick.
1 Oct: Come back from 2-0 down to draw at Dynamo Kiev.
22 Oct: Newcastle lose 1-0 at PSV Eindhoven.
5 Nov: Lose at home to PSV at St.James' Park and are all but out of European Cup.
26 Nov: 7,000 follow Newcastle to Barcelona to see 1-0 defeat. Players jeered off Nou Camp for failing to aknowledge travelling Toony Army.
10 Dec: Dynamo Kiev are beaten 2-0 at St James Park in last Champions' League match.
21 Dec: Manchester United win 1-0 at St James' Park. Former Magpie Andy Cole heads the winner.
28 Dec: Lose 2-1 to Liverpool, following defeat at Derby.
4 January 1998: Everton beaten in FA Cup by an Ian Rush goal.Reuse content