Football: Toon Army turn on 'clueless, dreadful, boring' King Kenny

The roundheads have replaced Keegan's cavaliers at Newcastle and the rapport between manager Kenny Dalglish (right) and the club's fans is at an all-time low. Guy Hodgson went in search of FA Cup fever on Tyneside - but found only the chill of discontent
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IT DID not take a fanciful mind to draw a parallel with the splendid building that looms over Newcastle United's training ground and the man who was speaking. Lumley Castle's battlements, Kenny Dalglish's words, it was hard to discern which was the more resistant to intruders.

He sat in the classic defensive pose, arms crossed, beating away the media with a politician's tongue. This was Newcastle's pre-FA Cup semi- final open morning, but the portcullis was down, the drawbridge up and the only things coming out were arrows of obfuscation.

Would the team be staying away to prepare for tomorrow's match against Sheffield United? "We always go away to prepare for away matches. Yeah we'll go away." Tonight? "No." Tomorrow? "I'm not going to tell you. We will prepare the best way we think fit."

The more time you spent in Newcastle this week the greater you realised that Dalglish has become the focus of debate in the city. Few supporters warm to their manager whose public wariness appears to have been transmitted to the style on the field. "Boring", "dreadful", "clueless" were three of the printable words used to describe the team. Not so much Cup fever had spread as amazement that a commonly conceived side of automatons has got anywhere near Wembley.

"Don't get me wrong," one supporter dressed in a replica shirt said outside the club's souvenir shop at St James' Park, "I'm happy, no proud, that Newcastle are in the semi-finals of the FA Cup, but why couldn't it have been Kevin Keegan's team? They'd have set Wembley alight. Dalglish will send the country to sleep."

Others spoke of tomorrow's match as being Dalglish's last chance. That if he fails to get Newcastle to their first final since 1974, the tenuous link between manager and supporter, which has never widened to more than a thread, will be irreparably broken. Few semi-final managers have had as much at stake as Dalglish has at Old Trafford.

An unexpected outcome of the furore surrounding the disgraced erstwhile directors Freddie Shepherd and Douglas Hall has not been a release of pent-up discontent. Like the French Revolution, one grievance cleared seems to have merely opened the eyes to others. The character of Dalglish, or rather his team, has become an issue running alongside the road to Wembley.

"This is my first semi- final," Mark Jensen, editor of the Newcastle fanzine, The Mag, said, "and when I used to dream of what it would be like it was nothing like this. The spectre of relegation from the Premiership has put a different light on things.

"I'm sure the atmosphere will be terrific on the day but so far, with so much else going on, it hasn't been feverish. People have been distracted. Certainly it's not been a charge at the FA Cup final, it's been more of a plod."

That slog has been most apparent in the League where the laughing, off- the cuff, cavaliers of Keegan have been replaced with stone-faced roundheads. Which would be tolerated if the team were successful, but they have not won any of their last seven Premiership matches and are only five points above the relegation places.

"The rest of the season doesn't bear thinking about if we don't get the right result on Sunday," Jensen said. "Last August we began full of excitement, we were in the Champions' League and expecations were high. It was onwards and upwards. Being on the edge of the relegation zone never came into the equation.

"The feelings about Dalglish are very mixed. There are people who wouldn't be upset if he left tomorrow, but the majority are looking for him to turn things round. People know he's had problems, but the simple fact is the football is terrible. The League table does not lie."

Jensen is not one who subscribes to the theory that Dalglish will go if Newcastle lose tomorrow, if only because, with seven matches to go and the transfer deadline past, a change of manager would be pointless.

"He probably has until Christmas, " he said. "If we stay up I think people will reserve judgement until the start of next season when they'll see if the players he has bought gel. People were prepared to sacrifice a little bit of excitement of the Keegan years to get a successful team, but there has been little evidence of improvement."

Which made Dalglish's reticence this week more strange. Here was a chance to toss aside the barriers that appear to have grown between the club and the fans and embrace them. They could have prepared at the Durham training ground where thousands used to throng to witness the Keegan revolution, but chose instead to cling to the security of Chester-le-Street's Riverside complex. On Thursday just two people watched Alan Shearer and co practise. A chance lost, just as the press conference probably laid waste more bridges than those it intended to build.

Friends say Dalglish is wonderful company and has a mischievous sense of humour but it is hard to find under the layers of armour. A glimpse came when he talked about Robert Lee's injury. "He's got a hamstring problem," he said, "which is a surprise because it usually only affects quick players."

"Good story," someone said at which point the steel door slammed shut. "He's heard it before," Dalglish replied, quick as a flash with the put- down.

This week Nicky Marker, a Sheffield United player who worked under Dalglish at Blackburn Rovers, could not have been more effusive about his manager. "I could never find a bad word about him," he said. "I remember once my child was ill and taken to hospital but as soon as Kenny found out he pulled me out of the game and told me to go home. He is different class, always will be."

Loved by his players, cold and aloof to the people who could transmit that affection to a wider audience. "Is that it," he asked as the press conference stalled to a halt. "No problem." With that he left leaving bemusement and anger behind him.

No problem? Downstairs a member of the media let rip at Newcastle's public relations officer. "That was a disgrace and I'll be writing to the chairman to tell him so. The sooner he [Dalglish] is out of this club the better."

At the moment we are not at the final chance, but semi- final is apposite in more ways than one. A joke, printed in the Newcastle Evening Chronicle this week illustrated the distance between manager and fan. "Dalglish went into a pub one day," it read, "found it was happy hour and walked out."

Local papers do not print things like that unless a gap has grown. The Newcastle supporters need Dalglish to find them some happy hours. Otherwise the split will become permanent.