Football: Dalglish busy penning a new Toon

Simon Turnbull finds the rebuilding work has a promising look about it
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The Independent Online
They Have been putting their shirts on Kenny Dalglish in Newcastle this week. St James' Park was besieged by campers the night before Newcastle United's new away strip went on sale at the club shop. Within 24 hours more than 4,000 members of the Toon Army were proudly parading the new uniform on the streets of Tyneside.

The night when one of their ranks, 24-year-old Steve Tyler, famously removed his black and white top on Anfield's ash-track and flung it over Dalglish seemed a very distant memory. The Toon Army's new leader has won his stripes since then.

The morning after Croatia Zagreb were beaten 2-1 at St James' on Wednesday night, the Newcastle Journal extolled the virtues of "Kenny Dalglish's new total football concept". Back on 11 March, the day after Tyler got shirty and Newcastle lost 4-3 at Liverpool, the back-page headline on Tyneside's other daily newspaper, The Evening Chronicle, screamed: "SHAMBLES!" "Kenny Dalglish will have to start all over again," a comment piece concluded. "Newcastle, last night, brought back memories of the bad old days before Kevin Keegan."

On Wednesday the author of a book chronicling the Keegan years at Newcastle was asked to return pounds 400 of his advance fee, such had been the lack of demand. And the team Dalglish sent out for the Champions' League qualifier included just 3 of the 14 who played in that shambolic Anfield show, the last defeat Newcastle suffered in a Premiership match.

It also featured the new wing-back formation which has lifted the Magpies to encouraging heights in their first two matches of the new season. Seven months into his second job as Keegan's replacement, Dalglish has made his mark.

"I don't want to say 'I told you so'," Mark Jensen, editor of The Mag fanzine, said. "But right from the start, when Kevin Keegan left, I always thought that Kenny Dalglish was the man for the job. It has taken time for everyone to get behind him. There was a bit of grievance because Keegan had gone and some people were wary of us playing in the Blackburn style of three years ago.

"But Liverpool didn't play negative football when Kenny was manager there and, after the fine tuning he has done this summer, we are playing some great stuff. I thought we were excellent against Zagreb when you think they have seven of the Croatia team."

That the new Newcastle were able to hold sway for the opening half an hour against a side of such quality was a measure of the strides Dalglish has made. The prompting of Robert Prosinecki, the Barcelona old boy, and the probing of Silvio Maric, tied to Milan by a pre- contractual agreement, gave the Croats the edge as the match progressed. Having swept aside Partizan Belgrade in their preliminary round tie, Zagreb will be confident of overturning the one-goal deficit in the Maksimir Stadium on 27 August.

Even if the treasured prize of Champions' League football were dashed from Newcastle's lips, though, Dalglish would still be left with a continental campaign to fight. A place in the Uefa Cup would be no mean consolation prize, and a second chance for the Newcastle manager to test out his new look Magpies in Europe.

They have certainly looked good in clipping both Sheffield Wednesday and Zagreb from re-structured wings. Steve Watson and John Beresford have been rampant overlapping wide-boys in a 5-3-2 formation fluent enough to utilise the auxiliary attacking talents of Stuart Pearce and Philippe Albert, too, but without slipping back into the cavalier defending mode of the Keegan days. Much of the credit for that has been due to the third man alongside Albert and Pearce at the heart of the back-line. Alessandro Pistone, who captained the Italian under-21 team last season, could hardly be more aptly named. Against Wednesday, and again in the Zagreb match, the smooth functioning of the Newcastle defence was maintained by its very own Pistone-engine.

The pounds 4.3m purchase from Internazionale has been the most impressive of the new parts with which Dalglish has overhauled the old Keegan model Newcastle. And the others - Shay Given, Pearce, Temur Ketsbaia and Jon Dahl Tomasson - have slotted in so efficiently it is difficult to see where the JCB that Dalglish acquired in midweek - John Clarence Barnes - might fit into the works. All this, and no mention of Shearer, for whom that other Anfield old boy Ian Rush, has been signed as cover. Perhaps that has been the most profound measure of the promising start Newcastle have made.That, however, is all that it is. Just as two swallows doth not a summer make, two Magpie wins do not make a season.