Football: Dalglish lets his guard slip

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The Independent Online
It would appear that rumours of Kenny Dalglish's rebirth are not exaggerated. Already looking a fine advertisement for a sabbatical he is beginning to sound it, too.

The Blackburn Dalglish would not have been good company after seeing his team let slip a 2-0 lead with two minutes remaining, not for the press anyway. The Newcastle model suffered such a fate in drawing at Southampton on Saturday but faced the media with smiles not snarls.

Gone was the defensive glare delivered from under hooded eyebrows, absent was the withering sarcasm which used to lash even the most innocent of questioners. Instead there was a jokey reference to Matt Le Tissier making a habit of scoring "goal of the season" against him and some gentle banter with a journalist who had said he would "bare his backside on the Tyne Bridge if Dalglish went to Newcastle". Even the accent seemed less impenetrable.

Dalglish has a reputation among his friends for being a charming, witty companion. His public image is far removed from this. He said in his recent autobiography that this did not bother him but rare is the man who is completely uninterested in the way others perceive him.

The prospect of a softening of his public persona is not just encouraging for the press. It illustrates how refreshed he is after his 20-month break from top level management and thus suggests he may find it easier to cope with the pressures. It should also make it easier to overcome the memory of Kevin Keegan.

Keegan had a wonderful rapport with the Toon Army. Among the images which encapsulate his reign are his defence of the sale of Andy Cole on the steps of St James' Park, and the five-bellied man prostrate on the turf at his feet during the Manchester United slaughter.

Dalglish cannot hope to emulate this, his heart belongs to Liverpool, an empathy forged by countless goals and the aftermath of Hillsborough. But his job will be easier if the fans are on his side. At present there seems a wariness. Having been jilted by Keegan they appear nervous of making a commitment to a man who has twice left his post unexpectedly. Last Wednesday there was only a muted chant, 40 minutes into the match, for Dalglish. On Saturday there was none, instead a chorus of "Keegan Wonderland" rang out in response to Southampton taunts.

This was somewhat appropriate because Newcastle remain demonstrably Keegan's team. For most of the 90 minutes Newcastle's defence was as open as the game with Shaka Hislop making a series of superb saves. Yet Hislop then made the error which precipitated Southampton's recovery - how typically Newcastle.

Look carefully, however, and Dalglish's fingerprints could be seen. Team selection was largely determined by injuries, minor and major, to David Ginola, Steve Watson, Steve Howey and Philippe Albert but it was hard to imagine Keegan omitting Robert Lee. Warren Barton, out of favour with Keegan, was given his first League start of the season.

The influence of Dalglish (and Mark Lawrenson) was more obvious in the team's approach. As Southampton gained ascendancy in the second period Newcastle got a lot of bodies behind the ball. At times only Alan Shearer was up. And, as the final whistle approached, they resorted to thrashing the ball anywhere as Blackburn did occasionally in their title year.

In the coming weeks Newcastle can be expected to buckle up their swash and assume a more disciplined shape. While still entertaining they will be less reckless. There will be new signings - Dalglish was believed to be in Portugal negotiating for one yesterday and may soon be back at Ewood Park for more.

The end product could well be the title. As Dalglish said: "Kevin's left me a great platform." Indeed, managers far less qualified and competent than Dalglish could turn Newcastle into champions, all it needs is a bit of tactical nous and enough respect from the players to put it into action. Dalglish has both qualities in abundance.

So does his old Liverpool buddy, Graeme Souness, but he does not have the players. Southampton, like several teams at the bottom, are a mix of high quality (Le Tissier, Eyal Berkovitch, Ulrich van Gobbel) and more prosaic talent.

One consequence of this is a defence which makes Newcastle's look miserly. Souness, who also appears to be more relaxed about management these days (there's nothing like major heart surgery to put matters in perspective) had his nerves thoroughly tested as Newcastle were offered a series of chances.

From the first, after 13 minutes, when Les Ferdinand scored, Ken Monkou and Richard Dryden having made a mess of a clearance. Then Ferdinand was twice wasteful when allowed to run on goal before Neil Maddison, Alan Shearer's closest friend at The Dell, presented the England captain with a back pass. Maik Taylor stood up well to save.

Not that Newcastle were immune with Robbie Elliott even having to clear a misdirected Shearer header off his own line. As Southampton pressed, Hislop brilliantly denied Egil Ostenstad, Jim Magilton, Maddison and Monkou. So when, with seven minutes left, Lee Clark took advantage of Maddison's hesitation to score it seemed a bitter blow.

Pity those who left early. Hislop now fell over Dryden and dropped the ball at Maddison's feet then, in injury time, Le Tissier lashed the ball in from 25 yards after Clark's headed clearance had fallen to him.

The Dell exploded with joy as Newcastle were left to contemplate an 11- match run without an away win, stretching back to October. They have not won at The Dell for 25 years, and Shearer is still to win there since he left.

It was a dramatic finish to a rousing second half but, when the cheers had subsided, what did it signify? Dalglish, with refreshed eyes, offered this perspective: "The Premier League is closer than it's ever been. Teams at the bottom are more likely to beat those at the top. That is good for the small teams. Whether the League has improved or not remains to be seen."

Goals: Ferdinand (13) 0-1; Clark (83) 0-2; Maddison (88) 1-2; Le Tissier (90) 2-2.

Southampton (3-4-2-1): Taylor; Monkou, Maddison, Dryden; Van Gobbel, Magilton (Hughes, 55), Oakley, Robinson (Charlton, h/t); Le Tissier, Berkovitch (Basham, 73); Ostenstad. Substitutes not used: Neilsen, Beasant (gk).

Newcastle United (4-4-2): Hislop; Barton, Peacock, R Elliott, Beresford; Gillespie (Lee, 76), Clark, Batty, Beardsley; Shearer, Ferdinand. Substitutes not used: Ginola, Watson, S Elliott, Srnicek (gk).

Referee: M Reed (Birmingham).

Bookings: Southampton Hughes; Newcastle Beresford, Ferdinand, Elliott.

Man of the match: Batty.

Attendance: 15,251.