Football: From sexy to sexagenarian football

Chris Donald, the founder of Viz, gives a Geordie's eye view of a Toon soap opera
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The Independent Online
STRANGE TO think that in the year my boyhood hero Malcolm Macdonald abandoned us for Arsenal, Bobby Robson was first approached about the Newcastle manager's job. Twenty-two years on, John Hall's dream team is now several years behind schedule and tens of millions over budget.

Throwing up a tacky, American-style shopping centre on a derelict bog in Gateshead was Sir John's principal achievement before his arrival at St James' Park. Shortly after The MetroCentre was finished, cracks began to appear in the walls. The foundations were hurriedly underpinned.

Sir John is a visionary, not an engineer. He spends most of his time squinting boldly into the middle distance, not checking the ground for swamps. When he took over United, his aim was to create a vast "Sporting Club of Newcastle". He bought himself a rugby team, the best in the country. They won the league, but asking Geordies to watch rugby is like asking people in Wimbledon to watch football.

Another of Sir John's dreams was that, one day, Newcastle United football club would field a team of 11 Geordies. That's what eating too much cheese at bedtime does for you. Kevin Keegan deserves at least some credit for the mess we're in today. His extravagant team building was almost complete when he suddenly decided he had no use for foundations. He scrapped the reserve team, leaving youngsters such as Darren Huckerby and Steve Guppy idle, then sold them all to pay for Alan Shearer. Well, to pay for his left arm anyway.

Kenny Dalglish had a hidden agenda when he took over. I think he deliberately sabotaged the team in order to win a bet, probably with Alan Hansen. The purchase of Stephane Guivarc'h for pounds 3.5m certainly lends weight to the theory.

Then came another big mistake, Ruud Gullit. Apart from the catch phrase "sexy football", as a manager Gullit had a reputation for falling out with big-name centre-forwards. There was also his dubious style of man management. Basically, he didn't speak to his players. He just tilted his head a little and gestured ineffectually with his eyebrows.

The board now realise that an ability to manage footballers is an essential qualification. Gullit never had it, and instead he held bitter grudges against any player who failed to do what they had been told. It's a pity he didn't communicate. Had they talked Shearer might have told him about his knack of scoring from crosses. Gullit could have mentioned to Ketsbaia that the teams kick in the opposite direction in the second half. And the man wearing Silvio Maric's shirt could have explained that he's not a footballer at all. There was a mix-up at the airport and he is actually a shoe salesman from Zagreb called Silvino Maric.

Unfortunately Gullit did talk to the press and often managed to put his foot in it while shooting himself in it at the same time. His flippant style and casual grasp of English combined to create some suicidal faux pas. The players' lack of confidence was nothing to do with him; substitute strikers were to blame for the defence's mistakes; and he said the Sunderland game was a non-event compared to Italian derbies. His subsequent team selection ensured that it was.

Because of all the faith we put in Gullit and his cosmopolitan style, there's an irrational feeling now that Robson's assistant must be someone who was born within the shadow of the Tyne Bridge. And someone young, too, a potential successor. I'm touting Steve Bruce's name myself, but Peter Beardsley seems to be the most popular choice.

Not that I'm lacking confidence in Robson's ability to manage independently. I don't think age is a problem. If Ronald Reagan can run the United States in his sixties, there's no reason why Robson can't run a Premiership team.

But there may still be a job for Beardsley in the future. Not as a coach, but in the Nancy Reagan "prompting" role during TV interviews. He'd just have to stand alongside Bobby, smile a lot and occasionally remind him who he was and what the players' names were.