Football: Little warns of a Geordie backlash

Premiership games bring together old friends and foes.
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The Independent Online
Graham Fenton and Alan Shearer, Frank Clark and Steve Stone. There were times during Newcastle's bitter spring when it seemed that Geordies were queuing up, albeit with heavy hearts, to bar their way to the championship.

Now, as Newcastle face life after Kevin Keegan, first in line to rub salt in their wounds is a self-confessed boyhood fan, Brian Little. The Aston Villa manager was quick to warn against a backlash by the Newcastle players after this week's events, but his team may never have a better opportunity to break a sorry sequence.

In seven meetings during the Keegan era, Villa managed a solitary draw. Adding intrigue to a spicy plot, Newcastle's acting co-manager, Arthur Cox, performed the same role at Villa as long ago as 1968, while Tommy Johnson, Newcastle-born and bred, is in line for a recall.

There were some, this correspondent included, who argued that Keegan would have done better to spend the St James' millions on Gareth Southgate and Ugo Ehiogu than on Shearer. Southgate is set to return, in opposition to his England captain, for what Little termed "a massive game, one to sort the winners from the losers".

Keegan's departure prompted Roy Evans to suggest that for every 12 months in the job, a manager aged three years. While Liverpool still lead the table, their current form is as grey as the Evans barnet. Five points out of 12 over Christmas was followed by Wednesday's exit from the Coca- Cola Cup at Middlesbrough.

Victory at home to West Ham, who have won one in 12, ought to be within the compass of any side challenging for the title. But with Liverpool's resources stretched and Harry Redknapp's selection options enhanced since a resilient draw at Wrexham, another attritional afternoon is in prospect at Anfield.

If familiarity breeds contempt there should be no love lost at either Roker Park or White Hart Lane. Sunderland and Arsenal, who drew in the FA Cup at Highbury and replay on Wednesday, also meet today when it is again the Wearsiders' good fortune to avoid the suspended Ian Wright.

The wry amusement Wearside is bound to feel over the plight of the grieving Magpies ought to contribute to an upbeat atmosphere on the Premiership's last remaining terraces. Arsenal are past masters at deflating such moods, however, and David Seaman's return could well have a significant impact on the title race.

Tottenham and Manchester United also resume hostilities tomorrow, a week after United's FA Cup victory. By further coincidence they also contested N17's first fixture of 1996, Spurs' 4-1 success being their only win in the 14 meetings. On that occasion Peter Schmeichel played half the game carrying an injury and William Prunier made a second and last appearance for United.

This time it is Spurs who field an unfamiliar foreign centre-back, Switzerland's Ramon Vega. Welcome though the arrival of any international must be, Gerry Francis' critics may take some persuading that the heart of the defence was a priority, particularly after the arrival of John Scales. Nor, one suspects, would they have been enamoured of the manager's view that Vega was "in the Tony Adams mould".

Alex Ferguson is repeatedly told he lacks someone in the Steve Bruce mould, yet United have kept five successive clean sheets. Recent evidence, notably the continuing lack of what Peter Swales used to call repartee between Andy Cole and Eric Cantona, suggests that lack of striking power is more likely to cost them their title than defensive failings.

Talking of pressure in management, spare a thought for Stuart Pearce, caretaker incumbent at Nottingham Forest. The protracted takeover struggle at the City Ground prevents his spending 60p, let alone pounds 60m, a situation which could lead to angry supporters' protests at the game with Chelsea. And unlike Keegan, Pearce also has to play.