Football: Temuri the Toon talisman

Simon Turnbull says the fans are convinced, even if the boss is not
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IT WAS the morning after the night before and Temuri Ketsbaia was still the toast of Tyneside. With his latest stunning goal for Newcastle United, the Georgian had saved the Geordies from the psychological blow of an Easter Monday defeat on home soil against Tottenham Hotspur, their FA Cup semi-final opponents at Old Trafford this afternoon. Whether he had done enough to secure a place in Gullit's team, however, was quite another matter.

"Do I think I deserve to play?" Ketsbaia said, struggling to contain his exasperation as he echoed the question put to him in the upstairs lounge at Newcastle's Wearside training base, the Riverside Sports Complex in Chester-le-Street. "What do you think? For two years I have been battling to prove myself. Every game for me is like a cup final. I am always playing to show that I am good enough and I am always asked: `Do you think you deserve to play?' Well, yes, I think I do.

"I think I have shown that I deserve to be in the team. Sometimes you have a bad game - we are human beings, not robots - and when that happens there always seems to be someone saying I shouldn't be picked. But I have to say that I am very happy with my performance overall in my two years with Newcastle. In match after match I think I have shown that I am good enough. But sometimes I have played well and scored goals and been put on the bench for the next match. And that hurts. All I can do is do my best when I get the chance to play."

In the nets opposite, Durham's cricketers were doing their best to impress on the eve of the County Championship. And in the office downstairs Ruud Gullit was on the telephone arranging a practice match against West Allotment Celtic. With Alan Shearer fit to return on Sunday, and Duncan Ferguson among those due for assessment by the Newcastle manager, Ketsbaia was facing the painful prospect of being 12th man once again.

The chances are that the man from Abkhazia, on Georgia's Black Sea coast, will be in Newcastle's forward line today, though only because Ferguson is short of authentic match practice following 15 weeks on the sidelines with a groin injury. The Georgian may have secured a place in Geordie hearts since his arrival, on freedom of contract, from AEK Athens in the summer of 1997. But Ketsbaia has yet to secure a lasting place in the Newcastle first team.

Under Kenny Dalglish last season he made 31 League appearances - 15 of them as a substitute. Under Gullit this term he has played in 21 Premiership games - 10 as a substitute. His worth, though, has been plain to see in black and white this season. Ketsbaia has started 17 League and cup matches and scored eight goals - a strike-rate which matches Shearer's 15 from 32 starts. It remains to be seen, however, whether the 31-year-old Georgian international fits into Gullit's long-term plans.

The suspicion is that Ketsbaia might not be subtle enough for his manager's liking. His head-down, charging style has earned him the nickname "Temuri Cul-de-sac" at the harshly critical end of the St James' Park press box. But against Everton in the FA Cup quarter-final last month he opened up the road to Wembley for Newcastle with an inspirational performance which lacked nothing in vision or class.

Ketsbaia may be no David Ginola, whose black and white No 14 shirt he assumed, but the Uncle Fester lookalike has been as big a hit with the Toon Army as the French cat-walker ever was. His place in their affections was assured when he scored the last-minute goal in Zagreb that took Newcastle into the Champions' League at the start of last season. And it was reassured when Ketsbaia lost his rag, as well his shirt, after emerging from the substitutes' bench to score an injury-time winner against Bolton at St James' Park in January last year.

In tearing off his jersey, kicking the advertising boards at the Gallowgate End, gesturing towards the home dug-out and attempting to remove his boots, he showed Tyneside how deeply he cared about battling for the Toon. Having started just once in 11 matches, his goal-rage was an impassioned plea to the pitch-side generals for more front-line action.

Fifteen months later, the need to get across the same message has become more urgent for Ketsbaia. Though his contract does not end until next year, he has to apply for a new work permit this summer - and hope that the Department for Education and Employment does not adhere to the guideline that footballers from non-European Union countries should play in 75 per cent of matches.

"It would be very disappointing for me not to get a work permit after I have played so many good games for Newcastle," Ketsbaia said. "I have done my best and I desperately want to stay. I could have signed for Kaiserslautern and been sure of a first-team place there but I still think I made a good decision to come here. I wanted to show the people in my country that I can play at the highest level and I think I have done that."

Not that Ketsbaia had any need to prove himself to his compatriots. Since scoring his country's first goal in international football, against Malta five years ago, he has been feted as a national hero. He has become something a hero to the Geordies too. For Newcastle United's Georgian, though, the battle for recognition from the management has yet to be won.