Given runs out of miracles and calls for new saviours

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The Independent Online

Shay Given has survived more intimidating places than the bubbling cauldron of the Stade Vélodrome. Back in November 2001, in the second leg of Ireland's World Cup play-off tie against Iran, the man from Donegal dodged what he presumed to be a hail of smoke bombs in the Izadi Stadium in Tehran. They were found to be grenades.

Shay Given has survived more intimidating places than the bubbling cauldron of the Stade Vélodrome. Back in November 2001, in the second leg of Ireland's World Cup play-off tie against Iran, the man from Donegal dodged what he presumed to be a hail of smoke bombs in the Izadi Stadium in Tehran. They were found to be grenades.

Fortunately for Given, they failed to detonate - unlike Didier Drogba, whose explosive brace left Newcastle United's 35-year trophy quest in smithereens in Marseilles on Thursday night. There was no stopping the dragged finish and the first-time thunderbolt that shattered Sir Bobby Robson's understrength side in the second leg of the Uefa Cup semi-final. For Given, Newcastle's saviour so often this season, there was little more he could do than pick up the pieces at the final whistle.

"We have to strengthen the squad," the consistently excellent keeper said. "We should have done it last summer, but now we have to bring in new players and try to build. Arsenal, Manchester United and Chelsea will all improve their squads, and if we don't we'll fall further behind."

It is a warning that Given has been sounding since the turn of the year. As Newcastle have dropped off the pace in the Premiership, been knocked out of the FA Cup, and now sent crashing at the penultimate hurdle in the Uefa Cup, the last line of their defence has become as frustrated as the leader of their forward line. Like Alan Shearer, who vented his spleen at his underachieving colleagues after the 1-0 defeat away to Manchester City eight days ago, Given has increasingly despaired at the lack of clout - and even effort - shown by the passengers within the ranks of Sir Bobby's side.

Admittedly, injury has accounted for the loss of such vital assets as Craig Bellamy, Jonathan Woodgate, Jermaine Jenas and Kieron Dyer, but it is not only their replacements who have been found wanting. As Given lamented after the Manchester City defeat: "Some players aren't working hard enough away from home. We've become a soft touch."

In Europe, Thursday's 2-0 reverse was Newcastle's first defeat away from St James' Park this season. In the Premiership, though, they have not won on the road since a 3-2 victory against Fulham on 21 October. Two of their remaining three fixtures are away from Tyneside: on Wednesday at Southampton, where they last won a League match in 1972, and a week today at Liverpool, where they last won in the Premiership in April 1994. Considering the form, both recent and historical, the home finale against Wolverhampton Wanderers this afternoon assumes vital significance in Newcastle's quest to salvage a Champions' League qualifying round spot from another season of thwarted ambition.

"We know how huge the Champions' League is," Given said. "The club's profits went down by a few millions because we weren't there. Apart from anything else, it gives us money to buy players and strengthen the squad."

Having recently extended his contract to the end of next season, Sir Bobby is likely to be the man strengthening the Newcastle squad this summer. Beyond that, Shearer, a Uefa coaching badge and a final season of striking play behind him, is favourite to assume the reign at St James'.

Freddy Shepherd, the Newcastle chairman, has said the next manager will be a Geordie. The bookmakers, who make Shearer and Steve Bruce favourites, were quoting odds for Ant and Dec on Friday, but missed the potential ramifications of Gordon Sumner being back in Toon that day. What price a Sting in the Newcastle tale?

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