Shearer tells players to unite in fight for Souness

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The Newcastle captain, Alan Shearer, has promised his manager, Graeme Souness, the players remain firmly behind him as speculation mounts that the Scot's reign could be drawing to a close.

The Magpies are keeping a close eye on developments in Glasgow where the Rangers manager, Alex McLeish, is hanging on by his fingernails with suggestions that Souness could head back across the border for a second spell in charge at Ibrox.

Whatever happens on that front, Souness faces a desperate fight to win back the support of the Toon Army after Saturday's escape against Aston Villa, and with Arsenal due on Tyneside this weekend.

However, Shearer insists he will get the full backing of the players as his 15-month spell in charge reaches a crucial point.

"We are all in this together," he said. "We have all got to stick together and we have all got to stay united. The fans want to see us climb up the league table and they want to see us make progress in the cup competitions, and so do we.

"Yes, it is going to be difficult, but we will work our socks off to try to get there."

Souness' plight became critical in the wake of last Wednesday night's Carling Cup fourth-round exit at the hands of Paul Jewell's much-changed Wigan side. He was furious with an inept display at the JJB Stadium and, while he was pleased with the way his depleted squad responded against Aston Villa in the Premiership three days later, only Gareth Barry's 87th-minute penalty miss spared him a defeat which could have prompted his dismissal.

Injuries have wrecked Souness' best-laid plans, with Michael Owen and Emre Belozoglu both in the treatment room at the weekend and Albert Luque used only as a substitute as he battles for match fitness following a long lay-off with a hamstring injury.

However, it is a measure of the club's desperation that they are pulling out all the stops to get the 19-year-old defender Steven Taylor fit in time for the Arsenal game, weeks ahead of his scheduled return from a dislocated shoulder.

Taylor, Owen and Kieron Dyer all have outside chances of being able to play in the game, and the England striker in particular would give his team-mates a lift if his name was on the team-sheet.

"I know Michael stepped up his training yesterday and he is trying to get there, but it remains to be seen," Shearer said. "However, we are keeping our fingers crossed because we know he is such a big player who can give us what no other player can give us."

Souness, the man who brought Owen to Tyneside from Real Madrid, was not the choice of the bulk of the club's fans when he was appointed to what he said at the time would be his last job. Although the chairman, Freddy Shepherd, insists he was the only man to whom the post was offered, Sam Allardyce and Steve Bruce were both sounded out and reacted negatively.

Souness' survival could rest upon the availability of a suitable successor. With Shepherd understood to be unlikely to consider Allardyce or Bruce again and sources distancing the club from the fans' choice, Martin O'Neill, there appear to be few alternatives.