James Lawton: Shepherd unfit to be judge of Sir Bobby

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The Independent Football

It's long past the time to praise or bury Sir Bobby Robson. He is what he is and those of us who had the temerity to tell him to be somebody else nearly five years ago - namely, an amiable old pensioner sniffing the roses and amusing the grandkids - should be suitably cautioned. However, somebody at Newcastle United, ideally the incorrigibly opinionated and generally unloved chairman, Freddy Shepherd, should stop for a second and speculate on what might have happened to the club if Robson had been misguided enough to follow our advice.

It's long past the time to praise or bury Sir Bobby Robson. He is what he is and those of us who had the temerity to tell him to be somebody else nearly five years ago - namely, an amiable old pensioner sniffing the roses and amusing the grandkids - should be suitably cautioned. However, somebody at Newcastle United, ideally the incorrigibly opinionated and generally unloved chairman, Freddy Shepherd, should stop for a second and speculate on what might have happened to the club if Robson had been misguided enough to follow our advice.

If Shepherd has such power of reflection - and judging by the frequency of his intervention in strictly football affairs at St James' Park, and the relentless stream of comments with which he bombards the local press and match programme, the evidence is not encouraging - he might question the value of bringing down a managerial regime which, overall, has been nothing less than brilliant.

Yes, notwithstanding the possible failure at Anfield today to ensure any kind of European football at Newcastle for the first time in three years, brilliant.

Brilliant in its feeling for the sweep of the game and the kind of football Newcastle United should represent. Brilliant in the way it so surely rebuilt the foundations of a club which were in danger of being shattered for all time by waste and stupidity and a quite craven alienation of some of the nation's most passionate fans.

Of course, even the greatest of managers are the prisoners of their results and this, perversely, is particularly so when you have lifted expectations as high as Robson has done over the last few years.

Remember his legacy from Ruud - "I'll give you sexy football" - Gullit in September 1999? He inherited a club who had gleaned one point from their first seven matches, had managed to lose at home to Sunderland after dropping Alan Shearer for an obscure teenager who said that Roker Park rather than Tyneside was his spiritual home, and whose chairman - the same Mr Shepherd - had been tape-recorded with his friend and fellow director Douglas Hall in a girlie bar in Marbella slagging off, in no particular order, Shearer - "old Mary Poppins" - the womenfolk of the North-east, and all those mugs who paid rip-off prices for souvenir shirts.

Now Shepherd is given to homilies about the need for personal discipline among Newcastle's overpaid stars, a position which may have some merit but is not exactly copper-bottomed by his own record or the fact, as reported by my colleague David Conn last weekend, that he and Hall took for themselves no less than a staggering £2.7m in directors' dividends from the club's annual profit of £4.4m.

The word from St James' Park is that Robson is almost certainly a goner, at least in terms of exerting full control over football affairs, and one of the more risible suggestions is that this is partly because Robson has spent more, for example, than Arsène Wenger at Arsenal without quite the same level of success. Here the mind begins to whirl. Apart from all his own talent, Wenger had the advantage of taking over a well run club, whose chairman, Peter Hill-Wood, had long been mindful of family tradition and the old truth that chairmen who preside over truly successful clubs never intrude into the operating space of the manager, and are still less given to fatuous comments at every ebb and flow of a season.

Let us, briefly, consider the transfer record of Robson. Inevitably, he has made his stumbles. Who hasn't? If Titus Bramble is currently proving a disaster, how much worse of an investment was this than Sir Alex Ferguson's splurge on Juan Sebastian Veron or, ultimately, Fabien Barthez? Did Wenger pick out a jewel in Pascal Cygan? Perhaps not. Hugo Viana is disappointing, no doubt, but he is still young and may yet flower. Laurent Robert causes great exasperation, but for a while he was a brilliant extension of Newcastle's football wide on the left, and if Robson had been warned about his personality, so was Ferguson when he picked up Eric Cantona, over whom hands had been widely and thoroughly washed in his native France. Some hunches come off, some don't, ask anybody in football.

Robson has spent £47m, less than half the outlay of Gérard Houllier, who is claiming a "massive achievement" today in possibly finishing no more than one point ahead of Newcastle, and more than half of that expenditure has been largely neutralised in a season of horrendous injury. Robson's key signings, Craig Bellamy, Jermaine Jenas and Jonathan Woodgate - and Gullit's acquisition Kieron Dyer - have appeared together no more than five times this season. These players are the spine and the potency of the team.

One other important factor should not be forgotten. Newcastle have a desperate yearning to win something, which, given the level of support they have received down all the aching years, is understandable enough. Their last title win was in 1927, their last Cup win 1955, and their last trophy, the Fairs Cup, came under Joe Harvey in 1969. Under Robson, Newcastle were one game away from competing in the final of the Uefa Cup until the recent defeat in Marseille - two stages later than when Liverpool, whose manager receives so much unswerving support from his boardroom, were knocked out by the same team.

When Houllier talks of "massive achievement" he seems to forget that his immediate predecessor, Roy Evans, would, under present qualification rules, not have missed a place in the Champions' League. Another forerunner, Bob Paisley, once repelled congratulations over a trophy win by saying: "Don't forget, it hasn't been all glory. I remember we finished second one year." Paisley had just won the first of his three European Cups.

If Liverpool have become somewhat easily pleased, the opposite is true of Newcastle. It is a perspective that will be nowhere more valuable than at Anfield today if men in football whose power so far exceeds their knowledge should be tempted to decide between winners and losers. Into the latter category only a fool would place Sir Bobby Robson. But of course, and as usual, this is the worry.

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