St James’ Park was always, in the course of my career, a great place to play football, for the wildness of the crowd and the no-holds-barred football that both my team, Manchester United, and Newcastle would play. We had some wonderful games against them – crazy games, really – like the two in the 2002-03 title-winning season when we won 5-3 at Old Trafford and 6-2 at their place.
And, yes, there were times when they beat us as well, including the 5-0 at St James’ Park in October 1996, the season after we had caught them to win the first Premier League title of my career. Looking back at the results, I have to say overall we came off the best. I scored seven goals in all at St James’ Park, including a hat-trick in the 6-2 game in April 2003 that I treasure as one of my happiest football memories.
Whenever we played Newcastle, even the Kevin Keegan teams of the mid-1990s, I sensed something different about the club. At United, my United, we had been honed into a ruthless team who played great football but, ultimately, were there to win football matches and league titles. At Newcastle they could certainly play on their day, and the crowd was formidable, but there was a weakness – a vulnerability that you could seek out.
As a club, there was never any middle ground with Newcastle. They were as high as the sky or in a pit of despair. Even the results bore it out. Four months before we lost 5-0 at St James’ Park in 1996 we beat Newcastle 4-0 in the Charity Shield at Wembley in August. I have checked the Newcastle line-ups for those two games. It was an identical XI on both occasions.
Newcastle could be an emotional wreckage. I don’t mean that disparagingly, it just felt that with them you could come up against a brilliant team, or a side waiting to be beaten. The culture of the club seems to have stayed the same, and now they find themselves dropping down the table like a stone and in danger of relegation unless they can turn one of their last three games into a win. And the emotion of the place, well, it must be at fever pitch now.
I recognise the qualities that make Newcastle such a great place to play football in their current manager, John Carver. He is passionate. He loves the club. Former team-mates tell me he is a great coach. But I can’t see him winning a game out of his last three.
It is hard for assistants to step up. I worked with many great assistants to Sir Alex Ferguson over the years. Yet sometimes a manager’s second-in-command is more suited to that role than any other. You confide in them, you tell them things that you would not tell the manager and they are that bridge between the boss and the players. When the transition to manager occurs, I can see how it is hard for people to adjust their relationships.
I thought Carver got it wrong on Mike Williamson and the accusation that he intentionally got himself sent off against Leicester. I don’t think any player does that, however badly it is going on the pitch. Either way, things like that have to stay private. Sir Alex would tear strips off us behind closed doors but he never repeated them outside the room. It meant he could say the harshest things to his players and the relationship survived.
In some ways, Carver, a Geordie to his boots, gave the typical Geordie response. Emotional, heartfelt, but I’m not sure it will do him or his team any good.
I know that when we played Newcastle, their fans yearned for the kind of success we had. They wanted to be the serial winners that we were at Manchester United, but for whatever reason it seemed out of their reach and that frustration was raw. It would either sweep the team on, or tie them up in knots. I enjoyed every game I played up there, and not just because of the goals. I don’t often say this about a team other than the one I played for, but I wish them all the best.
Mourinho's next task is to take on the best in Europe
It has been an impressive season for Chelsea to win the title with three games to spare, and there is no doubt that they were the strongest side in the Premier League by some distance this season. But what next for Jose Mourinho?
He has the same number of English league titles as Bill Shankly and Arsène Wenger now but we won’t think of him as the kind of manager who builds a club until he stays in one place for more than five seasons. It would be fair to say that the Chelsea team he built first time round continued to win trophies long after he had gone. Yet, at Chelsea the test is whether he can bring through young players and leave his mark on the club in the way that Sir Alex Ferguson did at Manchester United. We know Mourinho can win league titles – he is brilliant at it – but how long can he do it at one club?
Chelsea celebrate winning the title
Chelsea celebrate winning the title
Cesar Azpilicueta jumps on a group of Chelsea players
Didier Drobga celebrates at full time
Chelsea players jump for joy at full time
Eden Hazard celebrates after scoring his crucial goal
Ribbons collect on the pitch
John Terry fell to the floor after hearing the final whistle
Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich with his son
Ramires and Loic Remy parade around Stamford Bridge
Drogba celebrates with Gary Cahill and Thibaut Courtois
Terry and Drogba cuddle at full time
A lot of that depends on the way he wants to play football. The way a top team develops means that once you have won the league title the natural step is to try to win the Champions League. I believe that next season the Champions League will be Chelsea’s absolute priority under Mourinho. To do it, he needs to take on the best and the best look a long way ahead of the top English clubs.
I was in Turin for the first leg of Juventus v Real Madrid and I watched Barcelona put three past Bayern Munich on Wednesday night. All four are much better teams than any current side in England, Chelsea included. We know that Mourinho has in the past proved capable of beating more expansive teams by sitting deep and hitting them on the counter-attack. He did it very well when Internazionale won the Champions League in 2010. But it is a difficult tactic to make work year after year.
Against Paris Saint-Germain he tried something similar and was eliminated on away goals, playing most of the second leg at home against 10 men. Like I said, it is risky to be as conservative as Chelsea were that night. Then PSG were blown away by Barcelona in the next round. So that would have told Chelsea just how far off the pace they are currently when it comes to Europe’s elite.
It boils down to how Mourinho wants to approach winning the Champions League. No top manager has one set way of playing yet, as things stand, there does not seem any way that any of the English sides could go head-to-head with the likes of Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich or even Juventus and dominate the game in the traditional sense. Then you ask yourself what kind of football does Roman Abramovich want? All we heard last time Mourinho was at the club was that the owner wanted his team to play like Barcelona.
Winning the league for the third time in his second spell at the club was a great achievement for Mourinho. Now he will be looking at the best sides in Europe and wondering how he beats them. And that will be a lot harder.
Tevez seems to have found some peace at Juventus
I was impressed on Tuesday night with my old team-mate Carlos Tevez, who seems to have found happiness at Juventus and is now one game away from playing in the Champions League final.
When he was at United, Carlos was never the greatest trainer but on match day he was all action. He could run all day long and that got the crowd going. For the time he was with us, I enjoyed playing with him. He would change in the seat next to mine at Old Trafford and we got to know each other as well as you can when he couldn’t really speak English and I don’t have a word of Spanish.
What frustrated Carlos in his second season was that Dimitar Berbatov so often got selected ahead of him. Berbatov never gave the impression he was trying that hard and that in turn would annoy Carlos, who didn’t understand why he wasn’t in the team. When he left for Manchester City it wasn’t that much of a surprise to us.
At City he seemed to have just as many problems with Roberto Mancini. Now at Juventus his fortunes have changed. He looks slim and fit. He seems to have found a bit of peace. He was always a player who needed a reassuring arm around his shoulder.
Depay has the pace that United badly need up front
It was encouraging from Manchester United’s point of view that they have made the signing of Memphis Depay at such an early stage. He has pace, which has always been a feature of great United teams, and has been badly lacking this season at times.
He has scored 21 goals for PSV Eindhoven this season and is the Dutch league’s top goalscorer, which is a good sign. If he can have anything like the kind of impact Ruud van Nistelrooy made, he will be a great success. For some Dutch players, coming to England can be a difficult transition but this lad clearly has promise.
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