And for my next miracle... an end to 45-year drought

Guy Hodgson hears work has just begun for the latest Newcastle messiah
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The Independent Football

For a man who is secure as a football manager can be, Bobby Robson did not look it. The flush of anger betrayed hidden anxieties, the tone of exasperation a missed opportunity. Maybe the strain of being the latest in a long line of Newcastle United messiahs was showing.

For a man who is secure as a football manager can be, Bobby Robson did not look it. The flush of anger betrayed hidden anxieties, the tone of exasperation a missed opportunity. Maybe the strain of being the latest in a long line of Newcastle United messiahs was showing.

In others it probably would have been, but not in football's 67-year-old éminence grise. It was enthusiasm that made him rail against agents on Friday and disappointment had urged him to regret sorely the off-on transfer of Duncan Ferguson to Everton which had cost Newcastle a chance to sign a player - presumably Craig Bellamy, although Robson was not saying. At his age he ought to know better, but then at his age he knows better than anyone else.

Today, Robson will be at the start of an English season for the first time in 18 years and if the enthusiasm is tempered, he did a good job of disguising it. "I would liken it to being a boxer who has been out for three months," he said, his eyes alight with the gleam of a zealot. "Now you're back in the ring again slugging it out one-to-one. The players are ready to start again, there's a buzz, an excitement, a 'here we are, we're looking for a good start'."

Today's fixture, Manchester United at Old Trafford, reinforces the analogy of the boxer because 50 weeks ago Newcastle left the Theatre of Dreams making a horizontal heavyweight look sprightly by comparison. They had just been routed 5-1, Ruud Gullit had already left the club and with one point from six matches the stench of relegation was so strong the neighbours were complaining.

Enter Robson, and by March Newcastle had found safety, eventually finishing 11th. Given the state of the club as he found it, it was an outstanding achievement even within a career that has titles, cups and European trophies accrued in four countries. That was his first accomplishment at St James' Park. What can he do for a follow-up?

It is a question that has crossed Robson's mind and one that fuelled his anger when the Ferguson transfer dragged on last week because, he says, the player's agent threw in complications. "It was two plus two equals four," he said, "and suddenly someone was trying to make it six." He believes Newcastle are three players short of being able to challenge Old Trafford's hegemony properly and to be denied one of them he knows will debilitate his hopes.

"The trick is can we do it again?" he asked. "I told the players when I arrived that we all have to row together or we will go under, but can we now get the same effort from the players that they produced because they knew the club was sinking?

"The pressure on me is not from the board, it stems from myself. I am a perfectionist. I want everything right. Last season we went from a no hope position to one of respectability but 11th, for Newcastle, that's not good enough. We have to be challenging for prizes."

Robson knows his cult status in the region where he was born and raised would soon dissolve if Newcastle are floundering at Christmas and he has spent £11.5m during the summer in purchasing Carl Cort, Christian Bassedas and Daniel Cordone as an insurance policy against that. Cort, he believes, will play for England soon while his fellow striker Alan Shearer's decision to finish his international career will benefit club if not country.

"We're a club on the up," Robson said, "and if we're not I'll do something about it. I'll be at the chairman saying this is not good enough, we need to replace him, we need another player in this position. It wouldn't be the chairman getting at me but the other way round.

"We haven't played as well as I would have liked in pre-season but I'm not worried about that. I remember being at Ipswich one summer and losing at Oxford, Leyton Orient and Colchester and ironically our first League match was at Manchester United where we won 1-0. I was talking to Jim Smith, the old fox at Pride Park, and he told me he wasn't worried about the build-up matches because it's false, it's not competitive."

Preparation, worries, deals that fall through, why did Robson still want to do this after 32 years of banging his head against the managerial wall? "I don't have to do this, I work because I want to," he replied. "I enjoy all this. I wouldn't say it's a bundle of fun, it's a test of your courage, nerve and decision-making and it gets harder every year because the pressure gets greater and greater.

"We have great managers in this country - Wenger, Vialli, Ferguson and Houllier - but the pressure on them is such that if they don't win, how long would they remain in the job? Yet to replace them would be difficult. Still, the threat is there."

Nowhere more so than at a club which last won a domestic trophy 45 years ago. Success is craved possibly more on Tyneside than anywhere else, but as a native and a supporter Robson knows that. It is his spur.

"I had a lot of satisfaction at Ipswich, Barcelona and other places but if I could bring something here to Newcastle where I was born, bred, educated and played my early football would be the most pleasing thing I'd do in football other than winning the World Cup with England, which I nearly did. Whether I have enough time here I don't know."

Today's contest against the champions of England will give him a better idea.