Next Tuesday has emerged as the beginning of a 48-hour period that should define whether Alan Shearer is asked by owner Mike Ashley to become manager of Newcastle United on a permanent basis. Talks between the two men, and with managing director Derek Llambias, have been planned to begin then, although all three have been involved in ongoing discussions throughout Shearer's eight-game contract.
Shearer's commitment to Newcastle is not in question – and he has postponed his summer holiday – but his ability to perform the sort of transformation required at St James' Park is heavily dependent on finance. Ashley has questions to answer from Shearer on budgets even if Newcastle survive.
Should Sunday be successful only for Shearer to be told that he has to sell to buy, then it is doubtful he will stay. Ashley, moreover, has a question to answer about the longer term. Shearer wants stability: constant speculation about takeovers needs to end.
Contractually Shearer's remit ends on Sunday at Aston Villa but his instinct is long-term and it seems unlikely that Ashley would remove Dennis Wise to facilitate Shearer's arrival, then allow Shearer to dispense with the club doctor weeks into the job if Ashley's thinking was not similar. There is evidence of long-termism, just no statement of it.
The embryonic relationship between the two is cordial. "I'd only met him a couple of times from the outside, so didn't really know him that much, only to say hello to," Shearer said of Ashley last week.
"Obviously I've had more dealings with him in the past few weeks but everything's been done as I asked, and as he asked. There hasn't been a tremendous amount of dialogue, all that's been going on is how we can try to improve things on the pitch."
Shearer was also asked about Sebastien Bassong's contract and his reply was: "My advice would be to get him on a long-term contract. He's a big player." Bassong's ambiguous words yesterday on the future are the sort Shearer needs permanence to control. "Everybody knows that I am an ambitious boy, and playing Championship football never crossed my mind," Bassong said. "You have to have a plan for your career, and playing in the second division would be a step backward."
Uncertainty is the reason such things arise. Iain Dowie said yesterday: "I hope that whatever happens we've left Newcastle in good shape. I've thoroughly enjoyed my time here," Dowie added, "and I don't think we've seen many bad performances. We've just not been able to put the ball in the net."
That failure provides a dilemma for Dowie and Shearer at Villa Park. Given that Newcastle have one clean sheet in their last 11 matches, they probably will need to score against Villa, but Bassong's dismissal against Fulham last week was dreadfully timed and defensive fragility is also high on Newcastle's agenda.
"If we play an expansive game, we could get torn apart," Dowie said of Sunday. "They have got midfielders who have pace and skill, and Ashley Young will be a handful. They've pace and power and they're not up there [in the table] by accident."
Considering Newcastle are likely to be employing makeshift full-backs – Ryan Taylor or Geremi on the right, Damien Duff on the left – that Ashley Young is a Villa doubt is one piece of good news.
Drop zone: News from the basement battle
Sbragia hoping to cash in on Blues distraction
Sunderland manager Ricky Sbragia is looking forward to Sunday's visit of FA Cup finalists Chelsea. "We've got to go out and be braver, hope Chelsea have a bad game and that they have the Cup final on their minds," Sbragia said. In London the Chelsea manager Guus Hiddink scotched that idea. "I don't want to rest a lot of people because they need to maintain their physical shape and also the way we want them to play," Hiddink said.
Hull fight back in row over United line-up
Hull City's chairman Paul Duffen has spoken out about the furore surrounding Manchester United's possible line-up at the KC stadium on Sunday. "From our perspective I'm just delighted our rivals are more focused on our opposition than their own," Duffen said. "We're happy, we know what we have to do. Whatever team United put out it is going to be a very tough ask for us. Even if they put youngsters out they could still field 11 internationals."
Downing faces three months on sidelines
Middlesbrough assistant manager Malcolm Crosby yesterday confirmed that Stewart Downing will be out for two or three months as he requires foot surgery. Boro will also have been frustrated by Adam Johnson's apparent rejection of a new contract and by comments from the Birmingham manager, Alex McLeish, on David Wheater. "He is a decent player and someone we have watched over the last five weeks," said McLeish.