At first the call was romantic; for a Geordie to replace the fallen Sir Bobby Robson at Newcastle; for an Alan Shearer, a Steve Bruce or even an Ant and Dec. Yesterday, however, cold and steely realism swept into St James' Park.
Graeme Souness became manager of Newcastle United because he was cheap, he had a track record and because he could be relied on to stay for more than one season.
These were factors that ruled out Bruce, whose club, Birmingham City, could be expected to demand £3m in compensation, Shearer, and Terry Venables. The latter claimed he enjoyed a positive meeting with the Newcastle chairman, Freddy Shepherd, on Thursday, something Shepherd denies all knowledge of. However, much as a side which led in three of the four games it failed to win this season under Robson needs Venables' tactical acumen, the former England manager was reluctant to commit himself to the long term.
Souness, having been sounded out over the weekend, seized the initiative by announcing his resignation at Blackburn Rovers' training headquarters at Brockhall at 9.30 yesterday morning. As he left, he said: "How can you turn down a club like Newcastle? I'm 51 and been in the management business for a long time, but at my age this could be the last opportunity to for me to join one of the biggest clubs in the country."
He added: "In football, events can happen suddenly and you have to react quickly. If I had said no I might have regretted it for the rest of my life. No disrespect to Blackburn, but I'm joining a world famous club which is desperate for success. I'm ready for a big challenge and they don't come much bigger than this."
Nobody at Ewood Park appears to have been prepared for Souness's departure, even his assistant, Tony Parkes, who will begin his sixth stint as caretaker this morning, was shocked. By one of the ironies football loves, Blackburn play Newcastle on Saturday at St James' Park, a match between two managerless teams. Souness will travel from his home in Lancashire's Ribble Valley to Tyneside for a press conference on Monday, and his first taste of the intensity of the manager's dug-out at St James' will be an atypical one, a Uefa Cup tie against the Israeli side Hapoel Bnei Sakhnin. The stadium will not be full and passion will be at a premium.
Reaction on Tyneside was muted to the announcement. Souness may have won titles in Scotland and Turkey, but the first was very long ago and the other very far away. In Newcastle, Blackburn are seen as an expensively assembled, underperforming team that narrowly avoided relegation. But Souness's record deserves more respect than that; he took at least one trophy at Ewood, something beyond every Newcastle manager since Joe Harvey.
However, his reputation as a disciplinarian was his chief attraction to Shepherd, who had several times approached Bruce and who had also attempted to strike a deal with the Middlesbrough manager, Steve McClaren. Souness was at best fourth choice.
The Newcastle central defender, Andy O'Brien, preparing for the Republic of Ireland's World Cup qualifier in Switzerland, said he was dumbfounded by the announcement. "I was shocked when Sir Bobby left and I'm equally shocked now," he said.
Souness's first task will be to quell a restless dressing-room, whose inhabitants, notably Craig Bellamy and Shearer, have done too much talking in public, benefiting from the fact they were dealing with a manager whose authority had been relentlessly undermined by his own chairman. Kieron Dyer's comments to Robson, that he would not be playing on the right wing at Middlesbrough, were uttered in private, although they were captured on film and leaked.
The divisions are probably more serious than those which led to the downfall of Ruud Gullit in 1999. Then it was clear Shearer or Gullit and once the Dutchman resigned, Robson's chief problem was getting rid of the dreadful footballers Gullit had signed.
Now things are more complex. Shearer's position in the team and dressing-room needs addressing. His relationship with Robson had deteriorated, mainly because Robson saw signs of real decline in a man, who with Jackie Milburn can claim to be the finest player Tyneside has produced. He may not want to be manager, but he will want to play in every game of his farewell season.
Then there is Dyer and Laurent Robert, who often clashed with Robson but who noted tenderly that the old man took his leave of his players last Monday with "tears in his eyes". Olivier Bernard, the left-back, has yet to commit himself to a new contract, and Lee Bowyer is a shadow of the player he was at Leeds.
But Robson's legacy to Souness is far richer than the miserable one he inherited from Gullit. Souness's goalkeeper at Blackburn, Brad Friedel, stated that Newcastle will find their new manager "more mellow and quiet than he used to be", but the Scot knows how to motivate brutally.
Nevertheless, Newcastle have not won a game since the April day when Jonathan Woodgate hobbled off against Chelsea, and all the motivation in the world is of no use to footballers who have been sold.Reuse content