Dispiriting images haunt spiritual homes

The planks creak ominously enough for a manager without a chairman deliberately adding rotting timbers
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The Independent Online

Having been smiled upon by the Greek gods for three weeks, and witnessed some Herculean performances from British athletes for a return of little but pride - theirs and the nation's - it can be a dispiriting experience to return home to rediscover a land where homage is still paid uncritically to such a collection of false idols. But when did the Premiership represent anything other than an assortment of individuals whose basic instincts are cynical self-interest and duplicity?

That thought was not far from the mind having arrived back from Athens in time to witness Newcastle United's chairman, Freddy Shepherd, blast Bambi. It was a necessary culling, maybe, but its clumsy execution, with protracted and needless suffering, did more than bring to a close the Newcastle United career of a fiercely proud man. It also laid to rest the last vestiges of an anachronism called "loyalty", a concept which is employed publicly for convenience but which has become as disposable as nappies.

With uncanny timing, Shepherd's shot struck Sir Bobby Robson just as Wayne Rooney was reneging on his oft-declared Everton faith and abandoning Goodison, his spiritual palace, as Wayne's World was suddenly transformed from relegation blue to championship red - at least in his perception.

The two acts represented a symbolic change from the ancien regime to the new order. The former, into which Robson was born and flourished as player and manager, was epitomised by his refusal to accept initial overtures from Newcastle United because he was not prepared to fracture his contract at Barcelona.

Today's way, of course, is simply to stand your ground, and utter such declarations as "this is the opportunity to further my career/realise my ambitions" while employing the best endeavours of your advisers and friendly newspaper columnists until your aspirations are satisfied. The prevalent attitude is: "Football is big business and sentiment has to go out of the window." Those were the words of Shepherd, as he sought to appease those who condemned his destruction of Bambi. But equally they could have applied to Rooney.

The fact that Robson was evicted from his spiritual home ultimately surprised no one. It should not have caught him out him, either, despite the former England manager's protestations that he was "shocked and massively disappointed". Those of us who in the course of our work have been variously informed and entertained by the man who was always a churmudgeon, as the old Mr Malaprop would probably describe himself - you know, half charmer, half curmudgeon - would suggest that Robson really should have read it in the leaves at the bottom of the cuppa handed to him by Cath, the faithful St James' Park tea lady, who has seen them all in and seen them all out. As Shepherd has watched, his Geordie flock - Kevin Keegan, Kenny Dalglish, Ruud Gullit and now Robson - have all left unfinished business, the task of recreating Newcastle in their grand historic image.

Robson's first four Newcastle years produced an admirable improvement. In the Premiership, the Toon finished 11th, 11th, fourth and third, the last accompanied by a welcome foray into the Champions' League. But last season inflicted a heavy toll on Robson's management graph. Elimination in the third qualifying round of the Champions' League by Partizan Belgrade and fifth place in the Premiership cost the club millions. Robson should have quit then. But he is not a resigning man.

The planks on which a manager treads creak ominously enough as it is, without a chairman deliberately adding some rotting timbers. But that is what Shepherd did by announcing that this was Robson's last season. Under such circumstances, players will readily unsteady the ship further, and so they did; Kieron Dyer being the worst, but by no means the only, challenger to club discipline.

But what of Alan Shearer's part in all this, and where does his standing leave an incoming manager? Shearer enjoys a power-base far grander than that of merely a former England international striker. His iconic status among the supporters is said to have been as unwelcome to Robson as it was to Gullit. His desire to enter management, at some stage, presumably at St James' Park, complicates the issue further.

It is a troubled institution. As Loyd Grossman might drawl: "What kind of a person could run a club like this?" Martin O'Neill would be the supporters' choice. Inevitably. Isn't he anywhere with a vacancy? But one doubts whether Newcastle would entice him, and certainly not in the immediate future. Excluding the Northern Irishman, much will no doubt be made of a desire locally that "it must be someone with Geordie instincts", notwithstanding that Arsenal do very nicely with a Frenchman, Manchester United with a Scot and Chelsea with a Portuguese manager (at least when we last checked).

Steve Bruce remains a credible solution. Despite professing his own "loyalty" to Birmingham City, he does have "previous" in that regard. Ultimately, it will be Bruce, not Birmingham, who will decide.

One thing is for certain. There will not be a tumultuous rush from the great and the good, those who still exist within football, having just seen the manner of the demise of one of their own.

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