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Fans back Keegan but Shepherd has doubts

On the day both the caretaker manager, Glenn Roeder, and long-term heir apparent, Alan Shearer, confirmed they had no immediate desire to take control of first-team affairs full-time, no obvious queue of possible successors to Graeme Souness had formed.

However, in the pubs, clubs, offices and betting shops of Newcastle, one name, above all others, emerged as the popular choice to revive this sleeping giant of English football for a third time. Available, local and possessing a cute sense of public relations savvy, Kevin Keegan's name is never too far away when it comes to assessing the future, past and present of the Magpies. No wonder, therefore, that his odds to become the next manager of the club were slashed from 33-1 to 12-1 overnight.

Time is a great healer and the Toon Army would be prepared to forgive Keegan his ignominious exit in January 1997 for the opportunity to relive the days when Newcastle's "entertainers" were every opposition fan's favourite second team. Two of Keegan's former players, John Beresford and Robert Lee, wasted no time in mentioning their one-time mentor's name when quizzed on the best man to replace Souness, but Shepherd remains sceptical.

United's chairman cannot afford to make another mistake following the hasty dismissal of Sir Bobby Robson and the disastrous appointment of Souness. For now, it seems, Keegan remains the romantic, rather than the realistic, choice.

"I don't know what type of person I want to come," said Shearer, who signed for Keegan in a £15m transfer from Blackburn Rovers in the summer of 1996. "I'm not thinking about it and we've just got to see how we get on. I'm not sure if there will be an appointment in two days, weeks or months. But I'm not ready for it. I don't have the experience.

"I've had a title of player-coach since signing the extension to my contract. Glenn, I'm sure, will want to bounce ideas off me as much or as little as he likes. The best way to assist him is with performances that will put us up the table.

"Glenn will do the majority of it and he's not coming in without experience. He's got the respect of the boys and spoke to us on Thursday to make it clear what he expects. He's honest and open and can sleep at night because of that."

Roeder, the antithesis of Keegan, is a quiet and considered coach completely in control of his emotions. While recognising the raw passion and wild expectation which underpins Newcastle's very existence, the former Newcastle centre-half and current Academy director boasts a canny knack of keeping his personal and professional life firmly in perspective.

After recovering from a brain tumour, diagnosed during his spell as West Ham United's manager, Roeder has no desire to thrust himself back into the Premiership limelight long-term and would prefer to groom the next generation of St James' Park favourites. The immediate future, however, excites him. "I didn't need any persuading to take the role, the void had to be filled," explained Roeder. "It's a disappointment when managers lose their jobs and Graeme's been good to me.

"But the only constant in football is change and the wheel turned again. The chairman needed a caretaker and I was the obvious choice. I've been here before, in terms of working with top players, and I'm confident in my ability.

"When caretakers are asked if they want the job they answer 'no' when they mean 'yes'. But I don't want to manage Newcastle full-time and that's the truth.

"After my health scare it was a family decision to pursue putting something back into the game by unearthing young talent. Nothing has changed in that respect." Roeder was still celebrating guiding Newcastle's juniors into the quarter-finals of this season's FA Youth Cup when he was approached to oversee first-team affairs. Now he must leave the club's youngsters in the capable hands of Peter Beardsley and Kenny Wharton and focus fully on overcoming fellow strugglers Portsmouth at St James' Park this afternoon.

As a capacity crowd nervously anticipates the dawning of yet another new era today, Roeder expects the race to succeed Souness will quickly gather pace.

"For somebody, there's a chance of being the first United manager to win the FA Cup and FA Youth Cup in the same season," he said. "For that young motivated manager, with a track record, this is a great opportunity. If you've got something about you, this is a job to die for."