Given leads squad in giving Allardyce total player backing

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The Independent Online

It would be incorrect to interpret it as a declaration of harmony at Newcastle United, but the effect of yesterday's statement from the goalkeepers Shay Given and Steve Harper, the club's two longest-serving players, may be to give the manager Sam Allardyce and his under-pressure squad a useful and timely sense of being under siege as they prepare to host Arsenal at St James' Park this evening.

Via Newcastle's website, Given and Harper reacted to a report in yesterday's Sun, which carried on its front page in the edition sold on Tyneside a headline "Toon In Revolt". Given and Harper were named as two of three senior players who were so unhappy that they had been to see Allardyce, where they then "slammed his tactics" among other things.

There is no doubt that there is some unease about Newcastle's playing style among the squad, and with regard to the under-employment of James Milner for example, but that has so far been manifested in private dissatisfaction and dejection rather than confrontation.

Newcastle have lost four of the last five matches and Allardyce knows he is "under the cosh", to use his phrase, but there was a feeling of a corner turned, albeit in defeat, at Blackburn on Saturday. Whether that feeling is temporary among players, staff and fans, or is built upon, will be seen over the next five matches.

"The story that has appeared is total and utter nonsense," Given and Harper said. "Sam Allardyce has the full backing and support of every Newcastle United player and we are all working together as one to bring success to the football club.

"At Newcastle United we have a player committee which is led by our captain Geremi, and which also includes James Milner, Mark Viduka and ourselves. Many issues are openly discussed between players and the manager, as is commonplace at any club.

"Far from that being 'player power' or any other ridiculous description, this is sensible and constructive communication and a key part of the process of helping to build a stronger football club which will take us forward.

It is fair to say both of us are absolutely furious at what we have read today. It is mischief-making of the highest order and appears designed to unsettle everyone on the eve of our big game against Arsenal on Wednesday night."

The fact that Allardyce admitted on Monday that "players are not happy about a lot of stuff I do" is not obliterated by the players' statement, just as it is true that some players were underwhelmed when told of Allardyce's plans not to return to Tyneside after Boxing Day's game at Wigan and instead stay away until the following match at Chelsea three days later.

Unquestionably much of the players' annoyance, and Allardyce's in fact most of it stems from the fact this is in the public domain. There are earnest discussions ongoing about training ground and dressing room moles.

And, while away supporters at Ewood Park were vocally and pointedly behind Allardyce and the team, a measure of Tyne-side enthusiasm for Newcastle could be seen in another, local, newspaper in which even yesterday Newcastle were advertising "tickets still on sale" for Arsenal.

By kick-off St James' is likely to be sold out once again and attention will then return to the football. Newcastle have a reasonable home record against Arsenal in recent years won two, lost two, drawn four, since the turn of the century but it will require a much-improved home performance to the last two, against Portsmouth and Liverpool, if Arsenal's smooth title challenge is to be unbalanced.

The absence of Cesc Fabregas and Alexandr Hleb should aid Newcastle but neither Abdoulaye Faye nor Stephen Carr are ready to play for the home side, who lost 2-0 at Ashburton Grove in the League Cup in September.

Allardyce had a record of unsettling Arsenal, and Arsne Wenger, at Bolton, but deep down is probably more focused on Saturday's game at home to Birmingham City.

"There are some games that are more winnable than others and obviously this is not one of those games," Allardyce said, "but they are not invincible.

"I can't speak for Arsne and his players but certainly at my previous club, the players lost any fears they had for the team they were playing against, which was fantastic because they had the belief, they had done it once, they could do it again, did it again, and then it grew from there.

"That brought doubt in the opposition team, which was good from a mental point of view. But I am at a completely different club now with a different set of players. I know there are a few fears and trepidations because results are not going right, but these are the games that you should be going into producing your best with a big crowd against a big team like Arsenal."

If Newcastle lose again, then how they do so will sway the home crowd. Allardyce, though, appears not to think like that.

"Fans are only interested in winning, like us all," he said. "I don't know where that perception comes about Newcastle fans would rather lose 4-3 than win 1-0. I think it is all a myth."

The question, actually, is whether they would rather win 4-3 or 1-0.

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