'I've learnt it's not about me'

From petulant playboy to being at the heart of Newcastle's revival under Graeme Souness, Keiron Dyer tells Simon Williams how he has worked to restore the glitter to a career that was on the verge of collapse
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The Independent Football

When Graeme Souness became Newcastle United's manager in September 2004, Kieron Dyer sat alone in his hotel room and prepared himself for the worst. Just a few days earlier, the England international had been booed by his own supporters, and his Newcastle and international career appeared on the verge of collapse. Having refused to play on the right wing for Souness's predecessor, Sir Bobby Robson, the midfielder had incensed not just his club's supporters but those from across the country for an act which seemed to confirm his reputation as a petulant playboy.

Souness, after all, had been handed the job of tackling troublesome players head-on. Little more than a week later and Dyer gave his new boss all the ammunition he needed. "My first time alone with him was not ideal," Dyer recalls. "We had to go down to a police station to receive a caution because I'd been caught on CCTV urinating in an alleyway. It wasn't the best way to introduce myself, especially considering my reputation, which I obviously feared he'd believe. The fans were booing me and I honestly felt he'd get rid of me as soon as he got the chance.

"We were in the car on the way to the police station. I was in the back seat. He was in the front with the driver. He just suddenly turned round, looked me straight in the eye and said: 'If you ever do anything like this again I will bin you.' That's all he said. He drew his line and I knew if I crossed it I'd be out."

Six months later, Dyer has yet to cross it and, to the surprise of many, has in that time played some of his best football on Tyneside. For this the credit must go to both player and manager. Dyer has responded admirably in the face of adversity while Souness, who was widely expected to make Dyer the scapegoat for the disciplinary problems under Robson, has been more likely to put an arm around Dyer's shoulder, rather than his neck.

"I was shocked when I first heard he was the manager," Dyer admits. "When Sir Bobby was sacked, there were loads of names put forward and Graeme Souness was not one of them. I was away with England when I was told. It was totally out of the blue. He was brought in to get the discipline in the dressing-room right. There had been a few problems in that respect and I think it did need to be sorted out.

"The lads in the England squad didn't give me much stick at first, but they did laugh when they saw the bookies had made me one of the favourites to be kicked out. I think it was me, Craig Bellamy and Laurent Robert.

"We first met him after we'd beaten Blackburn Rovers on the Saturday. He and Dean Saunders came in and introduced themselves. They didn't say very much at all on that occasion. But I became impressed with him. I'd read and heard all these stories about how he was coming in to kick us into shape. But all he emphasised was that he has his way of doing things and if we followed those we'd be fine. He said everyone started with a clean slate and I just thought to myself, is he serious?

"There was a stereotype of him and that was probably the manager we thought we were getting. I'd read and heard that he was the sort of manager who would come in, hammer everyone and totally change things. But, I've very rarely seen him lose his temper, I think the only time he has lost it with us was in the 3-1 defeat at Anfield. He is actually very calm and collected. He tells us what he expects, but, if you cross him, he will get rid of you."

Six months after his arrival, Souness has done something nobody expected. He has not only persuaded Dyer to play on the right wing, he has made him the focus of the side and has extracted a series of glittering performances from a player once dubbed the "King of Bling" for his taste in expensive jewellery.

While Craig Bellamy failed to accept his manager's warning, Dyer has begun to look like the player who looked so promising during his early days with Ipswich, and was once talked about as the most talented footballer of his generation. "I had my warning," Dyer says. "You only have to look at the Craig Bellamy situation. I begged Craig not to go on television and call the manager a liar, but he was so frustrated.

"It was sad for me because Craig was one of my best friends at the club. I could see both sides of the argument, but there was only going to be one winner and that was the manager. If you cross him, if you don't believe in what he's doing, he'll get rid of you."

Dyer has not been the only player to be rehabilitated by Souness. The temperamental winger, Laurent Robert, is another, as is another graduate of the Ipswich youth team, Titus Bramble.

"If you look at Laurent Robert, the fans loved him," Dyer says, "but the manager didn't think he did enough defensively so he didn't play him until he was willing to do as he was told. Now you look at him, and sometimes Laurent is playing as a left-back. He's back in the side and he is playing well. The manager has got the best out of him and he is getting the best out of me.

"It would have been the easiest decision in the world for him to get rid of me, but he wanted to keep me and he was willing to stick his neck on the line because I was hated by a lot of the fans. He has been fantastic for me.

"In August I thought it was over, but Graeme Souness has given me a new lease of life, even though I'm playing on the right wing. I still prefer playing in the centre, but I've learnt it's not about me, it's about the team and doing what the manager asks you to do."

During Dyer's bleak time at the start of the season he was subjected to a hate campaign which left him close to breaking point. His response was to seek refuge with his family in his home town of Ipswich. "It was the most difficult period of my life. I was booed by my own fans playing for England at St James' Park. I couldn't walk along the street. I couldn't go anywhere. I just suffered in silence.

"My family were very important at that time, as were my team-mates, because they never turned against me. I remember going back to Ipswich and seeing my son, Kie. He helped me through it more than anyone. He's four years old and when I saw him laughing and giggling, I knew that he was the most important thing in my life. It put what was going on into perspective - I needed that. I went back to Ipswich a lot. I'm a local lad whose done well and I always received a lot of support."

Such is the extent of Dyer's rehabilitation that the same fans who once seethed at the very mention of his name now give him standing ovations. But, while a change in attitude and a life-altering lesson have played their part in the U-turn, Dyer also puts it down to the fact, for the first time since he was a teenager at Portman Road, he is playing with freedom.

"I'm happy with my form at the moment," he explains. "I think I'm finally fulfilling my potential. The confidence is back. I'm a better winger now, but I think Stephen Carr has been a massive help to me because he is a proper right-back.

"The biggest thing, though, is that the new manager has given me the freedom to express myself. In the last few years even my friends have been saying to me, 'How come you don't take people on any more?'

"But the new gaffer has told Laurent and me that we're the creative spark. We're the ones who have got to make things happen. He's let me do what I want in the final third, he lets me express myself on a football pitch. The fans here have responded to that because that was what I was like when I first came to Newcastle.

"I'm running at players and beating them. Newcastle fans like that. They like someone who makes things happen, someone who is willing to take a risk. They don't want to see me passing the ball the whole time." While Dyer has regained admirers on the pitch, he confessed he faces an even bigger battle to shake off his playboy reputation.

But, having given up his penthouse in Newcastle's city centre, Dyer now lives a couple of minutes away from a player long regarded as the model professional, Alan Shearer, in a luxurious, but quiet suburb.

"I've had this reputation for ages now," Dyer said. "But I'm 26. I'm not a kid any more. The playboy label, the 60 clicks tag, the stupid boy, they are all lazy labels which fit people's stereotypes of me. I mean, last year, when the rape case thing broke, everyone assumed it was me and they convinced themselves it was me before they'd even asked me. Even when it was shown it wasn't me, people still thought it was because the label stuck.

"People keep bringing up Ayia Napa [home-made blue movie with teenage girls, Rio Ferdinand and Frank Lampard], but that was in 1999. The other lads have been able to move on, but, the older I've become, the less trouble I've been in and the less I go out.

"But it doesn't stop the stories and the rumours. There was a story last month saying I got beaten up by five blokes over a girl. I had my agent, my mum, my friends, all asking if I was OK I wasn't even in the nightclub it was supposed to have happened in. I laugh about it now, but I suspect it is something which will always be thrown at me."

Dyer has been a regular in England squads since his debut against Luxembourg in 1999, but of his 28 caps, only a handful have been in a starting role.

"People are talking about me playing for England again, but I don't feel as though I deserve to be in the starting XI at the moment," Dyer said. "If I carry on playing like I am, who knows? I've been tried on the left before, but I've probably got more experience of playing out wide now. When I played on the wing for England I was playing in the centre for Newcastle.

"Sven was great to me at the start of the season. He rang me up after the Ukraine friendly when I was booed and said I had the talent to win the fans back. He said it would be a massive test of my character, but he hoped I'd come through it. He has said some very nice things about me and he has been in touch about my performances recently." And the England coach showed that Dyer is still very much part of his plans by bringing him on in the second half of England's game against Azerbaijan on Wednesday.

At club level Newcastle, a bit like Dyer himself, have emerged from a turbulent first half of the season in surprisingly good shape, progressing to the latter stages of two Cup competitions in some style. "The future for Newcastle is looking good," Dyer says. "The draw could have been kinder in the FA Cup, but Manchester United have already lost one semi-final this season, so we want to keep that trend going. In the Uefa Cup, the bookies have got us down as favourites, so we've got to believe we can win that. I'd love to win a trophy here. This city wouldn't stop celebrating for a week."

Quite how long Dyer will be "here" is a matter of renewed speculation among Newcastle fans. His contract expires at the end of next season, though there is talk of an extension. For the moment he is keeping his own counsel on that subject. In the longer term, though, he is very happy to make his intentions clear. "I'd love to finish my career at Ipswich," he says. "I'm only 26, but, when I play for my final club, I want it to be Ipswich Town. They got me started and I owe them a lot. It's still home to me."