James Lawton: Shepherd not worthy to fell English football great with Tyne axe

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The Independent Football

Given the imperatives of Premiership football it was plain that the fall of Sir Bobby Robson was imminent. Now he is gone, though, an even more vital question concerning the future of the most desperately underachieving club in all English football has come into the sharpest focus. It asks simply when the axe is going to fall on Freddy Shepherd

Given the imperatives of Premiership football it was plain that the fall of Sir Bobby Robson was imminent. Now he is gone, though, an even more vital question concerning the future of the most desperately underachieving club in all English football has come into the sharpest focus. It asks simply when the axe is going to fall on Freddy Shepherd, the chairman whose long-flagged firing of Robson yesterday was merely the logical conclusion to some of the worst leadership displayed in even the blighted history of the club.

Shepherd's love of the limelight is matched only by his absolute failure to understand what constitutes the makings of success. It is not, and can never be, the public statement that the man in charge of the most vital asset of all, the team, is on borrowed time.

That Shepherd saw fit to so undermine one of the great figures in English football is a mystery exceeded only by one other. That concerns the 71-year-old Robson's failure to tell Shepherd where to stick his ideas and his club some time ago.

Of course, Robson knows about loyalty and we know how much he regards the team which was the inspiration of his youth. Robson knows about loyalty and he also knows about the savage impact of being publicly dismissed. As a young manager he wept with grief when Fulham cut him down without, in his opinion, giving him a reasonable chance to prove himself.

He has done that so many times since first feeling the cutting edge of the axe. His success with Ipswich and England, Eindhoven, Sporting Lisbon and Barcelona, should insulate him now from the kind of pain he felt at Craven Cottage all those years ago. But it shouldn't diminish any contempt we feel for the way Shepherd has humiliated this proud man over the past year or so.

Shepherd's habit of commenting on team affairs would be outrageous in any context. Coming from a man who was caught on tape uttering thoughts so banal and insulting to the fans and their womenfolk it is almost beyond belief.

No doubt, with Robson aged 71, there is a case for telling this superb football man that maybe it is time to withdraw from the frontline of today's football. Undoubtedly, his values are no longer those of some of the younger members of his staff, perhaps especially the brilliantly-gifted but apparently terminally-unwise Kieron Dyer, who recently boasted to a national television audience about his wealth and luxury possessions.

There has been no secret about the fact that Robson at times has been deeply disaffected by the attitudes of some of today's young millionaire players. However, as long as he was manager of Newcastle he was entitled to the full support of the board.

The idea that he would have one last season to "prove himself" was both laughable and insulting. Robson no more had to prove himself to Shepherd than he had to formally introduce himself in any obscure corner of the football world.

Certain principles in the running of a successful team are self-evident and they have been relentlessly defied by Shepherd in the course of his stewardship. The most basic one is his failure to understand that the greatest need of all is trust and confidence. Players respond to knowledge and authority, whatever the bearer's age. Just as quickly, however they sense a position of weakness and in that Newcastle have clearly been more vulnerable ever since Shepherd first declared he was reviewing his manager's position.

Plainly there will be much talk of the job going to the iconic Alan Shearer, whose relationship with his old mentor had clearly come under new strain with the signing of the faded Dutch superstar Patrick Kluivert. It may be that Shearer has the strength - and the support of the club's following - to make a serious run at the job. However, the challenge would require one fundamental assurance.

It would be that he is his own man, his own manager. The chances of that in the personal empire of Freddy Shepherd seem remote.

From outside, the solution suggests itself plainly enough. The managers have come and gone but the problem remains the same. It is the leadership of the man who knows too little about the game in which he has acquired absurd and misused power.

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