Newcastle bruised by rough ride

Frustration grows on Tyneside as two humiliating cup exits, infighting and open dissent from senior players mean misery for the fans
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The Independent Football

If Newcastle United's season has been like a roller-coaster, it is one which now leaves those on board feeling nauseous, disoriented and (at least some of them) desperate to get off. It is hard to believe, given the mood at St James' Park yesterday, that five days ago the club stood on the brink of their most successful campaign.

If Newcastle United's season has been like a roller-coaster, it is one which now leaves those on board feeling nauseous, disoriented and (at least some of them) desperate to get off. It is hard to believe, given the mood at St James' Park yesterday, that five days ago the club stood on the brink of their most successful campaign.

With a one goal advantage to take into the second leg of a Uefa Cup quarter-final with Sporting Lisbon, a shortening injury list and a tantalising FA Cup semi-final with Manchester United to follow, Newcastle reverberated with the hope that English football's most embarrassing trophy drought - 36 years and counting - was finally coming to an end.

Successive 4-1 defeats later, the inadequacies of a team supposedly made more resilient by the disciplined management of Graeme Souness have been exposed across Europe and to a television audience.

On Tyneside yesterday the natural scapegoats were sought. Laurent Robert has been derided for his comments before the Lisbon match in which he decided to make his personal problems with Souness public. Lee Bowyer and Kieron Dyer have been criticised for brawling on the pitch during a 3-0 home defeat to Aston Villa, leading to their suspension for Sunday's FA Cup defeat. Andy O'Brien, whose confidence has taken such a hammering that he looked desperately vulnerable, long before his poor clearance gifted Sporting their crucial third goal, has been blamed for the team's defensive failings.

And Nicky Butt, a player warmly welcomed last summer as the missing link in a side expected to challenge for Champions' League qualification, has been so poor in recent matches, including the FA Cup semi-final, that he has been booed by his own supporters. His decision to walk straight off the field after the final whistle on Sunday, shaking the hands of his former Manchester team-mates - he was later seen with his arm around former manager Sir Alex Ferguson in cheerful conversation - but without any acknowledgement of Newcastle's wonderful support, has led to furious calls for his dismissal.

Significantly, this snub to the supporters has prompted far more anger than Robert's comments, mainly because, while his timing was terrible, there is a certain amount of sympathy with the outspoken winger's argument that Newcastle United are not as good now as they were last year. While much was made by the Newcastle hierarchy of the fact the club had never been involved in the latter stages of two cup competitions in April, that little piece of history means absolutely nothing now they crashed out of both before the start of May.

Instead, it is more recent history which has come back to haunt them. This time last year, under their former manager Sir Bobby Robson, Newcastle were looking forward to a Uefa Cup semi-final against Marseilles and had an excellent chance of qualifying for the Champions' League for a third successive season.

In contrast, Souness's side are now preparing for trips to some of European football's least fashionable destinations in the hope of qualifying for the Uefa Cup through the backdoor of the Intertoto Cup.

Some supporters have already turned against Souness. He was not a popular appointment when he arrived, with many angry at the shoddy treatment dished out to his predecessor. Robson was sacked after four games of the season, even though he had taken Newcastle into the Champions' League and had previously saved the club from relegation. If fifth place and a Uefa Cup semi-final was not good enough last season, how can Souness stay having guided the club into the bottom half of the Premiership?

To be fair to Souness, he is still getting to grips with an unruly squad bequeathed by Robson. Crucially, he retains the support of the two main power-brokers at St James' Park, the captain Alan Shearer and the chairman, Freddy Shepherd. After only seven months in the job he also deserves the chance to construct a team in his own blueprint.

"It's been tough to take," said Shearer, as he reflected on one of the most painful weeks of the career he has already agreed to extend because of his strong relationship with Souness.

"We drove past the fans on the way to the Millennium Stadium and the noise they were making was absolutely unbelievable. It's a frustrating time for them as well as us, and it does hurt you.

"I'm as hungry for success as I ever have been. I know the manager is as well and I know he'll be working his socks off throughout the summer trying to get the right people in."

Going or staying?

¿ Craig Bellamy: Quality player, but has fallen out with Shearer and Souness. Verdict: going

¿ Laurent Robert: One outspoken interview too many, and not enough match-winning performances. Verdict: going

¿ Patrick Kluivert: Supremely talented, but injured too often and struggles to motivate himself. Verdict: going

¿ Titus Bramble: Once the defensive scapegoat, but a revelation under Souness. Verdict: staying

¿ Kieron Dyer: Also said to have no future under Souness, but has been in superb form, despite continuing to attract bad publicity. But has only a year left on contract, and has been linked to swap deals for either Manchester United's Alan Smith or Chelsea's Scott Parker. Verdict: future uncertain

¿ Alan Shearer: Some suggested he should retire after the shambles of the last five days, but not someone to rush into such a decision. Verdict: staying

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