No time to lose for Souness and O'Leary

Graeme Souness' nondescript Newcastle face David O'Leary's artless Aston Villa at St James' Park today. Nick Harris believes the beaten manager is likely to be sacked
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The Independent Football

Alain Perrin "won" this season's Premiership sack race, but who will be next? The North-east, not the South Coast, is where axes are being sharpened, and while Newcastle United's manager, Graeme Souness, said yesterday he would "never walk away" from St James' Park, he added: "I couldn't answer if tomorrow will be my last game at this club. That decision isn't up to me."

Souness is reportedly one game from the sack, while Aston Villa's David O'Leary, his counterpart at St James' Park this afternoon, is hanging by a similarly thin thread. Rarely has one game held such dire potential consequences for both managers.

O'Leary knows the stakes are high, and has no sympathy for Souness. "I would hate to beat Graeme Souness and the result cost him his job," he said. "But it is a cruel game. He will want to beat me because he is desperate for points, but I hope to make it tougher for them."

It is no surprise the duo are the bookmakers' favourites to be the next top-flight managers to leave their posts. They both endured League Cup humiliation this week, Newcastle losing to Wigan's second string and Villa crashing 3-0 out to Doncaster of League One. They both made mea culpa statements afterwards, but then suffered the ignominy of hearing their respective chairmen, Freddy Shepherd and Doug Ellis, issue apologies to their clubs' fans for the dross they had been served.

Souness and O'Leary have both underachieved. In Sir Bobby Robson's last three seasons at Newcastle, they finished fourth, third, and fifth in the Premiership. Souness led them to 14th last season, and after spending £50m this year, they are 12th.

Villa finished sixth in O'Leary's first season, 2003-04, but fell to 10th last season, and are 15th today, only five points above the relegation zone. He has spent "only" £13.5m this year, £11m in the summer. "I feel I am under pressure with every game because the buck stops with myself," he said.

Neither man can look to take solace in upcoming fixtures. After today, Newcastle face Arsenal at home, then trips to West Ham and Liverpool.

Villa face a trip to Bolton Wanderers, then games with Manchester United and Everton. And both men have heard the talk about replacements being lined up.

Newcastle have an eye on Bolton's Sam Allardyce, and may appoint Glenn Roeder, the head of their academy, as a caretaker if Souness goes.

Villa know that George Burley, twiddling his thumbs since leading Hearts to the top of the Scottish Premier League and then being ousted, would welcome an approach to fill O'Leary's shoes. Burley has also been linked to Newcastle, as has Martin O'Neill.

With less than a month until the transfer window opens, Shepherd and Ellis are both aware that any managerial change needs to be made before January's trading to be truly meaningful. For all these reasons, today's match represents a make-or-break occasion.

Souness acknowledged yesterday that his future is in doubt. "I understand I'm getting a lot of criticism," he said. "That's the price on the ticket and I'd not argue with anyone who said we were bad against Wigan."

He could have added that he understood his chairman's stance as well.

Shepherd said: "I felt sorry for our supporters, especially those who have travelled 165 miles on a freezing and foggy night to watch a performance like that."

Souness argued that "bad performances have happened before and will happen again", but insisted he will never resign. "That can never happen and there's a number of reasons," he said.

"The single biggest reason is because long after football I will have to look at myself in the mirror when I'm shaving, brushing my hair, or what's left of it. It can never happen so it's a waste of time anybody asking me if I'll quit. I'll never walk away."

Asked whether he had been told that he has one game to save his job, he said: "There's been no ultimatum laid at my door from the board. It's an important game against Villa, I'd be a fool not to realise that. That's the way it is on Tyneside.

"My take on it is that at this club, along with maybe one or two others, is you're only two games away from the situation you find yourself in but I knew that before signing my contract. It's a unique place and all that's not a surprise or helpful. When you're manager of Newcastle United you have to learn to live with that."

O'Leary, who admitted to being "ashamed" of the Doncaster result, will have to live with Ellis's recent criticism, at least until the club's chairman breaks his silence on O'Leary's future or acts to end his reign at Villa Park.

Ellis said that he felt "humiliated" after the Doncaster match, which was hardly a ringing endorsement of O'Leary. He also said he was "disgusted" and "embarrassed". "The supporters are down and understandably so," he added. "But they are not the only ones feeling as sick as dogs. No one feels as sick as I do now."

Ellis concluded his outburst by saying that "hopefully, we will beat Newcastle, just like we did last year." It is a straw that O'Leary can cling to. If he does not grasp it, his time could be limited. And if he does, it could be the straw that breaks the camel's back for Souness.