Old friends see funny side in high-stakes survival battle

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The Independent Football

Gallows humour flowed from the Gallowgate End when Glenn Roeder telephoned the manager's office at Manchester City on Wednesday with a proposal to mock the furore surrounding the touchline antics of Alan Pardew and Arsène Wenger. "He's talking about bringing a couple of sumo costumes down so we can have a dust-up in the technical area," revealed the recipient of the Newcastle manager's call, Stuart Pearce. "It will make for good television." They will offer necessary protection for the loser, too.

Their telephone conversation may suggest otherwise but this is a dangerous time in the managerial careers of both Pearce and Roeder. This lunchtime they meet at the City of Manchester Stadium in what could ultimately prove the Premiership equivalent of Spartacus slaying Antoninus, as two close friends fight each other for survival and the victor delays crucifixion for another day. The Tony Curtis role is yet to be cast.

Colleagues under Harry Redknapp at West Ham, they formed the type of friendship that allows tense situations to be defused with a joke when Pearce commenced his coaching badges in the twilight of his playing days and Roeder combined scouting duties with coaching a reserve team containing several future England internationals at Upton Park. "We get on famously," admitted the Newcastle manager yesterday. "I was also involved with Stuart for England for two and a half years. He's one of those guys you'd want to be in the trenches, he's old school like me and I hope he'd say the same about me." Naturally, he does. The City manager responded: "I used to spend a lot of time talking to him and learning from him. Glenn's a good man, I like him and we keep in touch."

Today they will happily exchange a friendship for three points that could loosen their opponent's hold on his job. Such is football.

"The Premiership is a tough place and sometimes that is the beauty of the job," added Pearce, who oversaw the departure of Newcastle's previous manager, Graeme Souness, with a 3-0 win in the corresponding fixture last season. "Without wishing to appear callous, my job is to win matches, and if I'm successful then that means that somebody else isn't. That is the nature of the game - I want to be successful. It's difficult [to have compassion for a friend and fellow manager]. I've not got a streak in me that makes me feel sorry for people. I feel you get where you are going in life through hard work.

"Most players who end up going into management or coaching do it because they love the game. It's not because they want to be rich and famous, it's just the same as when you went out on to the park and pretended to be Stan Bowles or whoever your idol was. You've been in the game for so many years and it's the game you love, that's why you do it. You enjoy the high of winning matches and I would say most managers quite enjoy the pressures that come with the job. I know I do."

Roeder and Pearce have endured similar pressures throughout this Premiership season, a series of setbacks that have ensured today's meeting does not require the appointment of Graham Poll to guarantee anxiety and drama, if not excitement, with the teams registering only seven League goals each this term.

Extensive injuries, disappointing summer signings and despondent form have conspired to keep their names on the speculated casualty list of Premiership managers, and both have been responsible for performances that have brought their chairmen into the public domain.

There was no surprise when Freddy Shepherd returned from family commitments in Spain earlier this week to voice his concern at the home defeat by Sheffield United that sent his club to second from bottom, the Newcastle chairman convening a clear-the-air meeting with Roeder and senior players ahead of Tuesday's penalty shoot-out victory at Watford in the Carling Cup.

It was uncharacteristic of Shepherd's City counterpart, John Wardle, to proclaim deep embarrassment at the 4-0 reverse at Wigan last month via his club's website. Unusual, yet symptomatic of an away record that currently reads 19 defeats in 24 games for Pearce's men. He must thank the heavens for a fine home record.

If the two managers are in a perilous place then they can both find protection, not in foam sumo suits, but in sequences that sit incredulously with the pressure they are under. City are the only team in the Premiership not to concede at home this season, an unbeaten record that has yielded 11 of their 12 points, while Roeder has bought time by remaining undefeated in 10 cup ties thus far, a stark contrast to only two wins in 11 league games.

It is Shepherd, not Roeder, who is a greater target for the ire of Newcastle supporters, who lay the blame for yet more overpriced signings and a failure to strengthen in the right areas of the team this summer at his door. "It's a mystery," the Newcastle manager said of his team's erratic form. "There's no reason. The preparations are the same and it is happening for us in the cups with victories over good teams. After we beat Palermo they then beat Sampdoria to go joint top of Serie A and we lose at home to Sheffield United. You can't put your finger on it exactly."

"People are saying Glenn is not doing so well but they are in the quarter-finals of the League Cup and they are doing well in Europe," added Pearce. "They just need to put a run together in the League and you've got to bear in mind they've spent God knows how much on a striker who is out for a year [Michael Owen], Shola Ameobi is out, [Obafemi] Martins has copped an injury and Shay Given. That's four massive players. What they have done in the cup competitions is fantastic."

The City manager has been a voice of reason throughout a turbulent start to the season, as he was when calling for a sense of perspective from those who touted him as the next England manager only eight months ago. As Wednesday's jovial phone call with a friend illustrated, it is a quality he possesses in abundance. "You have to have a sense of humour at everything you do and the one thing the British have is a fantastic ability to laugh at themselves when all around you is crumbling," said Pearce. "Not that I'm suggesting that's the case here."

How they compare: The managers with most to lose this weekend

Stuart Pearce

Club: Manchester City

Age: 44

Appointed: caretaker manager 10 March 2005 Appointed manager 12 May 2005 Major buys Darius Vassell (Aston Villa, £2m); Georgios Samaras (Heerenveen, £6m); Dietmar Hamann (Liverpool, £500,000) Major sales Shaun Wright-Phillips (Chelsea, £21m); Andy Cole (Portsmouth, £500,000); David James (Portsmouth, undisclosed)

Best result: Manchester City 3 Manchester United 1 (League, 9 April 2005)

Worst result: Wigan 4 Manchester City 0 (League, 21 October '06)

Glenn Roeder

Club: Newcastle United

Age: 50

Appointed: caretaker manager 2 February 2006 Appointed manager 16 May 2006

Major buys: Damien Duff (Chelsea, £5m), Obafemi Martins (Internazionale, £10m), Antoine Sibierski (Manchester City, undisclosed)

Major sales: Robbie Elliott (Sunderland, free); Amdy Faye (Charlton Athletic, £2m)

Best results: Palermo 0 Newcastle 1 (Uefa Cup Group Stage, 2 November '06); Newcastle 3 Tottenham 1 (League, 1 April '06)

Worst result: Newcastle 0 Sheffield United 1 (League, 4 November '06)