Robson hits back after chairman's criticism

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The Independent Football

The Newcastle United manager, Sir Bobby Robson, is ready to come out fighting after the chairman Freddy Shepherd's stinging criticism of the club's underachieving players.

An angry Shepherd hit out following the team's 1-0 defeat by Blackburn at St James' Park on Sunday, which capped a disappointing Christmas programme.

Newcastle head into 2004 lying seventh in the Premiership table after 19 games, 20 points adrift of the leaders, Manchester United. Perhaps more worryingly, they are six points worse off than they were at the same point last season and 13 shy of the mark they had set 12 months before that.

However, while acknowledging the first half of the current campaign - which included the shocking and costly exit in the Champions' League qualifiers against Partizan Belgrade - has simply not been good enough, Robson is ready to make up for the failings of his expensively assembled squad in the second half of the season.

"We do know that, had we won on Sunday - and we didn't - we were one point from fourth, and after our dismal start, that would have been a pretty fair achievement," Robson said. "But because we lost, we've lost a little bit of ground.

"My reaction to the supporters, not to the chairman, is that 19 games have been played, 19 games are yet to play, it's halfway-house and if we can improve our second-half performance of the season compared to our first-half performance - and we think we can - then we're in a position to possibly get the fourth position.

"That seems to be the one that's remaining. Everybody seems to think numbers one, two and three are already shouted for. Probably they're right," he added.

"Who will win the championship? I don't know between those three. It looks as though it will go to the last game or the last two games."

United, Arsenal and Chelsea have left the rest of the teams in the Premiership trailing, with the gap between the Blues in third and fourth-placed Charlton standing at 12 points. Newcastle lie in a gaggle of four clubs on 26 points, just four behind Charlton.

Robson and his players admit they are extremely unlikely to make significant inroads into closing the gap between the top three and the best of the rest but they are aware they have let themselves down at times over the past few months and are keen to make amends, starting with Saturday's FA Cup trip to Southampton.

"The chairman has come out with this strong situation and I understand it," Robson said. "He's the chairman, he has the right. I'm not cribbing about it at all. He's saying all our feelings - we all feel the same.

"I can tell you, on Sunday night nobody was more disappointed or disheartened than the players and myself.

"We're four points from fourth with half the season to go. We have to make sure that what doesn't happen is that the players lose their confidence and we don't get shattered by it.

"But it's up to the players, nobody else. The chairman is right to say those sorts of things, but the whole affair is in the hands of the players. It will be what the players do.

"The players are aware of what happened on Sunday, that we lost a vital opportunity, but it's not the end of it. We have a resolve in the club."