Robson's fate in balance as fans urged to show support

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The Independent Football

Freddy Shepherd, Newcastle United's chairman, describes himself as "a Northum- berland farmer", and although he is much more than that, he has always been ready with the scythe.

Kenny Dalglish and Ruud Gullit both departed St James' Park before the end of August, one because he had lost the supporters, the other because he had lost the dressing-room, as well as too many matches.

Newcastle were second from bottom without a win in five games when Gullit quit, having been beaten by a goal from Sunderland's Kevin Phillips in an intense downpour.

This morning, Newcastle find themselves second from bottom once more and again facing an attack led by Phillips, although this time the red and white stripes he wears are those of Southampton, not Sunderland.

Should the Saints win, it might be the last football match Sir Bobby Robson takes charge of, which should be a cause for a very deep intake of breath. The stakes are enormously high for both Newcastle, whose finances need to be fuelled by Champions' League revenues, and their manager.

Just about the only thing that can be relied on at St James' Park this afternoon are the fans, who have been urged to bring black and white scarves as a show of support for their manager, who this week appeared on television to deny he had resigned.

With rumours sweeping the country and, more importantly, the City of London, that Robson had gone, the interview was deemed necessary to halt the slide in Newcastle's share price.

Some of what he said was admirable. "I have not jumped ship in my life. I have never wanted not to fight the good fight and I have been in football over 50 years."

Some of it was whistling in the wind. "We don't have any problems, we have no troublemakers at all."

This is rather wide of the mark. Newcastle have plenty of problems, most of which can be traced to a lack of discipline.

Dave Merrington, the former Southampton manager, and a Geordie like Robson, told the players in the pages of the Newcastle Evening Chronicle: "You should all stand up and be counted for the sake of Sir Bobby Robson. It is time some of the Newcastle players stopped acting like little boys and became men."

The exciting young squad Robson has assembled are boys of often brittle talents. One can argue that Newcastle have never quite recovered from Manchester United's six-goal drubbing in April, which derailed their title challenge. The trauma of the ghastly penalty shoot-out with Partizan Belgrade that destroyed their Champions' League hopes is another unhealed wound.

At Highbury last Friday, Jermaine Jenas, the Young Footballer of the Year, committed two careless errors while Titus Bramble suffered another lapse of concentration. The result was three Arsenal goals and a defeat when the performance merited a draw. At Everton and in their last home match against Bol-ton they were over-anxious, throwing themselves forward incoherently, when a more measured approach was required.

It is far too early for Shepherd to reach for his scythe again. Football, with television channels devoted to nothing but endless analysis, its internet rumours, and nerds encouraged to speak their bankrupt minds to third-rate DJs on radio phone-ins, needs a sense of perspective, not least when it comes to the fate of a man who gained his FA coaching badge 41 years ago.

When Phillips last came to St James' Park, in September 2002, Newcastle were 19th. They finished third.