Souness hopes Owen is in tune with the Toon

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The Independent Football

For a city and club proud of its passion and loyalty the pre-Owen days represented worrying times. Supporter apathy, not apoplexy, was on the rise. Over 2,000 season tickets remained unsold in August and for the first time since 1992-93 the club had to dust down its waiting list to inform long-forgotten names that their chance to watch a team that finished 14th last season had finally arrived. Tickets were put on general sale four days before Manchester United arrived for the first big game at St James' Park this term. Unease with how the club had been run was beginning to take its toll.

Then the chairman, Freddy Shepherd, responded with a £17m offer that made Real Madrid cry with joy and the European champions, Liverpool, weep at their inability to respond. Any spares for Owen's debut against Fulham this afternoon? Not a chance. The only prospect of obtaining tickets was through winning a competition in the local Journal newspaper, while shirt sales have risen tenfold since the day the England striker stunned everyone involved in the game, himself included, by opting to wear the famous black and white jersey.

The lack of options available to Owen as the transfer deadline approached makes it unfair to suggest Newcastle needed him more then he needed them, but the impetus he provided was vital nevertheless.

"Unfortunately Michael had to wait 10 days to meet his new team-mates and then it was only to warm down after international duty, so the preparations have not been ideal, but there has been a real buzz about the place ever since he signed. It is even greater now," said Souness yesterday. "He hasn't scored in training yet, but I promise you it won't be long."

In contrast to his first appearance at St James' Park 11 days ago, when a radiant summer's afternoon and around 15,000 supporters converged to welcome him to the North-east, there was only a miserable downpour and a hardy band of souls to greet the 25-year-old on his first full day's work at Newcastle's training ground yesterday. The latter is a more accurate reflection of the position Newcastle are in and the task awaiting Owen.

An extra 35,000 Geordies will flood to St James' today hoping to witness Owen continue a tradition that has seen Malcolm MacDonald, Kevin Keegan, Andy Cole, Alan Shearer and Les Ferdinand and Craig Bellamy all score on their home debuts and claim his first Premiership goal since an equaliser against Newcastle for Liverpool at Anfield 16 months ago. They will appreciate the delay. Their team is yet to score a league goal this season, or deliver a league win at St James' since March, but at least they now possess, in Owen and Alan Shearer, a strike force that will get goals.

Often maligned at international level, the pair, who sat together at a corporate event in Gateshead on Thursday, now have more experience and differing roles to answer the call of fans for whom the time for excuses has gone. Souness knows the pressure that always surrounds his position will become unbearable if his much-vaunted attack, augmented by the £9.5m Spanish international Albert Luque, struggles to provide an instant remedy to a start that has left Newcastle with one point, from a home game against 10-man West Ham, and second from bottom.

But he insisted: "You have to be realistic. Alan Shearer is 35, Michael Owen is approaching his best years, and while they are both capable of scoring many goals, anyone with any intelligence would want a 30-year-old Alan Shearer and a 20-year-old Michael Owen. But we have got second best and I think any manager in the Premiership would want we have got.

"For me, Kenny Dalglish and Ian Rush have to go down in the history books as one of the greatest partnerships ever because of what they won and on paper Shearer and Owen is the best partnership in the history of English football. I don't think there will be too many Premiership managers relishing the prospect of facing them."

Souness is anxious, however, that the Owen show does not distract his side and, contrary to the player's own insistence about his time at Real Madrid, where 16 goals in 27 starts gave him a better goals-per-minute ratio than either Raul or Ronaldo, Souness believes there will be an element of self-doubt driving his most expensive acquisition.

"In everyone's eyes Michael was not a failure with Real Madrid but given the nature of his personality I am sure that deep down he sees himself as a failure there and that can only be to our benefit," he said. "He feels he has a point to prove."

Shepherd's bold move has turned a run-of-the-mill league fixture into one of the day's biggest draws, a transformation the Newcastle chairman expected to see on a consistent basis as he announced his predictions for the season only yesterday. "A top-six finish," he said, surprisingly, if realistically, avoiding the pressure of a demand for a Champions' League place.

"We've spent £50m since January, we couldn't back the manager any more. Graeme has got his own team now, 10 men in and 10 men out."

As Shearer admitted, Shepherd insisted and Souness understands, the season really does start now for Newcastle.

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