Souness' iron side on Tyneside

Newcastle will be no easy touch for a new manager surrounded by reminders of glory-starved past
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The Independent Football

It was around 9.40pm on Thursday that the new manager got his hands on a cup at St James' Park. "Thanks very much," Graeme Souness said, as Kath Cassidy furnished him with a steaming bowl of coffee. Kath has been the tea lady in the press room at Newcastle since 1968. In her 36 years of sterling service, there has only been one cup of first-class silver on display in the trophy cabinet upstairs. There was a reminder of it on the walls of the press room as Souness left his coffee to cool and stewed over his frustrating first match in charge of Newcastle United. "United Bring Home The Cup," proclaimed the headline of a framed report from the Evening Chronicle. It was dated June 1969.

It was around 9.40pm on Thursday that the new manager got his hands on a cup at St James' Park. "Thanks very much," Graeme Souness said, as Kath Cassidy furnished him with a steaming bowl of coffee. Kath has been the tea lady in the press room at Newcastle since 1968. In her 36 years of sterling service, there has only been one cup of first-class silver on display in the trophy cabinet upstairs. There was a reminder of it on the walls of the press room as Souness left his coffee to cool and stewed over his frustrating first match in charge of Newcastle United. "United Bring Home The Cup," proclaimed the headline of a framed report from the Evening Chronicle. It was dated June 1969.

Souness happens to be the 13th manager Mrs Cassidy has served since the reign of Joe Harvey, the Yorkshireman who brought the Fairs Cup to Tyneside from Budapest the month before Neil Armstrong took his small step for mankind into the Sea of Tranquillity. "Let's hope it's lucky 13th," she said.

It was not quite the same when Souness first walked into football management at Ibrox back in 1986. Rangers had not won the Scottish title for a mere eight years, though in Old Firm terms that equated to a longing of similarly despairing length. It was satisfied within a year, after Souness had turned the Scottish Premier League into something of a sea of turbulence.

Within 35 minutes of his debut as player-manager, he was sent off for kicking George McCluskey in an off-the-ball mêlée at Easter Road. So perhaps the rag that Nicky Butt lost on the hour at St James' on Thursday night might prove to be an omen of tougher times to come for the opponents of a new, meaner, Newcastle United.

Though Bnei Sakhnin, Arab-Israeli trail-blazers for peace on a scale way beyond the world of football, snapped with their unflinching challenges from the opening whistle in the Uefa Cup first-round tie, none of their players scythed into the tackle with quite the same consistency or zeal as Lee Bowyer. And it took the combined intervention of Souness and Shay Given to stop Butt from throttling the Sakhnin captain, Abas Suan, for a second time as they made their simultaneous red-card departures from the pitch. "We've learned a lesson," Souness reflected in the wake of the disappointing 2-0 win against the Israeli League part-timers. "You have to rise above what's going on out there and play your football."

Still, on a night when the flowing, attacking football of the Bobby Robson years dried to a trickle, the flash of steel could be construed as a measure of compensation for the new Newcastle. For all their fancy play under Sir Bobby, particularly on the green, green grass of home, Newcastle were always prone to be a soft touch. They have not won a Premiership match away from St James' since 21 October last year, when they overcame a 2-0 deficit to beat Fulham 3-2 at Loftus Road.

It will be tangible progress if Souness can end that run this afternoon. His first Premiership match in charge of Newcastle is at Southampton, where Newcastle have not won a League match since February 1972, the month they were famously humbled at Hereford in the FA Cup. "We're going to go there and win sooner or later, so why not Sunday?" Souness reasoned.

Of course, Souness himself does not have the happiest of memories of Southampton. His year there as manager ended acrimoniously after Rupert Lowe attempted to persuade him to hire psychologists, dieticians and fitness experts - though not rugby union coaches. There was also the farcical episode when Souness was duped into giving a trial to a Senegalese player called Ali Dia after receiving a telephone call purporting to be from George Weah; the player turned out to be a business studies student at Newcastle University. Then there was the unseemly pitch-side scuffle with Dennis Rofe when Souness was at St Mary's with Blackburn last October.

Not that the former Saint is breathing fire and brimstone ahead of his latest return. "I was only at Southampton a year," Souness reflected. "I had a three-year contract. I didn't see eye to eye with the new board that was coming in, so I resigned. We kept them in the Premiership. I think at that time that was successful for Southampton. I only have good memories there. It's a good football club and I'm looking forward to going back there."

Alan Shearer is looking forward to going back there too, and having spent the new manager's first night warming the substitutes' bench, the Newcastle captain can look forward to a place back in the firing line. Despite the brace bagged by the nimble-footed Patrick Kluivert on Thursday, Souness intimated that a change of strikeforce would restore Shearer and Craig Bellamy to front-line duty.

Not that Kluivert has been ruled out of the striking equation. Asked whether the Dutchman, the Englishman and the Welshman could be incorporated in the same team, Souness replied: "We're going to have to do that. I've not learned anything new about Patrick Kluivert. I've been a fan for years, since he scored in the European Cup final at the age of 18. He's a top man and a top, top player."

Whether Souness can be a top, top manager at Newcastle remains to be seen. He might be happy to instil some of his old flinty quality into the heart of his new team, but he is not the snarling confrontationalist that he continues to be portrayed as. "That's certainly not what I'm all about," he said. "I'm a different manager to how I was 18 years ago when I walked through the doors at Ibrox.

"As you get older, you learn things. You'll make mistakes. You'll do things the right way. And you hope you'll choose the right path more than the wrong." As long as the path leads to a cup of silver, the Toon Army could not really care how their new leader might get there.

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