Souness sails through his Shearer test

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The Independent Football

When we eulogise the achievements of Bill Nicholson, and marvel at the players whose careers he shaped, there is one character commonly overlooked. As the career of the Tottenham player and manager reached its conclusion in the early Seventies, another was in its genesis.

Can Nicholson have imagined that the Edinburgh boy whom he brought south as an apprentice and who repaid that faith by complaining every Friday that the name G Souness was not on his teamsheet - never mind that Tottenham boasted a midfield of Alan Mullery, Steve Perryman, and Martin Peters - would become one of the country's most charismatic and successful managers?

You suspect that Nicholson, always perceptive, even though he eventually lost patience with his protegé and sold him on to Middlesbrough, would have expected nothing less. There has never been any doubt of Souness's self belief. That was evident even during those early days when he was confined to the Spurs youth team.

While the emotions of the Newcastle faithful ranged from guarded approval to disquiet at the Scot's appointment as manager nearly two months ago, it becomes more evident by the day that such a character was precisely what the club required.

Newcastle boast 10 games undefeated. That is the sequence since the departure of Sir Bobby Robson at the end of August. Even if you allow one match overseen by caretaker John Carver, it still represents an inspired substitution; certainly not bad judgement from that most maligned of individuals, the club chairman, Freddy Shepherd.

However, Souness maintains with a shrug, ahead of a week which contains Premiership fixtures at Bolton (today) and at home to Fulham, punctuated by a Uefa Cup game on Thursday at home to Tbilisi: "Any manager going to a club gives a team an initial lift. The real test will be when we get a bloody nose - and how we react to that."

To endorse Souness is not to denounce his predecessor. In his five-year tenure, Robson brought about a renaissance at his home-city club. Yet in his last months at St James' Park, there had been evidence that a decline in standards and discipline on and off the field was raging like a contagious disease.

It was presumably caused, at least in part, by the knowledge that this would be Robson's final season. Shepherd responded swiftly.

United's Republic of Ireland centre-back Andy O'Brien says: "It's unfair to say every-one is brighter because we've got a new manager. I think Sir Bobby Robson did a very good job. But it is fair to say the new manager has given everybody a kick up the backside. He has shown players that didn't play under the last manager an opportunity. He's bred confidence in every-body. First and foremost we are expected to work hard. That is something we are reminded of a lot now. It's unfair to compare the two [Robson and Souness]. Graeme is a leader, though. When he gives his team talks he really does inspire you."

O'Brien, the former Bradford player, now 25, adds: "Training is a lot shorter and sharper now; it's exciting, it's intense. Everybody's at it, tackles are flying in. Graeme Souness's philosophy is to train as you play, because then you get into good habits."

Souness may have mellowed, but he remains a hard case, as Craig Bellamy will testify following an altercation during a training session 12 days ago, just before the squad left for the Uefa Cup game against Palionios in Athens.

It had followed Bellamy's substitution against Charlton, when the player had reacted by apparently calling Souness a "f***ing p****. The Wales international was allegedly grabbed by the throat by Souness after verbally abusing his manager. As one account described Bellamy's reaction: "Bellamy was reportedly badly shaken up by the incident." No great surprise there, then. The pair were in unison again, however, after the striker's winner against Manchester City last Sunday. Though it is unlikely that this Bellamy will ever be as cuddly as Dr David, Souness wouldn't desire that. He possibly sees something of himself in Bellamy.

If Souness is heartened by the fact that 12 Newcastle players have scored this season, the name of the leading scorer will not surprise him. Alan Shearer's total of eight is second only to Thierry Henry, by one goal, in all competitions. The only caveat is that it is a year since Shearer scored away in open play.

Yet, though he continues to make a crucial contribution, despite his age of 34, Shearer's mere presence has been viewed by some as destabilising. Just as his relegation to the substitutes' bench was the prelude to Ruud Gullit's dismissal, so it was one of the final acts of Robson's reign. No coincidence, say many.

Gullit has since described him as a "bad apple", whom he regretted not selling. There is debate over Robson's relationship with Shearer. While some sources indicate that all was not harmonious between the pair, Robson insisted last week that though there had been "the odd disagreement" there had been no animosity.

Thus far, Souness's authority where Shearer is concerned has been unquestioned. He has dropped the former England captain and lived to tell the tale. The Scot has done himself no harm with his insistence that Shearer could continue to play next season, despite having declared that this is his final season. Asked if Shearer could undertake a player-coach role, Souness said: "I would not rule that out. I'm fully aware of what he means to this club and its supporters."

And the possibility of offering Shearer a coaching role, even if he does retire? "As far as I'm concerned, yes."

Thus speaks a character who, as a teenaged player, refused to take no for an answer. Today, as a highly experienced manager he understands why, where Shearer is concerned, it would be foolish to say the same.