Souness soothed by the sweet sound of Solano

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The Independent Football

It was, astonishingly, a new Jackie Milburn record - a very different one from the Newcastle scoring tally of 200 that Alan Shearer has been chasing of late. Track nine on Howay The Lads, a CD of Newcastle songs compiled and produced by The Back Page, features the great Geordie legend, who died in 1988, giving his best Sinatra impression in the midst of a rap tribute penned by his son, Jack.

"We must have been one of the first families in the North-east to have a tape recorder," Jack said, explaining how the blast from the past - the mid-1950s - had come into being. "My dad would hook up the mike sometimes on a Sunday afternoon. He used to love tinkling out a few tunes on the piano and singing along to them."

"Wor Jackie" could sing along quite nicely, too. "Definitely better than Diamond Lights," one customer proclaimed, damning the Milburns, father and son, with the faintest of praise. Still, the Toon Army could do with something to smile about right now.

Two months on from the euphoria of the Michael Owen signing, the mood-swing has shifted in a decidedly downbeat direction. After two depressing performances, in a 0-0 draw at Portsmouth and a 1-0 defeat at Wigan, Newcastle stand just three points above Sunderland (for whom, not a lot of people know, Jackie Milburn made two wartime appearances in March 1945). Their nearest neighbours visit St James' Park this afternoon and the words "must" and "win" have featured prominently in the local press. One paper has billed it "the game Graeme Souness dare not lose".

Jensen, co-owner of The Back Page and editor of the Newcastle fanzine The Mag, does not go quite so far. "It's not like it was in 1999," he said, referring to the derby defeat at St James' that cost Ruud Gullit his job. "I can't imagine Souness being sacked if we lose. If we followed that up by getting knocked out of the League Cup at Grimsby, the combination of the two results might change things. But I'm not sure.

"People might not be happy with Graeme Souness but I think the big thing protecting him is: who would they get to replace him? Very few people can come up with alternatives. When the club got rid of Bobby Robson early on last season they really struggled to get someone in. I can't believe they would leave themselves open to making the same kind of mess again.

"People accept that there has been a problem with injuries, but what they don't accept is negative tactics, like playing two defensive midfielders at Wigan. But I think most people feel, 'Well, we've just got to get on with it'. They won't necessarily be chanting Graeme Souness' name, but they're not doing the opposite and calling for his head.

"It is ironic that this match has come along now. I think it defines the way things have gone; that Newcastle are doing so poorly that all we've got to look forward to is trying to beat Sunderland."

Across Toon at the Newcastle training ground on Friday morning, Souness bristled at the suggestion that the 136th Tyne-Wear derby might be some kind of last stand - the game he dare not lose. "How can I answer that?" he retorted. "It's a big game for everybody and I'm going in there to try and win - but not for any special reason. I'll be wanting to win because it's three points. And I know what it means to the supporters - the bragging rights for the next six months."

For Souness himself, a little bragging would be a welcome relief from bemoaning a spate of injuries that has prompted him to switch his first-team squad from the troublesome pitches at their Darsley Park training ground to the club's nearby academy complex. It remains to be seen whether Owen will recover from the hamstring tweak he suffered on Tuesday, though the wingspan of Souness' Magpies is likely to be strengthened by the return of Nolberto Solano, scorer of the winning goal when Newcastle last played Sunderland, in April 2003.

Since then, the little Peruvian has spent 18 months as an Aston Villan but he was always a favourite of the Toon Army and he will be guaranteed a hero's welcome. Bafflingly deemed surplus to requirements by Sir Bobby Robson, Solano - and his creative nous - will also be warmly welcomed by Souness.

As for Solano, he is happy to be back in Toon and keen to lend his new manager his moral support. "Every manager needs a little bit of time," he said. "It is difficult when you have a change of manager and he brings in new players and starts to build a new team.

"The manager here is trying to build and his players are getting injured. I would say to the fans: give him more time, definitely. Let him get all of the squad together. Then we will see what happens."

If that was not music to the manager's ears, Solano could always provide an alternative. "You certainly know when Nobby's around the place," Souness said, "because he's invariably playing his trumpet. He's bloody good at it as well."

Who knows? A Solano solo on a Jackie Milburn remix might be arranged some day. That could be a very splendid thing indeed.