Souness winning the battle to keep Newcastle focused

Sir Bobby Robson, the former Newcastle United manager, often remarked, with some irritation, that he spent most of his time at St James' Park "putting out fires".

Sir Bobby Robson, the former Newcastle United manager, often remarked, with some irritation, that he spent most of his time at St James' Park "putting out fires".

Problems unrelated to matters on the pitch with his talented squad, run-ins with senior players, injuries and the occasional fall-out with his chairman, Freddy Shepherd, left the former England manager frustrated by the amount of attention he was forced to give to matters away from the pitch.

Almost three months into his tenure, Robson's successor, Graeme Souness, is beginning to understand how he felt. Just as Robson tried to brush aside the distractions for much of his time in charge, Souness is attempting to keep his team focused.

Souness did not have to wait long for his patience to be tested as Kieron Dyer was involved in a minor off-the-pitch incident, there were a succession of injuries which depleted his squad and he suffered a run of three home defeats inside eight days.

The 1-1 home draw against Everton on Sunday - a game his side should have won comfortably even with key players on the sidelines - left the Magpies 10th in the Premiership and seven points adrift of the Champions' League place Shepherd is aiming for.

However, Souness appears to be getting to grips with some of the off-field matters. For example, Dyer refused to play on the right-hand side of midfield for Robson in the opening day fixture at Middlesbrough and was heavily criticised by his own supporters. He will now take any possible opportunity to play.

A hamstring injury in the new manager's first game in charge, the 2-0 Uefa Cup victory over Hapoel Bnei Sakhnin on 16 September, cost him his involvement in the next 11 matches and the chance to win the fans back. His performance on Sunday was accompanied by more cheers than boos from the supporters and some public support from his manager.

"He played very well," Souness said. "I'm happy with Kieron Dyer. I know that he's had his problems here, but he's not caused me one concern since I've been here, other than an unscheduled trip to the police station. He's a proper player."

Another who has raised his game in recent weeks is the centre-back Titus Bramble, a player with plenty to prove after some sloppy displays. Souness was pleased with Bramble's performance in Sochaux last week and the former Ipswich Town defender was equally commanding against Everton at the weekend.

"It's no good doing that once in every four or five games," Souness said. "The players who play for their country, the top men, play well in every game they play.

"They never have poor games - they might have a good game at worst. The best defenders make the fewest mistakes. Titus can do it once, [so] why not do it all the time?"

Souness' problem - which many managers would love to have - is accommodating his three strikers Alan Shearer, Craig Bellamy and Patrick Kluivert. Shearer, who will retire at the end of the season unless Souness can persuade him otherwise, has provided the manager with a temporary solution courtesy of a thigh strain.

The former England captain remains the biggest threat of the three in front of goal but Bellamy is enjoying his most consistent run of form since his arrival on Tyneside. Kluivert, despite his undoubted class, looks the most vulnerable.

Another fire to fight, maybe, but perhaps a more welcome one.

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