The games suddenly look beautiful again to Souness

Rollercoaster Toon: All smiles again after a soap-opera week
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The Independent Football

Standing backstage in the interview room at St James' Park, the place into which he had frogmarched the crestfallen Lee Bowyer and Kieron Dyer the previous Saturday night, Graeme Souness could afford to offer a wry smile as he gave one final glance back at the latest week that was for the Premiership's resident pantomime club. Life as the manager of Newcastle United is like a box of Forrest Gump chocolates: you never know quite what you're going to get.

If Souness had not seen the bout of infighting coming that left St James' in a punch-drunk state amid the Premiership contest against Aston Villa eight days ago, he could never have envisaged taking his squad to White Hart Lane - the scene of a heavyweight scrap between Frank Bruno and Joe Bugner - as Newcastle Reunited this afternoon.

Never mind the scrap itself; the fact that both combatants are already back in the playing groove, that the disciplinary implications have been resolved, and that the Toon Army, for all the unrelenting disgust they voiced to the media, have warmly welcomed the miscreants back into the Magpie fold... even that could only happen at Newcastle United.

As Souness mused: "When I came here somebody said to me that this is a very unusual club, and it has not disappointed. This soap continues... I knew the club were never far away from the headlines, and nothing has changed there. My aim, which is not what you [the press] want to hear, is to try and keep us off the front page. I thought we were talking about football, instead of anything else. Then... wallop!"

Wallop, indeed. After a run of 12 matches without defeat, after making it to the quarter-finals of the Uefa Cup and to the semi-finals of the FA Cup, after returning from a team-bonding trip (to the Dubai Police Academy, of all places) and after parading the re-signed Alan Shearer like a trophy in the St James' interview room only the previous day, a pair of fighting Magpies proceed to slap you in the face.

In his 19 years as a football manager Souness has ridden a fair few blows, but even he was jolted by the sudden turn of events. "From being here on Friday, feeling good about everything, on Saturday night you were feeling like your world has crashed in," he reflected. "We were picking pieces up and putting out fires. We had a few difficult meetings, with the individuals concerned, and collectively. It just shows you: never take anything for granted. It was a reminder for me, because I have been in the game a long time and I am preaching to the players all the time: just when you think you understand this game, just when you think you understand the workings of it, just when you think you're doing well... she's waiting for you round the corner."

"I hope she is," the gentleman from the Sunday Mirror interjected, on a flight of personal fancy. "No," Souness said, stifling a laugh, "you don't want the lady who has laid into us this week... She's waiting there." For the time being at least, however, Newcastle and their manager would appear to have given Dame Misfortune the slip.

Admittedly, they have not done so in a manner that has been to the liking of the pure-hearted followers of the beautiful game. Instead of being out on his ear, Bowyer is back in a black-and-white shirt, with a £210,000 fine paid, a four-match ban to serve from today, and with a final warning from his club. Dyer has no fine to pay, a three-match FA ban to serve, and nothing but the sympathy of his employers. It is just as well. He has, after all, been on a final warning from Souness since being caught urinating in an alleyway last August.

With Laurent Robert also nominally on a final warning, having received a written letter to that effect after criticising Sir Bobby Robson on his website a year ago, St James' Park is in danger of becoming a crowded last-chance saloon - although the departure of Craig Bellamy to Paradise, as the vicinity of Celtic Park happens to be known, has created a little elbow room in that particular department.

The Spanish Inquisitors of Monty Python fame spring to mind, warning their would-be victim: "You have three last chances," and threatening torture by comfort - "not the comfy chair!" And yet it is impossible not to credit Newcastle's manager of eight months for deftly easing his soap opera of a club through their latest dramatic crisis.

The Magpies have a 1-0 advantage to take to the Estadio Jose Alvalade for the second leg of their Uefa Cup quarter-final this Thursday night, courtesy of Shearer's winning header against Sporting Lisbon at St James' three nights ago. It is a fighting chance for which even their most optimistic of followers could not have hoped when Bowyer locked horns with Dyer in the dying stages of the 3-0 defeat against those Aston Villans five days previously.

"We've drawn a definitive line under it all now," Souness confidently asserted. "I'm not going to talk about it any more. We've got a hard game against Tottenham, then a hard game against Sporting Lisbon, and after that an FA Cup semi-final against Manchester United.

"That, really, is what the supporters of this football club want me to talk about. What happened last Saturday is old stuff now."

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