The longest day dawns for Souness

No goals and precious little to cheer mean dangerous times
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The Independent Football

At least Graeme Souness was about to get Luque on the transfer front. While the Newcastle manager gathered his players for morning training in the suburbs at Benton, in the heart of the Toon, at St James' Park, Albert Luque was undergoing a medical examination. According to Souness, the left-winger- cum-central-striker happens to possess "a cannon in his left boot", and it is just as well that it managed to get past the scanners undetected. The Spaniard's fire-power will be urgently required when the Premiership's powder-puff force play host to Manchester United this afternoon.

Newcastle have yet to break their goalscoring duck in the League this season. In their past five Premiership matches they have not so much mustered the grand total of one goal as been presented with it, courtesy of Chelsea's miscuing Géremi. At home to West Ham last weekend and at Bolton on Wednesday night, Souness's hapless side struggled to get within sight of the opposition net, let alone seriously threaten to deposit the ball in it.

It is hardly surprising that the Novocastrian natives are getting restless. There is no great fondness for Souness among the ranks of the Toon Army, his 12 months as the club's manager having coincided with the loss of the old attacking spark so synonymous with Sir Bobby Robson's team, but it is Freddy Shepherd who has borne the brunt of the rising tide of disaffection. Chants of "Sack the board" and "We want Shepherd out" have made it clear that the chairman has been held accountable for the depressingly negative state of affairs with the black and whites.

"The only criticism you can aim at our football club is that we didn't have the players in on the first day of pre-season training, but there have been reasons for that," Souness said. "I cannot complain about the support I have had in my time here, both in terms of the money I have had and also with the support I have had in dealing with the problems I have had with certain individuals.

"I am happy to take my chances, if I can get the players in that I want in. The chairman has put the money up, and any criticism of him is harsh. He's a big boy. He knows what being chairman of a big football club is all about and he is as determined as anybody to get it right. I cannot complain about the support he has given me in any shape or fashion."

The trouble is that another blank this afternoon, and another showing against Manchester United as woeful as the one at Cardiff in the FA Cup semi-final in April, might just test the chairman's support to the very limit. If the natives are baying for blood tonight, it is Chop Suey that is likely to be served up first on the menu, before any hint of Shepherd's Pie.

The talk of the Toon last weekend was that David O'Leary had already been identified as the first-choice replacement. "I've spoken to him twice this week, actually," Souness said, when asked whether he had been in contact with the Aston Villa manager. Precisely what was discussed Souness was not prepared to say, although Newcastle's supporters will hope the words "Nolberto Solano" and "blank cheque" were mentioned.

Save from some deceptive fluttering from the now-departed Laurent Robert, the Magpies have been sorely clipped at the wings since the ill-conceived sale of their Peruvian wide-boy to Villa at the start of last year. The £9.6m Luque may restore some service on the left, although he is likely to be required as a central striker until some alternative support can be found for the isolated Alan Shearer. The Newcastle captain's last Premiership goal dates back to February. He scored his last home League goal from open play when Manchester United were in Toon last November.

Souness's hope is that the £16m bid for Owen will meet with better success than the £23m offer for Wayne Rooney 14 months ago. "This is not a hard football club to sell to a player," the Newcastle manager insisted. "Wayne Rooney had the choice whether or not to stay in the North-west and play for Manchester United or move to the North-east. As I understand it, it was a close call.

"People in football know what this club is about. They know it is only a matter of time before someone gets it right. And the person who gets it right here will have the best club in Britain, if not in Europe."

Kevin Keegan almost got it right in 1996 - until Manchester United came to Toon, that is, and sneaked an Eric Cantona winner. Sir Bobby nearly got it right, too, in the 2002-03 season - until Sir Alex's boys came to Tyneside and administered a 6-2 thrashing.

As for the latest man on a managerial mission at St James', looking beyond this afternoon's Devilish task is a luxury Graeme Souness can ill afford.