Why Souness isn't laughing over cavalier hangover

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The Independent Online

Paul Joannou, Newcastle United's club historian, published his latest offering in black and white last week. Shirt of Legends is, to quote its subtitle, "the story of Newcastle United's No 9 heroes". It is difficult to imagine similar homage ever being paid to Newcastle's No 5s or No 6s, given the less-than-heroic reputation of the Toon's defence for being permanently at sixes and sevens, as it were.

Paul Joannou, Newcastle United's club historian, published his latest offering in black and white last week. Shirt of Legends is, to quote its subtitle, "the story of Newcastle United's No 9 heroes". It is difficult to imagine similar homage ever being paid to Newcastle's No 5s or No 6s, given the less-than-heroic reputation of the Toon's defence for being permanently at sixes and sevens, as it were.

The Achilles heel exposed by rival teams in the cavalier days of Kevin Keegan has never been properly cured. Kenny Dalglish, Ruud Gullit and Bobby Robson have all tried and failed. And now Graeme Souness knows that if he is to have any hope of building a successful side at St James' Park, he will have to find a solution to the lingering problem.

The trouble is, following the summer sale of Jonathan Woodgate to Real Madrid, Newcastle's manager of two months is having to make do and mend with his rearguard repairs. The conspicuous failure of Robbie Elliott and Andy O'Brien in Newcastle's last two Premiership fixtures at St James', against Keegan's Manchester City and Chris Coleman's Fulham, have cost Souness's team a combined total of seven goals. Even Keegan's cavaliers were never quite so profligate.

By his own admission, the No 1 priority for Souness when the transfer window swings open in January will be a central defender, if not two. Having already had an advance approach rebuffed for Chelsea's Robert Huth, the names on his wanted list include those of Celtic's Bobo Balde, Jean-Alain Boumsong of Rangers, Benfica's Luisao and Michael Dawson of Nottingham Forest.

In the meantime, starting with the visit of Manchester United this afternoon, Souness is likely to turn to a former Red Devil he has coaxed from the brink of retirement and to a mishap-prone £6m misfit. Having succeeded in keeping Chelsea at bay until extra time in the League Cup on Wednesday night, Ronny Johnsen and Titus Bramble are expected to maintain their partnership as the unlikely lads at the heart of the Geordies' defence.

For Johnsen, it would be a particularly poignant return to Premiership duty. The Norwegian thought he had seen the last of the English top flight, and indeed of professional football, when he left Aston Villa at the end of last season. And now, after two League Cup appearances for Newcastle, he is preparing to face the club with whom he enjoyed six trophy-laden seasons.

"Back home in Norway in the summer I was thinking it was finally time to retire from football and settle down with my wife and six-month-old daughter," Johnsen reflected. "It came as a pleasant surprise when Graeme Souness rang me. It was an offer I could not turn down."

The offer was a contract until January, with the option of an extension to next summer. And, having worked hard to gain full fitness, and to overcome a knee injury along the way, Johnsen is poised to get his chance to press for a longer stay at St James' after bringing a measure of stability and assurance to the Newcastle defence on Wednesday night.

"Ronny deserves a lot of praise," Souness said. "He did very well in the heart of the defence. Titus is just a young lad, and it helped him that he was playing alongside Ronny. If Titus can maintain his concentration and be consistent, he can be a real asset."

The trouble with Bramble is he has flattered to deceive before in his two years at Newcastle. At 23, 12 years the junior of Johnsen, the former Ipswich player still has time to cut out his lapses of concentration and control. He has only until January, though, to convince Souness that he might need just the one major central defensive acquisition.

As for O'Brien, he is resigned to having to wait for another chance to show his worth. The Republic of Ireland international made the sideways move to right-back against Chelsea and almost gifted Mateja Kezman a goal in the opening 90 seconds. With Stephen Carr ready to return this afternoon, O'Brien expects to make the move to the bench, but has vowed to fight to win back a place in Souness's starting XI.

Souness himself faces a fight, to turn around results if nothing else. After starting his reign with an unbeaten run of nine matches, he has now presided over three successive defeats at domestic level - 2-1 at Bolton and 4-1 at home to Fulham in the Premiership, and 2-0 against Chelsea in the League Cup. With one trophy target gone from the horizon and another realistically beyond view, the natives are starting to get restless.

"I'm disappointed with the results of the last two games, but I'm not disappointed with the actual product," Souness maintained. "I know our defending at times has been miserable and I know we should have scored more goals, but our overall performances have been good.

"At a big club like this you have to take the rough with the smooth. You have to be really solid, because so many people are looking to make mischief. You have to have a skin like a rhinoceros. And you have to keep encouraging the people who really matter at your football club to stick together. That's a big part of my job and that's what I'm trying to do."

With Ruud van Nistelrooy due in Toon, it is some central-defensive bonding that Souness needs most of all today.

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