Stephen Brenkley watches a deserted sidekick endure a long afternoon

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The Independent Online
AS THE Newcastle team bus pulled into Villa Park yesterday the caretaker manager Terry McDermott stared intently ahead. He looked apprehensive and tired and his grey mop of curly hair drooped slightly. Photographs would doubtless have demonstrated that in four days he had aged four years.

It was only a minute or so before 2pm and if nothing else McDermott would have been concerned that he was cutting it fine to discharge his first formal managerial task of the day, presenting his team sheet to the referee, that stickler for formality Graham Poll. The last thing a caretaker manager needs for his first match in charge, particularly when the attention of the football world is on him, is a coach hold-up on the motorway.

McDermott's name has been significant by its absence from the list of contenders. He was a surprising appointment as assistant manager when Kevin Keegan was appointed to the club five years ago and has been deemed to have none of his friend's messianic qualities. He has remained steadfastly loyal however. But being a messiah's sidekick is simply not sufficient to replace him.

McDermott probably knows as much. He is not committing himself about whether he desires the job but he made some pertinent jokes in his lovely chatty style after the match.

"I wonder what all this is about,'' he said, spotting the throng that wished to hear his words of wisdom. "Look at my hair,'' he replied to one question recognising that deep grey in the management trade is de rigueur. In truth he more closely resembles the prototype for the comedian Harry Enfield's trio of characters the Scousers.

McDermott, in his loyal way, wanted to pay tribute more to Keegan than to dwell on his own prospects. It was a match, he said, in Keegan's image. It was, too, and by way of further demonstrating his friendship, McDermott said he would not be changing much. Indeed, he was expecting to speak to Keegan last night.

The fans, however, gave the impression of being resigned to life without him. It was even suggested that the club chairman, Sir John Hall, being the shrewd businessman he is, had recognised that his manager had taken the team as far as he could and had all but engineered a position whereby an honourable chap like Keegan would feel he had no choice but to resign. Imaginations are running wild still on Tyneside.

The team, playing in their Keegan way, soon sought openings and similarly great swathes were cut through their defence. McDermott looked phlegmatic enough while the side were going two goals up but he was anxious again when the lead was cut. The award of a penalty brought another furrow to his brow. The goalkeeper Shaka Hislop saved brilliantly, twice. Newcastle survived but McDermott had surely aged another year.