The old Rover teaching new tricks

Ian Ridley meets the Newcastle coach plotting the fall of his former club
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The Independent Online
IT has been so far a season of bubble-bursting to go with the lung-bursting; just fancy that - footballers and their managers are as vulnerable to the same vices, corruptions and sicknesses as the rest of us. Being blessed with talent in boots is no protection against feet of clay.

A further sadness has been Newcastle United's stammering where only a few months ago they sang with such fluency. Theirs was a crisp, brisk passing game that promised to lead this country in a new dawn's chorus. Now the reality of short, sharp midwinter days intrudes and the lyric tells again of industry and resilience.

Today's potentially epic FA Cup third-round tie against the Premiership leaders Blackburn Rovers at St James' Park speaks of the change. Newcastle, 29 points from their first 11 games, take on a side, 31 points from their past 11, who have rarely matchedthem for excitement but whose endurance on heavier pitches has left them panting.

without a win in five matches, the Cup represents the chance for Newcastle to bring tangible reward for a once refreshing approach, just as next Sunday's home match against Manchester United appears a last tilt at the Championship windmill. "We have to come out of it pretty soon or the season could be gone," the Newcastle coach Derek Fazackerley admits.

It fell to Fazackerley last week to devise a scheme to defeat his old club, for whom he still holds the record number of appearances, 596 over 16 years in the league, more than 650 in all. His family home is still near Blackburn, his son a season ticket holder at Ewood Park. "It's amazing what has happened to them since I left," he says with a smile at the self-deprecation.

All at St James' speak of Fazackerley's importance to the Newcastle way of playing in the hierarchy under Kevin Keegan, as the man who bolts on pragmatism to the manager's fantasies. He talks of organisation and teams with the best defences winning titles but also about attacking, possession football that has been "a pleasure to watch and work with - after all, you become a footballer because you like playing with the ball".

The shrewd Keegan recognised the value of the mixture, promoting him from reserve team coach rather than give him the sack that is the usual fate of existing staff upon the arrival of a new manager. Indeed, Fazackerley has also served there under Jim Smith and Ossie Ardiles.

He is a reminder, too, that the best players do not necessarily make the best coaches. "I was a good reliable defender, not the best on the ball," he says. "But I hope I help create an environment where good players can express themselves without being harnessed or shackled."

A visit to Durham and a Newcastle training session - "it is all based on touch and awareness," he says - illustrates as much, with the centrepiece five-a-side games of one and two touches in which players exchange passes and positions at pace.

Injuries, he says, have been the main reason for the interruption to the side's rhythm and confidence, with Andy Cole, Peter Beardsley and Robert Lee all having had spells out. Now the absences of Scott Sellars and, most cruelly, the inspirational Phillipe Albert with damage to knee ligaments that may take a year to heal, have upset their left-sided balance. The moving to right-back of Barry Venison to accommodate the fit-again Paul Bracewell may not have improved them either.

Fazackerley admits, too, their faults. "Our highs have been very high but our lows have also been very low. We have to play more on an even keel. Because of our style, we are probably easier to beat than Blackburn or United. Possibly we lack a bit of discipline when we don't have the ball and it can cost us. There has also been some naivety, getting carried away with the euphoria of it all on Tyneside.

"Sometimes I think: `Christ almighty, we are all over the place.' The players make the pitch look too big. But you can't have it both ways. You need space to play in yourself and if you squeeze the game up all the time, how are you going to get it? Liverpool always used to start the ball rolling at the back to open it out because they knew they could use the space better than the opposition."

It is to be hoped that through their present stumbling Newcastle can remain true to the expansive instincts of Keegan, whose playing pattern has developed due to his fondness for mobile, adaptable players in his own image. At last Tyneside may have a team deserving of the support it provides.

"They have been getting a new kick out of life," says Fazackerley. "For a long time they have not had sides that have done well, but have had individuals like Jackie Milburn, Malcolm Macdonald, Chris Waddle and Gazza. Gordon Lee's team was the last, thenhe sold Macdonald and never stayed on. Now we have a team, and that's what we look for, players who will fit into a unit without wanting centre stage. The game is full of individuals who never fulfilled their potential because they weren't in the right place at the right time."

One does fear for Newcastle today; it could be like watching a noble, injured beast confronted by a stronger predator. "Blackburn are very potent," says Fazackerley. "They are disciplined and good at preventing you from playing. They also have two excellent front players in Shearer and Sutton who create as well as accept chances.

"But they're not unbeatable and we have the talent to break them down," he adds. Indeed, Blackburn's cup record since their entry to the Premiership has been poor; defeat by Trelleborg and Liverpool in this season's Uefa and Coca-Cola competitions, by Charlton Athletic in last season's FA Cup third round.And they do say: beware the wounded animal.

Possible teams: Newcastle United: Srnicek; Venison, Peacock, Howey, Beresford; Fox, Bracewell, Beardsley, Lee; Cole, Kitson.

Blackburn Rovers: Flowers; Berg, Gale, Hendry, Le Saux; Ripley, Sherwood, Atkins, Wilcox; Shearer, Sutton.

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