Youthful Watson prepares for his senior service

Simon Turnbull talks to Newcastle's long-serving defender who believes the picture at St James' Park is not as black and white as it is painted
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"Tyneside in turmoil before Champions' League debut," screamed one of the morning headlines. Steve Watson could not help the wry smile as he pulled on his boots for training.

The afternoon he became the youngest first-teamer in Newcastle United's history, the Magpies stooped to 19th place in the old Second Division. Their share offer was falling some pounds 7m short of its pounds 8m target and Jim Smith, the old Bald Eagle, was hanging on to the manager's job by his claws.

"Things have changed a bit since then," Watson mused as he scanned the line-up from the November day in 1990 when he made his debut as a 16-year- old substitute at Molineux.

Rather than fretting over the form and fitness of Wayne Fereday, Darren Bradshaw and Scott Sloan and whether the next season would bring trips to Darlington and Hartlepool, turmoil for Newcastle's manager these days means working towards a European Cup tie with the inconvenience of having the world's most expensive player on the injured list.

"The last few seasons we've built up expectations so high," Watson acknowledged. "And a blow like Alan being injured has rocked everybody because he's the best striker in the country."

Watson would not dispute that Alan Shearer is also the best striker nurtured by Wallsend Boys' Club, although he happens to be one himself.

It was as a centre-forward that he joined Newcastle on YTS forms and his curriculum vitae includes not so much leading the line as being the line in a European tie. "The lone forager," he recalled of his role as Andy Cole's emergency stand-in in the Basque cauldron of Athletic Bilbao's San Mames stadium three years ago.

Watson, however, will not be offering his services as a temporary replacement for Shearer when Croatia Zagreb visit Tyneside for the opening leg of Newcastle's Champions' League qualifying tie next Wednesday night.

At the grand old age of 23, the veteran St James' Park servant (only Steve Howey has been on the books longer) hopes his days as the ultimate jack-of-all football trades are finally over.

Watson broke into the first team as an attacking midfielder and won his 12 England Under-21 caps as a right-back. He has, in fact, played in every outfield position for his home club. And there are those in the Newcastle dressing-room who reckon he qualifies as having kept goal too, citing a diving save that stopped a Tony Dorigo shot but conceded a penalty to Leeds at St James' three years ago.

"Actually," Watson said, "I was a goalkeeper with the Wallsend district team at school. I can remember we got hammered by Newcastle schools in one game. They had Robbie Elliott and Lee Clark in their side.

"I was a centre-forward when I signed for Newcastle United but I didn't play many games for the youth team up front. They played me at centre- half virtually straight away and six years and about eight different positions later, I've ended up at centre-half again. I really do enjoy playing there. I felt very comfortable there at the end of last season.

"I played alongside Darren Peacock at Arsenal against Dennis Bergkamp and Ian Wright and I came off the pitch thinking that was as satisfied as I'd been with my game in a long time."

Kenny Dalglish was satisfied too. Watson's form at the heart of a formerly suspect defence was a notable feature of the unbeaten 10-game run to the end of last season which qualified Newcastle as England's runners-up representatives in Europe's Champions' Cup.

While two long-serving Geordie likely lads, Elliott and Clark, have made way for new recruits, Watson has been rewarded with a four-year contract that will take his senior service up to the 10-year mark - and entitle him to a testimonial - before his 27th birthday.

Such a scenario seemed unlikely in the extreme in the early days of his working life under his third manager. Kevin Keegan's opinion of him turned full circle in the 90 minutes of a home match against Tranmere in April 1992.

"I said to Stevie in the dressing-room: `You're playing full-back against Pat Nevin today'," Keegan recalled. "Just show him inside because he'll want to go outside you.

"After five minutes he just let Nevin go inside him, Nevin crossed the ball and they were 1-0 up. After 10 minutes he did the same thing. He thought I meant let him go inside rather than just make him try to go inside instead of down the wing.

"We came in 2-1 down at half-time and I said to him: `Get your boots off. Get in the shower. You'll never play full-back for me again'.

"He went in the shower and the physio came to me and said someone was injured. So I went in the shower and said: `Right, come on, get your boots on. Get back out and play'. Stevie just said: `Great'. He put his boots back on and went out and played like a full-back."

Keegan came to value Watson's talent, and to utilise his remarkable versatility to the full. "A very mature player and a great athlete," was the ultimate Keegan verdict. "I never saw Duncan Edwards play, but people in the game keep telling me he reminds them of him."

Dalglish was so struck by Watson's maturity the first time he saw him in action - on a scouting trip to watch Brighton, Liverpool's forthcoming FA Cup opponents, in January 1991 - he laughed at those who insisted the midfielder running the show was a 16-year-old trainee.

Six years later, Dalglish has a man's job in mind for the experienced pro who earned pounds 29 a week for his child-star duties, which included cleaning the boots of Archie Gourlay and Neil Simpson.

A new batch of recruits have arrived to fight for first-team places, and Jon Dahl Tomasson, Temur Ketsbaia, Shay Given, Stuart Pearce and Alessandro Pistone may all have opening-day roles against Sheffield Wednesday at St James' Park on Saturday.

Dalglish, though, is likely to find defensive room to accommodate the old hand who wore the Wallsend No 9 shirt after Shearer. "I am just looking forward to the season," Watson said, never having settled in a position long enough to take one for granted. "Obviously Alan's injury has cast a bit of a shadow, but it's not all doom and gloom. Not at all. We've got our two Champions' League qualifying games for a start. That's got to make it as exciting a season as we've had since I've been here."

More exciting, certainly, than heading towards Hartlepool with Fereday and the rest of those low-flying Magpies.