In his brief time under football's brightest lights, Kieron Dyer has played many roles: midfielder, centre-forward, right-back, the solution to Sven's left-side problem, one minute hailed as the future of the English game, the next condemned as the young wastrel but it has been hard to imagine him as a leader of men.
Sir Bobby Robson confessed that in the absence of Alan Shearer, the captaincy of Newcastle for Wednesday night's dramatic Worthington Cup tie with Everton should properly have gone to the senior pro, Nikos Dabizas. A gut feeling made the Newcastle manager hand the armband to Dyer, feeling it might inspire him and this it did. Dyer scored twice, created the third and missed a fourth by inches. When it came to the penalty shoot-out he took and scored the first and expressed surprise and anger that some, older players were reluctant to come forward for a contest Newcastle eventually lost.
It is too early to be talking of Dyer as football's Henry V, one minute propping up Quayside bars with Armani-clad Falstaffs, the next inspiring adidas-shirted troops with stirring speeches, but it may happen. Dyer is already a major player in the dressing-room at St James' Park, the centre of a group of young, highly talented footballers whom he believes might form the core of a squad that will bring the championship to Tyneside.
"You go through the list of our team and their ages and it is quite staggering," he said. "Craig Bellamy, Lomana LuaLua, myself, Hugo Viana, Jermaine Jenas, Aaron Hughes, Andy Griffin, Titus Bramble... it's just frightening." At 23, Dyer is the oldest.
"Because there are so many young players, we have that no-fear approach. Look at Wayne Rooney: he plays with no fear. That sometimes works to a young player's benefit. You go out there and think you are on the playground again. It's just like being back at school.
"I hope all the young players stay here and fulfil their potential. If we keep this side together for four or five years, we could have a great team that not only wins the Premiership but does very well on the European stage too."
He remarks that the extra responsibility of suddenly being a senior pro has inspired him. When Newcastle faced the first and most important match of the season, a Champions' League qualifier in a bitterly hostile environment in Sarajevo, Gary Speed was unavailable and Robson had to trust in the raw ability of two teenagers, Jenas and Viana. The match was won by Dyer's goal. "It does give you a lift when you are surrounded by young players. It makes you feel you have to run that extra yard."
This summer's World Cup should have been the perfect stage for Dyer. He was the same age as Paul Gascoigne had been at Italia 90 but an idiotic tackle by Tahar El Khalej in the final game of the season at Southampton meant he was never properly fit.
"To be a real star, you have to break into the England team, not just get into the squad," he said. "I've spoken to the England manager and he told me he knows my best position is either centre-midfield or centre-forward but he said it is going to be extremely hard [to get into the team] when you've got Paul Scholes and Steven Gerrard in front of you."
Dyer was the one product of Ruud Gullit's turbulent year on Tyneside which was to Newcastle's long-term benefit, although he played only five games before the Dutchman's resignation. Robson reaped the rewards, although they were slow to arrive mainly because of constant, draining injuries, the most serious of which was a stress fracture of the shin which was a major reason why the 2000-01 season was the most forgettable at St James' Park since Kevin Keegan's return a decade before.
"The gaffer kept saying: 'We need you to play one more game'. Alan Shearer and Carl Cort were injured. I played four or five matches with the stress fracture and I couldn't walk after games. In the past, the gaffer may have been tempted to throw me in when I was not 100 per cent fit but with the likes of Hugo, JJ [Jenas], Gary Speed and Laurent Robert in midfield he can make sure I'm right."
That injury cost Dyer 10 months of his career and he made his return last December at Highbury, where he will be appearing today to face a curiously uncertain Arsenal. Dyer confesses to disliking Highbury: "The pitch is very small, very tight and you've got [Patrick] Vieira chasing you," he smiled, recalling being "smashed all over the gaff" by Vieira and Ray Parlour. Newcastle won that match 3-1 and he felt it a defining moment in the Magpies' season.
"It was like coming back into a new team. I couldn't believe how much pace and confidence it had. A few days later we went to Leeds, were 3-1 down, and won the game 4-3. Then we honestly felt we had a chance of winning the league. We never said it publicly but deep down in the changing-room, we honestly felt we would go on to win it."
Newcastle did not quite have the depth to take their first title since 1927 and when Bellamy's knee failed him, their challenge tailed off, although to finish fourth was beyond most people's expectations. This year progress has been more stuttering. Dyer thought Newcastle unimpressive in recent victories over Dynamo Kiev and Middlesbrough, adding: "There is going to be a stage when we perform like we did last season and, when we do, watch us go."
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