Souness plays deaf as discord rings louder around Toon

Simon Turnbull
Sunday 19 December 2004 01:00

It was the night that Shearer's Bar opened at St James's Park, but at the final whistle on Thursday evening it was the boos rather than the booze that flowed in the half-full stadium. "Rubbish; total rubbish," one disgruntled Toon Army foot-soldier proclaimed as he stopped his jeering and trudged past the press box, towards the exit. "What about entertainment? Tell Freddy to shove it up his ****."

All is doom and gloom with the Toon, it would seem. Newcastle United might have qualified for the last 32 of the Uefa Cup on Thursday but they did so with a performance bereft of any of the attacking vibrancy that took them to the semi-finals of the competition last season. There was just the one shot at the opposition goal in the second-half of the soporific 1-1 draw against Sporting Lisbon. It was Newcastle's sixth successive home game without a win.

The Magpies have slipped below half-way in the Premiership table and have hit such a slump of form that their supporters are not just fearful of this afternoon's trip to Anfield - where Newcastle last won in the League 10 years ago - but also of the looming visit to Loftus Road to face Yeading in the third round of the FA Cup. Johnson Hippolyte, Yeading's manager, was among the 28,017 crowd on Thursday night. He can have seen little that will disturb his sleep between now and 9 January.

One Newcastle fan confessed on BBC Radio Newcastle last week that he was already having nightmare visions of the Ronnie Radford goal at Hereford in 1972. Dozens more texted their despair to the Evening Chronicle. "Is Souness really Gullit in disguise?" enquired Mark from Blaydon. "Sack him now."

Life has always been black and white at St James' Park. Like the little girl with the curl on her forehead, Newcastle United - in the eyes of their supporters at least - are either very, very good or downright horrid. Three months into his job as manager, Graeme Souness is discovering just how negative it can be with the black and whites.

"It's not difficult for me to ignore it, not in the slightest," he insisted, when asked about the deepening mood of depression on Tyneside. "In terms of the experiences I have been through in my life, I am a lucky, lucky man to be involved in football. There is nothing in football can hurt me. I'm 51. I've got a five-year-old lad. What's important in my life? Like I said, right now there's nothing in football that can hurt me.

"I'm doing a job that I have always wanted to do. And I love my job. I'm very privileged to be working at a club like this. I was very privileged to get a job at Liverpool, and Rangers, and Galatasaray and Benfica - all big, passionate places, ridiculously passionate. But I'm passionate about football myself and those are the kind of places where I want to work.

"There's lots of mischief-making by different parties involved with this club. It's like working in a Latin country in many ways. But if you do this job and you listen to the criticism then you wouldn't be in it for very long. I don't listen to the criticism.

"I know that I am doing my best. I know that I have got a very good group of players, and that we are short in some areas. If we can do the right things in the winter, or in the summer, then we can be a team that can challenge the big boys. I firmly believe that.

"But that's in the long term. In the short term, I'll just continue to work and do my very best. As my mum always said to me, 'You can only do your best, son.' And we'll see where that takes us."

This afternoon Souness takes his faltering Newcastle side to Liverpool, where he scaled the pinnacle of three European Cup successes as a player but failed to get beyond the base camp of just the one FA Cup triumph as a manager.

It is hardly surprising that he claims to be beyond damage in football, given the pain he endured as a manager at Anfield - not just the failure to keep Liverpool among the game's élite, but also the triple heart-bypass he underwent midway through his tenure and the furore which followed his ill-considered decision to sell his story about the operation to the Sun, a newspaper still reviled on Merseyside for its coverage of the Hillsborough tragedy (the fee was subsequently donated to Alder Hey Children's Hospital, but the damage to Souness' standing lingered on).

Newcastle have not won a Premiership fixture at Anfield since their Kevin Keegan days, when Rob Lee and Andy Cole scored in a 2-0 victory in April 1994. Souness's last success there as a manager dates back to January of the same year, when Ian Rush scored twice in a 2-1 win for Liverpool against Manchester City. He has yet to win at Liverpool as a visiting manager.

His hopes of doing so today are likely to be enhanced by the return of several players who missed Thursday's match because of injury or suspension - Lee Bowyer, Kieron Dyer, Alan Shearer and possibly Patrick Kluivert too.

In the longer term, Souness' hopes of turning the tide of negativity and building a team of trophy-winning potential will depend not just on his ability to shore up his leaky defence in the January transfer window (Jean-Alain Boumsong and Igor Tudor are likely arrivals) but also on whether he can provide the Magpies with some adequate wings.

Newcastle have been painfully clipped in that department since Sir Bobby Robson allowed the hugely undervalued Nolberto Solano to join Aston Villa for £1.5m 11 months ago.

"In terms of bringing players in, we're trying to eliminate the risk factor," Souness said. "We're trying to buy the finished article, players who will improve us in a big way, and when you do that they are going to be expensive."

Then again, the price to pay will not be on the cheap side if Newcastle fail to improve in a big way once the new year comes around.

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