Friday, February 03, 2006

The Axe Falleth On The Axeman

The raging Scotsman at the helm of Newcastle United for a tumultuous year and a half has been unceremoniously canned.Famed in the pantheon of world footballers for his on-pitch leadership as a hard-tackling midfielder in Liverpool's 1970s glory days, as a manager Graeme Souness is known as a brass-balled disciplinarian, having gained a reputation for open rows with primadonna players carrying a chip on their shoulders.

Souness was brought in from his post at Blackburn to clean house in a club in disarray as Newcastle sputtered out of the gate last season. His heavy-handed approach had a immediate lightning rod effect, drawing out the worst in the clubs' most notorious players - international starlets Craig Bellamy and Kieron Dyer. Bellamy's famous row with Souness - effectively calling him a liar in an attempt to cover up a feigned injury after badmouthing the manager and club to new teammates - led to his bitter departure from the club. Dyer's injury problems have been compounded with depression - his admission of suicidal periods over the past year drawing attention as an malady uncommon among elite athletes. While Dyer blamed his gloominess on his injuries, surely his on-field fisticuffs with teammate Lee Bowyer and the fans' viceral backlash to his unwillingness to play out of position contributed to storms beneath the surface. Souness, to his credit, embraced Dyer and presented him with a clean slate. He knew the reformable - Dyer's brat-pack days being in the past - from the incorrigible - Bellamy's egocentric and insipid gobbiness. We no longer hear the frequent stories of internecine bust-ups, off-pitch or on. Graeme Souness deserves credit for cleaning up Newcastle United (who remembers or misses the "Incredible Sulk," Laurent Robert, anymore?).

But there is one gaping problem: on the pitch, Newcastle keep losing. At 15th place in the table, without some semblance of a turn-around over the remainder of the season, Newcastle could face a relegation battle. In fact, right now 18th place Birmingham is only two wins from Newcastle's heels. The calls for Souness' head had been mounting; yesterday it was lopped off.

Such a dire situation should be unthinkable for a team that was in the Champions League a few short years ago, and challenged the final four of the UEFA Cup twice in the past two years. Backed by the club's chairman, Graeme Souness splashed out considerable lucre over the past year, bringing about as big of a gun as can be bought in Michael Owen, and an impressive cast of midfield masters including Albert Luque, Emre, Nobby Solano and Scott Parker. What happened?

For months now, the complaint has been Newcastle's horrendous injury situation, levelling Owen, Luque, Emre, Dyer, Bramble, Carr, and Moore for prolonged periods. For the life of me I cannot understand how one club can consistently have such bad injury luck - hobbled players effectively killing Newcastle's UEFA Cup hopes last year - falling short of winning the vase and requalifying for this year's tourney. A bad training pitch, since replaced, had been a culprit. From what I can tell, though, Souness has to take some blame both for rushing players back from injury too quickly and for championing an extremely aggressive style of play. Scott Parker, in particular, practically knocked himself out in a heroic yet short-sighted display against Arsenal in December.

More than anything, though, I blame wholesale defensive lapses. For years now a leaky back four has been the problem, leaving the redoubtable Shay Given at the mercy of a regular peppering he doesn't deserve. Souness' one solution, French international Jean-Alain Boumsong, appeared to be an appropriate salve early on. But since a number of poor performances for France he has fallen in form in club play, while Souness persists in playing the 10 million sterling savior-turned-flop. Too proud by half, Souness should have either admitted a costly error or recognized that Boumsong can't get back to form with a shell-shocked confidence. The priority for Newcastle from this point on has got to be in picking up at least one solid fullback, and bringing in a defensively minded new manager.

The problem is, who in the world worth their salt wants to manage Newcastle United?

It is a cliche now to say that Newcastle United is a "massive club." The Toon Army's dumbfounding dedication, marching out 50,000 strong week in and week out, show this to be the case.
Suffering the longest drought among perennial Premiership clubs, Newcastle hasn't won so much as a tin cup since the 60's, making them nothing but a massively underperforming club. And this combination has made for a rabid fanbase with enormous expectations. Alan Shearer notes that whoever takes this club to silverware - even something as trifling as the league cup - will become a hero. But as we have seen now with the great Sir Bobby Robson and St. James' latest victim, they can just as easily become a goat.

Watch for a plethora of international footballing geniuses (Eriksson, Hitzfeld, Scolari, Ranieri etc.) be mooted for the position, and then see all of them turn it down as too much of a risk, given little chance for reward, to put their well-cultivated reputations on the line. Talisman Alan Shearer, in the last year of his record-breaking career, has managerial ambitions but is by his own admission unprepared to take the helm. I hope for Celtic's Martin O'Neill or Bolton's Big Sam Allardyce to grab the reins as well respected younger managers who have molded their sides into contenders and champions. O'Neill in particular is used to fan pressure in the grinder of Glasgow's Big Firm crucible, while Allardyce made an unlikely cast of players into a formidable team threat.

Either way we have to stop the bleeding or the barcodes will find themselves following Leeds' glory-to-gutter story by hemmoraging money, players and all hope in the languishment of the First Division.


At 4:23 PM, Blogger Andy Grabia said...

Welcome back, Murph! Solid post.


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