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Saturday, January 28, 2006
Souness lives to fight another day

The Insider

This was yet another day when Graeme Souness' long and inevitably doomed battle against the sack at Newcastle United was a mere 90 minutes from becoming a reality.

When the embattled Souness was summoned to a meeting with his chairman Freddie Shepherd earlier this week, even he must have suspected that his life support machine would be switched off for his own good.

Instead, it was decided the ailments in his critically ill Newcastle squad were worth treating for another few days, but the word in the cramped little press room ahead of this FA Cup tie at Cheltenham was that the medicine will not last for much longer.

Those in the know at the influential Newcastle Evening Chronicle were confirming Souness would be history if he lost this fourth round tie at a windswept Whaddon Road and it's hardly surprising that the voice of the local fans are taking such a savage line.

Their cosy connections with chairman Shepherd mean Souness has often found out what his boss is thinking through the paper, so the ever democratic Scot has opted to cut the publication out of his life.

The Chronicle's well-known reporters believe that a failed approach by Shepherd to lure Bolton boss Sam Allardyce into their arms last week was the real reason behind Souness' stay of execution as while Newcastle coach Glenn Roeder has been muted as a possible caretaker manager, the lack of an obvious candidate to take the post at this busy time of the year may see the incumbent limp on for a little long.

Starting battles with the local media and your chairman generally tends to end in a grizzly departure for any manager and losing at Cheltenham would have given Shepherd all the excuses he needs to make yet another managerial change. While his ambition cannot be questioned, a succession of woeful coaching picks has ensured the club he has piled money into has rarely looked like rising above mediocrity in recent times.

While he has been woefully unfortunate with injuries during his fraught reign in charge, it didn't take long to realise why Newcastle United are a flawed franchise just now.

In Jean-Alain Boumsong, Souness seems to have bought a 8million defensive liability and after just 15 minutes of this game, those who was suggested he is not fit to wear the black and white shirt had been justified.

To be accurate, Boumsong was donning the away day blue shirt on this occasion, but in Cheltenham's powerfully built forward Kayode Odejayi, he had more than met his match. When you consider this guy was playing non-league football with Forest Green just a couple of years ago, the scale of the French defender's incompetence was put into perspective.

If you are out of form and lacking in confidence, getting back to basics is generally a good policy, but Boumsong continued to make the most desperate of errors against novice opposition. Pushed off the ball to easily and apparently mastering the art of being out of position, his inability to pass to one of his own team-mates was stunningly consistent.

With Boumsong doing his best to make Cheltenham look like Champions League contenders, the first half an hour of this game belonged to John Ward's League Two side, even though they didn't create too many clear cut chances, so when the opening goal of this tie arrived, it came from an unlikely source.

Michael Chopra came close to finding a breakthrough as early as the seventh minute, but when the ball ricocheted high in the Cheltenham box, he was the quickest to react as he headed home a 40th minute opener. My view of the goal was blocked by a handful of exuberant Newcastle fans sat in front of me, but I'm assured it was Chopra who got the last touch.

Souness has long claimed luck has been against his during him time as Newcastle boss, but he certainly enjoyed a huge stroke of good fortune as Jerry Gill's clearance crashed into Scott Parker and bobbled over the line to give the Premiership side the interval buffer they needed.

The half-time chat in the press room had an air of relief about it. On days like this, lazy reporters generally tend to want the giant to beat the minnow as anything else ensures the pressure to deliver a big story is increased.

If Newcastle lost and Souness was sacked shortly afterwards, the odds are we would have all been marooned in Gloucestershire for a long time and if you had seen the less than luxurious location in which I had to park my car, such an idea did not appeal!

At 2-0, it should have been game over, but Newcastle seem to have forgotten how to win football matches and they proceeded to hand the initiative straight back to their unsung opponents.

Steve Guinan did well to create an opening in the box seven minutes after the restart, but his sliced finished was lower league class and if referee Mike Riley had taken a different view of Boumsong tussle with Odejayi in the box, the game may have been turned.

As I looked down on a second half that should have been a story of the Premiership side professionally dealing with League Two opponents, it struck me that one of the flaws in Newcastle's make up this season may by a certain Alan Shearer.

No-one doubts he was once a great striker, but Shearer now looks like an athlete in the London Marathon whose legs gave out on his long before he hit those cobble stones around Tower Bridge. He is not agile enough to play the game at the sort of levels he has been accustomed to.

The travelling fans were still screaming his name as his weary leg stretched out to try and poach a 69th minute goal that would have seen him ease past Jackie Milburn's Newcastle scoring record, but this version of Shearer is a long way from the thoroughbred of yesteryear.

His obsession with breaking Milburn's milestone may be coming at the cost of Newcastle United's wellbeing as he should have stayed true to his word and hung up his creaking boots last summer. So long as he is there, the Newcastle manager will be forced to handle a giant presence in his dressing room and it may be that Souness' successor will benefit from not having to deal with this once great No.9.

If Shearer can't even look good against Cheltenham, what hope does he have in the Premiership? Still, at least Newcastle are in the hat for the Fifth Round draw on Monday and the beleaguered Newcastle boss looked relieved, if a little bemused as he met his tormentors in the media.

'Cheltenham were a credit to their division and made life very difficult for us,' he said, looking as if he would rather not be talking to the poison pen pushers.

'The FA Cup is the only competition for us this season. We won't win the Premiership, so we are just grateful to be in the next round because you can come unstuck in games like this.

'It was never going to be easy. The pitch was lively and there was a swirling wind. Cheltenham battled well and had a couple of opportunities, so all credit to them. They gave us a very hard game today and if they had scored, it would have been a very nervous end for us.'

Cheltenham boss John Ward claimed his was proud of his troops. 'Hopefully we have shown that this team is a little more than just a minnow,' he stated. 'The response to going 2-0 down at half-time was fantastic and we have been dignified throughout this cup run. The players can be very proud of their achievements.'

So Souness has survived another month as Newcastle manager - whether he will reach the end of February is another matter altogether.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Kayode Odejayi - This Nigerian missed a golden chance in the second half, but he terrorised the Newcastle defence all day and deserved more reward for his efforts.

FOOD WATCH: A half-time pie went down well and it was easier to spend some cash on a snack rather than battle for a quarter of a sandwich in the press room.

FACE IN THE CROWD: Les Ferdinand was mobbed by Newcastle fans outside the ground and is an example of a forward who quit while he still had some dignity. What a shame that Alan Shearer, his old strike partner, has not followed a similar path.

NEWCASTLE VERDICT: They may have won this game, yet the truth is they failed to answer any of their critics. Defending like a non-league side for the majority of the game, they always gave Cheltenham hope, while Boumsong is a man who needs to spend some time in the reserves to regain his confidence.

Games against Manchester City and Portsmouth in the next seven days may ensure that Graeme Souness' reign as manager will come to an end sooner rather than later.

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