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50-50: Liverpool vs. Real Madrid

Champions League 1 day ago
Read
Jan 7, 2008

One Magpie for sorrow

When Steven Taylor flung himself across the sodden goalmouth at Stoke's Britannia Stadium to block Jon Parkin's shot, the thought occurred that it could yet prove Sam Allardyce's Kevin Brock moment.

A dreadful back-pass from an Oxford midfielder sparked a complete reversal in Howard Kendall's fortunes. Titles and trophies followed at Everton yet, while Taylor averted defeat for Allardyce at Stoke, though his team-mates showed an unusual level of spirit and despite the ovation it earned their manager from the travelling fans, it probably only delayed the inevitable for Allardyce.

The inevitability, that is, of his departure from St James' Park. Though below par, results are not sufficiently poor to justify his dismissal, but the feeling that Allardyce's position is untenable is increasing. He is not a bad manager, but Newcastle verge on being unmanageable and the current incumbent is spectacularly ill-suited to a club he does not understand.

Yet part of the rationale for Allardyce was that he was an outsider. It was an attempt to correct such flaws as wretched defending and habitually losing many of the most significant players to injuries. In neither respect has he prospered and with the former Bolton manager not proving powerful enough to quell the player power in the dressing room, Allardyce's methods have been left open to examination and his choices subject to criticism.

While the supporters have long treasured goalscorers and wingers, Allardyce seems to identify more with Alan Smith, once an exciting attacking talent but no more than a spoiler in the midfield now. His preference for a phalanx of defensive midfielders conflicts with the Newcastle ethos. Indeed, two have been made captain - Geremi and Smith - an indication of Allardyce's emphasis, though neither player has produced the performances to indicate why he is ranked above his peers.

But both, too, are among nine summer signings, his attempt to impose the soldiers of the new regime upon the club. In the process, another aspect of Allardyce's reputation has been damaged. There were numerous failures in the transfer market at Bolton but, Mario Jardel excepted, they were invariably cheap and overshadowed by a remarkable assortment of high-profile successes.

At Newcastle, however, money has been available and it has been squandered. Of the arrivals, it is hard to identify a triumph - Mark Viduka's occasional goals and Abdoulaye Faye's resilience making them the closest equivalents - and there are rather more candidates for the unwelcome tag of his worst buy; Jose Enrique, with some dreadful defending, was the frontrunner until Joey Barton found an alternative method of surging to the front of that particular field.

Barton is no stranger to the headlines but, as Allardyce has discovered, managing the sixth biggest club in the North-West doesn't involve the same level of scrutiny as Newcastle do. A small-club mentality appears to have accompanied him to Tyneside. Allardyce's is an essentially negative mindset, based on stopping opponents play. Newcastle, in contrast, have long displayed a fixation both with themselves and, more admirably, constructive football.

His authority reduced by inadequate signings and the continued concession of goals, Allardyce has been unable to broker an uneasy truce by selecting flair players. The confusion is epitomised by the position on the right wing, which has been occupied by Barton, Charles N'Zogbia and Obafemi Martins, none a specialist there.

Caught between the 4-5-1 he fine-tuned at Bolton and the 4-4-2 that Newcastle's tradition dictates, he has been unable to commit to either. His actions, like those of Steve McClaren at England, have been those of a ditherer, even containing a disastrous flirtation with 3-5-2, against Liverpool. There has been no sense of consistency of thought, let alone of performance.

Never previously lacking in self-confidence, Allardyce is believed to be taken aback at both the scale and the harsh nature of the criticism. But the desperate cannot afford to harbour grudges and his continued refusal to speak to the BBC's radio stations has hindered his cause.

Not that all of his rhetoric that has been heard is justified. Having recruited three of the club's four Africans, his complaints about the African Nations Cup lack merit. Nor, considering their very different styles of play, should disingenuous comments about Manchester City also playing 4-5-1 be heeded. Calls for patience, while logical, just ignore the realities of Newcastle United.

Yet Allardyce deserves sympathy in some respects. He inherited the problems of Michael Owen, whose status and salary can dictate team selection when others have a superior case or, at the least, greater match fitness, and Alan Shearer. It is to the former captain's discredit that he has never quashed the speculation while the spectre of Shearer has hung over Allardyce. In one respect, it may be beneficial for Newcastle to appoint him just to save an alternative successor from being undermined by his advocates.

Shearer's candidacy appears to be based on three factors; he's from Newcastle, he scored a lot of goals and he's not Sam Allardyce. None provide any indication of his excellence as a manager, because there is no evidence as yet. And as Bryan Robson's enduring troubles show, an inspirational presence on the pitch often finds it difficult to exert the same influence in the dugout.

Having his acolytes in the dressing room as a player does not equate to the man-management skills to deal with up to 20 internationals of very different character. Bland comments on Match Of The Day do not suggest a tactical mastermind and while Allardyce's transfer market record is far from perfect, Shearer has never purchased a player.

If, as the former chairman Freddy Shepherd said, Newcastle is one of the top eight club jobs in the world, it would be like giving a learner driver the keys to a Ferrari for the Monaco Grand Prix.

Such are the demands of a unique job that Newcastle require an experienced manager with a crowd-pleasing belief in attacking football, yet sufficiently independent-minded to ignore the hysteria and who is, above all, capable of delivering that elusive trophy. Most of those who meet those strict criteria already possess one of the elite jobs in world football. But neither Sam Allardyce nor Alan Shearer qualify.


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