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Ashley playing his final card

It's just all so typically Newcastle United. With a disastrous season nearing a catastrophic end, and with legions of fans ready to turn their backs on the Toon Army once and for all, owner Mike Ashley has pulled the stripiest of rabbits out of his black-and-white hat.

The appointment of Alan Shearer is Ashley playing his final joker card - the ultimate throw of the dice in a desperate game that could cost Newcastle United its future at the top table of English football.

There's no doubt that in theory it makes perfect sense - employing the local hero to swoop in and rescue his beloved club from the meltdown it is staring in the face.

It may afford Ashley a second chance with those loyal fans that can't forgive or forget Keegan-gate, Wise-gate, Kinnear-gate or even Xisco-gate. But once the euphoria has died down, so many questions will flood the collective mind on Tyneside.

Why has Shearer taken the job now? What can he hope to achieve in the remaining eight games? And, crucially, why has it taken Ashley so long to act?

As soon as Joe Kinnear was taken ill it was clear Newcastle weren't going to win their battle for survival with Chris Hughton and Colin Calderwood in charge.

They'd probably have lost it even with a fully fit Kinnear at the helm. Let's not forget he's won only five of the 26 games he's had in charge of Newcastle - a far worse win percentage than even Ruud Gullit.

In recent months Ashley has appeared to be a man detached; as if he was watching the demise of a once proud club from a distance, pleading someone to intervene like the rest of us. But now he's realised something drastic needs to be done, he's gone and landed the only man that could appease Geordie fans after the nuclear fall-out from Keegan's departure.

In a way you can't help but admire Ashley's gall. This is a man who has sat idly by while thousands of fans boycotted games, prepared to hand back season tickets and vowed never to spend a penny in any of the club shops, or any Sports Direct stores, until time immemorial.

A man who happily presided over the sales of Shay Given and Charles N'Zogbia in the January transfer window without demanding any substantial payment of the fees until the summer.

A man who has been under no illusions as to the well of discontent on Tyneside for months, but has singularly failed to do anything about it, or employ anyone who had ideas of their own on how to extricate Newcastle from their almighty mess. But now, in his final attempt to salvage what is left of Newcastle United's pride he has somehow managed to snare its biggest idol to help. Quite how is anyone's guess, but one thing is for sure, Shearer will be doing the job entirely on his own terms.

If it proves successful this dramatic move could ultimately prove Ashley's salvation. Imagine the boost to ticket sales next season if Newcastle stay up and Shearer is handed the reins full time.

But backfire and it'll be too little too late, the final chapter in a tawdry saga that has tested the patience of even the most ardent fan.

And what of Shearer? Here is a man with no managerial experience whatsoever (unless you count standing alongside Glenn Roeder on the touchline with arms folded for a few games), who has already backed Keegan's reasons for leaving the club and labelled the Ashley regime "strange" into the bargain.

Why has he chosen to step into the breach now and throw his lot in with a doomed and distrusted regime that still counts Dennis Wise as one of their most valued, and expensive, employees?

After all, if he fails to guide Newcastle to Premier League safety this could be the end of his managerial career before it has even begun.

The answer, of course, is simple. Shearer can't bear to think of Newcastle being relegated to the Championship and running the risk of being the next Leeds United.

His focus will purely be on inspiring Newcastle's collection of individuals to muster enough spirit in their ranks to win their home games with Portsmouth, Middlesbrough and Fulham. Then he must hope he can take some points from trips to Anfield, White Hart Lane and Villa Park.

His presence alone will lift the entire region out of its slumber and command instant respect from the dressing room. Steve Harper, Nicky Butt and Steven Taylor all played alongside the club's all-time leading scorer.

Then there is Michael Owen; Shearer's best friend at Newcastle and the man who most see as the key player in the club's battle for safety. Owen's commitment to the cause has never been found wanting but it will find renewed vigour and purpose under Shearer's stewardship.

First up is Chelsea. A full house and a cauldron of noise should be a given, but points are not. Then Newcastle travel to Stoke for the quintessential six-pointer in which nerve like Shearer's will be required in abundance.

Lose the first two tests and the game may already be up; pluck something from both and the momentum could be unstoppable. If Shearer fails to save Newcastle from the drop perhaps he'll revert to business as usual and retake his seat on the Match of the Day sofa as if nothing happened.

But should he succeed in hauling the Toon and its Army back from the brink, that's when the truly interesting questions will emerge.

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