It is now eight years since the death of Sir Bobby Robson and the manner in which he was ejected from the club he so loved, still hurts.
After building such an exciting, young team, that had still not really reached its potential. Only by now having Rafa Benitez in charge do we have a manager who receives the same levels of adulation as received by Robson.
Yet just four games (two draws and two defeats) into the 2004-05 season, Chairman Freddie Shepherd decided SBR’s time at St James Park was up after five years. The fifth place finish from the year before was also put forward as a reason, a season described by Shepherd as a disappointment.
The next time we finished fifth, eight years later, it was regarded as an incredible season. How times change quickly. Sir Bobby was not faultless towards the end of his tenure. For all the poor luck with injuries, United did blow the chance to finish in the top four the previous season with awful draws against Wolves and Southampton at the end of the season. Robson also sold two key players in his excellent team during his final calendar year, Nolberto Solano and Gary Speed.
Both would later show they were sold when they still had a lot left in the tank (and managed to prove so at the clubs they moved onto). Losing two experienced pros from the dressing room probably didn’t help Robson’s cause either but it was also an example of one of his main philosophies during his Newcastle tenure – buy young players with real potential. He brought in James Milner as a Solano replacement, who wasn’t exactly a bad buy. It was a shame SBR never got the chance to nurture one of the brightest talents in the English game.
Yet after a crazy 4-2 defeat at Villa that was it, five thrilling years ended in one of the most brutal fashions. That sacking is still one of the most unjust I can remember, and looks so even in 2017, when managers come and go all the time. As bad a decision as it was from the board, it still could have been rectified had we made a great appointment to follow Robson, or at least damage limitation. Enter Graeme Souness, perhaps one of the greatest examples of a manager dismantling a team. He arrived having had a reasonably successful spell at Blackburn, although an underwhelming appointment.
There was no reason to particularly think our place in the top six would be under threat. He had inherited a squad with reasonable quality. Apart from Milner, the other signings that summer were Stephen Carr (a logical upgrade on Andy Griffin), N’Zogbia (Robson’s long-term replacement for Robert), Nicky Butt (Speed replacement) and the controversial signing of Patrick Kluivert (thought to be pushed by Shepherd).
Souness still had a reasonable squad and made a reasonable start in going unbeaten for eight games – but he never had the same squad harmony Robson did. An initial unbeaten streak and some impressive performances had raised hopes that we could once again challenge for a European place. A classic Souness false dawn. Despite having a fully-fit Craig Bellamy, he never used him wisely. Bellamy may have been controversial, but whenever the Robson team looked close to peak, Bellamy was usually a key man.
Obviously, as we all know, eventually that working ‘relationship’ came to a head, but it’s not surprise when you consider how often during that season, Bellamy was shoved out on the right wing to accommodate Kluivert. Anyone who thought of pairing Big Al and Kluivert together at that point in both men’s careers, should have been nowhere near the club. Neither had any pace to stretch the better defences.
Bellamy was always the perfect foil for Shearer and yet he was shunted. Souness should have seen sense and aimed to keep him under wrap but instead let his own ego hurt the team. Yet this was the manager who received financial backing.
Nowadays Rafa has to work with virtual pennies compared to the rest of the league, back then we were considered big spenders. Only Newcastle United.
Near enough all his buys were shocking. Boumsong and Babayaro to replace Woodgate and Bernard respectively, were absolute car crashes. He managed to dismantle the side in near spectacular fashion. Great players of the previous few seasons, like Jenas and Robert, were alienated under Souness. The harmony was so bad even Bowyer and Dyer ended up knocking lumps out of each other during a game. The club had gone from being genuine title contenders at the start of each season, to almost farcical levels.
It’s a classic example of a manager trying to stamp his mark on a club but in the process destroying it. His buys after the end of that first season got even worst. The names of Owen and Luque still bring shudders to many round these parts and with good reason.
It is even more incredible when you consider the damage was done so quickly. Within five months of replacing Sir Bobby, Souness had Bellamy shipped off to Celtic. No replacement striker was bought.
The chairmen of that time seemed to give the manager keys to the castle. Now in 2017, we have the exact opposite problem.
We have a manager that has the backing and support of the fanbase, yet it seems for most of this year, he has worked with his hands tied. It’s a shame similar restrictions were not imposed on the dour Scot when he replaced Sir Bobby. Every time football pundits get rated, I am amazed when anyone actually has him (Graeme Souness) down as a good one.
There is a reason he has not worked as a manager since then…
He took over a team that had finished fifth and managed to get them down to 14th, even with decent cup runs that should have been considered unacceptable. It was, and remains, one of the worst jobs done in Premier League history.
When you really study the job done, only one question remains. How did he last as long as he did? For me he remains the most incompetent manager in Newcastle United history.
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