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 Out on the Toon
 Appeared on the website Jan 2003

On the 19th of August 1995, Aston Villa transformed the future of English football. By stuffing Alex Ferguson's new-look Manchester United 3-1 at Villa Park, Villa created the opening for Alan Hansen to utter the line which will follow him to the grave "You'll never win anything with kids." 

Hansen was pilloried when United, complete with pink-cheeked Scholes, floppy-haired Becks and stringy-necked Neville G lifted the title nine months later. But his axiom was true then and it's still true now. That United team may have had a few 21 year olds, but they would never have won the title without the hard core of experienced pros like Eric Cantona, Roy Keane, Gary Pallister, Steve Bruce, Denis Irwin and Peter Schmeichel. 

Still, the success of Fergie's 1995/96 'fledglings' was a turning point for English football. The lessons of that year were observed, absorbed and horribly misinterpreted by an entire generation of managers. 

While the pre-95/96 prevailing wisdom was that young players were mostly inexperienced liabilities, the new thinking was that young players meant audacious brilliance and energy, talent unshackled by fear. Looking at United's achievement, it was suddenly all so obvious. The path to success was to buy several talented young players, throw them all in at the deep end, and watch as their audacious energetic brilliance won title after title after title. 

Leeds and Liverpool were the most enthusiastic converts to the new religion of youth. David O'Leary and Gerard Houllier spent fortunes on recruiting legions of youngsters to augment the players produced by their club's youth teams. 

As we know, Leeds' plans went awry when their babies turned into brats, while Liverpool appear to have fallen victim to their young players' inexperience and collective lack of confidence. Both clubs' failure to achieve more has a lot to do with an over-reliance on the fragile form of raw youngsters. Still, somehow, faith burns strong in the hearts of the true believers. After Liverpool's dire 1-0 defeat to Newcastle last week, Houllier pleaded that the average age of his side was 'only twenty-free', as though having a team full of raw youngsters was in itself some kind of talisman against criticism. Not many people were convinced. 

Newcastle, Liverpool's conquerors that night, should take note, because as the latest club to put together an impressive stable of young talent at considerable expense, they seem the most likely candidate to become the Premiership's new vale of tears and broken dreams. 

With a list of regular first-teamers including Andy Griffin, Aaron Hughes, Jermain Jenas, Titus Bramble, Kieron Dyer, Andy O'Brien, Hugo Viana and Craig Bellamy, Newcastle are one of the youngest sides in the Premiership. When they play well they can produce some of the league's most exciting football, and any match involving Newcastle is usually worth watching. 

Their 3-2 defeat to Wolves at Molineux last Sunday fell into that category, though not in the way Bobby Robson might have wished. His Stg50m team of young stars was played off the park by a side containing Mark Kennedy and powered by the 35 year old Paul Ince and 37 year old Denis Irwin. Why? 

Thanks to Craig Bellamy, we have a pretty good idea. As Newcastle trudged off amidst the Molineux celebrations, Bellamy, guilty of a shocking miss only partially redeemed by the cheating dive with which he had temporarily hauled his side back into contention, pointed to the Premiership logo on his sleeve and told the touchline camera: "That's what it's all about. The Premiership." 

Considering his last chance of winning an actual medal this season had just evaporated into the freezing Black Country night, you might have thought Bellamy for once would be feeling too upset to be obnoxious. But the pint-sized Welshman's unpleasant immaturity knows no limits. 

No matter that Newcastle won't be winning anything for yet another year. He gets paid anyway, eh? So it's back to the Premiership with Craig. Back to Craig's life less ordinary. Craig isn't just any Premiership footballer. He's so good he's scored four league goals in the last five months. The 22-year old Alan Hansen earned a total of Stg23,000 in 1977-78, including a Stg6,000 bonus for winning the European Cup. 22-year old Craig has played 22 games this season, scoring six goals and winning no competitions. His most significant achievement has been to get sent off twice in the Champions League, ruining his club's chances of progressing beyond the second stage. For this he has been paid more than Stg750,000, and he'll earn that much again by the end of this season. Is it any wonder he has lost all touch with reality? 

Contrast Bellamy's attitude with the humility displayed by Alan Shearer, ten years his senior and in his day a far greater player than Bellamy can ever hope to become. Shearer didn't stroll off smirking that he was too big-time to care. Shearer was furious that Newcastle had lost, but was still man enough to acknowledge to the press that they had not deserved to win. 

Shearer could do this because Shearer is genuinely big-time, while Bellamy, for all his macho posturing, is obviously in the grip of an inferiority complex. That may seem an odd thing to say of the man who, when asked at the age of 19 who was the greatest player he'd ever seen, nominated himself. But if he really believed his greatness was so self-evident, he wouldn't have to keep reminding us of it. We'd know already. 

Bellamy's psychological problems reflect a wider malaise at the club. For generations Newcastle have been beset by an inferiority complex, a gnawing feeling that somehow they are not destined to win. You could see it in their two pathetic Cup Final defeats of the late 90s, during their four-year run of never having won in London, during their meek submissions to Manchester United, Arsenal, Barcelona, Inter and Wolves in their five biggest games this season. A lot of it probably derives from the soul-destroying failure of Keegan's side, but even leaving that horror aside it is puzzling how a club the size of Newcastle hasn't won the league in nearly 50 years. 

The current crop play some good football, but they sometimes give the impression that their minds aren't fully on the job. Laurent Robert recently roughed up a local newspaper journalist who he believed was pursuing a malicious vendetta against him. Embarrassingly, he attacked the wrong journalist, but either way it looks like there might be a couple of raw nerves there. Kieron Dyer has the pace and talent to be a great player, but his most significant contribution to football lore is still the sex video he made in Cyprus with Rio Ferdinand and Frank Lampard. And Dyer's old club Ipswich are praising the Lord for the five million Robson gave them for Titus Bramble, whose shocking dip in form last season may have been linked to his surging profile on the town's exciting club scene. 

So Newcastle have, at great cost, assembled a group of talented young players with the aim of beating Arsenal and Manchester United to the English league title, but instead these young men are too busy having the time of their lives. Young, free and crazily rich, the women pawing at their clothing, the men wanting to be them, 55,000 worshippers screaming their name every week - sure, they've got work in the morning, but the gaffer's such a nice old geezer - did you know he calls Shola Carl Cort?! How many of us can truthfully say that placed in that position we wouldn't get a little distracted ourselves? 

Not many. Certainly not Newcastle's directors. Remember the chairman's Freddy Shepherd 'Mary Poppins' remark about Alan Shearer, the one that meant Shearer will always partly be remembered as a dreary creosoter of garden fences. Here we had a director of the club mocking his side's best player for being a professional. That Shepherd subsequently rose to become club chairman suggests that at Newcastle that kind of thing's OK. 

It wouldn't have been OK at Manchester United, whose manager demands his players be Mary Poppins, and always gets rid of the ones who get distracted, no matter how talented. Ferguson's decision to sell the alcoholic geniuses Norman Whiteside and Paul McGrath, perhaps the bravest of his career considering he had no trophies to back up his judgment, shows the supreme importance he places on his players leading a fully committed footballing life. Newcastle is full of baby Whitesides and McGraths, talented young men crippled by the delusion that they can have their cake and eat it. And as long as they keep getting distracted, yet another potentially great Newcastle side will win nothing at all. 

Ferguson made sure Beckham, Giggs and Scholes never turned into Whitesides and McGraths. Newcastle's players are probably still young enough to be saved. But at 69 Bobby Robson is a little too mellow to scythe down the burgeoning Caligula complexes of his 22-year old princelings. That, rather than the signing of some promising 22-year old Commanding Centre Half or Midfield Hard Man, is the most important job to be done at Newcastle over the next eighteen months. 

But for that job they need a younger, angrier man. Fortunately, the answer to their problem is staring them in the face, humourlessly, pursing his lips and narrowing his eyes to disapproving slits. All good things must come to an end and the best thing Bobby Robson could do is retire in glory at the end of the season and entrust the care of the children to Mary Poppins himself. 

Ken Early

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Page last updated 24 June, 2009