Sid Lambert is a 43-year-old man playing Retro Football Manager on his iPhone. He’s gone back to 1995/96 to take over Newcastle United and put right what once went wrong: beat Manchester United to the title. And he’d love it if he beat them. Love it.
There’s something about the first day of the season that puts the entire football universe in harmony. At 2.59pm on that first Saturday we are all equal. All of us prisoners to football’s eternal captor: hope. For that sixty seconds before kick-off anything is possible. Dreams can become reality. Minnows can become giants. Giants can become legends. Then the whistle blows and the calm evaporates into a cloud of chaos.
In truth, it’s been a frantic week of acclimatisation for both me and my trio of new signings. Thankfully, they’ve all settled in well. By virtue of his experience, Stuart Pearce has assumed control of the CD player in the changing rooms, much to the bemusement of Tino Asprilla, who looks about as comfortable as a penguin on a sunbed when The Sex Pistols starts booming out.
Meanwhile, David Batty has integrated himself into the squad in his own inimitable style. Quiet fella is Batts. He arrives at our Maldon Castle training ground roughly 0.5 seconds before training begins and leaves roughly 0.5 seconds after it ends. The Yorkshireman isn’t too fond of pleasantries. No need for handshakes, when a stud raked down the back of your calf will suffice. Still, I didn’t buy him for his manners: I bought him to bring a bit of bastard to our midfield and judging by his enthusiastic violence so far this week, I think he’ll do just fine.
And then there’s the main man: Alan Shearer. For a player supposedly weighed down by his record £25 million quid price tag, he’s been remarkably calm. Of course, he’s had to deal with the whirlwind of local press activity as part of his homecoming: “What’s your earliest memory of being a Newcastle fan? How will it feel to score your first goal in front of the Gallowgate End? Who was your favourite character in Auf Wiedersehen, Pet?”
There’s also been frenzied speculation about the nature of the starting XI for the visit of Aston Villa on the opening day. And I won’t lie, I’ve spent many an hour staring at the ceiling of my hotel room at Gosforth Park tinkering with the line-up. I need to somehow stamp my identity on this team, this club. And I need to do it quickly. The pressure of replacing Kevin Keegan is constant. I can’t go anywhere in the city without being reminded of his presence. This must be what Judas Iscariot feels like at Easter.
Anyway, our opponents Aston Villa are a decent side. Brian Little has stepped into the shiny shoes of his predecessor Big Ron and done a reasonable job. They’re solid at the back, but I’m dubious as to whether the mighty Paul McGrath’s knees – which have the structural integrity of a packet of Twiglets – have got another season in them. There might be a weakness to exploit there.
Andy Townsend, the only Irishman to sound like an extra on EastEnders, is a seasoned pro in midfield. And up front, they’re a mixed bag. Dwight Yorke’s a danger, Julian Joachim is unproven at this level, and I know nothing about new signing Savo Milosevic. The Serbian has arrived from Partizan Belgrade and until someone creates some sort of online information super-highway, I’m reliant on Trans World Sport for my scouting on obscure foreign leagues. Last week, it was mainly powerboating and Kabaddi, so I’ll have to leave Darren Peacock to work him out on the pitch.
On the day of the game, I make my first big tactical decision. And when I pin the line-up to the wall, there’s a gasp of shock around the room. At first, I think maybe Les Ferdinand has just stepped out of the shower, but then I realise it’s the sight of the new formation.
How do you emerge from the shadow of the most attacking manager in Newcastle United history? By being more fucking entertaining, that’s how. Lads, we’ll be playing 3-4-3. Get the ball, get it wide, get it in the mixer.
I may sound belligerent, though deep down I’m wracked by nerves. I don’t know about squeaky bum time; mine sounds like it’s singing the falsetto to Bohemian Rhapsody. The team look a little nervy too and the new formation gets its first real test when Julian Joachim breaks into the box and forces a fine save from Shaka Hislop.
My nerves are calmed midway through the first half. Ferdinand makes a run down the channel, we hit Les over the top, and the big fella’s cross finds Tino Asprilla to put us ahead. Fourteen minutes later, the Colombian is the creator this time wriggling into unlikely space like an octopus emerging from a box of Pringles, to tee up Stuart Pearce for a trademark Thunderbastard. Two up and we’re laughing.
The second half is like a stroll in the park. Villa threaten occasionally but Milosevic’s left boot spends most of the afternoon peppering the skyline like the archers at Agincourt. There’s no debut goal for Shearer, however there are three points tucked safely in the bag.
The post-match report makes for good reading. Three 8/10 scores for the new lads. As I suspected, our front three were too much for Villa to cope with. Asprilla takes the man of the match award.
Afterwards, it’s all smiles. The lads are off down to the Quayside to celebrate. I’m back to the hotel to being planning for next week. The fixture list hasn’t exactly been kind to me. The first game of Sid Lambert’s reign at Newcastle is officially in the books. The second one is a whole different story: we’re off to Old Trafford. Football, bloody hell!
Written by Sid Lambert from A Funny Old Game
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