Retro Football Manager: The Newcastle Odyssey Part 4

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.

It’s been a sluggish start to my new era at St James’ Park. Replacing Kevin Keegan was never going to be easy. And replacing his buccaneering, balls-to-the-wall attacking football with a team that eeks out occasional 1-0 wins has made the job even harder. If King Kev’s side were “The Entertainers”, then we’re most definitely “The Grinders”, which sounds like the title of George Graham’s coaching manifesto.

Our last result, a slender win against a dire Everton side, was so poor that most Super Sunday punters reached for the remote and stuck on Last of the Summer Wine instead. The natives are restless and the pressure’s on. As a manager, it’s my job to look at the squad and identify problem areas. So far, I’ve narrowed it down to defence, midfield and attack. The latter is the most worrying. I broke the world record to bring Alan Shearer back to his spiritual home and he’s played like his feet have been surgically replaced with feather dusters.

Still, if there’s a game to change his fortunes then a visit to his former club should do the trick. Blackburn are top of the league. Ray Harford has successfully replaced Shearer with Kevin Gallacher, which immediately puts him alongside Herbert Chapman, Sir Alf Ramsey and Brian Clough in terms of managerial achievements.

I make a change for the trip to Lancashire. I dip into my coaching repertoire and decide we’re going four-four-fucking-two.

For the first half hour we look fairly decent, and then disaster strikes. Stuart Ripley plays in Chris Sutton and we’re behind. It’s a terrible goal to concede. Darren Peacock couldn’t be more flat-footed if he was sitting on the porcelain curling one out whilst reading the matchday programme.

Early in the second half things get worse when Les Ferdinand is given a straight red card and we spend the remainder of the game trying to keep the score down. Rubbish.

Ferdinand’s suspension plunges me further into crisis for our next game against Chelsea. Tino Asprilla’s got a knock and we only have one available striker. It means I’ve got to dip into the transfer market. I’m saving the kitty for reinforcements in defence, so I can’t afford a big outlay. Ideally, I’m looking for someone i) cheap, ii) experienced and hopefully iii) not complete shit.

Welcome to the club Mark Hateley, who meets at least two of those criteria. He’s been in decent form, despite being about as popular at Loftus Road as Hannibal Lecter at a dinner party.

Big Mark goes straight into the starting line-up for the visit of Glenn Hoddle’s Blues. And they’re a strange old team. When Ruud Gullit first considered leaving Serie A, presumably he was thinking about the bright lights of London, nights at the opera and shopping in boutiques on the King’s Road. And here he is putting a shift in alongside Erland Johnsen and Craig Burley.

It feels like the stage is set for Shearer to get his first goal: Home game, attacking the Gallowgate End, up against a defence with Frank Sinclair and Scott Minto. It’s now or never for the local hero. And on 40 minutes, a sublime pass from David Batty gives him the easiest of tap-ins. The relief in the stadium is palpable. With the wind in our sails we swarm Chelsea after the restart and Keith Gillespie gets a deserved second.

A desperate Glenn Hoddle makes an instant substitution. Top-level management is like a high-octane game of chess. You’re in a feverish state of analysis. Planning strike and counter-strike. You study your opponent for days and weeks, anticipating their every thought, their every move. It takes something special to truly surprise you.

And to be fair, Glenn’s done me here. Bringing off one of the great players of the 20th century and replacing him with Paul Furlong. I’m not sure even Eileen Drewery saw that coming.

Incredibly, it works. Dennis Wise gets a goal back and suddenly we’ve retreated back into our shell. The crisp passing of the first 60 minutes has disappeared, replaced by panicked clearances and big hoofs into the River Tyne.

We limp over the finish line. Another win for The Grinders, though once again we made it far more difficult than it should have been.

Big Mark Hateley was shit. But he was cheap and experienced, so there’s that at least.

A busy few days concludes with a trip to Coventry City. The Sky Blues are rock bottom of the league and you don’t need Miss Marple’s curriculum vitae to understand why. Their team sheet is a shambles. Gordon Strachan and Kevin Richardson were two fine players in their prime, but Moses was still blubbing in the bulrushes the last time they beat anyone for pace.

In fairness, Ron Atkinson has at least realised their weaknesses and doubled down on their strengths. That’s a very respectable front four they’ve got there. If the other seven players can get them the ball, we could have a spot of bother.

Any doubts about the result are extinguished the moment the whistle blows. In years to come football purists will debate the best all-round performance in history. There will be those that wax lyrical about the Hungarians at Wembley in 1953, that famed Brazil side of 1982, or Johan Cruyff’s total football. But the 15k+ hardy souls at Highfield Road will tell you that Newcastle’s first half on a September afternoon in 1995 matches anything on record.

We absolutely murder them from the off. Asprilla threads the ball through to Shearer, who bangs in the opener. Then the Colombian gets on the scoresheet himself with a tidy finish after good work from Rob Lee. We’re swaggering all over the pitch and the hosts can’t get a kick. Another Shearer goal, from another Tino assist, puts us out of sight and I’m in the luxurious position of being able to sub the magnificent Asprilla, giving Big Mark Hateley a run-out for the latter stages.

Dion Dublin’s goal is a mere consolation. We had the cigars out for the last half-hour. Rob Lee and Peter Beardsley out in their best performances of the season, whilst Tino’s well worthy of the MOTM award.

The result leaves us handily-placed in fifth, remarkably a point ahead of Manchester United. QPR are the unlikely front runners, joining Arsenal and Liverpool as the only teams with unbeaten records.

It looks like it’s going to be a topsy-turvy season. And whilst six points from the past two games have been very welcome, it doesn’t disguise the shortcomings in the squad.

Just then I get a phone call from Sir John Hall. He’s been on a scouting trip to Italy. Last time he did that he came back with sunburn and a Cornetto. Thankfully, this time seems to have been more fruitful.

Am I interested in an AC Milan defender, an Italian international with his best years ahead of him, for seven million quid?

You know what, Sir John. I might just be.

Written by Sid Lambert from A Funny Old Game

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