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.
We ended our last instalment with a performance at Middlesbrough so wretched that it would have warranted immediate explusion from the English football pyramid. It was Gheorghe Hagi’s first exposure to The Beautiful Game and frankly I wouldn’t have blamed him if it was his last. This is, after all, a man with a left peg that could knit you a Kashmir sweater. He deserves a place on football’s grandest stage, not getting booted into row Z by Nigel Pearson.
Thankfully we have a run of games in midwinter that allow us to put that atrocity at The Riverside behind us, starting with a home game against Bolton Wanderers. The Trotters are second bottom with the worst goal difference in the league thanks to a defence leakier than the starboard side of the Titanic.
They play an adventurous three up top but there’s not a lot there to worry our backline. Nathan Blake scores goals with the same frequency as Earth receives a visit from Halley’s Comet, and Mixu Paatelainen’s consistency with vowels isn’t matched in front of goal.
Bolton cling on for 43 minutes before their defensive frailties are exposed. Tino Asprilla combines beautifully with Les Ferdinand to put us ahead. After that the second half is a procession. Hagi looks neat and tidy whilst on the other flank Keith Gillespie is up and down quicker than a bulldog chasing a sausage roll. The Northern Ireland winger puts two crosses right onto Les’s bonce and we stroll out 3-0 winners.
With three points nestled cosily in our pockets, we head to the nation’s capital. QPR were amongst the early pacesetters in the league, spurred on by the sparkling early-season form of veteran striker Mark Hateley. The former England striker was having what commentators often call an Indian Summer, rediscovering the glories of yesteryear – so much so that I picked up him as a £300k cut-price option from the subs bench in late August. Since then, summer has gone and Big Mark’s had the sort of stinker normally associated with a dodgy Lamb Bhuna. He’s been appalling. Frankly, there’s more chance of Freddy Krueger starting a small drive-thru circumcision business than there is of Hateley starting at Loftus Road.
I give a debut to young Frenchman Mikael Silvestre who arrives from Ligue 1 to inject some much-needed pace into our back line. Bless Stuart Pearce, he never gives anything less than total commitment, but at times this season he’s been outpaced by the corner flag.
I look at QPR’s starting XI and there’s not much to fear. We’ll play five across midfield and look to dominate possession. Between them messrs Holloway, Barker, Impey and Quashie have all the creative flair of a cheese sandwich. This should be a straightforward three points.
Those words return to haunt me as early as the 18th minute. Danny Dichio outpaces Stuart Pearce, who shows the same acceleration as a slug in a bath of a treacle, and crosses for Kevin Gallen to put the home side ahead. I’m fuming at half-time. I’ve seen games of hopscotch with more intensity than this. Despite my protestations, we’re equally poor in the second half. And with the clock winding down I make a substitution, bringing on a depleted David Batty to add some much-needed bite to midfield. The Yorkshire Terrier makes an immediate difference, setting up Keith Gillespie for a late leveller. We’re rubbish but we respect the point.
Our performance is a worry. Once again, we’re about as convincing on the road as a snail crossing a dual carriageway. David Batty aside, we’re lacking characters to really take a game by the scruff of the neck, or to create something out of nothing.
My phone rings and it’s notorious football agent Mel Stein.
“Sid, are you interested in a North East icon, a chart-topper, and a world-famous celebrity?”
“I am, Mel. But unless Sting can do a job in centre midfield, I’ve not got time for it at the minute.”
“Not Sting, old son. Someone much bigger than that.”
Now the clown prince of English football is available for just four million quid. Sir John Hall’s probably got that down the back of his sofa. Not that the chairman needs much convincing. I need someone with that bit of magic, and short of Paul Daniels slapping on his Sondico shinpads and a pair of Puma Kings, this is the perfect solution. Gazzamania is back in business.
The atmosphere ahead of the game against Manchester City is electric. There are queues snaking outside the ground hours before kick-off. We’ve not not seen a turnout like this since PJ and Duncan did a signing session at Our Price.
I pin up the team sheet in the dressing room: Ginola, Gascoigne, Gillespie and Lee in midfield. Shearer and Asprilla up front. Finally this feels like a Sid Lambert team. A team that can escape the shadow of Kevin Keegan.
There’s no need for a team talk. Besides, we can barely hear ourselves above the din of the Gallowgate. In the tunnel City’s players look shell-shocked. Their bums are squeaking like Alan Ball doing the Bee Gees “Stayin’ Alive” at karaoke.
Gazza’s involved from the first whistle, demanding the ball at every opportunity. We pour forward and only the outstretched hand of Eike Immel denies the debut man a dream goal. The score remains goalless at the interval. As the lads lap up their Lucozade, I’m calm and collected. There’s something in the air, and it’s not just the waft of Silk Cut from David Ginola’s corner of the dressing room. I can sense something special on the horizon.
Finally, just past the hour mark it arrives.
We’re unstoppable. Ten minutes later Asprilla and Shearer combine to further our lead. City are beaten. The Fat Lady’s not just singing, she’s launched her critically-acclaimed second album.
It’s a Man of the Match performance from the hometown hero.
Three games. Seven points and Paul Gascoigne back in business. The stench of that awful performance at The Riverside has been replaced by a breeze of optimism. We’re not the finished article, but we’re approaching the halfway stage and four points off top spot.
Our prowess in the transfer market hasn’t gone unnoticed by our title rivals. As the final whistle blows on the weekend, Ceefax brings news of new faces arriving elsewhere.
Two internationals of high pedigree are on their way to the Premier League.
Written by Sid Lambert from A Funny Old Game
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