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 the last instalment with the triumphant return of Paul Gascoigne, scoring on his home debut and unleashing a tidal wave of enthusiasm on Tyneside, as hopes were raised that the genial Geordie could yet sweep us to the Premier League title.
We’ve got four games in quick succession which will get us to the halfway stage of the season. After this run of fixtures we’ll know if Gazza’s comeback has made the Geordie Boys real title contenders, or if our hopes and dreams will slowly dissipate like the Fog on the Tyne.
First up is a trip down to the south coast where Dave Merrington has somehow turned Southampton into an established mid-table side. After Alan Ball’s departure to Maine Road, Merrington’s appointment was hardly greeted with widespread fanfare. Compared to his predecessor, he had the charisma of a professional pall-bearer. But results have been surprisingly steady, mainly thanks to the magic of Matt Le Tissier.
It’s a game that’s been a banana skin in the past. In this part of the world the sight of Le Tiss juggling the ball to “Life of Riley” still brings back painful memories. And it’s also a game that pits two opposing football philosophies. Merrington plays a direct 5-2-3 formation where the midfield spends large periods of time with their necks arched upwards like plane-spotters at Gatwick during holiday season. Meanwhile, I’ve packed the middle of the park with artists like Gazza, Hagi, Ginola and Beardsley, giving them freedom to paint pretty pictures (as long as it’s not a self-portrait, Peter – we don’t want to ruin that lovely blank canvas).
It’s a fixture that also pits two players against their former clubs. Barry Venison, a man whose hair and fashion choices will one day surely see him stand trial at The Hague, goes toe-to-toe with Alan Shearer, returning to his first professional club.
Any sense of loyalty to his former employers disappears midway through the first half. Gascoigne threads a ball through a gap roughly the size of Toys R Us left between Venison and Monkou, and Shearer wellies it into the top corner. As the half draws to a close, Gheorghe Hagi volleys in Barton’s cross and we’re strolling.
The second half brings more of the same. Merrington’s stubborn refusal to switch tactics cost the home side. Gascoigne’s enjoying more time and space than Neil Armstrong did on the surface of the moon, and it’s no surprise when he slots in Les Ferdinand for a third.
It’s a drubbing. An absolute drubbing. Barry Venison puts in the worst performance in Southampton since The Titanic’s Head of Navigation. On we march.
Nottingham Forest are the next visitors to a rejuvenated St James’ Park. Managers live and die by their moves in the transfer market, and when Frank Clark replaced Stan Collymore with Andrea Silenzi it felt like career suicide.
It’s a brave man who replaces the most dynamic and exciting forward in the league with an unknown Italian beanpole who looks like he’d lose a foot race with a fridge freezer, but Silenzi’s form has confounded his doubters. A goal every other game alongside the equally prolific Bryan Roy has kept Forest away from the relegation zone.
As usual, we were revert to our tried-and-tested 4-4-2 at home. Tino joins Big AL up top, and David Batty gets a Saturday afternoon off. I tell him to do something romantic with the wife. He tells me he’s hired Platoon from Blockbusters and they’re going to curl up in front of the telly. Lovely stuff.
Once again, we explode out of the blocks. David Ginola is all razzle dazzle. Poor Des Lyttle, normally a perfectly respectable right-back, looks utterly shell-shocked. He’s being humiliated at every turn. By half-time he’s wearing the frown of a middle-aged man lost in the soft furnishings section of John Lewis. He doesn’t know how he got here, but he’d trade his soul for a way out.
The second half follows the same pattern. I’m watching the disintegration of Des Lyttle before my eyes. This is Sam Fox presenting the Brit Awards. Kevin Costner’s Waterworld. He may never recover from this.
Tino’s tap-in seals another three-goal win. Lyttle’s afternoon is mercifully ended when Frank Clark brings on Big Jason Lee as a makeshift centre-half. Sometimes life just kicks you in the balls.
With six points, six goals and two clean sheets nestling cosily in our pockets, we face a daunting trip to Highbury. We’re level on points and goal difference with Bruce Rioch’s Arsenal. They’re a side absolutely brimming with experience, with the exception of the curiously-named Biagio Badamo – whose surname sounds like a weapons malfunction – at centre-half. The teenage Italian replaces the injured Martin Keown in an otherwise impressive starting line-up.
Meanwhile, there’s horrendous news from our physio room. Shearer, Panucci, Asprilla and Gascoigne are all injured in training this week. It’s a disaster. We’d have incurred less damage playing head tennis with hand grenades. It’s the last thing we need ahead of a game of this magnitude. I have to hide my fears from the players, so I send them out early with a Churchillian speech before legging it for the cubicle and a religious moment on the khazi.
Incredibly, my porcelain prayers are answered.
The Lord Giveth and Taketh Away.
But we hold on for a massive (well-deserved) point and only a late save from Seaman stops us nicking all three.
It’s a huge result. Our midfield was magnificent and Ferdinand led the line superbly. Another game, another assist as David Batty whose reinvention as Michel Platini continues apace.
Sir Les earns another starting spot for the home game with Sheffield Wednesday. The Owls are a strange side. Brilliant one week, hopeless the next. They’ve got three veterans (Woods, Nicol and Walker) in their starting XI. That sounds like a good idea if you’re filming an episode of Dad’s Army, but perhaps not ideal for the hurly-burly of Premier League football.
The whistle blows and before you can say, “Don’t panic, Mr Mainwaring” Wednesday are two goals down. It’s a sensational start aided by some truly appalling defending from the visitors. A through ball from Hagi leaves Ginola one-on-one with Steve Nicol. The Scotsman runs like he’s wearing a pair of high heels in quicksand, and Ginola scorches past him to net the opener.
The generosity continues. A cross from Ginola should be cleared by Peter Atherton, but the Owls defender seems momentarily distracted, like a man who’s not sure if he left the central heating on before he left the house this morning, allowing Ferdinand to sweep home the loose ball.
When Silvestre supplies Shearer for the third, it’s carnival time. One-touch football, Ole from the crowd. A drag-back from Darren Peacock. It’s a football fever dream.
The reality is that we’re joint second in the table at the halfway stage of the season. Four points behind Blackburn, and four ahead of Alex Ferguson’s men.
Whisper it quietly, but we’re still fighting for this title.
Written by Sid Lambert from A Funny Old Game
Join the game and download the APP here