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.
The home straight to the title race starts here. We’ve got fifteen games to go and the legs are tiring. If we’re going to reach the finishing line in one piece then we need reinforcements.
This is where managers earn their corn. Surveying the market, looking for value, looking for the right type of character to introduce into a dressing room. Deep down, I know exactly what we need. Someone who knows the league. Someone with a bit of steel. Someone who can get on that field, drag everyone up by their bootstraps and drag our weary bodies to Premier League glory.
That’s what we need. But then again, wouldn’t it be fucking great if we bought in a buccaneering Brazilian left-back with no positional discipline, and a left foot like a traction engine?
Welcome to Tyneside, Bobby Carlos.
I’d seen the Brazilian play in the inaugural Umbro Cup last summer, a curious tournament featuring the unlikely trio of England, Japan and Brazil. And the even unlikelier sight of David Unsworth in an England shirt.
“Wor Bobby” starts his Newcastle love affair with a dream fixture against Blackburn. All those years spent playing on the poverty-ridden streets of the favelas, then honing his skills on the beaches at twilight, have led to this moment: going 1v1 down the left flank against Jeff Kenna. His parents must be so proud.
The game itself is a niggly, nervy affair, lit up by one moment of magic by David Ginola. The Frenchman’s cross finds Tino who taps in the only goal of an otherwise terrible game.
They say winning ugly is the trademark of a title-winning team. And things don’t get much easier with a midweek trip to Stamford Bridge.
On paper, there’s not much to fear about this Chelsea line-up. You have to admire Glenn Hoddle’s bravery going into a Premier League match with a back line featuring Frank Sinclair, Erland Johnsen and Scott Minto. Even Eileen Drewery could tell you that’s a terrible fucking idea.
Unless you’re playing against a team that looks like it’s won a game of Bamboozle on Ceefax to get here. Which is exactly what we do. We are awful from the first whistle. I’ve got the creative talents of Hagi, Ginola and Beardsley in midfield and they look like they’re playing in flip-flops. Their output is so poor that Erland Johnsen looks like Franz Beckenbauer in his prime.
I tear into the team at half-time. We need to get closer, get tighter. Claude Makelele takes the advice to heart… by inserting his studs into Craig Burley’s small intestine.
I’m grateful for the point and to get out of London unscathed. Sadly Burley can’t say the same.
Makelele’s suspension comes at the worst possible time. The crowded fixture list has stretched our squad to the limit. Gheorghe Hagi hasn’t adjusted to the hurly-burly of English football and seems incapable of playing more than once every lunar cycle.
Meanwhile Peter Beardsley’s limbs are ageing quicker than his hairstyle. With Makelele facing a stint at Broadmoor after his horror tackle at Ewood Park, our midfield has been decimated.
I do what any decent manager would do in this situation: ask the chairman for a load more dough. I pick up the phone and ring Sir John Hall to politely enquire about extra funds, knowing he’s usually got the financial acumen of Montgomery Brewster. However, the news isn’t good. After spaffing a few million on Bobby Carlos, the coffers are a little bare. If I’m going to bring anyone in, they need to be cheap.
I put the word out amongst my trusted network of agents and thankfully get a bite. There’s a former global superstar, unhappy at his current employers, who fancies one last hurrah before hanging up his boots. I talk to the player directly. He’s got the sort of top-level experience we need and he’s been a big presence wherever he’s played before. He could be the perfect locker room leader alongside Alan Shearer.
Welcome to the Toon, Ruud Gullit. What could possibly go wrong?
The Dutchman barely has time to shake his hands before he pulls on the shirt for his home debut against Coventry. He slots into midfield alongside the recalled Keith Gillespie and a totally unfit Peter Beardsley. Sensing blood, the Sky Blues have gone for the jugular with a kamikaze formation. With no other fit strikers, I’m relying on Sir Les Ferdinand to plough a lone furrow up front.
Disaster strikes early. There are some things you can prepare for as a manager, and others you are powerless to prevent. Kevin Richardson’s right foot becoming the incarnation of Bobby Charlton is one of them. A Thunderbastard of all Thunderbastards puts the visitors ahead.
Mercifully, the team responds in style.
And the duo show the sort of telepathic teamwork that has made PJ and Duncan folk heroes in these parts by combining for the winner.
It’s a 10/10 performance for Les and Ruud Gullit made an impressive debut. But there are concerns elsewhere on the pitch. Bobby Carlos looked about as comfortable as a penguin on a sunbed up against Noel Whelan. This is an ominous sign.
There’s better news from the treatment room where Paul Gascoigne has emerged from his hiatus and is ready to start ahead of a tricky fixture at Leeds. There’s also a welcome return for David Batty to his spiritual home.
I make the big decision to keep Roberto Carlos in the side. His duel with Tomas Brolin might be the most exotic occurrence in Yorkshire since they started serving Prawn Cocktail crisps in Emmerdale.
The super sub wins it. Alan Shearer, summoned from the bench despite being barely half-fit, hammers home the decisive goal five minutes from time. Our unbeaten run is preserved.
Gazza puts in a MOTM performance and Ruud Gullit gets another impressive rating. Stuart Pearce’s return to the back four isn’t quite as triumphant as I was hoping for. Tomas Brolin, whose waistline looks like he’s signed a lucrative partnership with Ginsters, gave him the runaround for 90 minutes.
Meanwhile, there’s more bad news on the injury front as David Ginola picks up a knock that will rule him out of the home fixture against Spurs.
Spurs are an interesting side, which is a polite way of saying they’re shite. Sitting just three points above the relegation zone, they concede too many and don’t score enough. You don’t need the investigative nous of Miss Marple to spot their problem areas: defence, midfield and attack. Gerry Francis has gone for a gung-ho 4-2-4 formation with Darren Anderton as an unlikely ball-winning central midfielder. It’s a curious selection to say the least, a bit like asking Bruce Banner for anger management advice.
Les Ferdinand eases any nerves by slotting in an opener and the tension around St. James’ Park is eased.
But any hope that the early goal would lead to a free-flowing display are shattered by an otherwise anaemic display. Spurs don’t look like a team that are hovering nervously above the drop zone. And we’re reliant on Chris Armstrong missing a last-minute sitter to earn us the win.
The aftermath of this sort of performance is a tough one for a manager. We’ve nicked a win we barely deserved against a team that we would have hammered out of sight a couple of months ago. It feels like we’re running out of steam. Key players keep getting injured, stalwarts out of form, and we’ve developed an unenviable habit of making average opposition players look like a prime John Cruyff emerging from some sort of cryogenic deep freeze. This week’s case in point is Ronny Rosenthal, a man normally about as predictable as Mr Blobby.
What you don’t want when you’re having a late-season wobble is a trip to Wimbledon. The master shithouses are scrapping for their lives near the basement. Joe Kinnear’s stuck resolutely with his 3-3-4 Blitzkrieg formation. Bobby Carlos’ baptism of fire in English football continues. This doesn’t really feel like his sort of game, but Darren Peacock looked like he was running in quicksand in his last outing, so I’m not blessed with options.
I make the decision to recall Stuart Pearce, hoping his experience and his penchant for violence will be enough to keep the likes of Gayle, Harford, Ekoku and Holdsworth at bay. In midfield, an injury to Rob Lee means a recall for Gheorghe Hagi, doubtless looking forward to his first confrontation with Vinnie Jones in the same way B.A Baracus relishes air travel.
Ruud Gullit stamps his authority on the game early with a first-class assist for Alan Shearer. I always knew they’d get on.
And then we crumble under sustained Wimbledon pressure.
The half-time team talk is a war cry from me. There’s a time and a place for pretty football, but it’s not today. We’ve got to get our foot in and get the ball forward early. Gheorghe Hagi looks like he’s reconsidering his life choices.
Thankfully, our number nine rolls up his sleeves and drags us back into it.
Just as we start to take a foothold in the game, the Dons kick it out from under us. Another high ball causes chaos at the heart of our defence. For fuck’s sake, we’d have been better off playing the Smurfs in central defence.
Once again, we’re indebted to our local hero to get us out of the brown stuff.
We escape – bruised and battered – from South London with a point.
The team ratings make for grim reading. Stuart Pearce’s woeful form continues. When he closes his eyes at night, he’ll have terrifying dreams of Mick Harford. But then again, so do most of us.
It means that we’re still masters of our own destiny. Nine games to go to bring the title home. Three points ahead of Arsenal, six clear of Alex Ferguson’s United.
Squeaky bum time.
Written by Sid Lambert from A Funny Old Game
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