The Limey
Friday April 3rd, 2009

That the new castle to which the city owes its name is now 929 years old is not Newcastle's only temporal oddity. Dominating the skyline above the medieval keep is St. James' Park -- home of Newcastle United -- a rare place where time's normally linear passage takes peculiar cyclical paths.

Unusual in having a downtown location, St. James' Park is very much the contemporary focus of the "Geordie nation," the aluminum-clad temple of a culturally distinct and warmly introspective maritime city with a rich history of working-class folk heroes.

And it was here on Wednesday that the crowds gathered to welcome local hero Alan Shearer as the new interim manager, and presumed savior, of their beloved team. Shearer scored 206 goals for Newcastle in 395 appearances -- a club record. That in his pomp he rebuffed the advances of Manchester United to sign for his hometown side maximized the due adulation.

But we've been here before. Kevin Keegan, too, once was termed the "Geordie Messiah" when crowds greeted his arrival as manager in 1992. Like Shearer, Keegan also had starred as a striker for both Newcastle and England, and though the club is now a division higher, he, too, responded to a desperate telephone call begging him to become manager and save the Magpies from relegation.

Keegan's heart-on-his sleeve passion and swashbuckling goal-getting tactics, combined with two Premier League runner-up finishes, ensured his hero status remained intact when he walked out of the club in '97 and again after a second brief stint as manager last year.

Between those spells, the only manager Newcastle fans espoused was Sir Bobby Robson. Locally raised, he also provided two seasons of Champions League soccer. Kenny Dalglish, Ruud Gullit, Graeme Souness, Glenn Roeder, Sam Allardyce and Joe Kinnear were never fully embraced. Varying combinations of poor form and overly defensive approaches saw to this, but additionally, none benefited from Keegan's strong ties to the club, Robson's to the city or Shearer's to both.

With the local connection already in place, and with owner Mike Ashley's off-field tenure as erratic and chaotic as his predecessors', to repeat history and to ensure he remains a Geordie Messiah, Shearer now needs sufficient success. Although long-run expectations of silverware now are raised, in reality, like Keegan and Robson before him, the bar will be set at a level below achieving Newcastle's first domestic trophy since '55. Indeed, Shearer's battle, at least for now, is to keep Newcastle, currently in the relegation mire, afloat in the EPL.

We think he'll do it; Shearer does, too. Before accepting the job, he must have calculated positively the chances of receiving a $1.5 million bonus and unlimited adulation on offer for keeping Newcastle in the EPL. Relegation would tarnish his cherished love affair with the club and city.

Though appointed on April 1, Shearer is no one's fool. Three of Newcastle's remaining home fixtures are against Portsmouth, Middlesbrough and Fulham. Wins against these relatively weak sides -- two also are battling against relegation, while Fulham's away form is poor -- would leave Newcastle's comparatively strong squad possibly just needing one further win to stay up. Next Saturday's trip to Stoke will be watched keenly.

Already on the training pitch, his players appear reinvigorated, responding to Shearer's rousing enthusiasm and obsession with excellence. If he can revive the scoring fortunes of Michael Owen, as Robson's arrival at the club once did for Shearer himself, Newcastle will have the requisite firepower. If Mark Viduka can return from injury soon, his ability to create chances will better complement Owen than alignment alongside the inconsistent and less spatially aware Obafemi Martins.

In-form Chelsea's visit will be Shearer's first game in charge. Like the new castle below, St. James' is no longer a fortress, but a now rare sellout crowd will help plaster the cracks. And Shearer, like the rest of his "Toon army," gladly will take a draw.

If Shearer were still playing, Ashley wouldn't have been the only person banging down his door this week. England boss Fabio Capello was in desperate need of a big striker after Emile Heskey, then his replacement, Carlton Cole, went off injured in last Saturday's friendly against Slovakia. Desperate Capello subsequently called up Tottenham's Darren Bent, who was injured in training. With Owen seemingly consigned to the international scrap heap by Capello, England had to rely on its only realistic striking option in the game that mattered this week, the World Cup qualifier against Ukraine: beanpole Peter Crouch.

"Crouchigol" repaid Capello's faith, calming a nervous England in the 29th minute on Wednesday by hooking in a right foot volley to put England into the lead. More impressively, Crouch added a new comedy celebration to his repertoire, "the rope," to go with his "robot" celebration that hasn't been seen since Germany '06.

Although Crouch's antics lightened the mood, England looked nervous at times, giving the ball away cheaply on several occasions, and seemed unable to kill the game off. Chelsea castoff Andriy Shevchenko was desperate to make an impression on his return to English soil, and after coming on as a second-half substitute, did so by scoring after a defensive lapse by the otherwise impressive John Terry and Rio Ferdinand.

The Ukrainian's goal ignited the Wembley crowd, and spurred England to push strongly for the winning goal. This contrasted with the Steve McClaren and Sven-Göran Eriksson regimes, during which the perennial problem was not having a tactical plan B when chasing matches. England's pressure paid off as captain Terry scored from close range with five minutes to go to secure the win, making it five wins out of five in the qualification group for England.

After a performance that was at times poor, the players were jubilant in victory and even brought a rare show of emotion from the usually emotionless Capello, who clenched his fists and punched the air upon hearing the final whistle. Fans won't walk away from the game overjoyed with the way the team played, but will be happy that England now looks like a side that has the confidence and tactical nous to win games when things are against it. As Capello put it, "I said we need to 'win ugly' sometimes, and we did."

England's so far flawless qualification campaign means it now has one foot on the plane to South Africa, and should pick up six more points from its next two games against Kazakhstan and Andorra.

Despite all the positives, there are still some worries throughout the side. David James will be 40 by the time South Africa 2010 comes around and continues to make mistakes, with wayward distribution and unorthodox saves that fortunately weren't punished against Ukraine. Ben Foster is emerging as the first-choice behind James, but will never oust the Portsmouth keeper until he starts playing regularly in the EPL.

In defense, Ashley Cole is a shadow of his former self, rarely making the attacking incisive runs he used to regularly make. Against Ukraine, he gave the ball away on several occasions. Cole's cause isn't helped by the barracking he receives from supporters and the press thanks to his off-field misdemeanors. With Wayne Bridge also struggling for form, Everton's improving Leighton Baines may get his chance.

On the right wing, Theo Walcott had established the position as his own after his standout performances earlier in the qualification campaign. But with the Arsenal starlet suffering from a series of injuries, Capello has been forced to choose between lightning-quick Aaron Lennon, who can't cross, and snail-paced David Beckham, arguably still the best crosser in the world. Such contrast has repercussions on the way the whole team plays.

Also still cause for concern is Wayne Rooney's temperament. After receiving a red card in his last EPL appearance against Fulham, he was very lucky not to suffer the same fate after his two-footed lunge Wednesday on Oleksandr Aliyev. Progress certainly has been made for England, but Capello still has much to do if the Three Lions are to roar in South Africa next summer.

Last time around, we asked for your thoughts on this year's Champions League draw and how you think it'll pan out for the EPL clubs. Alex Glass of Atlanta thinks Manchester United couldn't have got an easier path to the final. "Porto is an unknown every year, as they always seem to have a new team," he writes, "but once you get past them there, it's either Arsenal or Villarreal, neither of which have the firepower to beat a full-strength United. Man. Utd can only beat itself on the way to the final."

We think Arsenal will be a tougher proposition than you suggest Alex, but with Robin van Persie injured, Emmanuel Adebayor only just coming back from injury and Andrei Arshavin cup-tied, you're probably right on with the Gunners; lack of firepower. Alex reckons "the dream final of Barcelona vs. Manchester United looms," with Barça dumping Liverpool in the semifinals.

Drew Snyder of Graiguenamanagh, Ireland, has other ideas, predicting Liverpool will smash United's EPL and Champions League hopes. "United is held to a draw by Villa, and loses to Arsenal, giving Liverpool its first Premiership title," he writes. "To add to the upset in Manchester, the two sides meet in the Champions League final and the 'Pool raises the big-eared trophy for a sixth time."

Is Drew right? Will United's blip in form continue and Liverpool's upturn continue to see the Reds crowned EPL champions? Let us know at the usual address:

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