||NEWCASTLE UNITED lead the Premiership this morning for one good reason. They've gone back to being a real football club instead of a playpen for the nouveaux riches and businessmen with egos. For that, when they face Chelsea at home today, they can thank an old miner's son who enters his 35th season of management on Tuesday and who ought to start the new year a knight.
If the honours list has any meaning in an age where TV presenters and five-bob celebs are rushed up the line to ennoblement at the behest of political spin-doctors, Bobby Robson ought to be calling himself `Sir' next week.
Monarch of the Toon
Not that he would. Self-inflation isn't one of his traits. A fulfilling 2002 for him would involve nothing grander than
"chipping away" in the most open Premiership title race in memory, and driving a few more steadying bolts and rivets into the great ocean liner of St James' Park.
Newcastle are the romantic choice as champions. Robson has already won league titles in Holland and Portugal and guided Ipswich Town into Europe in eight seasons out of nine. He took three trophies back to the Nou Camp with Barcelona and cajoled England to a World Cup semi-final in 1990. But none of that could quite match the melodrama of his boyhood club seizing the English crown for the first time since 1927, less than three years after he first kicked through the ashes of Ruud Gullit's regime
when the side had lost four of their first five games.
Robson's work extends beyond the restoration of pride, hard work and good organisation as the mainstays of a winning team, though these are the most graphic features of Newcastle's recent ascent. The squad now reflect the character of their manager and the town: an updated Geordie industriousness with a humane face. Robson's faintly baffling acquisition of Craig Bellamy from Coventry for £6.5 million has turned out to be one of the season's strategic triumphs
and with a fit Kieron Dyer performing as if someone has set fire to his shorts, Alan Shearer's last years as a goalscorer have taken on a honeyed rather than a rusty hue.
These are the public reforms, the sharp-end manifestations of all the knowledge and passion, but behind the edifice of that wonderful 52,000-seat arena by the Tyne there has been an assault on the big-shot ethos that threatened to tip Sir John Hall's grand vision of a Geordie Catalonia into self-parody. Specifically, Robson installed his own men to key decision-making posts: Gordon Milne as director of football and Charlie Woods, an old Ipswich stalwart, as chief scout. Peter Beardsley, another local legend, is on the academy coaching staff.
So Newcastle no longer calculate everything by how it will play in the City, how big and boisterous it will make them look alongside Manchester United and Arsenal. How long ago it seems that Gullit (never a bolts-and-rivets man) was allowed to spend £30 million at the start of a season in which he took on Shearer and lost and was bundled out in the midst of rebellion.
Had Newcastle carried on like that they would have stayed stuck in the same dispiriting cycle of extravagant failure, of increasingly empty rhetoric about how that fresh and beguiling city housed one of Europe's great clubs. Even after the Gullit experiment failed and the board summoned a Tyneside hero who said he
"bled black and white", the high rollers were still slow to learn. They waited 25 matches before extending
Robson's contract beyond his initial nine-month deal, even though a revitalised side had lost only six times in that period. But they learnt all right, so much so that when the Football Association came calling after Kevin Keegan's resignation as England manager, the headhunters were instructed by the chairman, Freddy Shepherd, to poach somebody else's Messiah.
Robson stayed in the North-East, but Newcastle may yet fill a national hole by dispatching Dyer to fill the gap on the left side of England's midfield. Coruscating against Leeds and Boro, Dyer augments Newcastle's ability to swarm over opponents in a way that evokes memories of Keegan's cavalry charges.
"When you see Dyer's form after 10 months out [with shin injuries] and very little preparation, it's amazing," Robson says.
"He's gone from nowhere into playing top-flight football like that and he's terrific."
It is a measure of the side's progress that they have coped so well without their £7 million striker, Carl Cort, and recovered from defeat in an InterToto Cup final in August to march to the threshold of next season's Champions League. Given the stadium expansion, Robson's influence and Shearer's obvious suitability as a future Newcastle manager, the club have never seemed stronger.
In 2000, they ran up operating losses of £19.1 million. This year they shrank the daily deficit by 73 per cent to £5.1 million.
Robson has no need of royal approval to affirm his importance to English football. But he should get his knighthood anyway, not least to give some credibility back to the honours system.
As Milne has pointed out: "They don't make them like that any more."
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