Miles' Memories: Graeme Souness' extraordinary off-the-record answer to big Newcastle United question

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Writer Miles Starforth has reported on Newcastle United for 20 years. This is the fourth in a series of recollections and anecdotes from his time covering the club.

“Take a look out of the window,” said Graeme Souness on the other end of the line.

Sat on the sofa in my flat, I looked out of the window before he could complete his sentence.

Souness went on: “Can you see any pink pigs flying past?”

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This was January 2005, and I had just phoned Souness to ask if there was any way back at Newcastle United for Craig Bellamy, who had had another high-profile row with the club’s combative manager over his non-involvement in a game against Arsenal.

Souness had gone off the record to answer the question in a roundabout way.

No, not surprisingly, there weren’t any pink pigs flying past – and no, there wasn’t a way back for Bellamy, who was loaned to Celtic at the end of the month.

I was reminded of that phone call by a recent interview with Souness, who suggested he would be “less aggressive” if he had his time again as a manager.

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Miles Memories.Miles Memories.
Miles Memories. | JPIMedia

"I think if I had my time again, I'd be quite a different manager,” said Souness, now a Sky Sports pundit.

"I'd be less aggressive, less harsh, less demanding on people. Later in my career, I sort of realised not everybody had the same attitude that I had.

"Some people are a little bit more relaxed about it, and I would get extremely frustrated by people that didn't appear to have that win-at-all-costs mentality.

"I would fall out with people over that, and I think Jamie (Redknapp) would have witnessed some of that when we worked together when I was at Liverpool as a manager."

Graeme Souness.Graeme Souness.
Graeme Souness. | Getty Images

Would Souness have handled Bellamy differently?

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Souness was an uncompromising player and he took that into management.

In fact, he was brought to St James’s Park, at least in part, to bring discipline to a squad which had, at times, shown signs of indiscipline under Sir Bobby Robson, Souness’ predecessor at the club.

And it didn’t take Bellamy, so important to the team under Sir Bobby Robson, long to clash with Souness, who had left Blackburn Rovers to take over at Newcastle in August 2004.

Craig Bellamy celebrates scoring against Sunderland.Craig Bellamy celebrates scoring against Sunderland.
Craig Bellamy celebrates scoring against Sunderland. | Getty Images

Bellamy left for Ewood Park at the end of that season, and went on to play for Liverpool and Manchester City. He was missed on Tyneside, and United’s £15million acquisition of Michael Owen didn’t pay dividends.

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I remember when Bellamy first joined the club as a relative unknown from Coventry City in the summer of 2001.

The striker – and his pace – helped transform the team, which would end his first campaign fourth in the Premier League. The only way was seemingly up for the club under Sir Bobby, a boyhood fan.

Bellamy’s first top-flight goal came at home to Sunderland. Laurent Robert, another player who would fall out with Souness, chipped the ball over the visiting defence and Bellamy, using his pace, nodded it down and beat Thomas Sorensen.

It was a classic Bellamy goal, and the strike cancelled out an opener from Kevin Phillips. The game, frustratingly, ended 1-1.

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After the game Bellamy was brought through to the media suite at St James’s Park to speak to journalists, and he spoke to a colleague and myself in a small room normally used for TV interviews.

Bellamy’s frustration was evident from the moment he walked into the room. He felt that United should have won.

Before we switched on our tapes he said he “f****** hated” the way Sunderland, then managed by Peter Reid, played.

On the record, he said: “I'm delighted to have scored in my first Tyne-Wear derby – if you're going to win the fans over, that's a good step. It was the biggest club game I've ever played in by a considerable distance.”

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I always enjoyed speaking to Bellamy. He invariably had something to say. He was an engaging interviewee, and as direct off the pitch as he was on it.

Souness, a man of fewer words, went on to take the team he inherited from Robson to an FA Cup semi-final and a UEFA Cup quarter-final.

Had it not been for the injuries suffered by United in the away leg of that European tie against Sporting Lisbon – Jermaine Jenas, Titus Bramble and Kieron Dyer were forced off at the Jose Avalade Stadium – then the team could well have gone all the way in the competition.

That said, things didn’t go so well in the Premier League, and fans, understandably, were unhappy with what they were watching week after week, and Souness was sacked early in 2006. The football under Souness was all too often turgid an uninspired, and contrasted sharply with the pacy and exhilarating football played in the latter part of Sir Bobby’s tenure at St James’s Park.

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Reflecting on his time at the club, he said: “Time and time again the supporters there have had their hopes built up, and its ended in failure and disappointment for them.

“You have to be winning games there. If you’re not you are only two away from a full-on crisis.”

We’ve seen a few of those over the years, though maybe we’d have seen fewer under Souness had he been less aggressive and confrontations.

Times change, and the best managers, like Robson, change with those times.

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Read the third instalment of Miles’ Memories on the late, great Gary Speed here

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