Wednesday, April 06, 2005

View From The Away End

Saturday afternoon, 5pm, Waterloo Station. I’ve just learnt from the other half of B&W&RAO that our attempts to recover from a 1-0 half-time deficit at home to Villa have not quite worked out as we would have liked.

I look up to the heavens, half expecting to be shat on by a passing pigeon, but instead I see the smirking face of fate looking down on me.

You see, I had sent out an email a couple of days earlier asking our View From The Away End contributors for their thoughts on team spirit and team-building. Given our excellent run of form following the February trip to Dubai, and Souness’s decision to take the squad back to the Middle East over the international break, it had seemed like a good topic to choose at the time.

Not only that, but in my round-up of Wednesday’s international action I’d written: “it was good to see Kieron Dyer getting a run-out on familiar turf, if only because the contrast of the warm reception he got with the booing of the August friendly with Ukraine should remind him how far he's come and what it would be like to fall from grace yet again”.

And then he and Lee Bowyer decided to have a set-to in full view of more than 50,000 spectators.

In truth, Bowyer was the aggressor and can count himself very lucky not to have been booted out of the club with the minimum of ceremony. There’s a bit of a double standard in allowing him to stay, albeit docked six weeks’ wages, and freezing Bellamy out for an arguably lesser offence.

Dyer, on the other hand, can probably expect some sympathy from the crowd if selected for tomorrow night’s match with Sporting Lisbon. He’s worked incredibly hard to get himself back in favour with the fans and he was acting predominantly in self-defence.

If nothing else, the incident gave our contributors – Pete of Round And White, Skif of Hobo Tread and Kenny of Parallax View – plenty to write about…

Pete: “A dour Scottish manager and several young stars with disciplinary problems; all members of a team that's struggling to keep up with the cream of the Premiership. But enough about Man United for now.

It seems every time I'm asked by Ben and Paul to contribute to the next View From The Away End, a fresh incident throws the Toon Army's world into disarray and I'm forced to carry out a thorough rewrite. So perhaps I shouldn't be at all surprised at [Saturday’s] events given that this month's topic was to be Newcastle's team spirit.

Until [Saturday] afternoon, I was going to say that the recent trips to Dubai intended to be ‘team-building’ have been effective. Since February, United have performed well both in Europe and domestically. Furthermore, the trips have been incident-free and haven't ended as source material for an episode of ‘Footballer's Wives’ (a la Leicester City). Souness has apparently turned Newcastle round and his players are now doing what they're told. Even Laurent Robert understands the concept of a ‘team’.

I'm going to stick to that view. Lee and Kieron's punch-up was evidently the product of something personal that had been simmering away for a while and wasn't merely down to a refusal to pass to a teammate (although that didn't help). Perhaps Kieron was upset that Lee got to go to Dubai, while he alternately warmed the bench or set up his England teammates, only to see them miss a succession of easy chances. Who knows? However, given that everything has been going swimmingly of late, it can hardly be put down to anything that Souness has done.

Indeed, Souness came out from this incident with a great deal of credit by (publicly) reacting sensibly with the hasty press conference that saw both players apologise to ‘the fans, the chairman, the staff and everyone connected to Newcastle’, albeit with little sincerity and a suggestion of smugness on Kieron's part.

The two players are naturally on very thin ice now. Unfortunately, Lee has taken every possible step during his career to develop his reputation as a hothead. [Saturday] merely enhanced this and is likely to influence the decision taken by the powers-to-be regarding his punishment. Dyer, on the other hand, has seemingly pulled his finger out in the last few months, realised that he's a professional footballer and has accordingly produced some excellent displays in the Premiership and as a sub for England. He'll be staying put, but in view of Souness's previous approach to disruptive influences, don't expect to see Bowyer in a black and white shirt next season (unless he moves to Notts County that is).

So where now for the team as a whole? With any luck, the situation will be dealt with swiftly. However, with Dyer and Bowyer missing for a few games, including (perhaps crucially for Super Al) the FA Cup semi-final, it remains to be seen what will happen to the team spirit if Souness's recent success were to be undone.

Skif: “I guess when this question was posed at the end of last week the B&W&RAO crew did not know just how pertinent their timing would be!

Hansen had it right on ‘Match Of The Day’ when he said that human nature dictates that in any squad, there will be individuals who don’t get on, but that there should be respect for all of your team-mates.

You could say that you don’t learn to respect people on a beano to Dubai. Indeed, if professional players are spending most days training together, and rooming at away games, perhaps the last thing you need is more time cooped up with same group of blokes. You can’t choose who you work with, but you can choose who you drink with, they say. Familiarity breeds contempt?

However social time with those you work with is important and individuals not liking each other are less the issue of these junkets, as team-building is a different thing from hoping we can all skip through the tulips hand in hand. Clearly Souness sees the value in it, and my understanding is half the reason he was brought in was to bring a no-nonsense approach to sorting out the troublemakers in the dressing room. I don’t think team spirit is a major problem at Newcastle, the problem seems to be that too many out of control egos (but still a minority) are present in one space.

It could well turn out that Bowyer and Dyer cutting up rough this past weekend could be the best thing that could happen to Newcastle. I imagine Souness’s rod of iron could well now become white hot. Shearer’s commitment will also hopefully play a part in getting things back on an even keel.

In terms of team spirit at my club (Havant & Waterlooville), I guess it’s a different issue at semi-professional level, training together only twice a week, with one or two games. Furthermore, as we are on the South Coast and travelling to the London area for a great many games, a few of the squad often travel under their own steam. To compete at this level we have had to spread the net for players wider than most considering our geographical position.

Team-building trips would probably be ideal for clubs like us, but I doubt very many can afford them. I can only recall us staying overnight before games on three occasions. When we were in the Dr Martens League, I think two frighteningly long trips to Boston United and Kings Lynn were prefaced by some B&B action, as well as an FA Trophy tie at Colwyn Bay. While we may not have won all these games, certainly the spirit of fighting for each other was never an issue in any of them. I recall our team spirit was never in question in those days anyway.

The past couple of seasons though have seen a lower spirit mainly due to the apparent bullying tactics of a previous management team (although these same chaps also led us to our highest ebbs it should be noted) and a single disruptive influence in the dressing room. In this time, as far as I know, we have never had any overnights stops and we certainly we have had fewer and fewer players travelling on the team coach. I’d suggest a correlation, although two disappointing seasons performance wise have certainly not helped.

I’d say then that team building can be quite useful, but those that can afford it may not actually need it, as team-spirit owes as much to time apart as to time together, in my view. Also, if you have disruptive players in your side, a foreign jolly (however intense the training side) seems unlikely to bring them to heel.

Kenny: “I'm glad I didn't reply to this before [Saturday’s] (highly amusing for the neutral) turn of events!

Overall, I think it's very difficult to speculate on 'team spirit' without first-hand knowledge. Depending on the source of the problem, team-building exercises could help or hinder team spirit. Reading between the lines, the biggest factor in the squad getting on better is the exit of Craig Bellamy, who seemed to be getting on just about everybody's tits.

I don't think its important for players necessarily to get on off the pitch – it would be nigh on impossible for 11 highly pampered and egotistical individuals to do so – but I think it is important that as a squad they have a belief in the manager, the system of play and the worth of their team-mates to the common cause. Good results builds confidence in all these areas and petty grievances can easily be cast aside under a feel-good atmosphere.

Newcastle's dressing room seems imbalanced by one or two too many volatile characters in the mix. It won't be easy for Souness because these are, in most cases, his better players. Whatever their cup triumphs, this has been a poor season in the Premiership for United, and the summer transfer business will dictate the gaffer's future.

Thanks to Pete, Skif and Kenny for managing to stifle their laughter long enough to contribute to this feature.


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