TIME for a vote. Which of these three football stories is the most shocking: a) Sam Allardyce leaving Newcastle; b) Gary Neville scoring a goal; or c) Tom Hanks claiming that he’s an Aston Villa fan? It truly has been a day of surprises.
They do love a bit of drama at Newcastle. When you haven’t won a major trophy since the first moon landing, I suppose you’ve got to find some way of keeping things exciting, and Newcastle’s method of doing this in recent years seems to have consisted entirely of changing managers when you least expect it.
I blame Kevin Keegan. (But then I blame Kevin Keegan for a lot of things.) There he was, toddling along with Newcastle riding high in the Premiership in January 1997 when, out of nowhere, he quit. It was a huge shock. But it started a tradition of bizarre managerial departures at St James’ Park. And almost every managerial change at Newcastle since then has managed to be more surprising than the last.
They don’t go in for any of this changing the manager during the summer nonsense, like a sensible club might. Oh no. With Newcastle, there’s always an element of the theatrical.
Remember the period following Keegan’s departure, when Newcastle went through a phrase of sacking managers about three games into the season? Remember the last of those early-season departures, in 2004, when Newcastle sacked Sir Bobby Robson and ended up replacing him with Graeme Souness, to the surprise of just about everyone, perhaps even Souness himself?
Well, Newcastle have topped all of that with Allardyce, a manager whose reign at St James’ has turned out to be shorter than that of Ruud Gullit, of Souness and of Glenn Roeder.
And incredibly, the timing of his departure has still come as a surprise, even though he has supposedly been one game away from the sack for about two months.
Sunday’s FA Cup tie at Stoke was supposed to be the latest make-or-break game for Allardyce. Newcastle weren’t great, but they didn’t lose.
So when Allardyce turned up for today’s press conference ahead of Saturday’s trip to Manchester United, and talked about his plans for the transfer window, the assembled journalists had every reason to assume he wasn’t going anywhere in the near future.
Ah, but this is Newcastle, where drama is as much a way of life as heartache. So I guess we should have seen it coming really, because the unexpected is always expected at St James’.
(By the way, does Allardyce’s departure mean Alan Shearer can start talking about Newcastle in more than one-word sentences on Match of the Day now? After all, Shearer has reportedly ruled himself out of the job.)
Still digesting that news, I discovered something even more surprising. Gary Neville had not only made an apparently successful comeback for Manchester United’s reserves against Everton this evening, but he had also scored a goal.
Neville, who has been out with a succession of injuries since last March, has a great many qualities as a footballer (including being the greatest English attacking full-back of his generation), but goalscoring is not one of them. In fact, he is probably the least prolific outfield United player ever. Well, except for Gary Birtles, perhaps.
I have not yet managed to find any details of the goal, but no matter. It’s the celebration I would like to have seen. Given Neville’s passion, I imagine it would have been quite a sight.
Not quite as startling a sight as that of Tom Hanks wearing an Aston Villa scarf at the premiere of his new film Charlie Wilson’s War.
Apparently, Hanks’ love for Villa has been public knowledge since at least 2004, so it clearly has nothing to do with compatriot Randy Lerner’s purchase of the club. But I wasn’t aware of this, and neither – among others – were the Birmingham Mail, who have reported the story as if it has only just come to light.
Even the quotes about his reason for supporting Villa – “I’m big on Aston Villa because the name is so sweet, it sounds like a lovely spa” – are at least a couple of years old.
Exactly how far back his love for Villa goes, I’m not sure. It means I’ll now have to watch ‘Big’ all over again to look for any subtle references to Nigel Spink. If I find any, I’ll let you know.
Anyway, as far as I’m concerned, the answer to the question I posed at the top of this entry is definitely b).