IT WAS time for the players of PSV Eindhoven to say goodbye to St James' Park and the Uefa Cup.
Mark van Bommel and Mateja Kezman still lingered on the steps outside the ground, talking up their hopes of summer moves to the Premiership.
The coach driver waiting to ferry them to Newcastle airport revved his engine, probably as much out of fear as plain impatience. Whoever it was who chose to book the bus ? Sunderland's coach complete with club crest on every window ? showed little insight into the tribal sensitivities in the northeast of England.
It just so happens that the next Dutch club booked for a match-day appointment at Newcastle United will be coached by a man who was once accused of making much the same mistake at St James'. In truth, though, Ruud Gullit knew exactly what he was doing when he detailed Alan Shearer to bench duty against Sunderland on a rainy August night in 1999. He knew, when he put his signature to the team sheet ? with Paul Robinson at centre-forward, in place of the England captain ? that he was signing his own resignation letter. He also knew that Shearer would come banging on his door demanding an explanation. "I told him to his face, 'You are the most over-rated player I have ever seen', " Gullit related in a recent newspaper article. "He didn't reply." He didn't need to. In the four years and eight months since, Shearer's goals have done the talking for him. His ninth-minute header last Wednesday night was his 27th of the season. It was also his sixth in the Uefa Cup, putting him joint top scorer in the competition.
Gullit will get an opportunity to make a reassessment in August. As fate would have it, his first task as coach of Feyenoord will be to take his team to a four-team pre-season tournament at Newcastle, where his abilities as a football manager proved to be so vastly over-rated. The Dutchman left Newcastle second bottom of the Premiership. Shearer's opener against PSV helped to put them into the semi-finals of the Uefa Cup, 2-1 winners on the night, 3-2 on aggregate.
"Let's hope that in a month or so we can all be talking about something different, but you don't win anything for getting through to semifinals. I've lost count of the number of times I've had a tingling ? a little feeling about us winning something ? so I'm just going to keep quiet this time." The first leg brings Fabien Barthez's Marseilles to Tyneside on Thursday. It is sure to be a frenzied occasion, although the locals will be hoping it is not quite as wild as the night of the Fairs Cup semi-final in 1969, when Rangers fans went on the rampage as their side sank to a 2-0 aggregate defeat. First, Newcastle have domestic matters to attend to, with a trip to Villa Park this afternoon in their quest for fourth place in the Premiership. It is the sudden promise of silverware, though, that no Geordie appreciates more than Shearer himself.
Asked how he felt with games coming "thick and fast" and with him "not getting any younger", Shearer replied, with a twinkle in both eyes: "You sound like the manager. Look, "I'd rather play games than train. I've got a year left. The more games, the merrier." It remains to be seen whether the draw for the preseason tournament at St James' will offer a game against Feyenoord. As for Robinson, the player Gullit preferred to Shearer, he had a game Newcastle on Thursday afternoon ? against Newcastle's reserve team, that is, for Hartlepool's reserves.
ASTON VILLA v NEWCASTLE UNITED Villa Park, 2.00 Live, Premiership Plus 1.30