Friday 3 April ~
Shock therapy and damn good thrashings never did anyone much good but modern football folk have an often absurd need to take positives from even the most embarrassing of defeats. Manchester United have had little need to be clutching at straws during a largely trouble-free season. Until three weeks ago, that is, when a 4-1 defeat by Liverpool prompted the club’s top brass to start spinning. Speaking on Radio 5 Live's Sportsweek programme, Bobby Charlton greeted the end of United's 16-game unbeaten run with a forced sigh of relief. "I think there was just a little bit of stress, because we kept on winning matches," said Sir Bob. "It helps to maybe turn the gas down a little bit, and a lot of pressure's maybe eased."
Rio Ferdinand stayed on message by insisting that being given the runaround by Torres and Gerrard was just the wake-up call the quintuple-chasing champions needed. "Subconsciously there may have been complacency," he intoned. "But results like this can be turned into a positive. Any complacency that was there will have been torn out of us. And before the week was out it was Alex Ferguson's turn to hail the benefits of being wrenched from their comfort zone by one of the two sides that can still relieve them of the championship. "It's put us in a position to say let’s get the show on the road again," he argued. "That defeat was a reminder about how difficult this league is and in a way that will help us."
Ferguson's thunderous expression during United's second-half capitulation revealed his true feelings about allowing Liverpool back into the title race, however, and the week's pronouncements from Old Trafford were ringing even hollower when Fulham checked the leaders' momentum further. Should United drop more points to Aston Villa this weekend, any silver linings will be decidedly lustreless.
At the other end of the table, erstwhile Newcastle United caretaker-boss Chris Hughton showed during his brief tenure that gleaning precious metal from the dross of defeat is a skill any struggling manager needs to acquire. "I think there's always a different feel when you’re in the bottom three," he told the Guardian after Arsenal's 3-1 win had left Newcastle two points from safety. "Those players who didn’t realise it was going to be a tough end to the season, they certainly realise it now. Being in the bottom three is a sort of shock therapy."
Hughton will doubtless be relieved he has passed the electrodes on to Alan Shearer, but given the number of high-voltage jolts Newcastle's addled defenders have already been subjected to this season, another round of tasering on Tyneside is unlikely to have the desired effect. Faced with the most testing run-in of any of the relegation candidates, Newcastle require some major tactical surgery if they are to avoid the drop. Whether Shearer can deliver that is a moot point. Win, lose or draw against Chelsea on Saturday, however, there are sure to be plenty of positives for the temporary messiah to accentuate. Having spent years honing soundbites on BBC sofas, the local hero can be guaranteed to "look on the bright side", "learn lessons" and insist that his players have "turned the corner" plenty of times between now and the end of the season. James Calder