No joyful return for Tyneside prodigals

 

It was the occasion of the Great Homecoming. Three strikers who once donned the black-and-white of Newcastle United had returned north with Tottenham Hotspur, treading again the turf where they had found so much favour. But as the St James' Park loudspeakers blared out the theme from the film Local Hero, only one player was deemed worthy of tribute.

Les Ferdinand was sung fervently from the field by a crowd still exultant at Warren Barton's close-range winner a minute from time. David Ginola, another integral part of Kevin Keegan's Newcastle, had been substituted halfan-hour earlier to jibes and jeers. Ruel Fox, who also shared in the recovery years, had become a source of amusement as he dribbled up a few old blind alleys. Time and distance grants the perspective to judge our heroes.

Temuri Ketsbaia had played with marvellous potency, but when Newcastle's bald Georgian tentatively signalled his wish to exchange shirts with Ferdinand on the whistle, thousands ranked it as his finest move of all. Ferdinand looked momentarily disinclined, an impressive man reluctant to court popularity, but from the moment that he hauled on the black-and-white stripes, inside-out, a powerful image was born.

Newcastle is a city which needs no second bidding to show gratitude for old times. The north-east has long understood rejection, and recognises the circumstances that can force footballers, or families, to depart against their will. Ferdinand had not asked to move, had never suggested disillusionment, had scored goals to the last. They loved him for it.

But what explained the hostility towards Ginola? When the Frenchman found disfavour last season with Kenny Dalglish, this was also a natural process as the wonderful, over reaching world of Kevin Keegan was replaced by the wooden-faced pragmatism of Kenny Dalglish. Keegan (to reverse the phrase): a manager who knew the value of everything, but the price of nothing; Dalglish, a footballing accountant, constantly aware of the bottom line, persistently logging the worth of every cross and every shimmy.

Newcastle have a history of lauding centre forwards: Milburn, MacDonald, Shearer.

The depth of affection for Ginola was never likely to be so deep. But the winger once so revered was ceremoniously booed from the moment he left the team bus.

"You have to expect a bad reception once you have taken off the zebra shirt," he had indicated. But it was more complicated than that, an indication of how we choose our heroes.

Ferdinand's domineering leap over a straining central defender in the first minute was disturbingly familiar; when the ball thudded into Shay Given's midriff, it was greeted with relief. Ginola's ghost past Barton shortly before half-time also stirred powerful recollections, but this time there was a sense of resentment, followed by derision when he shot weakly at the goalkeeper.

Gerry Francis, Tottenham's manager, described Ginola's display as "in and out," and suggested that it is "hard to come back to your old club and be outstanding." But Ginola did not have to play outstandingly, like Ferdinand he merely had to conduct himself so. For the first halfhour, slouching around central midfield, as if unstirred by the occasion, he did nothing of the sort.

For 15 minutes on either side of half-time, he figured prominently in many of Tottenham's better moments, even if one attempted dribble out of defence almost set up a goal for Jon Dahl Tomasson. Unlike Ferdinand and Fox, who had both mistimed a visit to the toilet, he also managed to take to the field in time for the start of the second half. No matter. The St James' Park crowd suspected that he lacked a hero's sense of obligation.

For Spurs to lose to a dipping long-range shot from David Batty - Ian Walker's save falling to Barton - might be a definition of misfortune. But Gary Mabbutt, rushed into action when John Scales injured a calf in the warm-up, should have conceded a 12thminute penalty when he tripped Ketsbaia, Barton rattled the bar 15 minutes from time, and Spurs were generally under the cosh.