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When Alan Shearer talks about Newcastle United, it's generally worth listening to.

So 5Live's excellent 'Evening with Alan Shearer' - which was broadcast in conjunction with BBC Newcastle - was something close to required listening tonight.

United's top all-time goalscorer was in a relaxed, candid mood as he regaled an audience at the Centre for Life with memories of his playing career both for club and country - chucking in a few revelations for good measure. Who knew, for example, that he once came close to signing for Sampdoria in Serie A? Or that he now gets on really rather well with Ruud Gullit?

AS the World Cup meandered to its dull conclusion in late July, a popular theory emerged to explain the disappointing nature of events out in South Africa.

The Champions League, we were told, had usurped it's global equivalent to become the pinnacle of the sport. The football was better, the spectacle was grander and the fans and players simply cared about it more now.

After what we've witnessed over the last 48 hours, are we still buying that? Or - like me - do you suspect that this feast of football is pretty measly until we get to the knock-out stages?

PREMIER League managers that anticipate their team being engaged in the battle at the wrong end of the table often talk of winning their own 'mini-league'.

Aware that a moneyed elite have annexed the top ten for themselves, the challenge for the likes of Newcastle and Sunderland is to best Bolton, Fulham, Wigan et al and clamber to the top of the bottom half of the league.

Humbling for a club that was taking on Europe's elite a decade ago? Certainly. But let's be realistic - the rebuilding job is in it's formative years and United need to flex their muscles against the middleweights before stepping up their ambitions.

CHRIS Hughton is known as Barack Obama by Newcastle United's dressing room wags - at least when his back is turned.

The nickname has something to do with a supposed resemblance of the 44th US president but the truth is that Hughton is one of the few in the managerial fraternity who doesn't play the politician when it suits him.

Everyone keeps telling me how beautiful it is to watch World Cup finalists Spain but I just can't agree. As pretty as their slick, passing football is I can't help but be absolutely terrified by it.

On Wednesday they were like one of those giant Boa Constrictors, slowly squeezing the life out of a hitherto vibrant Germany in the first half before devouring them with a wonderful, daring second half effort.

I must admit, I've been irked by the hero worship of the Spanish at this tournament. I never had a problem with a team who are quite clearly the international side of their generation, but did we really need to rush to canonise them after beating Honduras, a dreadful Portugal and an obdurate Paraguay?

OK I'll say it. It's time to identify the elephant in the room of this World Cup house party.

This has been a vibrant, colourful and historic World Cup but no amount of enthusiasm from the South African hosts can mask the fact that the football thus far has been pretty damned mediocre.

Not terrible, because there has been enough intrigue in the opening rounds to provide a few truly memorable moments. But let's be honest, there have no individual or team performances that have approached the World Cup gold standard set by the likes of Pele, Maradona and Zidane through the years.

I got an email the other day, probably the same one that has pinged into your inbox over the last 24 hours. Highly libellous, it was, but salacious enough to pique my interest - not least because it claimed to have the inside track on why England's World Cup bid failed.

The gist of it was a re-heated rumour given an England twist and for about five seconds I could feel the fury building inside me. He did what? With who? And that's the reason why it's going to be 48 years of hurt by the time we rock up in Rio...

Then I thought about it, got my emotions back in check and realised that the original rumour was a load of malicious nonsense with no foundation. I don't know where it originated from, but whoever started the poisonous chain mail is probably sitting back in his bedroom somewhere feeling pretty pleased with himself.

It had been coming. June 27, 2010 was at least four years in the making for the 'Golden Generation'.

England have been due a good hiding at the hands of one of football's progressive superpowers for a while now. That they have been able to dodge a bullet for so long is solely down to the fact that international football so rarely brings them into direct competition with one of the six or seven sides capable of exposing our glaring deficiencies.

OK, there are friendly matches against the big guns from time to time but they are notorious for creating a false impression. It is at tournaments where we really get a sense of our place in the international hierarchy and yesterday's denouement was every bit as depressing as I'd feared.

Fabio's Impossible Job

By Mark Douglas on Jun 26, 10 12:29 PM

Do you remember the Graham Taylor documentary 'The Impossible Job'? The then England boss, in a move borne of either extreme naivety or rock solid confidence that we'd qualify, agreed to allow cameras to follow him during the 1994 qualification process with fascinating results.

Well, here's a glimpse into what would happen if Fabio Capello agreed to the same thing..

A Spanish TV channel employed a lip reader to make sense of Capello's volcanic touchline eruptions - and discovered that even Stuart Pearce is submissive round the England boss. A fascinating (and hilarious) insight into what makes the Italian tick - and is there a little hint of humour from Don Fabio in there too...?

The 'big five' is a term used by game hunters to describe the most difficult animals in Africa to hunt by foot, but it could just as easily refer to England's treacherous route to the World Cup final in Soccer City.

OK, we only have to slay three big beasts to make it to Johannesburg but still - daunting isn't the word.

A vibrant, fearless Germany on Sunday before a potential meeting with free-wheeling tournament favourites Argentina next week. And then, just when optimism about possibly matching the achievements of 1966 would be legitimate, Brazil emerge as potential semi-final opponents. That would be the same Brazil that England have never defeated in a World Cup finals.

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