IF Alan Murray helps to end Newcastle's 35-year trophy drought this season, his efforts won't just be a success for Tyneside.

After learning his trade at Middlesbrough, Hartlepool and Darlington, the Magpies number two will be proving the vitality of North-East football if he guides his first love to some long-awaited silverware.

Born and bred in Walker, Murray spent the first five years of his playing career at Ayresome Park, gradually honing his coaching skills as he struggled to break into the Boro first team.

Those talents were put to the test at Hartlepool in 1991 when, with boss Cyril Knowles battling against a brain tumour that was to eventually prove fatal, Murray was shuffled from his chief executive role to the position of manager.

A 17-month stint at Darlington followed - with Murray gradually pulling the Quakers away from the foot of the Football League - before he teamed up with former Boro team-mate Graeme Souness at Southampton.

That partnership is still going strong, with Murray following the Scot across the Pennines when he was made Newcastle manager last month.

The modern game is littered with managers and coaches who have faltered after being parachuted into a top job before they have served their time.

Murray's experiences include high court winding up orders and training ground dribbles to avoid goose droppings in Darlington's South Park but, while the sagas proved testing at the time, they are educational experiences which he feels no aspiring backroom boy should go without.

"They were good times at Hartlepool and Darlington," said Murray, who has also managed Willington in the Northern League as well as playing for Kirklevington Great Britain in the Darlington Sunday Morning League. "My time there was a great learning curve.

"I think it's important to go through experiences like that because it teaches you what football's really about.

"It gives you a grounding in dealing with situations that you can find very difficult if you just go straight in at the top.

"At places like Darlington and Hartlepool, you're managing players who are on salaries that don't make them untouchable.

"The majority of players are responsive to what you say to them, but there'll always be one or two exceptions and you have to learn how to deal with them. I'm not talking about this club here - I'm talking about everywhere I've ever worked.

"It's important to get a good grounding and I think managing at the lower leagues is a fantastic way to learn about the business. I'd recommend it to anyone.

"You've got to remember that, as far as Hartlepool or Darlington fans are concerned, the pressure is exactly the same.

"They love their club in the same way that Newcastle fans love theirs - there might be less of them, but they're still as passionate and as demanding as anybody else."

Hartlepool's fans weren't too demanding when Murray replaced Knowles in March 1991, taking over a team that were mid-table in the old Fourth Division.

But, by the time he left almost two years later, his achievements had created a sense of expectancy that was to eventually prove his downfall.

Murray's reign at the Victoria Ground might not have got off to the best of starts - a 3-1 defeat at Lincoln - but 14 games unbeaten at the end of the campaign saw Pool win promotion for only the second time in their history.

A season of consolidation followed with Murray guiding his side to 11th place in the old Third Division but, after knocking Premier League Crystal Palace out of the FA Cup the following January, things rapidly turned sour.

On the pitch, more than 1200 minutes without a goal set a new Football League record while, off it, the end of Murray's reign coincided with the club fighting for their financial life in the High Court.

"It was a difficult position to walk into," he explained.

"Originally, I was taking charge of the first team in the very short term because we all expected Cyril to be coming back.

"It was a case of going in and plugging the gap at that time, because we all thought Cyril's absence would be brief. I'd been around the club and I knew the lads, which helped, but it was very temporary at first.

"I think there were 17 games to go when I took over, so it was an important stage of the season.

"Things ended on a massive high with promotion, but Cyril had built up a really good team. I don't think there's any question that was the best Hartlepool team before the current one.

"In my final season, we went up to second at one stage and knocked Crystal Palace out of the cup. But we had a string of injuries which we were never really able to recover from.

"We lost our central midfield players, we lost our centre-back, and we lost our goalkeeper. They were all long-term injuries, but we didn't have the resources to replace them or recover from that.

"We started slipping down the table and, in the end, the board decided the results weren't good enough."

Eight months later, Murray found himself replacing Billy McEwan at Pool's great rivals, Darlington.

His second game in charge saw the Quakers thrash Colchester 7-3, but after finishing in 91st place in the Football League in 1994, Murray was sacked the following March after a 2-0 home defeat to Carlisle.

"Darlington was another difficult task," he said. "Because they were in a poor position when I went in, but I like to think that I started to turn that situation around as well.

"I got some good results and moved them into a position of safety. I also made them a few quid with the transfers and that's always important at a club like that."

With his managerial career stalling, Murray's fortunes were to change overnight when he was approached by Souness following the Scotsman's appointment at Southampton.

The pair shared digs at Middlesbrough and, when Souness needed a reliable coach on the south coast, he knew exactly where to turn.

Murray has been alongside him ever since, offering encouragement and advice at Benfica, Blackburn and, most recently, St James' Park.

Brian Clough once described assistant Peter Taylor as his "rock" and, while Murray insists he is not there to pander to his manager's ego, he accepts that his relationship with Souness is crucial to Newcastle's success.

"I think the relationship between manager and assistant manager is vitally important at any club," said Newcastle's number two. "The manager has to be able to trust his staff.

"We've worked together for a long time, and we've known each other for even longer, so that trust's definitely there. I'm watching his back for him and he knows he can bounce things off me.

"It works, but I think it only works because we don't always agree.

"Graeme appreciates that, because he knows it's no use having someone who's just going to say yes to him.

"We disagree more than we agree, but he's the boss and he makes his decision after listening to what I've got to say.

"He listens and he takes on board what I think, but he still might go and do something completely different. That's why the relationship works."

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