BRYAN ROBSON could be forgiven for feeling like an interloper today as the grandfather and the godfather of English football attempt to settle a little local dispute at St James' Park.

Never in the history of North-East derbies can the managerial combatants have comprised three such high-profile characters.

Bobby Robson, at 68, the grand elder statesman of the domestic game, plays host to fellow former England boss Terry Venables, ten years his junior but as wily as they come.

And then there is Bryan, once Bobby's "Captain Marvel'' with England and Venables' right-hand man with the national side during the memorable Euro '96 campaign.

Middlesbrough manager Bryan is surely better qualified than anyone to assess the relative merits of two of the finest coaches this country has produced.

Bryan is the man Bobby recommended to be groomed to succeed him as England manager more than a decade ago.

He is also the man Venables turned to for assistance when he took the England job - and the man many saw as heir apparent when El Tel quit the national post after the Euro '96 adventure.

It was with a cruel irony, then, that the roles were reversed last December when the under-pressure Bryan sent out a distress call to Venables as Boro became embroiled in a fight for Premiership survival.

The Boro boss's desperate plea was a selfless act and one that underlined the extent to which his managerial stock had suddenly plummeted.

An iconic footballing figure who had rarely experienced failure, Robson was at a loss as Boro went into freefall and the natives of Teesside became increasingly restless.

For Robbo, the first signs of wear and tear in what once seemed a cloak of invincibility began to appear after Boro's abject 3-1 defeat by Newcastle at the Riverside Stadium last October.

Sensing his mood of dejection, Newcastle boss Bobby burst in on Bryan's post-match management meeting to pass on warm words of encouragement to his protege.

Today, he may have to do the same unless head coach Venables' shrewd tactical brain can outwit that of his equally astute rival.

Fourth-bottom Boro are desperate for the win that would ease relegation worries which have mounted again during a six-game Premiership run without a victory.

And the battle between the old hands adds a certain piquancy to what is always an appetising occasion.

The public perception may be that Bobby and Terry are contrasting personalities.

But, as Bryan is at pains to explain, they have more in common than most would imagine.

What is clear to all is that their careers have followed remarkably similar paths.

Their reputations were founded on impressive managerial records at the highest level at home and abroad; apart from the England connection, they both led Barcelona to honours and masterminded FA Cup wins - Bobby with Ipswich in 1978 and Terry at Tottenham 13 years later.

Not surprisingly, given the closeness of their working relationship with England and Boro, the meticulous Venables is the coach Bryan admires more than any other.

But there is nothing to choose between Bobby and Terry when it comes to their enduring enthusiasm for the game.

"Bobby is probably not as detailed as Terry,'' said Bryan. "Bobby has his way of playing and he makes sure his players play that way. If they don't, he'll make changes to the team. He's also probably a bit more direct in his gameplan than Terry.

"I've learned from both of them, but Terry is the coach I've always looked up to the most.

"Both of them have a lot of passion for the game and Bobby is very good at man-management.

"He's got plenty of time to speak to players one-to-one and let them know exactly how he wants them to play. Terry is very similar in that respect. They are different characters, but there are a lot of similarities between them as well.

"I would say that about 80 per cent of their management style is very similar.''

So, if Bryan is right, this tense Tyne-Tees clash could be too close to call